Never Stop Driving #66: Reconnecting with an old friend on The Drive Home

That’s me, the Country Squire, and Jake Whitman during a stop at the Gilmore Car Museum. Dan Winter

Since 2018, when Jake Whitman bought the 1955 Ford Country Squire that had been in my family for decades, he’s not only improved it both cosmetically and mechanically, he’s also used it. Last week, Whitman and the Ford joined three other vintage station wagons in Jackson, Wyoming, and headed east as part of a celebration of the American road trip organized by America’s Automotive Trust, a nonprofit that seeks to preserve and promote our automotive heritage. The entourage pulled into Detroit at the opening of the 2023 North American International Auto Show, where the wagons, replete with road grime, are on display.

Never Stop Driving Ford Country Squire and other wagons in the mountains
Jake Whitman

Whitman invited me to drive a leg of the trip, so I met the Country Squire as it drove off the Lake Michigan ferry in Muskegon, Michigan. Seeing the car for the first time in five years, I felt some nostalgia, sure—my kids had a lot of fun in it—but the old Ford mostly reminded me of my father.

Back in 2002, my dad died, unexpectedly, just before my first kid was born. Fast forward past a lot of diaper changes and the arrival of our second kid to 2006. My unresolved feelings about my old man drove me to spend a good chunk of that year searching for the Country Squire and then convincing its owner to sell. My dad and I weren’t on good terms in the later stages of his life. He was always distant and remote, maybe depressed, and unable to reciprocate when I tried to connect. The only thing he coveted was that Country Squire, which my great uncle had used as a delivery van for his New Jersey chicken farm. In 1970, he passed it along to my dad, who drove it to the bus station and on weekend adventures. We went fishing with the Ford.

By the mid-Eighties, when I was in high school, the tired wagon was permanently parked in our two-car garage. In hindsight, I can see that the Ford’s retreat coincided with my father’s. I tried to coax him into a joint restoration effort with junkyard parts I’d give him for birthdays and holidays, but he could never summon the energy to get started. The stress of providing for his family had taken the life out of him. The parts were placed in the wagon and never touched. When Dad needed money in 1993, he reluctantly sold the Squire.

Never Stop Driving Ford Country Squire side profile parked by Pahaska Teepee sign
Jake Whitman

In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Bruce Springsteen joked that most of rock music is a cry of someone going, “Wahhh, Daddy.” I certainly felt that as my own family grew and then one day, for reasons unknown, I thought of the Squire. When it arrived at my home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the paint and chrome had been redone, but the interior was still original. The sweat stains on the driver’s-door armrest were still there, as was the musty and soothing aroma.

I was on to something by buying the Ford. My next impulse was to drive it to the places my dad had lived and spent time and talk to those who knew him. I had something to work out, something to put behind me, but I didn’t yet know what that was. Maybe I was just scared that what happened to my dad and I would happen to me and my kids, too.

I learned that one day when he was seven, in Rochester, New York, where Dad grew up, he came home to find that his own father had simply split and was never heard from again. That sounds cruel and it was, but my grandfather had it even worse: He came home from school to find his father gone, too—only that dude, my paternal great-grandfather, was in the basement, swinging from a rope. My father had his demons.

Never Stop Driving Ford Country Squire front end in woods
Jake Whitman

Yet the journey was far more positive than negative and provided reminders of day trips taken in the Ford and ice cream spilled on the seats. Lots of fun stories resurfaced only after family and friends saw the green Squire. Following the drive, I compiled the experience into a book that my wife read and then gently asked, “So this is just for you, right?” Looking back, it’s cringeworthy, but the whole experience was cathartic. The Country Squire had done its job. Once I realized my kids had no interest in it, I sold it to free up resources for other things.

That’s where Jake Whitman came into the picture in 2018 and how I found myself meeting up with The Drive Home rally earlier this week (Hemmings ran a diary of the trip you can read here). When I slid behind the wheel of the Country Squire, the smell of the cabin took me back to the hot and sweaty days of the summer I drove to Rochester. I noticed that the pen marks my daughter left above the glovebox were still there.

The Drive Home promotes automotive heritage yet also, America’s Automotive Trust says, looks toward the future. These old cars certainly connect us to the past, but sometimes, as in my case, they can make for a better future, too. I was happy to revisit the Ford, like one might a parent’s house, but happy to say goodbye, too, especially since it was obvious that Whitman is an ideal caretaker. I often say that I do not understand my strong connection to cars. I remain grateful, however, for that unexplainable bond and for the people that come with it.

Never Stop Driving Ford Country Squire detail with buffalo
Jake Whitman

Speaking of fine folks who share our passion, tomorrow, September 16, I’m going to Milan Dragway to see Redline Rebuild host Davin Reckow run his dragster. Reckow and crew just released a video that documents the return of the restored vintage dirt car to the original owner’s family. The four-year project was initiated when Tom Cotter, the host of our Barn Find Hunter series, found the car during one of explorations. Cotter was naturally in attendance and said, “Cars are a catalyst to bring amazing human interest stories together.”  I could not agree more.

Come join us at Milan. Otherwise, have a great weekend!

P.S.: Your feedback is very welcome. Comment below!


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    Beautiful piece. Clearly I do not know you or your dad, but your mentioning him being “distant and remote” in his later years resonated. My dad, who died 2 years ago at 94, was throughout his life strong, proud, active, confident, and outgoing. As he entered his 80’s, his body began to degenerate, and so did his mood. He was becoming a stranger to himself, and he hated this new person, so he retreated and isolated. If he couldn’t bear himself, how could anyone else find him good company. Among other things, he was a talented amateur painter, but when I bought him an easel, brushes, acrylics and canvas to try to reignite some spark in him, he left it all untouched, and still in wrappers when he passed. Maybe your dad felt similarly, and pushed away those he loved because he couldn’t love himself any more. Maybe he was fond of the Country Squire because the rear view mirror was the only place he recognized himself. And maybe, maybe, he didn’t want to restore the Ford because he couldn’t be restored, and then the old car would be just one more thing that passed him by.

    Beautifully written story that could be written for a lot of us in one form or another, thank you. Was that Y Block V8 a 272, or 292? Was it a FordoMatic of if you were lucky, a 3 on the tree with overdrive? Really enjoy your articles and agree with just about all of your opinions and conclusions (well, you cant make everyone happy can you?). Keep up the good work!

    Another great story Larry. My adopted dad and I knocked heads a lot about cars. He was very conservative, and thought that two door cars were frivolous. When I bought an old Corvette at age 17, he made me return it to the seller. I found out later that my biological father was a car nut who drove all kinds of interesting stuff. Genetics is interesting. Next year I’m going to have each one of my kids pick a car from my collection.

    Another wonderful Friday morning message. My Dad’s 68 Charger still resides in the garage but my search continues for his 60 Dodge Phoenix convertible that I let getaway in 1983. He lived until until 91 and left me with many motoring memories and way too many model cars!

    I swear these are happy tears. The human connection to inanimate objects, particularly automobiles, is powerful and often unexplainable, but this piece weaves a dotted line that leads to provides sound — and true for many — reasoning adjacent to the big X on the map. The X, the answer to the question “Why does it matter,” of course being different for everyone, therefore being a moving target. Bravo.

    Hi Larry. I was very touched by your article. I think we all have demons in our families, some we ignore or some that affect us. My own father was an alcoholic but he sure loved his Oldsmobiles! Our first was a ’65 F85 that my brother burned holes on the back seat with the cigarette lighter. He caught hell. Next up was a ’67 Cutlass Supreme, which, when I earned enough money, put red lines and chromies on. He really liked the look! Next was a ’69 Toronado that my Dad brought home one Saturday afternoon, having paid cash at the dealer. He was so proud of it, pointing out the no tranny hump in the cabin. Front wheel drive, he assured me, would never get stuck in snow! So many things in our lives are tied to the cars we grew up with or owned. I carry on the tradition with my ’70 442 Convertible, that my daughter will be driving at her upcoming wedding in October. Cheers!

    I know what your grandfather went through. At age 10 I went through this with my mom. The impact on your life is unreal. You did not introduce your loyal companion.

    I don’t understand why father/son relationships commonly seem to go down the drain. Recently a write up in the Griot Garage mailer talked about the transition and relationship of father and son and I was so envious of what they have.

    It can be many things. In my case it was basically becoming an adult, but not becoming exactly what I was expected to be, and then my mother’s early death when I was in my 20s. My father and I haven’t spoken in 20 years.

    Something I very much don’t want to repeat with my daughters.

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