Against All Oddities: Road-tripping 1600 miles … to drive a Buick in a parade?
As you may have in Part 1 of this road-trip story, my wife, Romanian street dog, Fiat camper, and I trekked three-fifths the way across the country from our home in North Carolina to the town of Wishek, North Dakota. Why? Not in order of significance: family, junkyard, and a few 125th-anniversary-of-German-settlement festivities, namely a pair of parades. With the glorious junkyard already visited and the family activities rambling along in parallel, parade preparations were looming. Of course, there would be unmissable festivities sprinkled throughout. I vowed to do the best I possibly could to help ready three vehicles for an hour-and-a-half idle-crawl through hot, candy littered streets. Of course, not at the expense of missing the Dakota Rangers polka band or big winnings at chicken poop bingo!
So, what would need to be prepared, exactly?
In my family we are blessed with cars and cousins willing to drive them. I am one such cousin. We gathered in an old Studebaker dealership’s accessory building. First and most importantly came a 1909 Buick Model 10, followed by an almost finished 1958 Impala convertible restoration, and finally an incorrigible 1956 Eldorado drop top.
Before I tell you about driving the Buick, allow me to dive into a bit of family history on this prewar item: Back in the mid-1940s, my grandfather bought a small country bank. Included in the sale was likely the first car to reside in town: a dull grey, 35-year-old Buick. Through today’s lens, I guess it would be like buying a house with an ’87 Century in the garage.
At that time, however, the car had already managed to escape transformation into an artillery shell in both World Wars. The family seemed to agree that it deserved to live on, so when my grandfather sold the bank to my uncle, the Model 10 came with it. Over the years it received an engine overhaul, slick white lacquer, six-volt electric start, and a good bit of carpentry to keep it fresh and usable. If the Buick could make it to the parade, I would get to drive it—what an honor! Getting this relic ready would be priority #1, followed by bingo at the gym and the vintage tractor pull behind the John Deere dealership directly thereafter. Big day in store!
The Chevy and Cadillac should need less, I wagered. They’re nearly a half-century newer, right?
I started my first “work day” off on the wrong foot by staying out too late the night before. The famed Johnny Holm Band was playing at the iron yard and the whole crew was out. How could I miss such quality family time? Immune to early morning tiredness after a late night—probably due to years of practice on hunting and fishing expeditions—my uncle called me at 7:30 a.m. to ask what time we should meet at the shop. That’s North Dakota speak for “you’re already late.”
I made a Bosnian style coffee—water straight in the grounds—and left the camper on foot for the shop. I guess time had gotten away from me, what with all of the junkyarding and Bon Jovi singing. The reality of needing to prepare three cars for a parade, in as many hours, seemed suddenly daunting.
First order of business was obviously the Buick. My uncle and I tag-teamed it by filling the diff, oiling the exposed valvetrain, and sampling a bit of fuel out of the petcock next to the bent iron tube they called a carburetor. It was rancid and sticky but still probably better than the combustibles available 114 years ago. With those maintenance items done and the brass gleaming, we flipped the magneto switch and hit the starter. Rather than a satisfying light-off, it was clear that the most beloved of the four cycles—bang—was not happening. In its stead was a constant stream of pickled gasoline running out of the carb and onto the cement. For the moment, we left it there to think about what it had done.
We moved on to the Impala. The beneficiary of a slow yet thorough restoration, the Chevrolet had in a previous life served as long-range rifle target out on the prairie. Now, with gleaming Tropic Turquoise paint, it at least looked parade-ready. Well, almost: It was missing its continental kit and fender skirts which I was frantically trying to attach in a near headstand position. My millennial mind really has no firsthand experience in how such antique J.C. Whitney accessories are supposed to be installed, but after a two-towels-jammed-between-the-undersized tire maneuver, rattling wheel house, and twenty minutes of wrenching upside-down with a pounding (sleep-deprived) headache, I was confident enough that the kit and skirts would remain attached at five miles per hour for no longer than two hours. Any longer than four and I’d have to call a doctor.
Upon first fire, the Cadillac gave every reason possible to give up on it and focus on the Chevrolet. There was simply not time for its complex problems of pinging, premature shifting, and low oil pressure. So we moved on and decided to address it for parade #2. Sorry, Caddy!
While we let the 348 big-block come up to temperature in the shop, coolant started to belch out from underneath. Something was amiss in an area that I couldn’t even see. The day’s event calendar revealed that perhaps I should just bail and go see the Looney Lutheran Ladies performing outside of the auditorium instead. No, no, we must push on.
I took off the body bracing under the radiator to reveal a loose lower radiator hose, easily tightened. Without so much as a full warmup cycle to validate, the ’58 was on the way to the parade staging area. Nothing terrible happened on the way over, so I walked back to the Buick to focus my efforts there. My uncle, having beat me there, discovered that the magneto switch has three positions. Two of them apparently did nothing. The third, however, kick starts this 1909 industrial-grade mosquito fogger. I was then given the Cliff’s Notes on How to Drive a Pre-War Right-Hand-Drive Buick for Dummies: Left pedal is for reverse. Middle pedal pushes in to go forward. Right pedal to stop. Inner stalk on the throttle quadrant handles ignition timing. Outer stalk: throttle opening. Don’t touch the levers on the right. Got it? I was then turned loose on a 114-year-old Buick.
Together we rattled and shook cautiously, yet very proudly, down the streets. With every four way intersection—none of which have stop signs, only the old German “rechts-vorfarht” right of way rule—I frantically looked for traffic while trying to remember which pedal I would need to jab in an emergency. At the staging area, I received a quick lesson on how to pull over mid-route and fill the brass radiator. Noted. My wife, uncle, and aunt took over candy chucking duties as I was already overstimulated by the controls, responsibility, and what the local newspaper spread would look like if a wrong-pedaled it over a cat, through the cavalry, or maybe even into the chopping Hemi-powered street rod in front of me.
With the parade now underway, the smoke from the Buick was immense. I thought briefly about all of the children running into the dense hydrocarbon fog to retrieve our tossed Tootsie Rolls. The kids will be fine, I decided. After all, we were fine, weren’t we?
I glanced back at my cousin in the momentarily stalled ’58 Impala, which was receiving emergency idle screw adjustment by a parade watcher with a pocket knife. That made me question my assessment, if only for a moment. From my vantage point in the Buick, we were doing pretty great.
The Buick and the Chevy made it through the entire parade route both days with minimal protest. And, not to worry, I did make it to bingo—both chicken poop and regular style—saw three more concerts, bought a belt buckle at an auction, practiced my regional German, went to the tractor pull, a car show, a vintage tractor show, a photo exhibit, bought a raffle ticket for a gun and a dragster, and stuffed myself with food truck offerings. All solidified great memories with my family. After cleaning up the town, packing up the camper, and driving three days back to North Carolina, it was finally all over. Just 25 more years to get ready for the next one!