After years apart, this 1929 Model A Ford was reunited with its original family – for good
Some people get socks for their birthday; the owner of this Model A Ford was gifted an automotive classic.
Words: Jane Warwick Photos: Tessa Chrisp
When Alfred (Alf) Wendelborn bought his new 1929 Model A Ford Phaeton, vehicle registration was assigned regionally and number plates were orange on black. What Alf’s original plates displayed has been lost but, in 1964, just after ownership of the car passed down to his grandson Allan, registration began to be nationally aligned, starting with the prefix AA from the top of the North Island. By the time new registrations rolled down to Kawakawa, the second letter had tumbled through the alphabet to W, so AW it was — a historical nod to original owner Alf and an unintentional personal plate for Allan.
The Ford’s plate was AW900 all up, white on black, and if the designated letters were inadvertently appropriate, the following digits would also play an amusing bit-part in the car’s history.
The number nine is a strong and mystical number. It is the symbol of patience, the number of faith and love, a character of truth, and the number of completion and fulfilment. All these attributes and virtues would play a big part in the little vehicle’s distant future.
It was a gutsy little car, well worth the £208 it cost, and its sturdy Canadian-built engine had a heartbeat in rhythm with Alf’s until he was well into his 80s. It also took Allan’s parents, Jack and Moira and their newly married hearts on their honeymoon. So, right from the start, the vehicle has played an integral part in Wendelborn family history.
When it was time for Alf to turn in his keys, he sold the vehicle to his eldest grandson Peter for £75 on the condition that when Peter tired of it, he would give first dibs to his younger brother Allan for that same amount.
It was a deal, and a couple of years later, in 1961, 19-year-old Allan made the transaction. He drove the car between his parent’s house in Paihia and his job in a bank at Kawakawa — about 10 pre-metric miles each way — and frequently to Kaikohe, Moerewa and Kerikeri to visit friends, play soccer, be chauffeur and generally gad about. It was an easily parched little car, so a flagon of water was always on board and stops at petrol stations were frequent.
In two and a half years, Allan drove 14,000 miles across gravel roads, fields and farmland, sometimes with a mate sitting on the sturdy front mudguard with his feet on the bumper, his rabbiting and birding gun blasting away. And sometimes (as you do) setting the hand throttle, then standing on the running board and steering through the window.
The bank transferred Allan to Christchurch and, as was the deal, he offered the car to the next and youngest brother Scot for the stipulated £75. It was 1966, and Scot was a bit ‘Yeah… nah’ about the offer of what was probably, in his eyes, a dinosaur of a car, not at all in the 1960s groove.
To his delight, Halford Motors in Kawakawa put a welcome £150 in Allan’s pocket, although if Allan had put that sale off for a week, he would have been even more delighted as someone in Kaikohe belatedly offered him £250.
A couple of years and a Fiat 500 Bambina later, Allan was back up North visiting his parents in the Bay of Islands when to both his surprise and dismay, he saw his old ride on the side of the road. It was rusty and forsaken, nestled in the long kikuyu grass, now owned by someone in Moerewa. Allan took a nostalgic photo and drove away, reminiscing.
Life moved on. There was a Volkswagen Beetle, a Morris 1300, a Datsun 180B and a Mini, all small and sturdy like the Model A. Allan shifted back to Auckland, and apart from a surprise phone call in 2002 when someone in Te Puru (near Thames) who had bought the little car to restore, tracked Allan down through the ownership papers and was asking for some reference photos, the wee car was simply a fond memory.
A significant birthday loomed. Allan’s wife, Glennie, was casting around for a significant present. In an otherwise-idle conversation with his grandfather, their son Marc found out that the current owner of the Model A (that gentleman in Te Puru) had rung him also for information regarding the planned restoration. However, the best-laid plans… as they say; the car was neglected and derelict in a paddock.
Using the information left with his grandfather, Marc tracked down the vehicle, and then he and a friend talked Glennie into buying and restoring the small car as a cracker of an ending-in-zero birthday present.
Glennie opened her chequebook, and here come the nines: the cost was $9000 dollars. And although the friend quoted her a nine-month job, the project actually took nine years, meaning the recipient’s birthday was no longer a special zero-ending event but one ending with that purportedly most sophisticated of cardinal numbers, nine.
Despite the delay, Glennie was determined it would be a surprise, so for nine years, she and all concerned kept the secret.
“I had no idea; it was an amazing secret to keep,” marvels Allan. “Glennie still often asks, ‘You’re sure you didn’t know?’ but I had no clue. She’s a paragon of a woman.”
So, on that nine-ending birthday, Glennie threw Allan a surprise party at their Takapuna home. Allan hates surprises, but he was about to make an exception. After the icebreakers, the guests were invited outside for another activity. As they were milling around, what should appear from behind some neighbouring buildings but a pristine Model A, number plate AW900. Allan was enchanted to see the vehicle again, looking so spruce. The party had a vintage theme, and as the passenger in the car was a friend, Allan assumed it was his chum’s clever find and a nod to the era.
“I chatted with the driver, who I gathered owned the vehicle and was in charge of the restoration. For about 15-20 minutes, I poured over the car and was telling stories about driving through flood waters in it and shooting pheasants and quail from it on a farm. Then I said to him, ‘You must be proud to own this?’ He replied, ‘Oh, I don’t own it’, to which I asked, ‘Well, who does?’ He said, ‘You do!’”
And so he does; Grandpa Alf would be stoked.
It’s a fair-weather car and easy to drive, although its 3.3-litre engine means it is not very economical but, says Allan, he doesn’t worry about that because otherwise, what’s the point? Other drivers wave and flash their lights in admiration; whenever he parks, people come up to talk. He must be wary of sounding the horn as its cheerful ah-oog-ah! tends to startle passers-by.
It was a long haul, but the attributes of patience, completion and fulfilment promised by all those nines in the car’s history have shone. And as the car has also carried three brides to their weddings, the number’s other elements of faith and love have also been proven.
BETTER WITH AGE
When Allan’s wife Glennie received the Model A, it was an unregistered, rusted, and dilapidated mess. The chassis was stripped to nothing, and the roof was torn, so she had to find an upholsterer and a restorer. Not only did the restoration timeline blow out, but so did the budget — to five times the original estimate. Despite its complete restoration and roadworthiness because of its age, the vehicle cannot be insured for more than $50,000, well below its value. Also, because of its age, it was at first hard for Allan to renew its warrant as the local VTNZ couldn’t comprehend such items as, for example, the leather brakes. Luckily, Allan found Ewert Burger at Parkway Motors in nearby Mairangi Bay, who can navigate that red tape.
CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG
Allan and the car have had their moments. ”Once, I’d only just left work when about 600 metres into the drive, there was a terrific bang and the engine stopped,” remembers Allan. ”I looked at the engine, but there was no sign of damage, so I thought I would just try starting it again. It started okay, but only another 500 metres along, there was another bang. Rather scared of doing some serious damage, I called Dad for a tow back to Paihia. Just as he arrived, a sudden thought occurred to me. Before leaving Kawakawa, I had filled up with petrol and water but had inadvertently put the vented petrol cap onto the radiator and the unvented cap on the gas tank. Thus, a vacuum was being created in the petrol tank as I drove — then ‘boom!’ as it eventually sucked the fuel back into the tank.
”And there was this thing at the bottom of the steering column with a clip holding the light-wire harness to turn on the lights. When driving over rough roads, that clip would drop out, and I would be well and truly in the dark. Not that the six-volt lights were much more than candlepower, anyway,” he laughs. The electrical system has now been upgraded to 12 volts, so Allan can see where he’s going at night.