My first car was a 1947 Plymouth Business Coupe, exactly twice as old as I was when I first started driving it. My dad, at the time, was in his middle forties, and it seemed to me that he knew everything that needed to be known about fixing up an old car. His 1953 Studebaker was a fixture in my childhood, parked in the big old barn on our farm, and I probably wanted to drive an old car partly because that old Studebaker had always been there, and because even then I loved old things. Back when I had the Plymouth, my dad helped me rebuild the old straight-six engine; fill, sand, and prime the body; and replace the wiring harness and the brake lines. When I was seventeen, all that work seemed kind of fun: it was grown-up work, and it was my car.
So earlier this spring, when my dad asked me to come out for a few days in May to help him work on his 1955 Studebaker President, I could hardly refuse. Now I am the one who is in my middle forties, and he is retired, and he's the one with the old car (or old cars, really, though the '53 Studebaker he now has is completely restored and doesn't need any work at all). He wanted to take off the red paint he'd put on the car a couple of years earlier: for various reasons, it had to go. The first picture here shows what the car looked like when I got there on Monday.
He had most of the stainless trim off and the rear fenders, too: a few hours' work, he said to do all that. Not soon after I got there, he got to work with the "orbital sander" (powered by a remarkable combination of air compressor pumps (see the second picture), one of which is suspended by chains from the ceiling of the garage: don't ask!). I got to work with a piece of 80-grit sandpaper.
My job, as I had suspected all along, was to get down on the ground and sand the parts that would be the hardest for a seventy-one-year-old to work on. I started with the rocker panels, which had been brand new when he'd first fixed up the car a couple of years ago. Two or three hours later, I had them pretty much down to bare metal. Then I got going on the front fenders. At one point I asked if the President was the biggest car they made, and he said it was the biggest '55 model; there is a lot of surface area on that thing.
The next day, we started all over again, though this time I was going at the lower half of the doors with an old electrical sander that had been my Grandpa Schmidt's. With some really rough 40-grit, it did a pretty nice job, and I had most of the paint off the driver-side doors by the late afternoon, and my dad started working on the parts of the front fenders I had left for him.
By now I was sore from running the sander (and from lying or sitting on the concrete!) and bored, too. So I saw a ragged edge of the paint I'd been working on at the back driver's-side door, and I picked at it a moment, and it peeled right up. Carefully, over the next hour or so, I peeled most of the rest of the paint on that door right off, leaving a perfectly smooth primer layer behind: it might be slower to peel the paint than to sand it, but there would be less work left afterwards for the next round of painting.
So the next day, before I left, I peeled most of the passenger side doors, and about half of the roof. The paint on the front door mostly came off in one giant piece, though I could only pull it free a few millimeters at a time. Here's what the car looked like when I left, with about half the paint off and a good bit of work left to do (but very little of it near ground level!). The grey areas are places where the peeling worked; the blackish mottled areas are places where we sanded; the bright red areas are the paint that still needs to come off.
My dad still knows a heck of a lot more about fixing up an old car than I do. But part of it, I know now, is in just doing the work. For three days this week, I pretty much just worked with my hands, and my fingers are still a little sore.
And while the appeal of the work isn't at all the same as it was when I was seventeen, and I was working on my car, there was still something satisfying about the work. And the car looks worse now that it did when we started, but I know it's a only a stage it needs to go through. These three days of work have given me a different perspective on what my dad must have been like almost thirty years ago, when he was in his early and middle forties, and I was too young to see him clearly at all: but back then, he was still young enough to get down on the ground and do the really hard stuff that I just didn't know how to do.
And when he finishes the prep, and gets the car painted, I know it will look better than it did before this week's work. And I know I'll take a bit of pride in the final product. And I wonder what I'll be working on when I'm 71.