by Don Engdahl, Illustrations by Don Weller. Published in Road & Track magazine, January, 1977
The thin, reedy man of about 50 (sun-glassed, strawhatted) was sipping a beer as he slumped in a lawn chair beside his blue-ribboned entry in the small local antique auto show. We strolled up and admired his car, and I made the usual inane compliment about how authentic it looked. He said:
You better believe it—this is the most authentic 1931 Fordor you’ll ever see. She has only 500 miles on the odometer and I put on all but five myself. She’s not even broken in yet. I got it…well, I got it from the dealer through a friend, sort of. Sit down there on the running board and let me tell you how it happened, and you can believe me or not.
One evening a couple of years ago I was leafing through a 1929 parts catalog from Forney Motors down in L.A., a catalog I picked up at a rummage sale.
I get a tremendous kick out of stuff like that—ads in old magazines, catalogs. Maybe you’ve had the same fantasy that grabs me: You read an old ad and you see something you want. so you sit down and order one from the guy who placed the ad and somehow your order is delivered to him. To him then, when the ad was good. And he fills the order. and somehow it gets back to you, now and there it is, a gizmo out of the past, brand new
So, I was looking through Forney’s catalog and at the time I was having a hell of a time finding a pinion gear for a 1928 Chevy I was restoring. I was wishing I could drive down to L.A. and walk into Forney Motors and buy one like in the catalog for $6.37.
I’d had a couple of beers and I let the fantasy roll. and pretty soon I filled out the order blank that was in the catalog and after some thinking I put in the date—August 10, 1929, the right date except for the year.
Before my Dad died he gave me a lucky roll of money he’d kept all during the Depression-about a $100 in silver certificates—and I’d hung onto it. I dug the roll out of my shoebox, peeled off $7, and stuck them in the envelope with the order. Then I walked down to the corner and dropped the envelope in the mail box.
Crazy. no? But what the hell. the post office would just return the letter. right? Wrong. Two weeks later the mailman brought me a parcel with $1 postage due. I ripped it open and there was the pinion gear for the Chevy and a letter from Forney Motors thanking me for the business and saying the 63¢ overpayment would be applied to my next order. It was signed by George Forney himself and the date was August 16. 1929.
My wife Madge watched my face as I read the letter and asked if anything was wrong. Giggling, I said. “Wrong?” Not wrong, no. not wrong. All right! I shoved the letter in my pocket. and showed her the pinion gear. Then I sat down with my face to the TV and thought through the entire six o’clock news
Maybe, I thought, it was a hoax-but it was a very convincing one. for I did have the pinion gear. And a new catalog from Forney’s in the bottom of the box, and it looked fresh off the press. Hoax or no. I was sure as hell going to try to get some other things I needed for the Chevy.
In the next couple months I sent the rest of Dad’s lucky money plus another $100 I bought at a collector’s store to Forney. and some pretty damn original parts went into that Chevy. All small stuff, of course, since it went through the mail.
The time difference between Forney and me seemed to be locked in by that date I put on the first order: we stayed in synch, day by day, with an even 47 years between us. The time for the mail deliveries seemed about right—a couple of weeks between an order and a delivery.
For some reason I didn’t try the deal with anybody but Forney, and I kept the flow of old money to him and new-old parts to me going steadily because I was afraid if I even breathed wrong it would stop. And I didn’t tell a soul what was going on.
Eventually the Chevy was finished, and I sent off an order to Forney for a set of chrome spotlights to put the icing on it, and I wondered where to go next. By then. of course. I was beginning to think in larger terms.
One of the problems was getting the old money to send to Forney. The stuff was costing me about a $1.80 to the $1.00, but I figured if I slipped even once and sent him money that wasn’t at least 47 years old I’d blow the whole thing.
Another worry was how long the man would stay in business. The poor bastard was innocently looking in the teeth of the Great Depression and I wondered how long he’d last after that started.
It was that, mostly, which prompted me to go down to the library early in the Chevy part-buying stage and read the old Los Angeles newspapers on microfilm. I discovered that old George was pretty well known in Los Angeles in his day, and also that Forney Motors didn’t go under until 1936. As I read-a social note here, a business item there—I picked up some personal information about his wife and kids which I began to lip in with my orders for odds and end for the Chevy.
I found out another interesting thing: George became a partner in a new bank in L.A. in September of 1930. I waited for the time to come around (in his time) and then I wrote to him and a asked if he’d mind opening a savings account for me. that I’d like to have a little something in his bank.
He was delighted, he wrote back. and I scraped together enough to send him $500—a bunch of 1928 series 20s with the gold seal, some 50s from the 1929 series with the brown seal and a pair of 1929 I00s. All told, it cost me close to $900 in new money.
The bank survived the depression (without George) and after a little preliminary and cautious talking with my lawyer I went down to L.A. and siphoned off some of the money that had built up over the years.
Then I became a really big buyer of old paper, snapping up 1928 and 1929 bills from dealer across the country. (They told me the money was not a good investment!)
As I got the money, mostly in federal reserve $100s, I fed it back to George. this time into a checking account at his bank. (Although I’ve often wondered, I can’t imagine what all this did to the bank. But at least I didn’t panic during the Depression, and maybe that helped them some.)
By this time, as you can imagine, George and I were real pen pals. He invited me to come down and stop by to see him, and when he’d get elected president of the Chamber of Commerce or some such I’d send a timely note of congratulation: he’d ask how it went with me, and I’d write back fine.
He never questioned my secrecy, probably because he was all businessman: Accept a customer for what he wants to be. For all I know, he thought I was some kind of crook.
When I finally hoped our friendship-by-mail was ripe enough, I wrote to him and asked him to do something he might think really odd, but that I had my reasons. And I held my breath until I got an answer: He would.
What he did was to drop by the local Ford agency and pick me out a brand new 1931 Ford Fordor Sedan. He paid for it with a signed blank check on my 1931 account in the L.A. bank, and he sent me the keys and title. I also had asked him to park it on Figueroa near 9th Street in L.A. precisely at midnight five days after sending the title and keys.
I got them in the mail March I: the packet was postmarked April 28, 1931. The morning of March 3, I caught a commuter flight to L.A., took the Airporter downtown, checked into a hotel on Figueroa and got a room overlooking 9th.
I was as excited as a kid on Christmas and I sat by the window all evening, the Ford’s ignition key in my pocket and a set of borrowed antique license plates laid out on the bed.
It took forever, but midnight came, and another 15 minutes. And no car. I had to go to the john—I was practically crazy with anticipation and disappointment—and when I got back to the window the Ford waiting in a no-parking zone about a 100 ft. up the street.
I ran down, unlocked her, climbed in and fired her up. Damn! She smelled brand new and ran like a dream! And she was still warm. I wheeled her into the hotel garage and in a few minutes I had the plates on her.
Then I stood back and just admired her for a long time, moving in now and then to feel the upholstery and wonder at the engine.
Eventually I went back to my room and tried to sleep but I was too excited. I packed my suitcase, checked out and started for home in my new Ford, easing her along the deserted back roads at 30, taking care to break the engine in right.
Since then George has got me a 1931 Model PA Plymouth sedan (Floating Power, free-wheeling, hydraulic brakes) and as soon as the new models come out I’m going to order a 1932 Ford Deluxe Phaeton with dual fender-mount spares with covers, a luggage rack and an Autolite manifold heater.
I’m winning trophies at antique auto shows like this one, although some say my cars aren’t finished as nicely as they might be. I tell them I’m a true authentic buff and that means I even include the little imperfections that cars had in those days.
At first I felt a little cheap about it. I mean, a guy puts in a couple of thousand hours, maybe, turning a rusted old hulk into a like-new car, and all I do is go to L.A. and pick them up.
But then, I wonder. See that Stutz Le Baron over there? That’s AI Hazlip’s. And, like me, he never shows anybody his workshop.
Or, look at that White Steamer the fellow from Sacramento brought here this year. Could have come right off the showroom floor, couldn’t it?