Searching for the Star of my life

A stately sedan called a Star introduced Moe Wright to the joys and trials of vehicle ownership. Now he longs to get back the car that first won his heart.

Moe Wright

   
 Moe Wright was 17 in 1956 when he scraped together $45 to buy this used Star sedan in Milford, Ont. At the time he was told it was a 1928 model.  Mr. Wright has fond memories of chauffeuring Shirley, his high school sweetheart, in the Star. They've been married for more than 40 years, and he believes his beloved first car is still thriving, too.

It was 1956, and my life as a 17-year-old mortal was unfolding like a fantasy. I had a dream summer job at the modern Canadian Tire that had just opened in Belleville, and on my days off I could hitchhike home to the village of Milford, south of Picton in picturesque Prince Edward County.

Only a car could make my life more complete.

Milford was blessed with three garages. The one that most caught my attention as a potential source of wheels was Minaker's Garage, a bustling mechanical hub to the rural community, spawning many acres of retired vehicles.

I mused: "There has to be at least one specimen in that collection that could be acquired and resurrected within my non-existing budget."

Minaker's, it turned out, would serve me well, but it wasn't the spot where I first saw the vehicle that occupies my thoughts to this day. No, that took place on the raised doorstep of the village store, where my neighbourly chat was abruptly terminated by the arrival of a stately vintage chariot.

I was impressed when the store owner's son, Frank Chapman, several years my senior and my hero-of-sorts, disembarked with his twinkling eyes and infectious grin.

Being a cheerful target for my questions, Frank explained he had bought the Star sedan, identified as a '28, for a modest sum from a grandfatherly gentleman in Bloomfield. Unfortunately, Frank would be going to teachers' college soon and probably couldn't keep it. What an opportunity! Would he consider selling it?

More negotiations culminated in a deal: $45, in the form of $25 cash and $20 in two weeks -- delivery on final payment. And I hadn't even discussed it with my parents!

So began my learning curve in the field of maintenance and repair. (I hasten to note at this point that the yarn I'm spinning is as close to fact as I can recollect. Any embroidery of events is the innocent product of about 40 years of ambient memory. And the validity of technical facts is in direct relation to the experience and authority of my tutors at that time.)

I was soon the envy of my school colleagues, several of whom already had flivvers.

A paint job employing our Electrolux vacuum's spray attachment left me proud: no runs, and minimum orange peel. With a black body, dark green wainscot and new matting and metal trim on the running boards, the Star had a classic look.

The finishing touch? Fine red pinstripes on the wooden wheel spokes and all the raised "varicose veins" on the body and fenders.

My purchase really wasn't insubordination, because my folks had never said I was too young to buy a car. However, feedback indicated it was unexpected; further, how could I afford to maintain and run it?

Well, part-time work allowed fuel purchases in the 25-cent to $2 range from the general store's glass-cylindered gas pump. For some long downhill trips, I turned it off and coasted to save fuel. When Dad's work required him to spend his weekdays at Queen's University in Kingston, my faithful flivver redeemed itself by serving as our shopping cart, or taxi for mom when she had an appointment in town.

The grandmotherly clerk in a Picton insurance office was the vehicle licensing agent. Scanning my documents, she inquired, "Where is it now?" I escorted her to the sidewalk and pointed with pride.

"My Dad had a '28 Star car, and we went everywhere in it," she remembered. Then she quickly added that their Star had a more rounded look to the body and fenders. She contemplated the possibility that my car was older than the year declared on the ownership. "You know they didn't have official ownerships then, and there've been lots of mixups through the years. If you find out it's older and what year it really is, come on back in and we'll correct your ownership."

Even technical simplicity presented the occasional challenge to keep me busy. I analysed the slight wobbling of the right front wheel as a broken hub casting. Fortunately the studs were keeping the inner and outer hub halves clamped to the wooden spokes.

Quent Minaker, the local auto wrecker to the rescue ... "Take a look under the apple tree by the fence in the back yard. Otta be a Rugby truck there -- y'know it's a brother to the Star car. Should have a hub to fit." That was the start of my do-it-yerself mechanic's apprenticeship.

The speedo cable from the truck also eliminated my need to judge my city and country speeds based on six or 11 pounds of oil pressure, respectively, when using No. 50 oil. (Do you remember getting your bulk oil in one-quart, glass refillable bottles that sat displayed in metal carrying baskets by the gas pumps?)

Another day back in Chapman's store I heard a gruff voice bellow, "Who owns the Star car out front?" I scurried forward, fearing I'd scratched someone's car when I parked. There stood Roy Welbanks from South Bay.

"Get out here, lad," he ordered. I stared with anxiety as he strode around the car twice, his thumbs thrust behind his coverall suspenders. "Where'd y'get this car?" I explained I'd gotten it from Frank, who had gotten it in Bloomfield.

"That used to be my car, by golly," he said, his eyes glistening with memories. "Got it new in '26!"

Now, knowing I was the fourth owner, and here was the original owner, I might as well put the question to him: "Well, Rip (as he was affectionately known) if you got it in '26, how come the ownership says it's a '28?" He turned slowly toward me and his wet eyes took on a sparkle. "Well, it was worth more as a '28 when I sold it!" Mystery solved. My trophy was now 30 years old.

Discovering the age added to the accumulation of trivia about its uniqueness (don't forget what I said about faithfulness of facts). Authorities advised me that the Star was built by Durant Motors, set up by William Durant; 1926 was the first year Star used a six-banger engine. Those Red Seal Continental engines were known as strong and reliable. And they were allegedly the first in which oil was pumped through the crankshaft to the rod caps. This innovation was developed for naval landing craft during the First World War to keep the innards lubricated. The conventional dip 'n' splash method was unreliable when a boat's engine was rocking and rolling through waves.

The '26 was reportedly the last model with two-wheel mechanical bakes; '27s came with four-wheel brakes. They also introduced an electric starter that year -- you could still crank it if you wanted the exercise or when the battery was low.

That first winter was an experience. Heat from a sleeve around the exhaust manifold was random but usually sufficient (I had to make sure there were no leaks in the manifold that might toy with my mortality). Sometimes I'd succumb to the thrill of doing tight circles on the ice on the old mill pond. The 33-inch diameter and narrow width of the wheels cut their own track in deep snow, so on straight roads you needed only sporadic steering corrections.

Accessories and customization became a fetish. An old box radio from my uncle's late-30s Studebaker fit on the firewall under the dash. A pair of choke-like cables ran up to a pod clamped to the steering column to link the station selector dial and the on/off-volume controls. I cut a pair of metal bezels to adapt sealed beams to the large headlight shells. An orphaned, late-30s Chrysler yielded a pair of bullet-shaped taillights. The body curve of the short pedestal mounts fit the curve of the Star's rear fenders.

Enhancing the front running lights at the bottom corners of the windshield with double contact bulbs, and wiring two manual switches via parallel flashers, I adorned the Star with directional signals ... a relatively new gadget in the mid '50s!

My last summer in Prince Edward County was at the Canadian Forces firing range and militia training camp at Point Petre. My Star's black and dark green complexion was quite in place, standing at attention in the midst of assorted "deuce-'n'-a-halfs," five- and 10-ton army trucks and Bren gun carriers.

And talk about challenges by the roadside after midnight. When my "Alibi" -- the affectionate name I painted in red script below her rear window -- died quietly in the middle of nowhere, and I knew I had lots of gas, it was apparent the float spring had become disconnected in the vacuum tank. For the uninitiated, the vacuum tank looked like a quart can mounted on the firewall. It drew fuel from the rear gas tank and then let gravity supply the carb. On a black moonless night I could lift the bonnet, undo about 10 machine screws, lift off the top of the vacuum tank, reconnect the float spring, replace the screws and be on my way in a few minutes, unless a convenient delay was appropriate ...

One occasional nuisance for the vacuum tank was extra steep hills, like the one that ran almost straight up from the fish hatchery by the Glenora Ferry dock to the famous "Lake On The Mountain." After stalling on a couple of attempts I was proud of myself for figuring that backing up the hill would keep the vacuum tank higher than the carb. The stalling problem was resolved.

In '57 our family moved to the village of Inverary, north of Kingston, and my Star was soon chauffeuring Shirley, my new high school sweetheart -- now my bride of more than 40 years -- on our dates. Trips to the stock car races and drive-in movies and restaurants were frequent. We took a ribbing from friends about the pull-down blind in the back window. One most frightening memory was the escape from a dip in Loborough Lake. The downhill curve was swift enough that standing on those two-wheel mechanical brakes barely slowed us enough to successfully squeeze onto the one-lane bridge just as an oncoming school bus vacated the narrow abutments.

Easter weekend of '58 presented the ultimate learning challenge when Harold Prentice, the local blacksmith-come-mechanic, lent me his garage pit to play car doctor. The engine needed a major overhaul.

A fishing guide from Battersea had a small collection of spare piston rings no longer needed for the Continental engine in his boat. An original partner in the Kingston Canadian Tire was just on the verge of discarding an assortment of Continental valves and a head gasket, approximately 30 years old at the time.

Falling heir to these prizes was only the beginning to what would be the product of better luck than good management. With the job complete and a push from Harold, Alibi sputtered and coughed to life.

Harold advised it would be good to let her run a while. Back in the middle of a vacant lot by our church parsonage I backed off to low gear, drove in a tight circle, dropped the throttle to slow, tied the wooden-spoked steering wheel to the passenger's door handle, and nonchalantly disembarked from the driver's running board. I sat on a lawn chair, studying for a school test, while my Star did doughnuts around me on her own for about an hour and a half, drawing grins from the neighbours and amazed gawkings from weekend traffic. And so continued the accumulation of memories with my born-again Star.

In the fall of '58 my first full-time job required I get a more up-to-date vehicle. Before long my Star found a temporary resting place at my parents' home near Port Hope. Over the next year Dad relayed a number of requests from would-be purchasers, but I held out. Finally, with no other place to store the car I gave Dad the nod to sell it to a young banker in Port Hope.

I never met the Star's new master. I know he had it only a short time. In the summer of '61 my domestic CEO and I were returning from a Toronto visit and opted for the old Highway 2. As we were passing an auto wrecker near Bowmanville I was astonished to see Alibi proudly lined up with vintage cars, trucks, fire trucks and other collectibles. Having a deadline at our next stop, and with no budget to even dream of re-acquisition, the best I could do was mutter a few expletives about having sold her, blink away a tear, and invest the rest of the trip in reminiscing.

In recent years I've made several unsuccessful attempts to locate the present owner, with the intentions of discovering the chariot's state of current health, and maybe chat about thrills of mutual interest.

Ah, maybe someday ...

A retired public servant, Moe Wright lives in Kanata. This article is excerpted from Taking the Long Way Home, a collection of stories edited by Blair Matthews and published by Playing With Words (www.pww.on.ca).

2002 Update

Last summer I visited the auto wrecker's yard where I last saw my Star in 1961 and had a wonderful time reminiscing. Two sons of the original yard owner still operate a small repair business and have a beautiful enamelled steel shed with a collection of about a dozen wonderfully restored vintage autos that they've collected through the years, including one old star, but definitely not mine - wrong year and body styling. The one brother remembered having 'owned' my Star for a few months that summer of '61, as a teenager, but couldn't remember who he had sold it to (he'd had too many through too many years to remember). But it was a pleasure to chat with the brothers and see their collection.

The auto wrecker's long ago removed business sign was "Elliott's - Home Of Million Parts". It had many acres of old and contemporary vehicles of all sorts in the late 40's and 50's, and was known far and wide throughout Ontario and other provinces. The two brothers who have kept up the small engine repair business are George and Don and I think it was Don who had owned my Star briefly in the summer of '61.

I've added some additional ID descriptions that may help pin down her heritage. Here are a few that you can muse over and see if they, shortened or 'as is', may be useful (if someone has done a complete restore then all or part my list may now be void):

- I had added directional signals by: replacing the sockets of the running lights below the front windshield with double contact ones; added a pair of bullet-shaped pedestal taillights (I think I got them from the rear side of a 30's or 40's Chrysler product) to the back top of the rear fenders; and added a small metal panel with two switches and separate left'n'right flashers below the left side of the dashboard.

- I had installed a big old box radio under the dash. The controls were in a bullet-shaped device strapped to the steering column, with a round sweep dial above the two off/on/volume and station selection knobs, with flexible cables running to the radio box.

- There had been a welding welt running crossways under the top of one fender (I forget which one) from a previous owner's repair.

- I had replaced the original large headlight lenses with hand-shaped metal bezels to mount more modern sealed beam lights.

- I would assume she's probably been repainted, but if not (!), I had painted my name for her 'Alibi' (my reason for being late, in the wrong place, or whatever) below the rear window.

Contact info:

Moe Wright
13 Amundsen Cresc.
Kanata, Ontario, K2L 1A6 Canada

moewright@sympatico.ca
(613) 270-1146