THE ROADSTER PROJECT
After breakfast Marty hugged his parents and after a stop at the bank headed for the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Snow flurries had begun last night and continued this morning. Nuisance snow, he called it. The genuine article was approaching from the West, along a broad front.
Once the Nomad wagon was up to cruising speed, he turned the radio on and got comfortable. Many hours passed and his adrenalin rush kept going.
Ohio was worse than when he left home. The flurries were a bit heavier and cars were driving with their lights on although it was early in the afternoon. Still, the roads were clear and he was making good time.
Parts of U.S. Route 40 had been converted to the Interstate Highway System. When the system was complete, it would allow state to state travel without red lights or stop signs. Unfortunately, the system was in the early stages of development. So far, Marty was only on the Interstate sections for very brief periods, in West Virginia and, again, here in Ohio.
By evening, he’d reached Illinois, but the weather was little changed. The latest weather reports were cautioning that heavy snow across a wide area was imminent.
Elvis began to sing, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” for at least the fifth time since he’d left Carlisle. He was sure he knew all the lyrics of the popular songs at this point. Getting restless, he turned off the radio and tried to find a comfortable sitting position. Clearly, the huge adrenalin rush from this morning had vanished.
He began to watch for a place to gas-up and get some supper, in case things became bogged down on the highway.
Inside the restaurant, he met two young G.I.s who needed a ride. Ron and Jake were in the Air Force and were going to their new duty station in Oklahoma. Their car had given out a few hundred miles back and Marty offered to give them a lift to St. Louis.
“Until I met you fellas, my plan was to stop overnight in St. Louis and take my chances with the snow tomorrow. But, if you guys are still willing to help with the driving, we could go straight on to Oklahoma City. You heard the radio. Heavy snow could hit us anytime now. What do you think?”
“Hell, yes,” said Jake.
“I’m game,” added Ron.
“Okay then, when we reach Missouri, we need to get onto U.S. Route 66. That’s the most direct way to both our destinations.”
He set up a rotation of two hour shifts where the driver and the one riding shotgun would spell the third man who could stretch out and sleep in back.
Heading for Missouri, Ron’s curiosity got the best of him.
“What’s the trailer for, Marty?”
He explained about his dream car.
“You couldn’t find the right Roadster in Pennsylvania?”
“It wasn’t that I was picky. There were none to be had back home, or in sixteen surrounding states. Some I visited twice. And one of them, eleven times. My Roadster might have been there, but damned if I could find it. So this time it’s California, or bust.”
“But, all the way to California?”
“Finally, California. It’s a natural.”
“Why not Florida? That’s closer, right?”
“It is, but the lower half of California is pretty arid. Cars rust slower and the climate is mild. If there’s a Roadster haven, that has to be it. Ford probably sold a bunch of Roadsters in that part of the country. I’m banking on it. Oh, and the biggest population center in California is down south.”
“Los Angeles,” Ron said.
“Yep, that’s it. That’s my destination, greater Los Angeles. Even so, it’s still going to take luck. More than I’ve had so far.” Marty smiled. “Who knows, right?”
“I hope you luck out, Marty. Damn, what a blast! Wish I was going with you.”
After stopping for gas and a change of drivers, Marty rotated to the back and fell into a deep and restful sleep. When he felt the car slowing, he propped himself up on his elbows. The sun was just coming up and the sky looked mostly clear. The Chevy was stopping alongside gas pumps.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“About fifty miles into Oklahoma,” Jake said.
“Why didn’t you guys call me?”
“No need,” Jake said. “You’ll need sleep more than us.”
While the car was being refueled, Marty opened the hood to check the oil. The two younger men watched.
“What year Corvette engine is this, Marty?” Ron asked.
“Nineteen fifty-nine. I swapped in the engine and four speed out of a two month old wreck.”
“This is one bitchin’ ride,” Jake said.
After each of them took a turn in the restroom washing up, and with Marty now behind the wheel, the questions started.
“Why is this car you’re after so hard to find?” Jake wanted to know. “What is it, some kind of experimental, one of a kind, thing?”
“Not at all. It’s just that Ford built a measly four thousand Roadsters in nineteen thirty-six. A drop in the bucket, compared to the hundreds of thousands of other body styles Ford cranked out that year. Even the Cabriolet outsold the Roadster by ten thousand that year.”
“Cabriolet?” Jake asked.
“That was Ford’s other two-door convertible. The Cabriolet was the typical convertible, with roll-up windows, while the Roadster used snap-in canvas curtains, with clear inserts for visibility.” Marty laughed. “I learned a lot of cuss words when my uncle had to install those curtains during a sudden downpour.”
“So, why not go for the Cabriolet?” Jake asked.
“There’s one other big difference, fellas. From the doors back, the Roadster body was stretched. What a difference that made. They have that long swoopy tail end. Kind of like the Lincolns and Caddys of the day, on a smaller scale, of course.
“Hand me that small bag, will you, Ron?” Marty pulled out three pictures of his uncle’s Roadster, pictures that had passed through hundreds, if not thousands of hands over the years.
“You said you’ve been to sixteen states looking for the car? Damn, how long you been at this?” Ron asked.
“It seems like forever. For the past five years I’ve gone off on trips that lasted about ten days, on average. But I could only swing that much time once a year. In between, I’d go off for one or two days at a time. I haunted New Jersey. I knew of a Roadster that was there once.” He grimaced and then shrugged. “Finding it was a long shot.”
Marty bought breakfast for his two new friends, then drove them to the main gate at their base near Oklahoma City.
His revised plan was to try for Amarillo, Texas, by nightfall. He wanted a good night’s sleep, in a bed.
The next day, he crossed New Mexico and pushed into Arizona. Darkness had fallen and with it came intermittent rain and a series of large mountains. Climbing another of those behemoths, he instinctively squeezed the wheel tight when the windshield wipers suddenly began to scrape roughly across the glass. Ice!
He’d already reached the mountain crest and had begun a very long, steep descent. Without looking, his hand shot out and flipped the control lever from heat to defrost. Barely touching the brakes, the speedometer pointer indicated the car was stopped, then bounced around crazily, before settling on sixty miles an hour.
The car was speeding ahead and the brakes were useless. So was the steering wheel. And now the windshield had become opaque, as had the rest of the windows It was as if a giant wave had washed over the Chevy and instantly frozen.
In mere seconds, Mary was covered in sweat. Millions of tiny needles were pricking him from his scalp to his toes.
Accepting that things were out of his hands, he pulled the seatbelt tighter, then folded his arms over the top of the steering wheel and leaned forward, resting his forehead against them. Then he closed his eyes.
Suddenly feeling himself being pressed down into his seat, he opened his eyes and stared at the speedometer. Fifty. Forty-five. Thirty. At twenty miles an hour, the Chevy hit something and stopped abruptly.
The engine idled quietly as Marty looked all around, trying to understand. The wipers were still uselessly clattering across the ice-covered glass. His shaking hand turned them off along with the headlights and the engine. Never before had he felt his heart thumping as it was now.
With a little difficulty, he rolled down his window. It was dark and silent outside. For a time he wondered if this might be Heaven, or worse. He opened the car door, carefully testing the road surface with his left foot. The sole of his shoe slid across ice, as slippery as a concrete garage floor coated with bearing grease.
Then the rains came. In minutes the ice was gone and he jumped out of the car. The passenger side front fender was buckled and the bumper was hooked on a guardrail post. Unable to finesse it loose, he got back in the car, put it in reverse, and jerked it free. Now the bumper-end was pointing forward.
Flashlight in hand, he got back out of the car and stood in the heavy rain, looking around, trying to understand what had happened. The Chevy was on a fairly steep incline. He figured the road he was on must have gone straight down the mountain, then right back up, and his car had gone roller coaster-like. A little lower down, the road angled to the left slightly, causing the Chevy to become docked against the guardrail post. Getting back into the car, he considered the damage a small price to pay to cross this mountain, given the alternative.
He stopped at the first motel he could find. His hands were still shaky as he filled out the registration card. He drove to his cabin, locked the door behind him, dropped his luggage and fell across the bed without even taking off his coat. Within seconds he was asleep.
On the fourth day, he crossed the California state line. The weather was clear and the sun warmed his face. But where were the palm trees? All he saw was barren land. California wasn’t supposed to look like this.
Fifteen minutes later, he saw a car pulled off the road. Getting closer, it looked more like it had run off the highway. Instinctively, he slowed and stopped to investigate. Two middle-aged women were standing just off the pavement.
“Are you ladies okay?”
“Yes. I think so,” the driver said, hesitantly.
Marty turned his attention to the car. A tire was flat.
“I’m not sure,” the driver said. “We were going along and, all at once, the car turned by itself and here we are.”
He’d just finished up the tire change, when he noticed a police car, slowing to a stop.
Moving their car onto the side of the road, Marty said, “Good as new, ladies.”
They thanked him and tried unsuccessfully to pay him for his help.
“Drive carefully, ma’am.”
As the women drove off, the highway patrol officer held out his hand. “Pete O’Hara. You know, you sounded like a cop with that send-off.”
“Yeah, I am. State police,” Marty answered, with a smile.
They chatted a few minutes before Pete asked, “What’s the trailer for?”
Marty told him of his quest. “You know of one for sale? In any condition?”
Pete shook his head. “Sorry, I sure don’t.” He tore a ticket from his pad and wrote on the back of it. “Here’s my number at work. Give me a call in a day to two. I’ll put the word out about the Roadster. We cover a lot of territory. You never know, something might turn up. Good luck with your search, Marty.”
Underway, he frowned when he looked at his watch. Oh, well, maybe that stop would count as a small down payment on the free pass he’d gotten last night, he hoped.
Reaching San Bernardino, the landscape changed dramatically. He saw houses with well groomed yards and enough palm trees to brighten his day. He rolled the window down and let the seventy degree temperature waft over him. How different from back home.
Next stop, Los Angeles. The adrenalin rush was back.