Thousands of dusty miles later, rusty jalopy makes a statement

Wednesday, August 17, 2005 Page S1
Special to The Globe and Mail


VICTORIA -- Tufts of stuffing peek out from the seats. The fabric covering the doors is as tattered as a weather-beaten banner. The interior is a mess, and the exterior is in worse shape. One glass headlamp is cracked, the left front fender is dented.

The original paint job, in a tone lost to the ages, has been replaced by a colour familiar to Lucille Ball's hairdresser.

"It's not rust," insists owner Brian McKay. "It's patina."

The 75-year-old sedan looks every one of its years.

Mr. McKay adores his Nash 450 the way a lonely man loves an ugly dog.

Originally bought for parts, the Victoria resident intended to cannibalize the vehicle to restore the two other vintage Nash roadsters in his garage. Instead, he has spent years painstakingly cultivating the automobile in its dilapidated condition.

"Where is it written that a restored car has to look the way it did in the showroom?" he asks.

On Sunday, the Nash was parked on Oak Bay Avenue, where it was an ugly duckling in a traffic jam of gorgeous wheels.

Lacking snow, as well as its evil accomplice, road salt, Victoria rivals Havana as a bastion for vintage vehicles -- many of which also come with vintage drivers. The Blethering Place Collector Car Festival is an annual chance to display the city's stock of classic Fords, Chevys, Buicks, Chryslers, Vauxhalls, Triumphs, Jaguars, Valiants, DeSotos, Mercurys, Morrises, Cadillacs, Volkswagens and Austin Healeys.

Across the street from the drab Nash was a pristine convertible, a Packard 733 Phaeton that had spent 55 years in storage. Its jet-black paint, shiny chrome and leather upholstery were untouched since having left the factory. With an odometer having counted just 34,000 miles (about 54,000 kilometres), the automobile looked as if Jimmy Cagney could have just driven it from the set of a gangster movie.

Elsewhere on the avenue, spectators gawked at cars that could have been cast in Bullitt, or American Graffiti, or even the original The Love Bug. Mr. McKay's Nash, in contrast, looked like a reject from The Grapes of Wrath -- a beater, a junker, a bucket o' bolts. A jalopy.

Mr. McKay, 66, teased the spectators, saying: "Don't stand too close. You might scratch it."

The retired home builder has dubbed his car "The Dust Bowl Refugee." It's a one-man homage to the desperate farmers who fled the Prairies during the Dirty Thirties to find work and an easier life on the West Coast.

Tin canisters holding gas, oil and water are kept below the front grill, held in place by twine. A trunk, a child's wagon, a kerosene lamp, a steel colander and a bucket of cooking utensils are stored at the rear. A thin mattress has been lashed to the roof, which also holds three spare tires.

The Depression looms in Mr. McKay's imagination. The great-grandson of a homesteader, he was born in rural Alberta in 1939 and grew up on tales of hardship. His family, who farmed and owned a hardware store, did not suffer nearly as much as some of their neighbours.

Fifteen years ago, Mr. McKay tracked down the 1930 Nash in a granary in Balzac, Alta. The sedan, owned by a Saskatchewan farmer, had been on its way to the Peace River country when it expired in the middle of ranchland.

Some years ago, the Nash was to be sacrificed at a demolition derby. The car was driven onto a truck and carted to the track. Before the big event, the engine refused to turn over. "It was not yet her time," Mr. McKay says.

He rebuilt the engine and repaired the brakes. The wooden wheels were restored after being soaked in linseed oil.

"It has been made to look like it has never been touched," he says, "which sometimes is a lot of work."

The odometer read 70,007 miles (112,000 km) when he bought the Nash. At the show, it read 85,955 (about 138,000 km).

Last summer, he shipped the car to Chicago before embarking on a 49-day odyssey west to Santa Monica, Calif., and north to Victoria.

He followed old Route 66, duplicating a journey taken by so many desperate Americans in the 1930s. Route 66 was "the mother road, the road of flight," as John Steinbeck wrote in The Grapes of Wrath. So, too, was it for Mr. McKay.

He has settled on 1937 as the year of the car's original trek, so he armed himself with road maps of similar vintage for his tour. His front licence plate read, "Saskatchewan 1937 Coronation Year 61-781." He also had 1937 tags for each of the eight states through which he would travel.

Route 66 has long been decommissioned, replaced by an interstate on which the six-cylinder Nash -- top speed 48 kilometres an hour ("downhill with the wind at its back") -- would have been a hazard. Mr. McKay retraced the old highway's meandering route, sleeping at 4-H campgrounds or in a lean-to tent alongside his car on the roadside. He endured hail in Amarillo, Tex., and unfriendly townsfolk in Okemah, Okla., the birthplace of Woody Guthrie, the dust-bowl balladeer. (Although fans of the singer make pilgrimages to the town, his liberal social views still do not sit well with many residents.)

Mr. McKay suffered only one broken axle and a single flat tire from Illinois to California. Somehow, he had 11 more flats on the return leg to Victoria.

"This car deserved that trip," he says. "She's not just a pretty face."

He knows his Nash will remain an attraction at car shows as long as no other owner decides to imitate his work. One jalopy is a statement. Two jalopies are a wrecking yard.