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The Old Cadillac
by Quinton MacAdam

This article was originally published in The Vintage Car in 1961.  It is reprinted here with permission of the editors

Ever since I can remember, there has been in our family an object referred to by all as “The Old Cadillac”.

As far as I can ascertain now, my father bought this car about 1910 from a Vancouver doctor by the name of Wilson who was the original owner.  We drove it to Murrayville where he and his partner owned and operated a sawmill.  That was the family car for my father, my mother, my sister, and myself.  The single rumble seat was removed (thrown in the fire, no doubt) to make room for a double seat on the back, which my father built, for my sister and myself.  This seat faced toward the rear.

I remember very little of those days but, I believe, the car was used mostly to drive from the mill site down the dusty country road to the village of Murrayville, about a mile and a half away.  But I do know that on one occasion we ventured as far as Ladner!

In 1915, the family moved to Chilliwack, my father driving the dusty road alone, over the steep and narrow Vedder Mountain Road, as at that time Sumas Lake was still in existence.  The rest of us less hardy folk went on “the tram”.

Even in 1915 heads turned in Chilliwack when “The Old Cadillac” went by and many are the times when we would have to stop the car by the side of the road and shut off the engine when meeting a horse and buggy.  Sometimes my father would have to get down from his lofty perch and lead the horse past.

We lived on a small farm four miles east of Chilliwack so “The Old Cadillac” became our means of getting into “town”.  For a while one summer my father operated a steam pumping station about a mile west of Chilliwack and drove the car to work every day, a round trip of ten miles a day!

I don’t recall exactly when “The Old Cadillac” was finally retired from the road.  It was about 1921, I think.  It was retired from the road, but not from service.  The body, or seat, came off and was consigned to the hayloft in the barn, where an excellent place for the young fry, me among them, to play house was provided.  The transmission came off and a wooden pulley was mounted on the engine which was then used as a source of power to cut wood, corn, roots, and do other farm chores.

The bail-handle oil burning headlamps made excellent lanterns on a windy night when walking along a dark country road.  One such night, the road foreman of our district came to the door.  It was an emergency.  Some men, working for the Waterworks company, had dug a deep hole at the side of the road to get at the water main.  The foreman needed a red lantern as a warning signal for motorists.  Did we have such a thing?  My father, generous to a fault, brought out the tail lamp from “The Old Cadillac” and handed it to the road foreman over my mother’s protests.“

The next day on my way home from school, I, along with the other snoopy boys, took a peek down the hole and there lay the lamp, or the remains of it, broken, bent, battered, blown, or knocked down the deep hole.  I was too young and carefree then to think of going down after it!  The road foreman apologized to my father for losing the lamp.  My father was sad, my mother was mad, and I was too young to care.

Now the years start to flit by swiftly.  “The Old Cadillac’s” enemies - time, corrosion, and carelessness do their dirty work.  The radiator is in need of repair again, so my father disconnects it and connects up an old milk can as a cooling system.  That’s good enough for a stationary engine, isn’t it?

The tires rot away, so we push the chassis around on the rims.  The lock rings make excellent hoops for little boys, including this little boy, and are soon lost.  The wheels make good wheelbarrow wheels and can be sold (They can always be replaced with Model ‘T’ wheels, can’t they?) The gas tank springs more leaks, so is discarded, and the shell of an old vacuum tank is mounted on the chassis.  It will hold enough gasoline to run the one cylinder engine for an hour, which is as long as it is run at one time, anyway.

The screen in the carburetor, or “mixer”, corrodes badly so the whole mixer is discarded and a Model ‘T’ carburetor is substituted.  It is more adaptable to the addition of a governor, anyway, which is what you need on a stationary engine, isn’t it?

All those things occur and more, yet the piston has never been out of the engine, the old rings are still there, and the compression is good.  The engine starts on the first pull of the crank!

The day comes when I inherit the car, or what is left of it.  The engine is still mounted on the chassis but the body is up in the hayloft, the transmission is around somewhere and so are most of the rest of the parts, if one cares to look for them.

So one day in 1945 I borrowed a truck and headed for Chilliwack to gather up the remains of “The Old Cadillac” and bring it to Vancouver where I might get around to fixing it up some day.  I’m sure as we drove along that cloudy day in the fall of 1945 with the pile of junk on the back of the truck, a lot of people along the way who saw us thought I was nuts (or in the scrap business).

When we arrived back in Vancouver on that day in 1945, it was necessary to unload “The Old Cadillac” in pieces.  The frame and engine were wheeled off the truck down two stout planks with the help of the willing neighbors, and placed on a temporary platform behind the garage.  The “Body” which is really, after all, little more than a seat, was hoisted up in the garage over our regular car for storage.  The rest of the parts, in boxes, were taken into the basement to add to the clutter which seems to always be there.

Within a few days I removed the engine from the chassis - in two parts as that flywheel sure is heavy - and took it into the basement also.  Then I threw a tarpaulin over the chassis, and there it remained for the winter.

For the first two years the restopration process was carried on in a half hearted fashion, as there was little general interest in old cars during that period.  But one evening I took the water pump apart.  It was in good shape - just needed cleaning and a new gasket - hand made of course.

Another time I took the transmission apart to see what condition it was in.  The only thing wrong with it was the drive sprocket - no teeth!  I found out that it was possible to make a sprocket without a milling machine.  Just drill a series of holes accurately in the right places, and to size, and file out the teeth.  The sprocket works perfectly!

This haphazard sort of tinkering went on until one summer day in 1949 when my wife happened to see in the paper where the Pacific National Exhibition people were offering prizes for the best old cars to be entered in the parade.  We contemplated the empty chassis in the back yard, the seat up in the rafters of the garage, the boxes of parts in the basement, the dismantled engine, and the parade date, which was just three weeks away - and decided to take a whirl at it.

The first thing to do was to relegate our regular car to a parking spot out on the street in front of our house and wheel the chassis of “The Old Cadillac” on its tireless rims out of the yard and around into the garage.  There we scraped and wire-brushed the dirt and rust out of it.  My wife painted it while I started on the engine.  It was put back on the chassis, again in two parts (I hope I read those marks on the timing gears correctly) and the transmission was added.  The bands and clutch were all there, but some of the linkage was missing.  So its “burn a little more midnight oil” in the basement workshop while more parts are made by hand.  Finally all the transmission bands and brake bands were connected.

But where was the gas tank?  Nowhere to be found! - and no time to make a new one.  There would be no time to fix the radiator properly so with a little soldering the radiator storage tank was made to serve as a gas tank.  It held two gallons.  No time to repair the carburetor, so the Model ‘T’ carburetor was retained for the moment.

Now what to do about the cooling system?  I remembered that my father had mounted a milk can on the chassis of “The Old Cadillac” when he was using it as a stationary engine, so I thought of doing something similar.  I got a five gallon oil can, soldered pipe connections into it and mounted it on its side in the chassis, behind the seat, and hoped it would work on the thermo-siphon principle.

Up to this point I hadn’t had to spend much cash on the restoration but now came the part that would hurt a little.  Four tires and tubes had to be bought.  Luckily 30 x 3 ½ tires were readily available in 1949, and at a much lower price than they would be today.  Dry cell batteries for the ignition were bought and installed, and then came the time when we should see whether or not the engine would start.  I hadn’t even ground the two valves as there was not enough time for that.  As I found out later, the carburetor was not properly adjusted so it took a good deal of cranking but finally the engine started!  I let it run for a while to check on the oiling system and make sure it was functioning properly, and then shut it off to start work on the body.

Time was running short now, so I made up a schedule.  This had to be done in one evening, that had to be completed the next evening, something else was scheduled for Saturday, and so it went.

Some repair work had to be done on the wooden body, so we brought it down out of the garage rafters and put it back in the back yard.  With the kind volunteer assistance of a cabinetmaker friend of mine the body repairs were soon completed.  Then I scraped off the old paint and prepared the body for the painter - my wife.

Now it was time to put everything together.  The body was bolted to the chassis and the fenders, which previously had been painted, were added.  Then the smaller items - the brass headlamps and horn, newly polished were put on, and suddenly, the car was complete, or at least in running condition.  And just in time as the parade was the next day!  I had borrowed a dealer’s licence from an automobile dealer, and on the eve of the parade, took the car out for a short spin.  It seemed to work all right in the short time I had to try it, but would it run all right for the full length of the parade with all that low gear work?  Would the makeshift cooling system operate for that length of time?  Would the substitute gas tank hold enough gas?  These questions and more would have to be answered on the following day.

We were up very early on the day of the parade, as we had no idea how long it would take to drive down to the starting point at Lost Lagoon - if indeed “The Old Cadillac” would run that far!  But it did run that far, and the entire parade route as well.  Not content with that, we drove  right out to Hastings Park and spent the rest of the day at the fair!  Then we drove home again in the evening.  The cooling system boiled several times and we had to make a few stops for water.  I made a mental note that some day I would have to fix that.

The next day the parade organizer phoned to say that we had won a nice cash prize!  That news added to our conviction that the satisfaction of getting “The Old Cadillac” running again had been well worth the effort.

1949 PNE Parade


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