The Tin Indian

by Tom Glide
Harbor Beach, MI

I’ve loved old cars from first the moment I can remember. I bought my first car, a 1948 Chevy sedan, when I was fifteen years old for $35. Mom and Dad weren’t all that happy about it; in fact, they thought I'd lost my mind.

They weren’t really “car people”, but they watched and supported me in my folly as I poured through Hot Rod Magazines and went out to the garage and applied what I had learned to my car. They decided to follow their crazy teenager in the family car when he announced he was driving the barely completed car to the Street Rod Nationals in St. Paul, Minnesota. That may have had something to do with the fact I had just finished it and only driven it around the block a couple times.

It was a crazy idea, but it made it with only a few small hiccups along the way. Looking out over a sea of old cars there brought back enough memories for them to catch the old car bug that had infected me.

Not long after that, dad heard of a car for sale in a nearby town, an old Pontiac someone wanted to get rid of, so we went to look at it.

Tucked away in an old barn under twelve years of dirt, hay bales and silt we found a mostly complete, but not running, 1942 Pontiac Sedan Coupe that a young man had inherited from his grandmother. He had turned the wiring to spaghetti in a half-hearted attempt to get it running and lost interest. For $300 he would be happy to get what he considered the big pile of crap the hell out of his barn.

As Dad pushed the dirt off of the car and stood back and looked at the sleek lines, ornate dashboard and perfect original upholstery, I could see he was being magically transported from 1978 back to 1942. It was an important year for him. It was the year he met Mom. It was also the year he became a radio operator on a B-17 bomber and went to war over Germany, and as a result, became a POW.

Right before my eyes, the silver haired, bi-focaled man I knew as dad, started to become the cocky, muscular kid with jet black hair that I had only seen in grainy photos in old photo albums.

A deal was struck and I bought what we came to refer to as the Tin Indian for him as a Father’s Day gift. We figured because it was in pretty good condition, we’d have it going in six months, tops. By next spring we’d be driving it.

As it goes with best laid plans, a few snags began to slow us down. When we got the car home and began to wash the years of dirt off of it, we noticed the body wasn’t in as good of shape as we thought. It was solid, but the years in the barn weren’t kind to the old girl. It appeared everything had been literally thrown on it over the years, resulting in a huge amount of dents on every top surface of the car. The grandmother that originally owned it wasn’t very good at backing out of the garage either. Creases ran down both sides of the car.

We also learned that there were only slightly over 14,000 Pontiacs built that year, because of limited wartime car production. There were only 1,776 of this particular body style produced and the few parts it did need were extremely scarce. It wasn’t going to be as easy to find parts for it, as it was for my common Chevy.

While trying to find the trim and body parts it needed, we shifted towards the mechanical end. I had hoped we would put a modern drive train in it, like my Chevy, but soon found Dad wouldn’t have anything to do with that. This car must be ORIGINAL.

Begrudgingly, I rebuilt the old flathead six, and we got it running. A brand new dent-less hood was found at an antique auto parts store in Port Huron, and the project began to pick up speed. That was until Dad decided to “help” with the body work and begin to sand the car off while I was at work. He sanded around the trim the car did have, rather than take it off, and left some scratches in the irreplaceable parts, which infuriated me. We were having enough trouble trying to find the parts that were missing and now what we had was full of damn scratches!

Work slowed as we continued the search for parts, and eventually ground to a complete halt in 1981 when we learned that Mom had cancer. Years of hospital visits, chemotherapy and suffering for Mom raged on as we helplessly watched her pass away. After she was gone, both of us forced ourselves to work on the Pontiac, but neither of us seemed interested. It was something that was for them. Something would always be missing.

In 1986 I got married, and time spent on the Tin Indian became little more than brief spurts amongst long periods of time when we never seemed to have time. There were kids to support and bills to pay. Eventually, I was able to find more time to dedicate to the car so Dad sent the bumpers out to be rechromed, and I bought a new set of tires for it. The father-son project took new life once again.

As the years went on, Dad began to show signs of confusion and irritability at times. One day he’d be fine, the next he seemed distant and standoffish. He was forgetful and repeated himself often. I told my siblings, all of which live a great distance away, what I was seeing in Dad, and that I suspected it was the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

So began a very tumultuous time for him and my whole family.

He began to become less trusting, especially of me, since I was the one who suggested he had a problem. I missed Dad and our time together, be it working on the Pontiac, his visits to our home or the occasional Friday night dinners at a local restaurant. I found myself on the outside looking in, trying to get him to talk to me again.

(The Tin Indian with author, Tom Glide, today)

He was spending most of his time away with my sister, so I couldn’t do something with him. When he said he didn’t want to see me, she honored his request. His “best interests” became a term I loathed. If I couldn’t do something with him, I’d do something for him.

I talked to my family about getting the Pontiac and finishing it, which went over like a lead balloon. Dad became more upset that I was now “stealing” his car too, and the result was my brother putting a huge chain across the front of his garage to ease his mind. “Why do you have to upset Dad so much over a junk car that doesn’t even run?” I was asked.

Truth be known, I could have legally taken the car, as Dad had signed it over to me in 1985. But I just wanted Dad back in my life, not the car, so I left it in his garage to calm the turbulent family waters.

Time passed, and I continued to try and reach Dad to no avail. Eventually, he wound up in a nearby nursing home where I was able to see him as much as I wanted, but by then, he had suffered a mild stroke and the Alzheimer’s had greatly advanced. He was a mere shell of who he used to be, and unable to communicate. I never got the chance to reach the man I once knew, and honestly don’t know if I reached who he had become.

Upon his passing in 2001, I chuckled to learn I had “inherited” the car whose title had lain in my safe for years. In my mind it had always been and always will be his, despite what the title says. The only thing that mattered was that his suffering was over and he could rest in peace. I did take great pleasure in cutting that ridiculous chain and liberating the Tin Indian though.

It had sat for years in an abandoned garage and most of the hard work Dad and I had done was for naught. The four brand new tires I had put on it were flat as pancakes and split wide open. Someone had drawn a circular target in the filth on the windshield, and practiced their marksmanship with a BB gun. The hood yawned wide open and the radiator was punched full of holes, the screwdriver that was used to do the deed still sat on the left front fender. Old greasy starters, carburetors, and other old car parts that Dad and I had collected through the years were piled in the interior, ruining the original upholstery A lot of the original trim was found in a nearby storage shed, under some old lawnmowers and junk, bent and rusted beyond repair. Still more was never found.

As I watched my friend winch it out of the garage, it sickened me to see it pulled right out of its own tires that remained rotted to the cement floor.

I thought about getting rid of it. It was in sad shape, and I remembered how hard it was to find parts for. Then, while we secured the car to the trailer, I thought of Dad and the look on his face when we went to look at the car for the first time. I remembered long hours in the garage together, working on it to the wee hours and talking about anything and everything. I remembered how he hard laughed when we tried to start the engine for the first time and it backfired loudly and belched fire out of the carburetor, sending me running from under the hood.

I couldn't sell it. The car meant way too much to dad, and he meant too much to me. The car was a member of the family.

Years of working on old cars had improved my skills and tool arsenal greatly, and the daunting task of working out all the dents was now no big deal. I also had the internet and the whole world at my fingertips to locate parts, rather than just the monthly Hemming’s Motor News, that rarely had any Pontiac parts older than those for a GTO or Firebird listed in it.

It turns out all the old parts that were piled in the car where now quite valuable on eBay, and selling them gave me the cash needed for the parts I lacked.
The biggest advantages I now had, were an understanding lady friend, willing to put up with being a “car widow” (unlike my ex), and my friend Charlie ( who helped me retrieve the car) and his body shop, Lakeshore Collision in Port Hope, Michigan. He also loves old cars, and does a lot of work on them in his shop, but it is the collision work on modern day cars that feeds his family and takes the lion’s share of his time. In exchange for doing work of some of the restoration projects he had going for customers, I was able to use his state of the art shop and tools to work on my car, and it worked out great for both of us.

Ironically, it took about six months of sometimes endless days and nights to bring the Tin Indian back to life, just not the six months Dad and I figured it would take so long ago.

The body is now perfectly straight thanks to my son Jake and I and countless hours of sanding, followed by Charlie and little pieces of masking tape to mark spots needing more work. It now wears a beautiful shade of deep blue paint reminiscent of the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii, where Dad loved to go. All of the missing and damaged pieces of trim were located on the web except for one piece of trim that Dad had put scratches in. Although it could have been buffed out using technology that has come along since then, it really didn’t look all that bad now, and it was his contribution to the restoration, so the part was installed as is.

I have replaced the original drive train in the car with one from a modern car, not because I didn’t care for it as I did back then, but because, as with all of my previous cars, I plan to drive the shit out of it, and for great distances. If something happens, I want to find parts in any auto parts store, rather than whittle them out of a tree branches along the road just to get home. Somehow, I don’t think Dad would mind the changes.

Amazingly enough, its first real outing since its completion was on Father’s Day, in a car show in the town where Dad worked, was well known and liked for years. Many people he knew stopped by and admired it and shared stories of memories they had of dad. It wound up taking first place in the GM division that day.

People that have seen it since it was finished walk around it stand back and admire it and, in reference to its rarity and monetary value ask “Do you know what you could get for this car?”

I've bought and sold enough cars to rival Barrett Jackson in my lifetime. I was even able to come up with a number I could live with to watch my old Chevy drive away. With the condition the Pontiac is in now and the extremely low production numbers, I suppose I could get a fair amount of money for it. But none of that interests me. With this car it’s not what I could get for it as much as what I get from it. With every trip I bring back happy memories of dad, my childhood, and first car.

How do you put a value on that?