Wednesday, January 14, 2009

George Watterson and the great Safari (Part 4.. the final chapter)

George continued to show me his cars that he had across the road from his trailer, and made sure that I saw each one, heard its story, and of course took my single allotted photo. I was sure that this was just a warm-up for the stuff he had hidden around his place so, as soon as I saw the last car, we made our way over for round two. 

As we were crossing the road I asked about a row of 1950s sedans that he had angle parked right up to the drainage ditch no more than 20 feet from the road. Unlike everything I'd just seen, these cars were very much out in the open, almost displayed for passers by. George explained that these were some of the last cars he purchased while still doing his job with Carpenter. So, I would guess these were bought in the 1970s. When I asked him about their close proximity to the road he responded,"Well, by the time I bought them, I was pretty well full up in the back." OK, now I'm really curious about what's behind trailer number one. For the record, the cars out front were a '50 Ford sedan, a '49 Lincoln Cosmopolitan sedan, a '51 Packard Clipper sedan, a '54 Ford sedan, and, of all things, a '65 Ford Falcon Ranchero. 

As we rounded the back of the trailer and out into his backyard property, we almost immediately came to a small pre-fab one car shed that was completely collapsed. Piles of old bicycles were mounded up against all sides of it and just inside the doorway were a couple of 1960s enduro motorcyles. One was an Indian and the other a small Harley trials bike. When I looked down at them he said they were the only motorcycles he ever bought but were both good machines. Next in line was, for me, quite possibly the single greatest find on his property...  especially considering where my head was at the time with the Model A parts collecting/early hot rod interest. Stuffed back into this sheet metal pre-fab was a real live '32 Ford V8 roadster. If he hadn't pointed it out, I would have never seen it. I could only see the grill bars among the rest of the junk that was piled on it, but he let me step in there and pull a few things away from the front of it to see that there was a complete car back in there. I could see the complete grill shell, front bumper, a headlight, and I could see from the shape of the pile that it had fenders on it. As the years have gone by, I've become more and more amazed that I saw a forgotten '32 Ford roadster in a pile of junk. 

Further back on the property were some fat fendered '30s and '40s cars. All outside, and all were absolutely paper thin rusted hulls. I could see their shapes in the brush and overgrowth and suddenly remembered the rumor about him having a Lincoln Zephyr. Just as pleasant as things had been, they immediately turned volatile when I said,"I heard that you have a 1930s Lincoln Zephyr." He immediately whipped around,"Who told you that? Where'd you hear such a thing?" I said I couldn't remember, but he was already wound tight. "People should mind their own business. Folks shouldn't go around talking about what they may or may not know anything about. I don't go for that." OK, I thought. Good to know. 

Well, just as soon as that little heated moment passed, there she was...  1937 Lincoln Zephyr sedan. This was one of the fat fendered cars I saw and, again, was so rusted it would have come apart if you tried to move it. It was gutted but amazingly still had the rusted remains of the V-12 engine sitting in it. Next to it sat a similar condition '37 Ford humpback sedan. Off to the left of these were a few packs of model As and assorted other '30s Fords right at the edge of his property. A very rare car sat by itself buried in briars and brush... a 1940 Mercury convertible. Another interesting vehicle about 20 feet away, also by itself, a very complete and nearly salvageable 1934 Ford pick-up. Again, all of the cars coming with their own short stories of taking their journey out onto his property to their final resting place. 

We kept walking, now going down into the woods behind the trailer. We walked past his VW display which consisted of a mid to late '50s bug, a Karman Ghia, a VW thing, and a split window bus. I have to give him credit for having all of the available models represented. ( BTW, while I'm writing this I have one of the cassettes playing that I recorded while walking around his property with him. One of the things that I had forgotten about was how he took so much time explaining the different intricacies of every car we came upon. He's speaking to me as if I've never seen an old car in my life. He really knows a lot about the operating procedures of all of his stuff ). 

Next up was the first of three different "buildings" that he took me in that I still can't believe I survived seeing. These structures were just unbelievable. I hope some of the photos I post will do some kind of justice because explaining this is going to be difficult. The best I could figure from crawling around these things is that, I believe he would park cars, a lot of Model As, right up against one another, making a growing square of them going out in all four directions. With the fenders forced up against one another, he would then cut down medium sized tree limbs and drive them down between the fenders of the cars and down to the ground. These would basically be the down-posts of the building... again, being held up by the force of being pinched between the cars fenders. Then, after these were in place, he would cut similar limbs to throw up on top of these posts and would tie them in with anything from rope to twine to barbed wire to, I could swear, vines. Notice that I've not mentioned a thing about store bought lumber, this is all straight rough cut stuff taken right from the woods on his property. With the basic framing in place he would then throw anything imaginable up over the top of this to protect the cars from the elements. Boards, paneling, particle board, plywood, skids, and again, more corregated metal siding. He must have had some kind of source for that as he had a lot of it. Crawling around in there you had the distinct feeling that every single piece of that structure was working at 100% to stay erect. From the fender sides, to the bailing twine, to the down-posts that were resting between the cars. And if you bumped a single component of this structure the entire thing would fall right to the ground in an instant. The only thing that gave me some kind of confidence was the fact that it could really only fall as far as the roof tops of all of the cars that made up the inner structure of the building. 

Onward we walked. From one building to the next. I was becoming a little numb to everything that I was trying to take in. I felt like I'd easily seen 30-40 Model As and it wasn't even noon yet. As we got away from the buildings, walking further and further back on his property, we continued to come across dozens of cars in the woods. With a lifetime of effort into making sure he had every possible kind of vehicle, he took me back into a shallow bottoms that had a 1950s Ford dump truck, an extremely old ( probably 1920s ) White bulldozer that had giant spoked steel wheels on its track, and a pair of small, almost Bobcat sized, dozers, and one fork-truck. 

A big surprise came the following day when I showed up to finish up our tour. We started out the morning walking straight back to the very backside of his property. I would estimate that this was probably a good half mile or so. Not only did his property end right at the edge of another road, basically the next state road north from the one his trailer sat on, but he had a pretty decent cement block building that was accessible from this road. This was an actual water tight building with the exception of some broken windows. Sitting in this building, with still more junk, was what George seemed to be most excited about of all of his cars. A teens era model T Ford closed touring car. George believed it to be a 1917. As we walked around the car he went on and on about the condition and how complete an example it was. I would have to admit, it certainly was the closest thing to "restorable" that I had seen anywhere on his property, and he spoke about it that way. He showed me what would have to be done with the interior to bring it back, how most of the wood was still decent, and claimed that it still ran! That was the first I'd heard that said for two days. Now he was kind of talking like, I'm sorry to say it like this, a "real" car guy. It wasn't just a big fantasy. He'd been showing me cars that couldn't be salvaged in any way and saying, very matter of fact,"That's a good old car right there."  Now he was talking about how he would have to have new glass made up for this T body and how people just want too much for that kind of stuff. The whole scene was strange. This other end of his land had much less tree cover and more sunlight. This building with the 1917 T in it was a decent structure and could have functioned if you emptied it of all the junk. It was certainly the newest and most modern building on his property. It was as if walking the length of his property brought you to what he had been working towards. And he seemed like a different guy there. Less defensive, more interested in the car itself. He was making good sense, right there, right at the end, right when we were done. 

I can't say I didn't enjoy myself, and I did leave with a certain sense of accomplishment that I'd probably seen something that very few had. In one way the mystery was solved, but in another way things seemed more mysterious than ever. I don't think my curiosity about what he had hidden back there could have ever haunted me as much as knowing what he had, and wondering why. This crazy old man turned out to not be nearly as crazy as people had made him out to be, or as crazy as he liked to present himself. He was just an old guy with a unique story who collected a lot of old cars that he turned out to be genuinely interested in. How many old cars you may be wondering? Well, as I was leaving and George Watterson and I were saying our goodbyes, I got out my yellow legal pad that I'd been using to keep track of the cars I'd seen, and from down in my camera bag I dug out my roll of one dollar bills. Out there in front of his trailer in the late afternoon of day number two, I counted out 77 dollars on the hood of my Mustang and handed it over to George. A little something inside of me thought that he might just pass on the payment since we'd had such a nice time, but business is business to George Watterson. He took the money, shook my hand, and sent me on down the road. And that was the last time I would see George or any of his cars. 

Last year while on tour I got a call from my friend Roy Caruthers who had heard of an estate auction down around my old stomping grounds in southern Indiana. Roy hadn't made it through his first sentence and I knew who it was. It was George. After all, it had been 10 years since our meeting and George had to have been in his late 70s or early 80s then. Roy sent me a link to the auction company's web site and sure enough, there it all was. The buildings had all fallen down and the auction company had come in with bulldozers and made piles to mark off "lots" for bidding. One pile would be described as "Model A parts and possible complete car or two." Each auction lot photo on the web site looked like a generic scrap pile. The day before the auction, potential bidders were allowed to tour the property and dig through the lot piles to see if they were worth a bid. Roy had gone and reported back that it was mostly depressing. Piles and piles of bodies that were so paper thin that they just broke into pieces when moved around. When it was all said and done, I only heard of one story where a bidder made out on a won lot. Apparently there were a couple of decent model As in one of the piles and the bidder just took a chance and bid until he won. When going through the pile after the auction he found that one of the cars was sitting on a complete '32 Ford chassis. That's a pretty good score in this day and age. Was it the '32 V8 roadster that I had seen a hint of? Doesn't sound like it, as no '32 roadster body was found. What happened to that complete '32 I'll never know. The only other news from the auction was that someone was spotted loading what was left of the Muntz Jet onto a rollback. I saw the car 10 years earlier and it had nearly evaporated then! What could they possibly do with that thing? That's a mystery that someone else will have to solve. 

1 comment:

biggearhead said...

Fabulous story. Simply fabulous! This is a fascinating look at what makes up the heart and history of the American automobile - the stories of people and how they relate to their machines, as odd and improbable as some may seem.

It really is a shame that so many of them went to the graveyard through neglect, but they can't all be saved, no matter how much we may wish it. It was a real special opportunity that you had to see them and hear his story. You have a memory that no one else will ever be able to duplicate. It's great that you made the time and effort to track the story down, and I appreciate you sharing it here with us.

I wish there were such things hidden around here, but there are only so many old garages on the north side of Indianapolis. The last "car in a barn" story I heard was about a year ago from a coworker whose friends moved in somewhere with a barn that had "a GTO...or a Porsche" in it. I never was able to get any more info on that one.