By Clark Fair
Back when the Alaska Highway was mostly gravel, potholes and frost heaves, it was difficult to haul precious or fragile cargo up its entire length without incurring some damage. So in 1966, when Soldotna dentist Dr. Calvin Fair wanted to retrieve his beloved Model A Ford from an Indiana garage, he contacted entrepreneurial Wayne Finley, whose approach was unusual but effective.
Finley, a former Iowa farmer working summers in Alaska as a commercial set-netter, often spent the remainder of each year figuring out ways to make money with his large box truck. In 1964, for instance, he had hauled old Ford tractors north from the Midwest and sold them to homesteaders on the central Kenai Peninsula. Fair had purchased one of those tractors — a gray-and-red 1948 Ford 8N, along with a plow and other farming implements.
In 1966, when Finley was headed to the states for another load of goods, Fair enlisted him to pick up his Model A. Finley’s plan called for him to stop first in Indiana to load the vehicle and then drive north to Chicago to pack the remainder of his cargo hold with cases of fresh butter.
Although the Model A would arrive safely, this dairy-laden delivery was just the beginning of an odyssey that would — more often than not, over the succeeding decades — prevent Fair from driving the car he’d bought as a teenager and loved ever since.
In 1950, when Fair graduated from high school in tiny Walton, Ind., he enrolled in undergraduate studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, and found himself in need of reliable transportation. He found someone at Purdue who wanted to sell a pair of 1931 Model A Fords — one all-black sedan and one light-gray coupe.
The price tag was $100 each (about $950 apiece in today’s money), and Fair asked his dentist father, Dr. Lowell Fair, for permission to buy both vehicles. Lowell gave his blessing, contingent upon his son footing the bill, and Calvin made the purchase.
When Calvin’s car-loving younger brother, Steve, was 14 or 15, Calvin gave him the coupe. Meanwhile, he continued to use the sedan (now with a Boilermakers sticker in the rear window) to drive back and forth to college. In about 1953 he asked his cousin, Paul Munson, to repaint the old car and give it a flashier appearance.
According to Fair’s sister, Joyce Beechy, their mother helped Fair determine the new hue, which was starkly different than the original black. The new body color was a General Motors paint called “Bittersweet,” an off-orange that was tinged slightly toward rose. The fenders and running board, wheels, spokes and roof all remained black, and Fair’s mother reupholstered the interior.
Fair’s girlfriend, Jane Jump, referred to the car as “his little baby,” and she recalled the first time she saw it — in about 1955 when Fair drove it over to Jump’s parents’ home to see if she would like go out for a ride.
She was not impressed.
“I didn’t think that it was all that great,” she said.
She was particularly repulsed by the new paint job, and she turned down the offer of a ride in the countryside.
Fortunately for Fair, Jump was not so put off by the Model A that she also lost interest in him. They married in 1956 and she moved to be with him in Whittier in late 1957 when Fair was stationed there as an Army dentist.
For Fair, a three-year stint in the military meant leaving his Model A behind. Before heading for basic training in San Antonio he stored the car in the garage of Annie Richeson, a woman who lived near his Aunt Blanche in Walton.
While Fair was doing dental work for the Army, his brother, Steve — a self-described “motorhead” in love with fast cars — was beginning to modify the coupe. In addition to repainting it a darker shade of gray and mounting sportier wheels, he removed the original four-cylinder engine and replaced it with a 1952 flathead V-8.
Older brother disapproved: “‘You’ll be sorry for that,’ he said,” admitted Steve. “And I was.” He came to rue the day that he altered the car from its original state.
When Steve moved to Alaska in 1971, he, too, placed his coupe in storage and planned for the day he would have it with him once again. Then, hard up for cash while living in Seward in the mid-1970s, he sold the car to a co-worker and almost immediately regretted it.
“I kick my rear-end (now),” he said. “Stupid! I wish I’d given it back to Calvin, or something.”
He also may have regretted the role he played in the planned refurbishing of his brother’s sedan.
In 1969, while visiting Alaska for the first time, Steve had helped convince Calvin that they could disassemble, restore and rebuild Calvin’s Model A, which had spent most of its Alaska life inside a cramped wooden garage on the Fair homestead. So they spent much of the remainder of Steve’s vacation removing the body from the chassis, repainting the frame, having Cotton Moore perform some welding repairs, and ordering new parts and new upholstery.
But when Steve returned to Indiana, Calvin’s work on the car came to a standstill.
The delay lasted for years.
When Steve moved to Alaska permanently, he brought with him a girlfriend he soon would marry, and his priorities included finding a job and a place to live. Calvin himself was busy with his growing dental practice, his growing family and his homestead. As a result, neither brother had time to devote to the restoration project.
Consequently, the Model A languished in the old garage — a building renamed “the meathouse” because each fall its rafters supported the weight of moose meat from the latest hunting season. Through season after season, the Model A sat in the darkness, its engine covered in oily rags to ward off the dust, as the three Fair children grew up, graduated from high school, and headed off to college.
It emerged finally in 1987 when local mechanic, Paul Reger, offered to complete the restoration in exchange for dental work.
“I’ve got a lot of gold in my mouth,” Reger says now, “and that’s where it all came from.”
Reger had more than a passing acquaintance with Fair’s Model A. After it had arrived in 1966 in the back of Finley’s butter-filled cargo truck, Fair had taken the vehicle over to Ingram’s Garage (formerly Reger’s Garage when it was owned by Paul’s father, Harry Reger) and asked Paul to drive it around for two or three days. Then in the fall, he had asked Paul to perform a service check and standard maintenance on it.
The following spring, Paul Reger had entered the Navy and spent part of the Vietnam War as a military mechanic. When he finally got his hands on the Model A again some two decades later, he initially had no time to work on it. Fair had hauled the chassis and body and all the parts new and old over to Reger’s home in Sterling, but Reger had been forced to store everything in a shed “out back” until he could start the restoration.
Fair would have to wait five or six more years for the work to begin.
Reger was in business for himself until 1990, when he began working as a mechanic for the city of Soldotna. He started the restoration in 1992-93 and completed the entire project in about 1995. Reger had John Fox do the bodywork and repaint the vehicle. He had Terry Speakman install the new upholstery. Then Reger himself replaced the engine with a like-model Sears and Roebuck rebuild, and reassembled the vehicle.
The results were spectacular. When the Model A had arrived on the homestead in 1966, Fair had driven it out onto an open dirt area near the family trailer. There, he posed Jane and two of the children along the left flank of his pinkish pride and joy. When the restored car was driven back onto the homestead in 1995, it was hard to believe it was the same vehicle.
The old pink beast was gone. In its place was a sleek machine of forest green, with cream-colored hubs and spokes, and black fenders, roof and running board. Fair was justifiably proud of his new car. He drove it or allowed it to be driven several times in Kenai’s Fourth of July and Soldotna’s Progress Days parades. He and Jane also occasionally took it out for a brief spin on a sunny summer day, after which he carefully washed and wiped away all of the dust.
But mostly he babied the old car, just as he’d always done, parking it again in the meathouse and later in his new shop, and protecting it with a specially fitted grey cover to prevent scratching or scraping of any kind. He uncovered it periodically to check the charge on the battery or change the oil or fiddle with the levers and buttons. And then he covered it right back up. He fretted over it, like a precious memento of a time gone by.