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July 19, 2019

Road Worthy

Road Worthy How 12 years, three cars and one man re-made a classic that attracts gawkers. by Caleb Caswell Photography by Ashley Champagne Venture out into the farms of rural Alberta, and you’ll find classic cars of all makes, models and colours. That colour might be rust, and grass might…

Road Worthy

How 12 years, three cars and one man re-made a classic that attracts gawkers.

Photography by Ashley Champagne

Venture out into the farms of rural Alberta, and you’ll find classic cars of all makes, models and colours. That colour might be rust, and grass might be growing high enough through the floors that it blocks the rear-view mirrors, but classics are classics. They are slates for invention, to be modified to the palates of whatever mechanics are lucky enough to find such gems.

One such mechanic is Ken Smith, who owns a 1948 Oldsmobile Series 60, restored and road-worthy. It’s so old that, if bought fresh off the lot, it could’ve served as my grandfather’s first car when he became eligible to drive at 14 (he grew up on a farm). 

Smith – 48 years old, a technical support specialist, journeyman mechanic and father of two – is an avid fan of what resto-rod admirers call “the old iron.” The restoration of his ’48 Olds took him 12 years and an amalgamation of parts that would do Dr. Frankenstein proud. The drive train, front suspension, power steering, power brakes and front clip were taken from an ’83 Buick Regal, and the differential from an ’84 Impala. The tires he got from “a guy in B.C.” and he outfitted the vehicle with programmable fuel injection that runs on Windows 95 software. Oldsmobile Obsolete, a retailer that specializes in parts for vehicles like Smith’s, offers an idea of just how expensive a restoration would be. The catalogue shows that a simple taillight lens would cost $85.

Hours that weren’t spent dismantling at Pick-Your-Part were applied to scrolling on eBay, with some joyous victories (the day the hood ornament arrived from a manufacturer in the United States) and exasperating trials (the springs for the fuel door, which he found online when he started building the car and hasn’t seen since). In all his time restoring the car, Smith has only seen one similar model like his. 

There’s only one part of the car’s innards that has remained from its original parts: The speedometer cable. It slipped into the new transmission without a worry, possibly one of very few car parts that haven’t been changed since the ’50s. Everything else had to be made to fit. 

Smith moved to Edmonton from Calgary at the age of seven. While he had a slight interest in bikes growing up, it was his cousins, a group of brothers who were into car culture, that led him to taking a chance on restoring this particular Olds. “For people my age in high school, it was the Camaros and muscle cars,” he says while driving through his residential area, trying to find smoother roads. “It’s what they grew up with. I guess I must have an old soul. 

“My era of car is more for people 60-plus. They’re always giving me the thumbs-up going down the road. That, and the really young guys like my car.” Not 10 minutes later, Smith and I pause to find a guy in his mid-20s with a rockabilly style staring at Smith’s car from the window of his own aged truck. 

“Sweet car,” he says, grinning. 

Smith waves a “thank you” and smiles as we drive off. “Everyone’s tastes are different, and when you build a car, you can build it to your taste.” The white-wall tires, lowered body and chrome were all part of Smith’s particular flair, described as “low and slow.” 

However, some like to modernize. Smith tells a story about an acquaintance who completely outfitted his car with power locks, windows, everything. But when the battery burst into flame, the doors weren’t able to open. Fortunately, the driver-side window was open just enough for the driver to squeeze through to safety. “I’m not one for power stuff,” Smith concludes. “It doesn’t fit my image.”

So if art says something about its creator, what does this car say about Smith? “I’ve never really compared it,” he chuckles. “It’s just a child to me. You look at a car and you see a vision. And from point A to that vision is a long journey. But once you get there, you’ve got something that nobody else has. I guess to go that extra mile; that was my vision.”

We roll back up to the garage, and Smith parks the car beside his next project, a ’54 Bel Air. He plans on leaving both his daughters with a classic car. “They can ride them or sell them, it won’t matter to me when I’m gone,” Smith says. “I had my fun with them.” He recalls days spent diagnosing problems with the horn; fixing the car in the dead of winter next to a space heater; driving out to Olds, Alberta for the annual Oldsmobile show or out into the country to go to church. 

And what would Smith have done with his time if he hadn’t worked on his Olds? Like a gentleman, he let his wife choose. 

“I told my wife it was either cars or a girlfriend. She picked the cars.”