Chatham’s Classic Cars

Local collectors are as different as the automobiles they treasure.



Cars-146Driving up to the Whittaker’s Chatham home in the River Bay area, you can’t miss the two Model A Fords parked in the driveway. Both are meticulously restored to show room condition. The 1930 coupe perches ready for a run around town with a couple windblown grandchildren in the rumble seat. Next to it is a 1929 woodenbodied station wagon, a car with a long Cape Cod provenance.

“The wagon was owned originally by Dr. Austin of Wellfleet,” says E.K. “Ted” Whittaker. “Years ago, the doctor donated a tract of land to provide an Audubon park. The wagon was then being used as a beach car and it went along with the deal.” Whittaker’s hand strokes the glistening varnished patina of the hard maple door frame of the car as he talks. The car had gone through a couple other owners and was in bad shape, but all the original hardware was still there. Even the little grommets that hold the side curtains were still in place.

His grandfather had a 1930 Model A he equipped, with oversized tires and used as a beach car. “I learned to drive on a Model A my father owned. I think the car is a significant part of American history. It followed the tremendous success of Ford’s Model T and together they literally put the nation on wheels.” The Model A was introduced just in time for the ‘29 stock market crash and the depression’s beginnings. Despite this timing, six million Model A Fords were sold, even though less than four years later production stopped when Ford introduced its V-8 models.

“There’s an estimated half million Model A Fords still running,” Whittaker remarks. The Model A Restorers Club of America has a Cape Cod Chapter.

“These cars have survived, I think, because Henry Ford was a ‘controller.’ He made his own steel; he even harvested his own wood. He was a stickler for quality. So seventy years later, we load up the kids and we’re off to the beach—once again.”


Cars-049Before he was even licensed to drive, Chatham resident David Wilbur got his first old car. It was a 1940 Ford coupe, then 22 years old itself, and it cost $315. Four years later the teenager “upgraded” to an even older vehicle, a 1937 Ford Tudor sedan that cost $525. By then, Wilbur was hooked, and a flurry of old Ford car purchases followed.

Today his special car is a 1937 four-door Ford touring sedan, a convertible with snapon side curtains. “We drive it any dry weekend, especially out for Sunday morning breakfast. People honk and wave, and we wave back,” he says. If the weather promises to be good, he’ll drive it to work, from Chatham to Yarmouth. “I keep it under 55 miles per hour,” he says. “That’s about the only concession I make for its age. But come to think of it, isn’t that the speed limit on Route 6?”

For most of the winter Wilbur’s Ford stays in the garage. It is parked there, not put on blocks. He turns the engine over from time to time and inches it a bit forward and back to even tire impact. But other than that, the car simply waits for milder weather.

The details fuel the restorer’s passion. For example, finding the precisely correct bracket for the tail light, an extended-length mounting that Ford made only for the 1,200 or so 1937 touring cars the company produced. “It took 40 months of shopping before I finally found the piece at the Hershey [Penn.] auto flea market,” Wilbur recalls. The saga of replacement parts continues. “Two years ago, I had to replace the gas tank. It was, after all, 69 years old! And last year, it was a leaf spring that finally gave out after 70 years. I got both parts in a matter of a couple weeks and was able to install them myself.”

Museum-authentic or not, Wilbur’s Ford took first place among touring cars at the Eastern National Meet in Avon, Connecticut, a couple years ago.


Cars-032Bruce Cook tools the streets in a power-loaded Chevrolet Nova, a model which General Motors launched as a mid-sized, light-weight 1972 “economy car,” then offered it with a 350-horsepower V-8 engine, a “street machine” designed to “blow the doors” off competition. The Nova with the macho engine sold for $2,600 in 1972. The car sells today for just under $12,000.

“But forget it if you think you’ll make money at this,” Cook maintains. “I’ve put a lot more than that into the car, to say nothing of time and effort.” The personal effort was expert; Cook is a 30-year auto body repair professional. He bought the hot Nova because he raced Chevrolet cars back in the ‘70s.

“My car’s what is called a ‘twenty-footer’,” Cook explains. “It looks great from 20 feet away, but it’s not perfectly restored. This is a car for fun. Even if you’re just driving to work the car gets people to smile and to wave at you as drive by.”

If you’ve been toying with the idea of buying a classic car of your own, here are some tips from old timers who claim to have made all the mistakes.

  1. Forget about making money on it. You aren’t going to find either an undiscovered bargain or an ignorant seller. Anybody who has access to the Internet knows what prices are.
  2. Join a local association and introduce yourself at meetings and rallies. Car buffs are a convivial, chatty bunch. Tell them about your interest and ask their opinion. Be prepared to listen— a lot.
  3. Keep an open mind. Many a car enthusiast has started out thinking “muscle car of the 70’s” and ended up with Phaeton of 1930s elegance—and vice versa.
  4. Get all the information you can. Magazines and their illustrations are especially helpful. Browse the Internet repeatedly. There are hundreds of web sites. You’ll quickly learn which are worth revisiting to keep abreast of new listings.
  5. Keep looking until you find what really “gets” to you: a specific make, model, styling, era, etc. Don’t start serious searching until you know what you’re looking for, especially financially. You want your dream car to be fun, not a financial millstone.
  6. When you’ve set your target, find “the car” or a similar one at meets and rallies and talk to the owner. Tell him you are looking. True, the owner might beat you to just what you want, but equally likely he could tip you off to a possibility that he’s not in a position to buy himself. (Don’t be surprised if the owner offers to sell you his car. He might have another purchase in mind and needs the money to make it.)
  7. Unless you are a very skilled mechanic and metal worker, and have a shop full of tools and a lot of cash, look for a car that’s ready to drive away. Even simple repairs on old cars can get expensive.
  8. Find a knowledgeable professional—a restorer or very experienced collector—to inspect the car you want to buy. Expect to pay him. Shop time around the Cape is $50-100 an hour.
  9. Think about rust and mold attacking your pride and joy. Provide a warm, dry and ventilated storage space.
  10. Your search of magazine ads and Internet offers will by now have given you a good idea of market prices. Make your offer well below (20% or more) asking price. Antique autos are not a highly liquid market. The collector would not be selling his pride and joy unless he had his eye on another buy, was under intense domestic pressure, or was desperate for money. Here in the North and especially on the Cape, you will get a better buy if you make your purchase in the fall since collector cars go into storage and the hobby hibernates in the winter.—TR

Parade Participation
For the July 4 Chatham Parade in 2008, the Cape Cod Classic Car Club was invited to join for the first time. Thirty members of the club – Chatham members
for the most part—showed up to show off.