Here’s an interesting little thought experiment. Imagine 3 muscle cars in your garage. Can you name them? Could you tell me year, make, model, and/or trim? You probably could, right? 65 Mustang, 71 Superbird, dat Yenko – something like that. Now imagine 3 pre-war (read: older than 1942) cars in your garage. A little bit trickier, isn’t it?
Well, it was for me, anyway. The point of this little experiment is to point out how peer pressure influences our automotive tastes. It’s easy to come up with “classic” models because they’re frequently in the media, mentioned by name, often for their own sake – they’re popular. I think most people with a passing interest in cars could name half a dozen of them without much thought. When we think about “classic” cars, we tend to think in terms of make and model.
Pre-war machines, on the other hand, we’re more inclined to think of in terms of form and feature – open cabins, wooden wheels, maybe hand cranks. They’re not particularly fast. They don’t really have much of an aftermarket. And “the good ones” all seem to cost a fortune. But these older, often obscure machines have an allure all their own, don’t they?
I’m currently reading This Business of Exploration, by Roy Chapman Andrews. He was a real life Indiana Jones who went on several expeditions through China, Outer Mongolia, and such. In his search for fossils (this is the dude who discovered the first dinosaur eggs), he led several teams across remote, often barren terrain – with a fleet of 1920s Dodge Brothers cars. I guess they were simply called touring cars, but Andrews and team crossed rivers, deserts, and treacherous mountain roads in them, often getting into shootouts with bandits.
It all makes me curious about the older vehicles. What are they like to own, to operate, to maintain? Where does one even begin? With a Ford Model A? Model T? There’s that peer pressure again; our minds trying to fall back on make/models we know something – anything – about. Maybe the best thing we can do, as gearheads, is talk to a fellow gearhead who’s owned a couple and can tell us what it’s like.
MEET RYAN WOOLEY
[bd] Introductions. Who are you, where are you, and what do you do for a living?
[rw] My name is Ryan Woolley, I live in a little ghost town near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I’m a jack of all trades and master of none, it’s an old saying but it holds true. Mostly I haul cars for people and, as often as I can, I provide props for a couple of local television studios in the form of cars and bicycles and random things nobody would ever own, but for some reason I happen to have.
[bd] Introductions. You share so many unique photos on your Facebook page, it’s hard to tell which vehicles you actually own. I’m very interested in learning more about the 1931 Pontiac, but what else do you drive? What’s your general philosophy when it comes to cars and trucks?
[rw] I post a lot of photos because I take a lot of photos. I have around 40,000 of my own photos on my computer, probably 9-10,000 physical photos from my 110, 126, and 35mm cameras I’ve had since I was 5 years old plus, due to a computer crash, I lost close to 40,000 of my earlier photos. It’s only since 2006 that I have been sharing my photos with the online world and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive! I post a lot of photos of my own cars because they are easy for me to get shots of any time I want to, so a lot of the one of Facebook are my own, though I have started adding albums of my car show photos and my shots of cars “in the wild.”
My general philosophy with car, trucks, bikes, motorcycles. Really anything at all antique or not is to use it as it was intended, and I do so often to an extreme.
It started out with my bicycles, I grew fast as a child and outgrew all the hand-me-down bikes we had at home, so my dad grabbed some vintage bikes from the local dump and I learned to repair and eventually restore bikes by building them for myself to ride. I rode a 1951 Viscount with a 3 speed Sturmy-Archer for years while all the other kids at school rode new bikes, I got made fun of till they realized my bike was faster, there’s nothing like showing up a kid on his brand new 21 speed mountain bike while you are riding a rusty green bike with full fenders and a basket on it! I think that sort of experience cemented my love of vintage transportation.
When I got older I got my first car. It was a 1937 Dodge Brothers 2 door and I was 11 years old. From there is was all downhill. I started gathering parts to build cars in the future including all the model T parts I could find. Now I have the model Ts to build with the parts, one being a ‘26 TT truck in amazing shape and a ‘26 T roadster I saved from the scrap yard that I want to eventually build into a 50’s hot rod. I like all cars and all brands but was not really into what the cars the magazines deemed cool, often the stuff they deemed weird of orphan were the ones I liked the most.
I daily drive a few vehicles including a ‘94 F350 I built out of wreck, a ‘72 Dodge Coronet Police car, and the one I drive the most and prefer is my 1936 GMC hot rod tow truck. I tend to drive it all year round – even in the middle of the winter when it gets to -50° or colder here. One of my favourite memories is driving around Edmonton on one of the coldest days on record with a lady friend. We had a blanket wrapped around us and the heater blasting and we were almost the only vehicle on the road. It was surreal and so much fun!
Part of my philosophy is to save these old cars too. I am constantly saving cars and trucks from the crusher and then finding people to take them. I got this mindset from my dad, as we spent a lot of time when I was kid doing that sort of thing. A few years ago I went into a self serve auto wrecker just as they were loading a car into the crusher.
At first glance, I thought it was a Hupmobile, but when I convinced them to pull it out it turned out to be an early 1935 Graham! I worked out a deal and brought the car home and reassembled it (all the parts that were off of it were stuffed inside) and, after contacting the Graham club, it turned out to be one of 3 known to exist! The car is now in the hands of a collector being restored.
When I was 1 year old, my dad saved a 1946 Ford glass top bus from an auto wrecker. My family spent years restoring it and enjoying it and it turned out to be one of 44 built, and is the only known survivor or the fleet it was from. I seem to find a lot of “one of a few” cars and trucks or very rare ones and have the good luck to be able to acquire them normally.
[bd] Let’s get into the Pontiac. 1931 401 Sport Sedan. I suspect the why and how surrounding your acquisition of this machine are intertwined. Why and how did you come to acquire this unique vehicle? Tell us a little bit about it! Did you buy it as it looks today? Is it truly sporty? How does it align with the philosophy you just mentioned?
[rw] The Pontiac is an interesting one. From what I know, it was a lemon from day one. It was always breaking down and having issues and because of this it survived. It was originally partly restored in the 70’s and was used a lot, though it was hard to keep it running right. It was later traded to my late uncle, who was a master restorer in Guelph, Ontario. He traded a fully restored ‘35 Ford Coupe and a nice ‘40 Ford Sedan for it. It was not a good trade because of the condition of the car, but it was done sight unseen.
So my late uncle tore the Pontiac down, and he and my aunt replaced most of the body wood, repaired the rest of it, reupholstered it, and had the engine fully rebuilt and balanced and blueprinted.
The rest of the car was conserved, as it was in good enough original condition, including the differential and chassis. But the car still was very hard to keep running and, no matter what was tried, it would suddenly stall and then suddenly start working again.
When my uncle passed on, my dad and I acquired the car and brought it out to Alberta. I was the only one that really drove the car, and I broke down a lot. It left me stranded so many times I lost count and I have pushed that car many a mile since I got it in 1998 – until the day we pulled the distributor out and discovered it had bad bushings. It turned out the shop that rebuilt the car had never touched the distributer, so we rebuilt it and the car now starts every time and I can drive it anywhere without any issues at all!
The first summer it was working I put over 5000 miles on it! Since I got the car in 1998, I have been redoing and restoring parts of it as I go. Driving these cars can be hard on them and it’s inevitable to have to do repairs. I hope to repaint it in the next few years and keep on driving the wheels off of it!
[bd] The dichotomy of relative simplicity versus scarcity in these older machines is particularly interesting. On the one hand, there’s a special purity to early vehicles wherein it’s easier to understand how they work. On the other hand, their rarity makes repairs or replacement particularly challenging. These opposing forces in mind, what are your thoughts on the vehicle in terms of personal freedom versus self-sufficiency?
[rw] I find there really is a lot of freedom with these older cars in terms of simplicity sometimes. Like one day I was driving my ‘31 Pontiac and my fuel filter got clogged. I was in the middle of nowhere on a gravel road, so I just stopped, took the element out of the filter, cleaned it, and was back on the road again. A simple issue like that will ground a modern car so easily.
On the other hand, the scarcity of parts can be a challenge too. Two summers back, my starter went bad. I have taken it to all the rebuild shops I can find and it turns out nobody rebuilds anything anymore – they can only put in brushes and repaint them. Anything more and they are stumped. So I have been without a starter ever since and, being such an uncommon car, I have not found another starter for it, as it seems to be a one year only variance.
Later, I am going to try a 1931 Studebaker starter I picked up that looks close. This sort of thing comes with the territory. You learn as you go and gain new skill sets when things do get broken or worn out and you need to fix them.
[bd] You seem the like the kind of guy who “gets it;” the kind of guy who appreciates the value vehicles add to our lives beyond mere transportation. How has being a gearhead contributed to your life?
[rw] It’s made me the go to guy for most of my friends when they have a problem. That can be good and bad, but I tend to enjoy it. Being a gearhead, in my opinion, has made me more self-sufficient in all aspects of life. I tend to be a good problem solver and have no problem looking at things from all angles as a good gearhead often needs to be able to do.
[bd] If you were to suddenly decide to dedicate the rest of your life to helping gearheads like us live more meaningful, rewarding lives, what issue(s) would you tackle and how?
[rw] That’s a tough one. One of the issues I see all the time is people only trying to own the “popular” and high value cars – as if all others are a waste of time. In my experience, I have found that all old cars can be fun and rewarding to own. Just because it’s not a ‘32 Ford or a ‘57 Chevrolet does not mean it’s not worth your time. And just because the resale value is not high does not mean it’s not a car to build. You’re not a used car lot. Go ahead and fix that Brand X car and enjoy it and you’ll learn about it too.
Being into some of the off-brand and oddball cars has made me somewhat of an expert on some of them over the years, and driving and taking these cars to shows has shown me that people are sick of cookie cutter cars crowding the shows these days.
My cars tend to get crowds around them at the car shows I go to, much to the chagrin of of the guys who spent fortunes on their “popular” cars. Basically, I think people should build what they like and not what everyone else says they should like.
Another issue would be education. Our society is hooked on non-reality based reality shows that give misinformation and myths as fact and blatantly lie about the car hobby – and people are starting to believe it. When a program shows a car with a tiny rust hole in a fender and calls it unfixable it drives me crazy. That mind set has come full circle to the people that occasionally are buying cars from me.
If they think a hole the size of a bottle cap is unfixable, how will they tackle even the basic maintenance of that car? Instead of watching these shows with their bad “facts” and manufactured drama, they should be wrenching on their cars and learning the skills to, at the very least, keep their cars running. You don’t have to be an expert on anything car related to do this or to enjoy this.
[bd] I love how you frame the simplicity vs. rarity element of oddball vehicle ownership. How can gearheads who might only be familiar with the more popular models discover rewarding, yet lesser known projects? Where do we look and what do we need to know going in?
[rw] That too is simple. Where you need to look is anywhere. Cars and trucks are all over still, a lot in plain sight. The way they make it out on these “reality” shows is not the way it works. Normally it’s a lot easier and a lot cheaper.
As for what you need to know going in, I just recommend an open mind. And the only opinion that matters is your own. If you like the looks of a car but everyone else says it’s not cool, then that’s all the more reason to go for it. In my opinion you’ll be happier in the long run, especially if you like to attract a crowd at a car show, my cars always do!
[bd] Anything else you’d like to mention?
[rw] Never get into the car hobby to make money. Get into it for the cars and the enjoyment. So many people will tell me I should not build a certain car because of low resale value, as if I am running a used car lot. Build your car for you and nobody else. Do what you think will be cool and not what you think others might like. Not everyone will agree with you, but they aren’t the ones driving it.
[bd] Where can people find and connect with you online?
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I like this guy’s style. Those of us who play with more modern vehicles might be a little spoiled. Plenty of used, replacement, and upgrade parts. Lots of people playing with the same make and model or using it in the same way. It’s relatively easy to solve problems. And it’s easy to get caught up in more of what “everyone else” is doing. I hope this interview at least inspires you to go out and look at some old wheels you don’t immediately identify. You never know, might just be your dream machine.
I’d really like to get more old cars on these digital pages. If you’ve got one and would like to talk about how being a gearhead has made an impact in your life, get in touch. And, if you know any really cool old machines, maybe link me to them in the comments section below.