• Steve Martin

My Dad Drives a 100-year-old Ford Race Car Made by Chevrolet


"With this powerful car you are bound to win. Your skill plus Fronty-Ford performance, can get you in on the big money every time! The Fronty-Ford stands up under the most severe driving. Lightning get-away and great speed..."

- Catalog No. 80, Chevrolet Brothers Manufacturing Co., May 1, 1926


Photo Shoot


To get the photos I wanted, I extended half of my body out of the little window of my father’s Mini Cooper and faced backward. My youngest brother/accomplice steered the Mini down the wrong side of several of the two-lane Pocatello roads that criss-crossed the neighborhood, so I would be free to fully capture Dad piloting his 1926 Frontenac Ford (or commonly called Fronty-Ford) race car during a recent autumn visit specifically for this newsletter. I jammed the shutter button in rapid succession between stop signs and drainage dips, which I couldn’t see coming and would usually result in the Mini’s door or window frame shoved into my ribs and/or back, screwing up my composure and the opportunity.


“How’s it looking? Did you get it?” my brother asked optimistically as he approached another stop sign. The jerking motion of the car told me his body was still trying to remember how to drive stick, and a tone in his voice told me he wasn’t loving the lawlessness of the photo shoot.


“A couple more,” I responded, looking at the screen on the back of my FujiFilm and checking my camera strap for security. “These are turning out great!”


It was a perfect fall day, the crisp air partially negated by the sun. The morning light reflected beautifully off of the race car’s obsidian body and fire-engine red wheels. Families and dogs on the sidewalks and in the park by the Portneuf River. And the Saturday morning’s quiet shattered by a fighter plane of an exhaust note, a violent staccato rhythm of century old technology at the hands of my father. Not one or two, but more than a few neighbors - undoubtedly inquisitive to the source of what could easily be confused with a military invasion - stumbled out of their houses to glimpse the “163” fly down the road.


Dad’s car is not subtle. Not that subtlety has ever been strongly associated with his personality. This is the man that dons full Victorian dress and sings carols in front of a grocery store when he volunteers for the Salvation Army every Christmastime. That fall day I was hanging out of the Mini, his period-correct, straw boater hat and mustache properly befitted the car with a nod to the headwear and bristles of the long-passed creators of the Fronty-Ford: brothers Louis, Arthur, and Gaston Chevrolet. A smile extended almost to the temples of his sunglasses; Dad was in his flow.


After I confirmed that I got my shots, my brother pulled over to the curb on the right side to give us a chance to sync up with our father. As he stopped next to us, I could only read his lips through the audio barrage of full Frontenac. “Do you want to go for a ride?” he mouthed.


I mouthed back: “Absolutely.”




1926 Fronty-Ford


The Frontenac Ford racer is a notable car, not only because of how unique it is on the roads of the 2020s but also because of what it accomplished and stood for during the 1920s.


In 1915, a full decade before Dad’s car was built, Louis Chevrolet had lost control of the car company named after him. The Chevrolet Motor Company was going to build mass market cars, and all Louis wanted to do was to build cars for speed. So, with brothers Arthur and Gaston, he created the Frontenac Motor Company, and developed some of the fastest cars the world had seen at the time. Chevrolet’s goal was to win one of the most challenging races in all of motorsport, the Indianapolis 500. An American vehicle hadn’t won in some time, but in 1920, after several unsuccessful attempts by the Chevrolets, Gaston ended up crossing the bricks first during the 1920 Indy 500 in a Frontenac. The Chevrolets had done it. However, Arthur and Louis lost Gaston to a deadly racing crash later that year. And in 1921, the Frontenac Motor Company filed for bankruptcy, even despite winning the 1921 Indianapolis 500 - the only time at that point that an American car company had won twice in a row.


Despite personal and professional loss, Louis and Arthur started the Chevrolet Brothers Manufacturing Co., taking everyday Fords and improving performance using Chevrolet-designed Frontenac parts. Average Americans could order from a catalog the Chevy brothers success, either in a complete Fronty-Ford vehicle or the performance parts for suping up stock Fords. The heart of the Fronty-Ford value proposition was the Frontenac Cylinder Head, which when added to a stock Ford Model T engine, increased not only the power output but also gas mileage and improved reliability. During a test at Purdue University, the Frontenac Head effectively doubled the horsepower of a Model T engine. A Frontenac-equipped street car could do more than 60 miles an hour, and racing-oriented Frontys were doing high 80s in competition, supercars in an era of the 45mph Model T.


Across the country in smaller races, Fronty-Ford drivers and owners enjoyed similar successes, dominating time trials and 3-, 5-, and 10-mile sprint races. The Frontenacs garnered speed records at Indianapolis, Chicago, Toledo, Phoenix, and other cities. Even in 1928, eight years after the Chevy brothers showed the world what their car could do at Indy and with ample opportunity for other manufacturers to launch some sort of motorsports counterattack, a single Fronty Ford won 43 of the 52 dirt track races it entered.


Dad’s 1926 Fronty-Ford is basically brand new. Almost every part of my father’s car is an original Frontenac Ford part - the four-cylinder engine with Frontenac Cylinder Head, wire wheels, drive shaft, body, brakes - but everything has been cleaned and restored and assembled on top of a new metal frame. Almost immediately, Dad modified it out of necessity. He couldn’t fit in the car at first, because the seat was too close and the steering wheel was too large. So, he replaced the bus-driver-like wheel with something smaller, yet no less vintage, and he made by hand a red-leather bench seat and pushed it all the way to the back of the cab to give proper room for his long legs down by the pedals. He named the car after my departed nana, his mom, Irene.




Taking a Ride


Motoring down the road, it felt like Dad and I had stolen Galileo and the kinematics police were chasing us, but in reality Dad hadn’t yet taken the Fronty over 40 mph, ever. I was ok with that choice considering the car has no seatbelts or airbags. The cockpit is just a steel shell with a steering wheel, a couple of gauges, three pedals and a leather bench seat. When I climbed into the car, my door wouldn’t close all the way on the first few tries, so Dad helped me slam it shut. I prayed it wouldn’t suddenly fly open on a left turn, as it would be the only thing keeping me in the car. Every bump felt like I was going to lift off of the leather. I’ve felt less cramped in sleeping bags. It was awesome.


I forget how sensitive modern cars are to our inputs - steering, throttle, and brake. These days, drivers can be nuanced in how quickly they accelerate, turn, or stop. From my seat inside the Fronty, witnessing my father work to get down the road, I got the sense that the relationship is completely opposite between Dad and his car. Once he is moving, he’s trying to respond to what the car is doing. He is harnessing the power the engine is producing and gets pulled along for the ride. I was taking a ride from him, but it also seemed like he was taking a ride from the car, like what I imagine mushing a dog sled to be like.


Dad has three pedals below his toes and none of them make the car go forward. Forward speed comes from the two stalks on the steering wheel - one to control the spark (controlling the spark in the cylinders is automatic in modern cars) and one to control the throttle. The pedals are - from left to right - clutch, reverse, and brake. He has a stick on the left side of his left knee that’s for shifting between neutral, first gear, and second gear. My dad rarely gets it into second gear.


The brakes on Dad’s car are mechanical and only on the back wheels. When he pushes the brake pedal a foot comes in contact with the inside of the brake drum. There is no ABS. There are no calipers. There are no front brakes. “I’m not super comfortable with stopping,” he yells to me over the deafening roar.


This is why my dad doesn’t drive it down main street. “I don’t do stoplights, yet.” He keeps to the neighborhoods that are largely free of other moving cars and around the church and the park. It was fascinating to see everyone and anyone waive at us - a family looking at the anti-aircraft guns out front of the local American Legion, two older ladies who were out briskly walking, a teenager in an A-style tank top with his girlfriend. No one was too cool for the Fronty. “An adult is a child who grew up, not one that died,” my dad would tell me. It seemed to bring out the child in everyone.


Dad decided to head home. So, we drove toward the cross street that could take us back toward the house. As we approached the intersection, I saw on the opposite side, a lady ran from the front door of her house through her front yard to the sidewalk and stared right at us. She immediately turned around and ran back inside. I was somewhat puzzled by how quickly the coming and going was, until she reappeared with what looked like a barefoot 10-year-old boy. He was so excited to see us coming right at them that he jumped up and down and flailed his arms as if he was on a deserted island and wanted to make sure the rescue team saw him. As we turned left at the intersection, I threw out my hand to the boy and the lady. The mighty car swung around and marched down the road, more smiles somewhere behind us.




Never Give Up


When the vehicle was delivered, the air in the tires was pretty low, registering under 10 lbs per square inch. Dad didn’t know how to drive the vehicle yet and didn’t want to drive on flat tires to a compressor, so he got to work inflating the tubed tires of his new pre-war car with a bike pump, the kind you press on with your foot. Dad figured he would pump them up to where the sides were sticking out, but keep the tread flat, which was about 45 lbs. He also used his arms.


“It was over 350 pumps to go from 8-9 lbs. up to where I hit 45 lbs.,” he said proudly. “It was good exercise. I did maybe 150 and then went to the other arm. It got harder and harder as you go. When you’re the freshest is the easiest. And you have to do it four times.”


This anecdote is typical of my father. He told me the reason why he is able to complete things that other people don’t is because he doesn’t give up.


“Other people give up too easily,” he said. “If you can outlast an automobile tire, it can only push back so much. It only has factored into it, a certain amount of pushback. You just need a certain amount of endurance. You just have to outlast it. You just need more energy. You can beat anything; you can win anything. You don’t have to be stronger or smarter. You just have to outlast it.”


At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there is a memorial dedicated to Louis Chevrolet, a bust on top of a marble stand, and inscribed on the stand are famous words attributed to Louis: “Never give up.”


I tell you this because my dad has bi-polar disorder. Something he and we didn’t realize until he was in his 50s. He thought everyone felt manic and invincible sometimes and other times felt like they were too far down a hole that the only option was to end everything.


When I lived in NY working for GM, I got a text from my mom and all it said was something to the effect that Dad was admitted to a mental health facility the night before and she didn’t have more information. I didn’t know much about the situation, and so I couldn’t stop catastrophizing in my mind what mom’s vague text meant for him and my family. I read it a little after 4 a.m. my time, which was 1 a.m. California time, so I didn’t want to call her. I figured that whatever happened, she needed her sleep.


That day, I was driving from New York to Washington DC in a Camaro ZL1 convertible for a press event and was getting an early start to beat the traffic. All alone and feeling sick to my stomach, I rode the subway to the garage on the Westside of Manhattan where our cars were kept. I just wanted to get on the road. When I broke from the tunnel and hit the New Jersey turnpike, tears were streaming down my face, and I was doing over 100 mph. I thought I had lost Dad. That, regardless of what would happen, he and I would never have the same relationship again. Our relationship has definitely changed. But I underestimated my father. He’s on a good medication plan and manages his cycles well. He lives the quote on that Chevrolet bust at Indy. It’s one of the things I most admire about him.




Wind Chimes


After we pulled up to the house, I got some photos of Dad outside in front of his car. I could tell he needed some inside time, so I helped him push the car back into the garage. He closed everything up, leaving the key in the car’s ignition. In disbelief, I asked him if he was worried about someone stealing it.


“Who’s gonna steal it?” he said, looking at me as if I missed something obvious. “How would they even know how to start it?”


Good point. I didn’t know how to do it, when he asked me, and I worked at General Motors for five years.


“How are they going to get it out of the garage?” he continued with a laugh. “I’m gonna hear it. Everybody’s gonna hear it.”


We headed into the house. The wind chimes hanging from the porch played a song I’ve heard for years. Sitting opposite him at the dining table, I interviewed my father about cars and life. My mom made tuna fish sandwiches on sourdough.


I knew he always loved cars from the 20s and 30s, but I learned that the Fronty-Ford isn’t the first car from 1926 Dad has owned. He had a 1926 Studebaker in high school that he had dreams of fixing up, but with no money and no internet to source everything he’d need, the dream just sat. He’d wait about 50 years for the dream to really be fulfilled. While growing up, he frequently told me that if I was patient, I could get what I wanted, do what I wanted to do, be what I wanted to be. As we laughed and reminisced, the afternoon light cut through the windows and the breeze cooled the house.



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