My Family:
King of the Road

by Donald V. Brown

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    The restoration of an old car becomes a family symbol for working out life’s challenges.

    For three days we had been driving our newly restored, 40-year-old Auburn Phaeton convertible through the Canadian and New England countryside. Our dream after five years of hard work was a reality. A handsome, shiny, black and chrome machine created by the genius of classic automobile carriage designer, Gordon Buhrig, the model 851 Auburn is indeed a beautiful road car. It is akin in many ways to Buhrig’s more recent design for the Lincoln Continental. On the highway the Auburn’s performance is difficult to match even today. The great auto racing and engineering brothers August and Fred Duesenburg, of Indianapolis fame, combined the nearly all-aluminum, 8-cylinder Lycoming engine, turbocharged carburetion, and negative pressure exhaust with a dual-speed Columbia rear drive—a fantastic combination of automobile engineering, performance, and economy that was almost unbelievable in 1935. It was way ahead of its time, and it was known as the King of the Road. After driving and enjoying it for three days, we all began reminiscing about the first time we had seen it.

    It had been abandoned beside a barn, and weeds were growing around and inside it. It may not have interested some families; but we were so excited at the prospect of a true, classic automobile to restore that we were almost afraid to ask the owners about it. We drove by the barn three times, looking and talking excitedly. Finally we stopped and, with a surge of courage, made the purchase. We slept little that night and even less during many nights to come as the family planned, unbolted, repaired, restored, rebolted, and refinished the Auburn as a family project.

    Around the supper table, usually three nights each week, we talked of the previous night’s progress and planned the work that needed to be done. Rust, grease, and road dirt by the pound, accumulated over nearly half a century, were scraped, wire brushed, and washed away. Many bolts, under stress for years, had to be sawed off to allow complete disassembly of vital running parts. All the bearings required either repacking or replacement. New upholstery with the same fine leather and the original style had to be made to restore the convertible’s interior. Replating all the bright work with copper, nickel, and chromium added to the list of goals to be reached.

    We took special trips so the family could learn how to take care of the metallurgical testing of the rods, pistons, crank, and camshaft. We personally observed the lead-pouring of the engine bearings. With fascination we all watched “striking-a-match” to a newly rewound electric starter. Fusing the electrical insulation by fire was actually necessary in such old-type winding.

    The second springtime after we had begun the project was especially memorable for us. The mechanical work was nearly completed. The family just had to hear, see, and feel the Auburn in action. After carefully oiling each cylinder and bearing, we rolled the car out into the beautiful, warm, Saturday-morning sun. Because of the tightness of the newly poured lead bearings, rods, and piston rings, the starter couldn’t turn the engine over; so we had to tow the car a few blocks to get it started. It was like Christmas to a five-year-old. The family celebrated the halfway goal we had set for ourselves and each took a turn driving the Auburn around the yard. None of us (and probably none of the neighbors) will ever forget that thrilling morning when the King again roared to life.

    The project wasn’t strictly limited to our family, either. Neighbors and friends were caught up in the spirit of the King of the Road. Ted, with his welding torch, a perfect diversion from his chemistry lecturing at the university, put smooth metalwork in place of rusted-out panels. Rebuilding the engine and drive train with new bearings and piston rings would not have been possible without Tony’s skilled hands. Compliments received for the beautifully restored body lines gleaming with a dozen hand-rubbed coats of black lacquer were the result of Richard’s creative ability. It was during hundreds of hours of working together that Richard fell in love with our Auburn, and more important, he and his family learned more of the gospel and were baptized into the Church.

    The thrill of driving that masterpiece of design and engineering and the countless hours of labor to restore it have indeed strengthened the life of each individual member of our family. Seeing the goal, planning and working together to achieve it, and finally feeling the achievement of driving that beautiful King has made our family goals, temporal and eternal, very real and important to us.

    At the time of restoration, the Auburn was important to every member of our family. Today, in our philosophy of life, it has become merely the symbol of our real achievement. We have found that most of our life problems and challenges can be planned and worked out together much the way we restored the Auburn.

    Illustrated by Richard Hull