Model T Rides Again

By Gary Linehan June 15, 2017 09:41

This story is one of three that appeared in “Dreams of the Open Road” in FAN’s Summer 2017 issue. Read the other two at these links: “Reclaiming the Joy of Travel” and “Eco-Friendly ELF Enchants.”

Josh Bigelow behind the wheel of family heirloom with new owner Reb Silay

A Model T bought new in Sonora more than 90 years ago has been sold for only the second time. And as part of the bargain, the original owner’s grandson had a chance to drive it for the first time.

That first buyer was Jess Goss, a Coulterville native living in Jamestown with his wife, Hazel, and their two children.

A 41-year-old mine worker, Goss purchased the Ford in 1925 at the Sonora Garage, owned by Tuolumne County automotive pioneer Charles Goelz.

Goelz was the first county resident to drive a horseless carriage.

Goss’ Model T rolled off the assembly line in Detroit between 3 and 4 p.m. on Oct. 24, 1925, arriving in Sonora via the Sierra Railroad a short time later. Its price: about $285. The car was a 1926 model and likely attracted some attention at the Sonora Garage, on the southwest corner of Washington Street and Stockton Road – site of today’s Bank of America.

It was the first Model T to include a rear-view mirror, a hand-operated windshield wiper and a driver’s-side door that opened. Also, the gravity-fed fuel tank was repositioned, allowing drivers with half a tank of gas or less to go directly up a hill rather than backing up, as was previously necessary.

Henry Ford started producing the Model T on Oct. 1, 1908, and stopped 15 million cars later, on May 26, 1927, when his company turned its attention to the Model A. No one knows how many Model Ts are still running, with estimates ranging wildly from 20,000 to 500,000.

Goss drove his Model T for 17 years before a cracked cylinder head sidelined it in 1942. He parked it in a barn on the family’s Main Street property, intending to repair it someday. Instead, it sat in Jamestown for 74 years.­­­ It was finally removed on Jan. 28, 2016, by new owner Reb Silay, 71, of Twain Harte, a mechanic for most of his adult life. Silay bought the Model T from Goss’ grandson, Josh Bigelow, a Jamestown native like his mother and grandmother.

“It was part of our growing up,” recalls Bigelow, 65, who as a kid would often slide behind the Model T’s wheel and pretend to drive it.

An accomplished mechanic in his own right – he once rebuilt a 1964 356C Porsche – Bigelow first intended to restore the T himself. But, he decided, “I’ve got too many projects, too little space and not enough time.”

He reluctantly chose to sell after realizing that a large oak growing over the crumbling barn could fall and obliterate the treasure inside. “I decided somebody should benefit from this car or it would be buried with me,” Bigelow says.

When Silay drove up in a bright-yellow 1956 Ford F-100 pickup he had rebuilt himself, Bigelow remembers thinking, “He’s the right person.” Silay promised to get the 91-year-old Model T running, keep it in Tuolumne County and let Bigelow drive it whenever he wanted. Bigelow took his first spin on Oct. 12, 2016.

“I’ve played on this car as a kid since year one,” Bigelow reflected that day after his initial run around Silay’s Twain Harte property. “To see it out and functioning is an absolute treat.”

How was it to drive, shift and handle? Not easy. The Model T throttle is on the steering column and there are three pedals on the floor: left for neutral and the forward gears, center for reverse and right for the brakes, where the gas pedal is in today’s cars.

“That’s why someone who drives a Model T for the first time usually runs into something,” Silay says.

Radiator cap with built-in thermometer was an aftermarket item that “almost everyone bought to dress up their T,” Silay says

Goelz typically took his customers out to an open field to teach them how to drive.

The car is street legal with a 1941 license plate, but Silay notes that Model Ts drive best off road. They were built before most American streets were paved, and have frames designed to flex when traveling over rough terrain, from wagon trails to creek beds. “It beats a horse and buggy,” he says.

Silay’s T is far from showroom condition. “It’s not a restoration, it’s a repair,” he stresses. “This is how (Josh’s) Grandpa had it when he parked it. Our mission was to retain an arrested state of decay.”

Most of the parts are original, with some authentic replacements. “There are companies out there that still make this stuff,” Silay says.

The coil seat springs were still good, but the upholstery was shot, so Silay replaced it with the same authentic Model T fabric. The spare mounted on the rear came with the car in 1925, while the other four tires are new. The body, chassis, engine and wooden floorboards are all original. A World War II gas-rationing sticker remains on the windshield.

Silay washed the car with soap and water, using a wire brush to remove surface rust. Then he treated it with WD-40 to bring out the patina of the original black paint. Seven decades of accumulated acorns were inside the engine and under the seats, where Silay also found an old pill bottle, a horseshoe, a house key and a framed picture of Jesus.

“You hear about barn finds all your life, but you seldom get to be a part of one,” says Silay, who rebuilt the engine and replaced the wiring and tires. He estimates he’s put in about 150 hours.

And the cost? “Some amount of money later, it’s done,” he allows. “If you start adding it up, it takes all the fun out of it.”

Silay expanded the auto shed on his property so the T could join his yellow pickup, and he amuses his neighbors with jaunts through the area. “The top speed is 40 miles per hour,” Silay notes, “but you don’t really want to go that fast.”

The car takes regular unleaded gas. “It will run on anything, but that’s all you get now,” Silay says, adding that kerosene or ethanol would also power the vehicle. “Gas in those days in Sonora was an iffy proposition.”

Silay and his wife of 52 years, Susan, were raised in the Los Angeles area. They moved to Tuolumne County in 1974 when Reb became mechanical shop foreman during construction of New Melones Dam. In 1979, the couple went into business building highway construction equipment, first renting a warehouse in Oakdale and later going international. They sold their interest in the company, TBG Inc., in 2005 and retired.

“I like to say I’m a pretend businessman, but a real mechanic,” notes Silay, who also served as chief executive officer of Stage 3 Theatre in Sonora from 2006 to 2012, collecting a salary of $1 per year.­­

Bigelow taught physical education at Columbia College for 34 years and retired in 2012 as coordinator of the Health and Human Performance Department. His roots in the Mother Lode date back to the Gold Rush, when his great-grandfather, Andrew Goss, left his native Sweden and settled in Coulterville, where he worked as a gold miner, teamster, saddler, blacksmith and constable.

Jess Goss, youngest of Andrew’s six sons, was born there in 1883. At age 3, he moved to Tuolumne County with his mother, Elizabeth, when his parents divorced. Jess married Jamestown native Hazel O’Neill in 1915, and they had two children, Charles and Phyllis, who would drive the Model T to dances in Columbia as teenagers. Charles, who later became a California Highway Patrol officer, was killed on duty in 1955, when his car was struck by another vehicle trying to pass a truck in dense fog in Madera.

Phyllis married Roy Bigelow in 1948 and had two children: Deborah, who lives in Idaho, and Josh, who with his wife of 30 years, Pat Jones, lives in the Rawhide Valley near Jamestown.

Bigelow admits parting with the Model T is bittersweet, but he’s happy the historic car remains in Tuolumne County.

“It’s a family heirloom,” he says. “My mother left it to me in her will, and I think this is where it belongs. It was very emotional for me to be able to drive it, and I would love to drive it again someday.”

Looking back at the car, Bigelow remarks almost in disbelief, “I’m just shocked to see it run. My mother would be delighted.”

Copyright © 2017 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Gary Linehan June 15, 2017 09:41
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