Living the ’20s today |

Living the ’20s today

The rise of modern barbershop quartets and the development of the Model A belong to generally the same era – the 1920s – says Elmer Fairbanks of Lake Wildwood, who says he is into both.

He has a 1928 Model A roadster that’s pretty darn near original, and he’s been singing barbershop for a mere 58 years; perhaps not as long as SPEBSQSA Inc. (the organization that was started in Roosevelt’s day to promote and preserve this form of singing) has been in existence, but probably longer than most singers of this form of music.

The wish for a Model A began when he was a high schooler delivering newspapers in the boss’s Model A in Los Gatos. “I’d been looking for years,” he says, “when a friend of mine told me a doctor in Nevada City had one. I went to look at it and knew I had to have it, love at first sight, you know.”

The doc, it seemed, had bought the car from its original owner 16 years prior. Interestingly, that original owner had tried to buy it back but getting it to New York was proving difficult. So Fairbanks won. He made an offer, cutting off $3,000 for the paint job he expected to have to do, and out he drove with the car for $13,000. Two and a half years later, it still has not been painted. Why? “Folks in my Model A club said, ‘Don’t do it,'” says Fairbanks, “‘It would lower its value,’ so I didn’t. The paint has pits but it still shines up pretty good.”

To the doctor’s knowledge, the car had never been restored. Since Fairbanks hasn’t hardly touched anything on it since buying it (except for installing a glass fuel filter bowl so he can see if any sediment is collecting), and the only thing the previous owner did was to replace the radiator and cooling system (the only thing that’s nonstock, he says), the car is pretty close to being original.

No one can be sure of the number of miles it has on it because the odometer broke at 92,000 miles, but he claims “it handles beautiful; the clutch is smooth as silk. It purrs right along and can go 55 mph quite nicely.”

While he’s never entered her in competition, the car has been seen in several parades (Rough and Ready Secession Days and Constitution Day in Nevada City). Fairbanks even wears his barbershop getup to complete the picture.

Maintenance has been easy so far. All he does is religiously start it up once a week, and he drives her at least once a month. “You got to do that,” he says. “Otherwise a car deteriorates, like the seals dry up, and you have to keep the battery in condition.”

Simple, affordable in its day, and reliable – that was Ford’s formula for success. “It was sturdier than the Model T; it seemed to run forever; and it was affordable ($500 new),” he says. “It was America’s Volkswagen.”

Fairbanks knows his car is one of the first Model A’s ever made. First, it’s a 1928 model, the first year of the car’s production, and second, it has a Model T steering wheel. The guess is that Ford was using up his stock pile as he closed out his Model T.

Because so many were built and, in the long run, saved, there are more Model A’s per capita than any other classic car, he says. “There are at least 100 clubs throughout U.S. with 30 to 40 cars in each. It’s a simple machine that runs forever, and you can still buy parts for them because there are enough out there for manufacturers to continue making parts. Lots of swap meets, too. Of course, I haven’t had to go to them (yet). I’m not messing with success here.”

A convertible nut, Fairbanks has two others: a 1994 Cadillac and an ’84 Cadillac that he plans to sell to make more room in the garage.

Though 74 and retired from property management, Fairbanks may be busier now than he ever was before. While interest in cars, singing, and acting doesn’t sound overwhelming, think again.

Fairbanks doesn’t do barbershop with just one group; he’s involved in four. What with practicing and performing in such venues as the Nevada County fair, singing is a major part of his life. He’s usually the bass, by the way.

If that weren’t enough, he’s also involved with Lake Wildwood’s in-house TV station, Channel 44; with its theater group, with its men’s chorus, which he directs, and with the community’s radio-controlled model planes and sailboats hobbyists (bet Lake Wildwood feels it’s lucky to have him).

The only concession he’s made to being almost as old as his car was to stop running in the April Daffodil Run in Penn Valley, a race he’s won first place in his age category the last couple of years.

Believing that “if you don’t keep moving, they’ll put you in the earth,” Fairbanks likely won’t be sitting still any time soon.


Pam Jung writes about classic cars for The Union. She can be reached at 265-8064. She welcomes suggestions for stories.

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