Still Driving After All These Years

It’s getting later and later as my uncle and I hunt for the Bed and Breakfast that we’re staying in after a long first day at an antique car show in Waterbury, VT. We find the sign on the side of the road that declares, “Grünberg Haus: Bed and Breakfast” and turn onto a gravel driveway that winds its way to a tastefully adorned ski lodge style building hidden in the woods. Pulling into the driveway, we realize we aren’t the only car show attendees staying here for the weekend. A gorgeous black car looking to be from about the same era as my uncle’s 1934 Packard is parked outside the main building. I examine the car and find that it’s a Pontiac. For as much as I know about cars at the time and as much as I love Pontiac, I don’t know much about pre-war Pontiacs. I am, at least, aware that they weren’t all about power and performance like they were to be later in the 20th century. It’s so weird for me to see something like this, but in a good way. The next morning at breakfast, I meet the owner, Merrill, and his wife, Sally. I don’t interview them just yet, but my uncle and I get to know them a bit. However, after two more fantastic days at the Waterbury antique car show, I find Merrill has quite the story to tell about his Pontiac when I ask to interview him.


When I sit down to talk to Merrill, I’m aware that the Pontiac is his first car. Owning the same car for 62 years is a fascinating story in and of itself and is an excellent reflection of Merrill’s attachment to the car. However, the story of how Merrill bought the car is even better. In 1934, a woman that Merrill only knew as Mrs. Dickinson bought the Pontiac for her personal use. The wife of a mill owner in Williamsville, VT, Mrs. Dickinson was one of the first people in the state to spend her summers in Vermont and then spend the winter down south in Florida. She hired the same local mechanic each year to put the car up on blocks and properly store it for her return in the summer. Mrs. Dickinson drove the car for over two decades, then in Spring of 1956, she decided that she shouldn’t be driving anymore. She asked the mechanic, Bud, to prepare the car for sale through his garage in Newfane, VT. As it so happened, Bud also drove the school bus for the public school system. One of the students who rode his bus everyday was Merrill, who had just turned 16. Merrill soon found out about the Pontiac being sold through Bud’s garage and inquired about it. Because the car had been so well taken care of, Mrs. Dickinson saw fit to ask for $75. As it so happened, Merrill’s grandfather had put away $75 in a savings account when he was born specifically so that Merrill could buy a car when he was old enough. Clearly, it was meant to be. The car was purchased and Merrill never looked back. That doesn’t mean that taking care of his new car wasn’t a challenge, though.


One of the most difficult things about owning a 22 year old car when you’re 16 years old is keeping the car running. The car was mostly reliable, but finding replacements for parts that are worn down with use wasn’t easy, especially for a car from a bygone era. Young Merrill realized after buying the Pontiac that the tires it was equipped with weren’t the proper size. He was forced to search for used tires in junkyards for two years until he found the correct tires in the Montgomery Ward catalog. Merrill also had a few experiences that taught him how to best live with mechanical issues. He tells me that one of the spark plug coils once shorted out and he was forced to jump start his car every day for a month before finding a suitable replacement. This wasn’t a deterrent for Merrill, who continued enjoying the car throughout the rest of his time in high school. He carried potatoes in from the field. He drove friends to the movies and to play pickup baseball games. He even carried home the second deer he ever killed while hunting, tied to the front fender. Anyone who loves cars will tell you that the fastest way to get attached to a car is to work on it out of necessity, discover its flaws, and learn more about it in the process. This is exactly what happened with Merrill, who, in the summer of 1958, around the same time he found the Montgomery Ward tires, decided to move on to another car. He needed to work and the Pontiac was only viable as a summer car. However, Merrill decided to store the car until a time when it could be better appreciated.


In 1997, after Merrill had worked, gone to college, started a family, and built a house(a house which his wife claims was practically built around the Pontiac), the car was still in storage, only being worked on occasionally. That Thanksgiving, Merrill’s son, Eric, wondered aloud if it might be possible to have the Pontiac ready to be used in his wedding in summer 1998. Merrill happily accepted the challenge and the whole family pitched in. With everybody’s help, the car was ready in time and was driven to the wedding venue to be featured in Eric’s wedding pictures. The car looks great in the photos that I’m shown while interviewing Merrill, and seeing the car in person 20 years after the photos were taken, I can confirm that it still looks great. The only additions that have been made recently are an interior dome light with a cover made from the sun logo embossed in a plastic milk jug, front hazard lights, and taillights(including an LED taillight bar mounted in the rear window!). From what Merrill says, the future is looking bright for the car too, especially since Eric has expressed an interest in having the car passed down to him.


Merrill turned the Pontiac from something of his own that was “meant to be” into a wonderful treasure that he has shared with his family. This is a rare, but beautiful story. Rare because car culture tends to be exclusive, with many people using their beloved cars as a means of escaping the outside world. The beauty is in the fact that, not only did Merrill hold onto and maintain his very first car, but that he also shared his passion for the car with his family and saw that shared passion utilized when fixing the car up for Eric’s wedding. So many people don’t understand why there are those who love classic cars. However, the best way we’ve seen of alleviating that misunderstanding is to share a passion for cars with whomever one can, especially family.