The Roadtrip of a Lifetime
Two brothers, 17 days, 20 states, 7,123 miles — in a 1932 Ford Coupe!
Writer: Patrick Scott Milburn
Where, how and with whom a person is raised sends us each down a unique path where we develop our own interests and experiences that influence the rest of our lives.
Frank Fenwick was raised (with sisters Lilie and Becky and brother Bill) in a family that had founded the Fenwick (Ford) Motor Co. in Leonardtown in 1937. It was no surprise that Frank’s and brother Bill’s childhood interests were automobiles as he spent much of his early life at the dealership founded by his father William and his uncle Cuthbert.
It’s also no surprise that at age 15, Frank’s first car was a Ford, a 1950 Custom two-door sedan.
When he returned from an overseas tour in the U.S. Navy in 1971, Frank purchased a 1951 Ford. He and his wife Lorreta brought each of their children Juli, Joe Jr. and Steven home from the hospital — their first rides in that Ford.
In 1984, Frank was in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, at an annual fall swap meet. It was there that he saw a yellow 1932 Ford five-window coupe for sale. The coupe was channeled (the body lowered around the frame). Factory original 1932 Ford Coupe bodies sat on top of the frame and were referred to as “high boys.”
This ’32 had a 428-cubic-inch Ford motor with two 4-barrel carburetors atop the intake manifold. The asking price was $6,500, a great deal of money in 1984. Frank knew he couldn’t afford it, but he did what any married man would do. He called his wife.
Lorreta then called Frank’s mom Violet who loaned him the money, and the car was his. In an available garage bay at Fenwick Motor Co., Frank improved the rear suspension and also acquired a chromed Model A 4-inch dropped front axle.
It was in that 1932 Ford, in 1985, that Frank met Leonardtown locals Bunky Garner and Butch Nelson, and together they formed the St. Mary’s Rod and Classic Car Club.
THE ROAD CALLS
During the next few decades Frank thought how great it would be to drive the coupe to California with his brother. In 2006, after they both had retired, Frank and Bill completed their plans for the cross-country trip.
Most of us would think twice before embarking on such a long journey in such an old automobile. Anything and everything could go wrong mechanically.
Well, the day finally came – April 8, 2006. Picture this — two grown men sitting in the cabin of a ’32 coupe, a space no larger than a phone booth, with no leg room and no heat. Frank started the ’32 to back out of the garage but the little car would not move.
Not a great way to start. Was there a problem with the transmission already?
Frank suddenly remembered the coupe was still resting on jack stands. He normally kept the coupe like this to prevent the rubber tires from flat spotting. Problem solved. They were on their way.
Every 150 miles or so, at regular gasoline stops, the brothers would alternate behind the wheel. Through Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas, finally in Elk City, Oklahoma, by Day 3, Frank and Bill left Route 40 and turned onto Route 66.
The “old road” was very scenic and many of the roadside places were in disrepair but Frank imagined how inviting they must have been years before.
They crossed into Texas.
A FLAT-OUT MIRACLE
Before the trip, Frank’s granddaughter Courtney asked him to help her with her second-grade school project. She gave him a paper doll named “Flat Stanley” that he was to take pictures with everywhere to remember where they had been.
“Flat Stanley” had been very content riding just inside the back window. The driver-side window was rolled down, and Frank and Bill suddenly realized that “Flat Stanley” was gone! They turned around in the old coupe. A few minutes seemed like an eternity as they had backtracked more than a mile, and then there he was.
“Flat Stanley” was lying face down in the grass. It was a miracle, Frank recalls. After that “Flat Stanley” had to ride inside the car in a closed book. He couldn’t enjoy the sights while a passenger, but at least he was safe.
No matter where they stopped, the little ’32 coupe attracted a great deal of attention.
On Day 5 they reached Winslow, Arizona, where they took pictures on the corner made famous in the Eagles’ song “Take It Easy.” Then, on to the Grand Canyon. What an unbelievably wonderous place, Frank recalls. Photos didn’t do it justice. On Day Six they crossed into California and made their way to the coast.
SUCH A FINE SIGHT TO SEE
Frank and Bill were homeward bound by Day 10.
Through Sacramento there were snow-capped mountains in the distance, and in Nevada the snow was piled up on the roadsides higher than the speed limit signs. In Reno they put on sweatshirts and hooded jackets before taking off. Bill was wrapped in a blanket.
They followed Route 80 until they came to a parking area with no signs and just off the pavement in front of them — a shallow wet salt lake which continued on for more than 60 square miles. Submerged for the majority of the year, the lakebed is dry, compact and the center of the racing world during August, September and October — the Bonneville Salt Flats. Continuing on they could see the Rocky Mountains and snow caps in the distance.
On Day 13, they stopped at a gas station in Stratton, Colorado. An older gentleman approached the ’32 and bragged that he used to race locally and had “used up” a good number of 1930s Fords. He said he had once packed three of them on a flat-bed truck in the early 1950s. Luckily, the Ford coupe had not met that gentleman in the 1950s. The ’32 quickly sped away on to Salina, Colorado, for the night.
In Indiana on Day 15, Frank and Bill arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and rode around the outside of the racetrack. Two days later they were back in Maryland – finally crossing the Governor Thomas Johnson Bridge in Solomons, making a final lap through Leonardtown and then home.
BY THE NUMBERS
A broken fan blade in Tennessee, missing header bolts in California, and worn front brake pads in Colorado were easily handled by Frank and Bill on the journey.
They also made it to church including Good Friday and Easter Sunday services.
Their 20-state journey in a 74-year-old car had taken 17 days covering 7,123 miles.
That was 15 years ago – Frank, Bill and the 1932 coupe.
Today though, Frank realizes, it wasn’t about the car at all. It was about the journey, once-in-a-lifetime experiences alongside his older brother, the places and the people along the way — with compliments and conversations begun by complete strangers who within minutes seemed like old friends.
It was about the memories. •