Patch takes the back seat for a ramble in Parker & Gwen Ackley’s 1915 Dodge Brothers Touring Car
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Fairfield, CT – Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go” fairly sums up the relaxed approach Parker and Gwen Ackley take whenever they roll the old girl out of the garage. No destination is required – half the fun is just driving her, along with the buzz and interest she creates as others encounter her.
The “old girl” in this case is a 1915 Dodge Brothers Touring Car the Pepperidge Circle couple adopted 12 years ago. The family addition has literally changed their lives as they’ve taken on the simple, relaxed ways – and even attire -- of the era when the classic auto rolled off the assembly line.
You could feel the love between man and machine as Parker waxed poetic about the auto. “Dodge was the first low-cost car to have an electric starter and electric lights,” he said, as he backed her out into the driveway on their quiet suburban Fairfield street. Then came the particulars: 4-cylinder, flathead, 212 cubic inch engine, 24 horsepower.
Parker said he was no mechanic when he bought the car, and still isn’t. At that time, he was a volunteer at Rhinebeck Aerodrome, in upstate New York, at the WWI Aviation Museum and in battle reenactments the facility would conduct. Parker often played a German henchman, while Gwen played “pretty much every female part there was, including Trudy True Love. We were there from 1980 to 2003, though we lived in Fairfield. We would make the two-hour trek every other weekend during the summer. As we got older, we backed off a little on the hours,” Parker, 60, said. (Gwen is 55)
Since the aerodrome, Parker worked as an electronic engineering tech for different companies and is now a quality assurance tech at Ashcroft. Gwen is a senior designer at Easton Press, Deluxe Leather-bound Books, Norwalk.
Parker recalls the first time he experienced the car. “I got in, sat down, and put my hands on the steering wheel. It just felt right.” Gwen added, “I bought it for him as his mid-life crisis sports car. Corvette’s are so common.”
How do they while away the time behind the wheel? “We do a little of everything,” said Parker. “During the summer, we take her out as often as we can, only in good weather. A typical trip is 10 to 15 miles. We maybe go to dinner, go along the shore, go to friends’ houses. We try to do touring with car clubs, relatively close within the limitations of what the car can do. In one club, the cars are mostly from the 30s, with a couple of antiques. Another club is all muscle cars. It’s hard to tour with them. We’ll do cruise nights, too, and occasional club dinners.”
Off we trundled along local roadways and, soon enough, the cries began. “Cool car!” one passing motorist called out. “Nice ride!” exclaimed another. “It’s like being in a parade all the time,” said Gwen.
“Older folks are delighted as they are reminded of younger days, but most looks and reactions are from young to middle aged women. It’s a chick car. I can’t explain it,” laughed Parker.
Drilling down a bit more with regard to their motivations, Parker said, “We’re trying to present living history – not only with the car but our outfits – often we wear period attire. Our focus is 1890s, the Victorian period.”
This love of history was gradually acquired, not innate, said Parker. “I wasn’t interested in history at all as a kid. It was really the aerodrome. Cole Palen founded it and we stumbled upon it. In 1980, Gwen and I were dating and looking for date spots and daytrips. We went up there, took some pictures and couldn’t remember the names of the airplanes, so we went back up again.”
Parker continued, “We were sitting along the fence and a pilot saw us looking at our pics. These included one of Dave Fox’s last flights. He was killed a week after our first visit, in a test flight of an experimental aircraft. The pilot said we have to show our photos to Cole. We tracked him down, and he looked at them and wanted copies. We decided to put a booklet together and make another trip up and Cole said he’d give us a ride in one of the planes.”
“We went back up with the album… the weather was miserable, damp and cold,” said Parker. “It was the end of the season. We got hold of Cole but he said, sorry, there’s nothing flying today, but be sure to come back next year. We saw him later and he said he was having a get together and to come over to the house. Well, barnstormer Johnny Miller, in his 80s, was there, and four WWI pilots, and us, sitting around a huge table, telling war stories.”
“That was real living history,” said Gwen, who picked up the story. “Cole wanted me to be a model in a vintage fashion show and also to be an audience member who’s a victim of the antics of the Evil Black Baron. That’s how it started.”
Nearby, in Red Hook, was Roger Hoffman’s Antique Barn, from which the Ackleys purchased the touring car, for $7,500. “It needed a new top and the wheels varnished,” said Parker. “It hadn’t run in 20 years. He sent his son out for a new battery and a can of starting fluid, and it started right up – on 20-year-old gas! It spent its first week at the aerodrome. Then our friend George Dragone, who owns Dragone’s Classic Motor Cars, came and got it for us. He transported it in a closed trailer.”
Once the car was safe in Fairfield, there were additional steps to be taken. “The first order of business was to drain the oil and put in fresh,” said Parker. “I drained everything really well. Then I got an Early American registration and a 1915 CT plate from eBay. Connecticut had just passed a law stating that you could feature an antique plate.”
Over a brown ale and downtown salads at Southport Brewing Company, spin through Southport Village, trundle by Sasco Beach and stop at Sunnydae’s ice cream shop, Parker described the joy the car brings him and Gwen. “It’s an escape from reality,” he said. “It goes back to a more romantic, slower time. It is a lot of work at times, and things go wrong, but the fun factor is exponential. And we get to meet so many terrific folks. The neatest thing about it is that people just start smiling, and they don’t even realize it!”