Galesburg man still owns car he bought in 1939

By John R. Pulliam

GALESBURG, Ill. – For a short time, it seemed it was 1939 again at the residence of Tom O’Brien. A ride in an open, 1916 Ford Model T is akin to a trip in a time machine.

“The car’s older than I am. It’s about the only thing around here that is,” O’Brien said, with a hint of a wry smile.

O’Brien, 84, was a teenager when he bought the Model T. He bought the already-23-year-old car for $5 from a woman at the nearby Murray farm. He said $5 sounds like an amazing bargain, even in 1939, but the true price was a bit more.

O’Brien, only the second owner of the car, agreed with the seller’s stipulation that he cut weeds at her place and two or three other farms that summer.

“She said, ‘I hope you’ve got a sharp scythe,'” O’Brien recalled. The work was done by hand.

“And I didn’t get the title until the weeds were cut,” he said.

The car wasn’t running then, so he took a team of horses two farms to the east and pulled the Ford home. O’Brien had wanted the car for some time.

“I can remember seeing the old guy, her brother, drive by once a week to get groceries,” he said. “I’d had my eyes on it before we got it.”

O’Brien removed the car’s roof.

“It wasn’t cool for kids, so we took it off,” O’Brien said. “We wanted to be sporty.”

Once he got the car running, he and his brother, Marcus, did what teens have done since the invention of the automobile.

Along with sisters Eileen Anderson Christensen, now of Schenectady, N.Y., and Peg Fundenberger of Galesburg, they went cruising.

“It was a cool thing to do,” O’Brien said. “There were a lot of mud and gravel roads.”

Fundenberger joined O’Brien this summer for a nostalgic ride.

The young O’Brien drove the car to Galesburg High School, then to Butler Manufacturing, where he worked second shift.

He put the car into storage when he went off to war, serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II and beyond, loading ordnance on B-17s from December 1942 to February 1946.

Back home, he bought a 1935 Ford Coupe. The Model T sat, waiting.

“I parked it in a shed with a dirt floor and it sat there for about 30 years,” O’Brien said.

When his son and daughter, both now deceased, were teens, they decided Dad should get the car running again. O’Brien did major work on the engine. The car had rusted and the tires had disintegrated.

The Model T is controlled by three pedals and levers. The pedal on the left puts the car into low gear – one of its two forward gears – the middle is reverse and the brake is on the right. Model T’s also have two levers on the steering column; the one on the right for gas, the other for spark advance.

When the kids left, there was a brief period of inactivity for the old Ford, then, again, new life.

Fundenberger never drove the car, but she and her sister had the “opportunity” to push it plenty of times as teens. The car never had gauges. O’Brien said the gas level was checked with a rod, similar to checking the oil in today’s cars. Running out of 15-cents-a-gallon gas was not unusual.

On the summer run, gasped and sputtered getting up to speed – it tops out at about 28 mph – but it soon smoothed out. With nothing but corn and the blue sky, wind blowing in everyone’s face, it was easy to imagine it was a trip into the past.

Fundenberger looked back, a wide smile on her face.

“This has been exciting,” she said, when O’Brien drove back into his yard.