The Norman Transcript

March 1, 2014

Scientist owns 1929 Ford for half-century

By Doug Hill
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Jock Campbell’s friends found a 1929 Ford Model A standard roadster for him. They knew he’d want to acquire it. This wasn’t an eBay or Craigslist discovery.

It was in 1958 New Mexico and Campbell’s early-20-something pals spotted the old car under a cottonwood tree on farmland near Estancia. That’s 56 miles southeast of their homes in Albuquerque.

“My group of guys were always looking for old Fords, mainly to build hot rods,” the semi-retired OU geology professor said. “We would go out on weekends and comb the hills for old cars.”

One Sunday, two of his buddies spotted the car Campbell would end up owning for decades. They determined immediately that it was much too nice for cutting up into a hot rod. The Model A was all original. To this day, the only work Campbell has done on the car is mechanical.

“It took us awhile to find the retired farmer, named John Pillow, who owned the car,” Campbell said. “The Ford had new tags but a dead battery and looked like you could just drive it away.”

Pillow wasn’t interested in selling the car. Campbell adopted a patient strategy and began visiting the old gentleman on a regular basis.

“About once a month I’d drive there to check out the car, quite often with a friend to enjoy the drive,” he said. “The answer was always the same; he wasn’t ready to sell. Eventually he said to me, ‘You aint going to cut ‘er up are ya?’”

Campbell assured the car’s original owner that he could never commit such an abomination.

The young man was driving a Mercury convertible with some modifications including dual exhausts and probably had little credibility in his elder’s eyes. Pillow said he’d think about it.

“So I’d come back the next month and chat with the old man, which I really enjoyed,” Campbell said. “Ultimately, nearly a year since I’d been going, I went back and the car was gone from its place under the cottonwood tree and nobody was home.”

He returned the next day and learned Pillow had died. His brother had come up from Dallas to settle the estate.

The local rural route postman had bought the old Ford. Campbell went to his house. The Model A was in the backyard up on cinderblocks ready to be stripped of parts to keep a 1930 Coupe running. The postman’s spouse told the young man he’d find her husband at Estancia’s only café.

“Sure enough, he was there,” Campbell said. “I introduced myself, asked about the Model A and the postman allowed that he would sell it.”

They agreed on a price of $200 that undoubtedly made a tidy profit on the seller’s part.

“I think of myself as the second owner but technically I’m the third owner,” Campbell said. “Mr. Pillow had bought the car new in the spring of 1929 before the stock market crash.”

With a friend Campbell attempted to drive his newly acquired Ford back home. That was a mistake.

“By the time we got over Estancia’s railroad tracks the front wheels were just dancing at 25 mph,” he said. “The king pins were so worn you couldn’t really keep it under control.”

The radiator was a leaking sieve with plumes of steam issuing forth. They decided the car would have to be towed back to Albuquerque on old U.S. 66. They made an “In Tow” sign and limped slowly all the way home.

“People honked and waved as they passed us,” Campbell said in fond recollection.

At some point Campbell named the car John Henry, running Pillow’s and Mr. Henry Ford’s first names together.

Most people under the age of 75 would need lessons from Campbell for driving John Henry. The engine must be choked manually to start it and then the air to fuel mixture has to be set by hand control.

“Start out with a rich fuel mixture then lean it out as the engine warms up,” Campbell said. “If you do that correctly it will run well, won’t smoke and all will be peachy.”

The three speed manual transmission’s gears are not synchronized. That means you have to either know the art of double clutching or just the right amount of time to pause when shifting to prevent the gears from grinding.

The gas tank is in front of the windshield slightly higher than the engine which provides gravity flow to the carburetor.

John Henry’s engine was rebuilt in 1978. It was taken to Ford Parts Obsolete in Long Beach, Calf., whose machine shop specializes in restoring old Ford motors to original specifications.

Certain components, such as the generator, still work and have never been rebuilt or replaced.

“They use a soft Babbitt metal which has to be molten and poured to make the bearings,” Campbell said.

When the restoration was complete, he drove a pickup out to California to retrieve it.

“I took my 10-year-old daughter along and we spent several days at Disneyland during that trip,” he said.

John Henry was either in storage or at his residence during a career that’s taken him to five different states over 50 years. Little of the original paint remains but overall it has a rich dark patina of age.

“It just runs and runs and runs,” he said. “That tells you something about the quality of these cars.”

It also tells you something about Campbell and his sharp-eyed friends, who saw the value in John Henry nearly 60 years ago.

Have you seen a cool vehicle around town? Writer Doug Hill’s always on the lookout for future Dig My Ride columns. Email him at Hillreviews@hotmail.com.

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