Sharing his love of car reconstruction with the next generation, retired Scripps cardiologist Allen “Skip” Johnson is overseeing a project to build a 1915 Model T Ford Speedster with a handful of Evans School fourth- and fifth-graders. Most notably, his grandson Theo.
The group started the project — just for fun — earlier this year. Thus far, they’ve taken the car apart piece by piece, examined each part to see which ones worked and which needed to be replaced, sanded the frame down, tested paint colors and more. The car is being worked on and stored in the La Jolla garage of Theo’s friend, Abhi Kamdar.
“When we first got the car, it was totally put together,” Theo explained. “We took it apart to see what was working — and a lot was not working. Like, a lot. So we’re back to stage one and starting to put it back together. It’s a good learning experience and it’s been really fun. When we are finally done, it will be such a great reward.”
Young Theo shares his grandfather’s enthusiasm for working on cars, which started when Johnson was barely younger than his grandson is now.
As Johnson explained, he contracted polio when he was 7 years old in the epidemic of 1948, and was confined to a hospital bed with 200 other patients in southern Indiana. “While we were lying there, doctors gave us models to make, specifically of old cars,” he told La Jolla Light. “So then, I wanted books to read about how to make a Model T Ford, and I read about Henry Ford and how the assembly lines worked and how this car was a model of genius.”
Carnivorously reading about the car, he developed the knowledge of how to drive and restore one.
“When I got out and could walk and talk, my family was thrilled and asked me how I wanted to celebrate. I told them I wanted to find and buy one of these cars,” he continued. “We found one in the back-country in some barn, pulled it out and fussed with it for a bit until we got the ignition to work. We put oil in it, gas in it, water in the radiator, checked everything out and cranked it up. We got it to work.”
But then, they realized no one knew how to drive it. So at just 7-years-old, Johnson drove the car home. “That got me started and I haven’t stopped,” he said. “This (Model T Ford Speedster) is the 14th car I’ve restored.”
As to why he wanted to bring his grandson and some friends into the process, he said: “In this digital age, I don’t want my grandson walking around with a phone in front of his face, so …
“Be careful to not knock it off those jack stands” he calls out to the boys at work who are sanding the car’s frame to ready it for painting.
Meeting in the Kamdar’s house on Friday and Sunday afternoons, the rotating group of students hope to have it completed next spring. “They fought for the tools and the chance to do something hands-on,” Johnson said of his apprentices. “They are pretty enthused about it and are really looking forward to painting it. Once we get the body assembled and on its wheels, we will place the engine in it. They’re really looking forward to that.”
The only challenge, he said, is the children’s short attention span. As if on cue, the boys begin throwing sheets of worn sandpaper at each other, staining their hands, hair and shirts with the dust.
In the coming weeks, the replacement parts will be inventoried so students can be sure they have everything they need to start reassembling the vehicle. Johnson said there were 15 million Model T Fords made, so pieces are available as needed. But in this project, there were more parts needed than Abhi expected.
“I thought we would just need to fine tune a couple of things, but half the pieces didn’t work,” he laughed. “I thought this project was going to be way easier. But I’ve really liked it so far. I never really thought about cars or how they work very much … but now, especially when I look at old-time cars, I really want to see how they work, which I get to do with this project.”
The guidance from Dr. Johnson has been invaluable. Fellow car-builder Clyde Kates said: “He does a really great job teaching us all about the parts and how to assemble everything. I didn’t have any interest in cars before, but I like riding in old cars that are different, so I thought it would be cool to make one.”
Along the way, there have been a few bumps in the road, but these were turned into lessons. “Sometimes when something doesn’t fit right, it can spring out and fly across the room,” said Imran Mahmud. “It’s pretty funny, and I like that we can make mistakes and learn from them.”
And while there are still a few more months to go before the car is complete, the boys are already grateful for the experience — especially Theo. “Working with my grandfather has been really fun because we get time together and I gain some of his knowledge.”
Smiling, Johnson added: “It’s fantastic sharing this experience with my grandson, but I know and like all the kids. For me, it’s all about passing down a piece of history to the next generation, and if I don’t teach them, who will?”