Driving an open-top 1922 Ford Model T and sporting old, leather, World War I pilot’s caps and oversized goggles, Jason and Dorothy Sparks made a hard-to-miss entrance recently at the Northern Cruz Car Club’s Cruz Night at a parking lot near 32nd Avenue South.
The couple rode in the bright orange vintage car which emits a noticeable engine hum that announces its arrival. It’s thought to be the oldest car in the club.
“You hear it coming,” said the car’s owner, Jane Schjeldahl, of Grand Forks. “It has a certain rumble.”
The Model T was decked out with state, national and law enforcement flags waving from the rear end. The blue-and-black law enforcement flag is in recognition of their son, James Opp, who recently joined the Grand Forks Police Department, they said.
The Northern Cruz Car Club hosts Cruz Night beginning at 6 p.m. every Thursday at the Gordman’s store parking lot, near Culver’s on 32nd Avenue South.
Fond family memories
Jane Schjeldahl has many fond memories of her family and the Model T over the past 33 years. Her husband, Dennis Schjeldahl, traveled north to “some little town, maybe Oslo, and picked it up” in 1987, she said. “It was in the wintertime, and he had to pull it home,” using a tow rope.
Their eldest child, Eric, then 16, steered the car, which was in disrepair and covered with black primer, she said.
It took her husband and their four children -- three sons and a daughter -- eight months to restore the antique vehicle and make it road-worthy. They had a standing Wednesday night appointment to work on the car.
“They had to sand it and paint it," she said.
Jane Schjeldahl remembers all the times her husband took the car out at Christmastime; he dressed up as Santa Claus and drove it around town. In the city’s Holly Dazzle parades, “he gave out little matchbox cars, instead of candy,” much to the delight of the kids lucky enough to get them, she said.
The Model T has appeared in many vintage car shows all over the region.
“It’s been everywhere," Schjeldahl said.
Restoring old vehicles is a “very inclusive hobby,” she said. “It’s a very fun thing that families can do together. Everyone can get involved.”
She remembered that back in 1987, even her then-4-year-old daughter, Katie, got in on the action.
“Dad would have Katie use a screwdriver to pry rocks out of the tire treads, so she felt important, too," Jane’s son, Ryan Schjeldahl, of Black River Falls, Wisc., said.
“We took everything all apart, and then cleaned everything up, wire-brushed it and ground off the rusty stuff and painted everything” and changed out all the bolts, Ryan said. The car has a fiberglass body, which replicates the original, and a brake box from a ‘57 Chevy.
The rear spring is out of a Model A Ford.
“It has a Chevy engine in it -- a 283 out of a ‘67 Impala -- and a Plymouth rear end," he said.
The original gas tank is a six-gallon model out of a snowmobile.
“And there’s no gas gauge, so we ran out of gas a whole bunch of times," he said.
A replacement gas tank, out of a Massey Ferguson combine, was bigger, but “we still ran out of gas a bunch of times.”
Jane Schjeldahl wasn’t too worried about that
“Somebody will always help you when you’re in this car," she said.
Carrying on tradition
Dennis Schjeldahl died in 2017. Jason Sparks of Arvilla, N.D., is carrying on the legacy of his fellow vintage car enthusiast and the friend he called, “Hot Rod Santa.”
“I feel blessed to be the caretaker” of the Bucket T, Sparks said of the Model T, which the Ford Motor Company produced from 1901 to 1927.
This 1922 Model T has automatic transmission, with “a 200-plus horse-power engine, I assume,” and gets about 13 miles to the gallon, he said.
When asked how fast it can go, Spark replied: “It can go too fast -- it can pop a wheelie.”
At high speeds, the front end “can actually lift off,” he said.
Original parts include a windshield frame and steering wheel, and the radiator is from a 1913 Model T.
Before he became caretaker, Sparks said, the car was stored in a Quonset for three years.
“I’ve been trying to keep it as original to Dennis as possible,” he said. “My goal is to get it running reliably so anytime Jane or the boys want it they can get in it and go someplace, and not worry about it.”
Sparks also follows Dennis’ practice of sharing the car with everyone who admires it, inviting them to sit in it and letting kids touch to their hearts’ content.
At car shows, parents are often surprised by this permissiveness, he said.
“They’ll say, ‘I just got my kid to stop touching things'," said Sparks, adding that the joy of caring for the Model T comes from the big smiles and friendly waves from others on the road.
On a deeper level, though, working on the car at home, the retired Air Force veteran said: “After going through three wars and seeing that evil, when I’m doing the car thing, that’s my happy place.”
Anyone who would like to bring a vehicle to Thursday’s Cruz Night show -- a car, truck or motorcycle -- is welcome, said Marna Kobe, activities director for the club.
It’s a family-oriented event; no alcohol is permitted, she said. Because of COVID-19, vehicles on display are parked in every other space and social distancing is requested.
It doesn’t matter what kind of vehicle you have, she said. It only matters that you love cars.
Kobe makes sure that club members -- there’s about 70 of them -- receive information on upcoming car shows. Vintage car collectors from the Crookston Classic Cruisers club sometimes join the Grand Forks group.
“There’s a real network between car clubs,” Schjeldahl said.
In addition to Cruz Night, the club hosts monthly meetings and, from January through March, has monthly social nights, with dinner at Culver’s restaurant, which has been a long-time supporter of the group, Kobe said. On Cruz Night, restaurant staff members wear car club T-shirts.
At the gatherings, it’s the memories of the cars that people cherish and like to share that make the events so special, said Jane Schjeldahl.
“It’s all about cars you had -- or cars you wish you had,” she said.