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Local auto enthusiasts bring youth to 'gray-haired game'

Conrad Schille says he was born into Saabs. The Swedish sports cars were a staple in his parents' household in St. Paul ever since he can remember. "My earliest memory as a kid, I took a ride in one with my dad," he said. "I got out of the passen...

Conrad Schille stands with his 1974 Saab Sonett III
Conrad Schille, 26, stands in the garage with his recently purchased and restored 1974 Saab Sonett III, a model that has been in his family for as long as he can remember. Schille purchased the car from an online seller, making sure to find one that has been kept from rusting out, which is a Saab rarity. Schille tries to keep the cars as as close to how they originally were as possible when purchasing new parts and rebuilding. photo by Jenna Watson/Grand Forks Herald

Conrad Schille says he was born into Saabs.

The Swedish sports cars were a staple in his parents' household in St. Paul ever since he can remember.

"My earliest memory as a kid, I took a ride in one with my dad," he said. "I got out of the passenger door and as I closed it, I slammed all the fingers of my left hand in it."

The incident didn't faze Schille, 26, who said he spent the rest of his youth fixing up Saabs with his father. Now living in Grand Forks, he purchased one of his own about a year ago -- a blue 1974 Saab Sonett III.

Adam Kuiken of Warren, Minn., spent his childhood in a similar manner, hanging around his grandfather's engine repair shop in Aitkin, Minn.


"I probably spent too much time there, if you ask my parents," he said. On his 14th birthday, he was presented with an engineless 1951 Ford pickup, which he fixed up and drives to this day.

But what is a cherished pastime for Schille and Kuiken doesn't seem to be a common hobby for people their age.

At 30, Kuiken is the youngest member of the Prime Steel Car Club in Grand Forks. He and Schille say young adults are few and far between among classic car circles.

Challenging upkeep

Both men have their theories about why customizing or restoring classic cars is predominately what Kuiken referred to as a "gray-haired game."

Schille cites the difficulty of maintaining a classic as one potential factor.

"It's a challenge to keep up an older car," he said. Fishing through junkyards and websites for parts can be fun but also time-consuming and expensive -- especially if the car owners aren't doing the repairs themselves.

Saab manufactured about 8,300 Sonett IIIs between 1970 and 1974, leaving Schille's pool of potential replacement parts very small. He's had to seek parts from similar car models to make some of his repairs.


"People probably say, 'Hey, why don't I go out and buy an import that you can find parts for everywhere," he said. "It's easier."

Ford manufactured a healthy amount of 1951 pickups so Kuiken said he doesn't have nearly as much trouble finding parts for it as he does with his 1962 Mercury Monterey wagon.

"Certain parts are hard to come by," he said.

Changing culture

A shift in culture is another reason Kuiken suspects young adults may not be interested.

"I was the end of a generation that didn't have cell phones growing up," he said.

To him, the value his generation placed on its cars is similar to what the next generation places on its cell phones and other technology.

If you wanted to know what's going on, Kuiken said you had to drive your car to visit people instead of calling or texting.


"The car was your cell phone," he said.

Other young adults likely didn't grow up riding in or repairing classic vehicles, unlike the older generations that's usually fixing them up and showing them off, Kuiken added. Instead, they're tricking out the modern cars they grew up driving.

This can be seen at local car enthusiast events where Schille said young adults typically show up with trucks and import models.

Taking pride

While his choice of car isn't typical of his age group, Schille said he takes a lot pride in restoring his Sonett.

"A lot of these that you find, they're either immaculately restored or completely rusted out," he said. With a price tag of $5,100, Schille's Sonett came without rust and he plans to keep it that way.

Kuiken's Monterey also will be rust-free after its new paint job is complete. Then it will take the place of his Ford on the car show circuit.

Kuiken drives the car regularly, taking it on trips to the Twin Cities, and he said the Mercury will be driven just as much.


"There are no garage queens at my place," he said.

Grand Forks cruise nights

Tuesday nights: El Roco parking lot, corner of Washington Street and Gateway Drive.

Thursday nights: Culvers parking lot, 3451 32nd Ave. S.

Call Jewett at (701) 780-1108; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1108; or send email to bjewett@gfherald.com . Follow her on Twitter at @GFCityBeat or on her blog at citystreetbeat.areavoices.com.

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