CLEVELAND — When Don VerKuilen drives past you in Cleveland, you can’t help but stop, look and react. That’s because he’s the man turning heads while driving around in an original 1923 Ford Model T, the same driven on city streets 97 years ago.
“My absolute favorite part about driving this vehicle is that everybody you pass on the street just stops, looks and waves. You can’t not smile when you see this car,” VerKuilen said on a recent fall afternoon that included a drive along the Shoreway.
VerKuilen, 26, is one of only a handful of local Ford Model T owners and possibly the only person in Cleveland who has re-built an entire Ford Model T from the ground up.
To the casual observer, it’s a period piece and a novelty and a reason to nudge the person next to you, but for VerKuilen, his Model T is part of the family.
How it all started
In 1964, his late grandfather, Merlin Gill, bought the car for $600 from a guy who had what was supposed to be a car— in pieces, rusting away in a field.
“It looked nothing, nothing like a car,” VerKuilen said.
The pieces sat in his grandfather’s garage in Appleton, Wis., for 40-some years until VerKuilen, who was in second grade at the time, pestered his grandfather to give him a wrench so he could get to work. Eventually, his grandfather caved, and so began the long, intricate journey of putting a 1923 Ford Model T together again.
After school and on weekends, VerKuilen and his grandfather worked in the garage. One of his fondest memories of bonding and building is when a problem came up, his grandfather, described as “the most patient man ever” took two beat-up, 5-gallon buckets, flipped them over, and the two sat while his grandfather gave him a heart-to-heart lesson of the day that eventually became his lessons for life.
“I'm really thankful because when you start to get frustrated, that's when you make mistakes. My grandpa taught me there's nothing that's worth rushing. And I really appreciate applying that in other life situations,” he said.
When his parents divorced, VerKuilen became the man of the house, and that included fixing odds and ends around the home—problems that became learning opportunities.
“Like a lot of things, he would show me how to do it. He wouldn't do it,” he said.
While flipping through a photo album—one of his most prized material possessions—VerKuilen said that in the years that passed, those scattered pieces and parts started resembling a car, and he, too, grew with it.
It wasn’t until later in high school when the car was completely finished. It’s a date that won’t ever be forgotten. After countless hours in the garage, VerKuilen and his grandfather started up the car on April 22, 2004, at 1:20 p.m.
“Some of the happiest moments growing up was with my grandfather and I. He was tinkering and fussing with it until the last days of his life,” he said.
Merlin Gill passed away two years ago this week.
When VerKuilen sits in the driver’s seat of his Ford Model T, he’s forced to take a step back and drive without any distractions, just as it was in the 1920s.
“There’s no radio, no distractions. Your attention has to be on the car at all times, every move planned out,” he said while manually starting the motor before a joyride around Cleveland.
The presence of a Ford Model T is an unexpected, yet welcoming sight for anyone lucky enough to see it in person.
Driving a Model T means doing several things at once while anticipating the next move—whether the light will turn red or another vehicle will make an unexpected turn or run a stop sign.
“There are no brakes on the wheels of this car. It's all internal on the engine. So, you know, it doesn’t stop terribly fast,” he said. “You have to assume that every driver on the road is going to do the worst possible thing.”
But for VerKuilen, driving a car he’s worked on for more than a decade has come second nature to him ever since he started driving it in his grandfather’s backyard before he could legally drive. And now, he finds himself in a sort of déjà vu mentality every time his wheels hit the pavement on the same streets that once occupied thousands of Ford Model Ts in the early 1900s.
Driving a piece of history
“This car is what kind of revolutionized most of America,” he said.
First introduced to the world in 1908, it was one of the first mass-produced vehicles on Henry Ford’s moving assembly line. Due to the mass production of the vehicle, Ford Motor Company could sell the vehicle for between $260 and $850. Although most were made in Highland Park, Mich., over 100,000 Model Ts were produced in Cleveland.
The Ford footprint in Cleveland runs deep. In 1911, Ford moved its Cleveland operation to East 72nd Street and St. Clair Avenue, where workers assembled Model Ts from sections shipped in from Detroit. A couple of years later the company built a four-story brick assembly plant at 11610 Euclid Ave., where it achieved its peak production in 1925, producing 225 vehicles per day while employing 1,600 people.
While some car collectors keep their cars in a garage, except for the occasional car show, VerKuilen and his wife take it out for road trips at any chance they get, going as far as Chautauqua Lake, N.Y.
Driving the Ford Model T is more about leisure than a means to get from Point A to Point B.
“We always go through small towns since we can’t take highways. We always try to find a local place to eat. Yeah, it's really cool. We came up with a theory that highways ruined America. Everybody's in a hurry,” VerKuilen said.
As a Wisconsin transplant turned Clevelander who fell in love with the city during his time at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and who now works as the director of music at St. Rocco Parish on the city’s West Side while operating The VerKuilen Organ Company, the weekly retreat to the leather seat behind the wheel of his two-seat Model T is a necessity.
“I live such a crazy life. I'm so busy all the time. When you drive one of these, you can't think of anything else but driving...you really get to enjoy kind of what's around you,” he said.
His curiosity about how things work started at a young age when he took apart and reassembled lawnmowers to earn some extra money. That knack for reverse-engineering, as he calls it, led him to a career in restoring century-old organs at Cleveland churches and surrounding states.
“You know, you just have to look at it and go, OK, this does this, this does this. This is not doing this. So where in that path is something going wrong? The same thing applies to when rebuilding a Ford Model T,” said VerKuilen, who added that he owes this mechanical mindset to his grandfather.
Building a legacy
As if building a 1923 Ford Model T wasn’t impressive enough, VerKuilen is already working on his next project: a 1923 Ford Model T Fordor Sedan. At the time, it was the most expensive model available.
And like so many good trash-to-treasure stories, he found it on Facebook Marketplace, which led him to a man’s garage outside of Indianapolis where it had sat for years.
“The car looked like it was driven into the mud in the 20s, and just left there,” he said.
But what was rusty and an eye-sore from the outside was quite the opposite on the inside. To his surprise, the engine looked new, with the odometer reading 427 miles.
“So I firmly believe that that car was only driven 400 and some miles. So that's pretty cool. It looks to the outsider, it looks like a pile of s#!%, you know,” VerKuilen laughed.
Hoping to finish in 2023 on the 100-year anniversary of the car coming off the assembly line, VerKuilen is working to make it fully functional as his primary year-round vehicle, adding additional features like an aftermarket heater and a modern braking system.
Everything VerKuilen knows about the Ford Model T, he learned from his grandfather and the meticulous records he kept over the years. Before his grandfather died, VerKuilen promised to keep every single document, catalog and handwritten note, resulting in boxes and boxes of instructions and enough parts to build several more engines.
It’s with these records and catalogs—that are difficult to find today— that VerKuilen rebuilds and refurbishes his Fordor Sedan, just like he did during the formative years of his childhood, with his grandfather.
“And whenever I'm working in it or driving with it, I almost feel like I'm riding with my grandpa all the time,” VerKuilen said. “I always feel like he's here with me, and I feel very lucky to have something like that. Such an important person in my life.”