Ralph and His Cars
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CRAZY ABOUT CARS
As early as I can remember, my greatest interest was in cars. At thirteen years of age, I
read just about every automotive magazine that I could get my hands on. I spent
as much time as possible at the nearby Pole Tavern Traffic Circle, where there
was neither pole nor tavern, but always plenty of cars. At sixteen, I founded a
car club, "Circle City Customs" and had calling cards and bumper
stickers printed. The guys at the circle bought them for their cars. The name
"Circle City" stuck to this day.
Mickle's Market was a general grocery store located on the traffic circle where the
now stands. In 1951 my father put a new roof on the store and I
earned a few dollars helping. “Pop Harvey” overheard me naming the year, make,
model, type of motor and transmission of each car that passed. He called up to
me, "I'm not paying you to look at cars; keep your eyes on the work!"
Another man, Frank, was working with me and convinced my father that I wasn't
looking at the cars, but identifying them by their sounds. My father watched in
disbelief as I continued to correctly identify the next four or five cars. Then
he said, "Well stop it anyhow; Frank always looks to see if you are
MY FIRST DRAG RACE
I liked to spend time at Circle City even before I owned a car. One night, a drunk drove
into one of the service stations. He had just bought a 1935 Ford coupe and was
bragging about how fast it could go. Several guys started kidding him and I
decided to get in on the fun. I asked if he wanted to race my bike around the
circle. He gave me an angry look and said that I had better not make fun of his
car. The others thought the race would be a good idea and encouraged him to
take me up on the offer. They even started taking bets on who would win! He
finally agreed to the race.
Three times, we were flagged for the start and all three times, his car stalled. On
the fourth try, the car stalled again. The inebriated driver was so angry that
he slammed his fist through the windshield! By this time all of us were curious as
to whether a bike could round the circle faster than a car. One of them agreed
to try with his car and I actually won the race!
MY OWN CAR!
When I was fifteen, I spotted a lovely '40 Ford coupe for sale at the Circle Sunoco.
The owner was asking two-hundred dollars and I had enough money. In my
imagination, I had already "customized" the body and "souped
up" the flathead V8 engine, but Pop heard of my plans and promptly vetoed
the idea. "You can't get your drivers license until you are
seventeen", he argued, "You are NOT buying a car!" I attempted to
explain that I only wanted to work on it and not drive it, but my arguments fell
on deaf ears.
A week or two later, on the second of October, 1954, Pop came home from work with an
impish grin on his face. That grin usually meant a special treat for someone and
this time it was for me! He said that if I was really serious about getting a
car "just to work on", he had found the ideal project car. It was a
1924 Model "T" Ford. The car belonged to Merrill Foster, who owned the
John Deere dealership at Circle City. He claimed to be sentimentally attached to
his "tin Lizzie" but would be willing to part with the treasure for
only thirty dollars. It was clear that I would either wait until I turned
seventeen or take advantage of this opportunity. I chose the latter. After all,
a Model "T" roadster, coupe or even a pick-up truck could make a
fabulous "hot rod"! We drove to Mr. Foster’s farm right after
When I saw the car, my heart sank into my shoes. It was a 4-door sedan! In my
estimation, 4-door cars fell into the same category as cars with mud-flaps,
winged hood ornaments and giant dice hanging from their rear view mirrors. I
didn't even like 2-door sedans, but 4-door cars were only for families with lots
of kids. I would certainly become the laughing stock of all my friends,
but it was too late to back out.
We pumped up the tires, which amazingly enough held air, and towed my
"prize" home. I parked it in front of the garage and covered it with a
tarp, so people would not be so likely to see it. I laid awake most of that
night imagining the reaction of my friends when they discovered that I had
purchased a 4-door, Model "T" Ford! Sometime during that night, I
decided to restore the vehicle as an antique! This would not only diminish the
importance of the body style, but if I did a good job, the car could be sold for
enough money to buy a "real" car!
I spent many hours working on the car. My father seemed more elated about my acquisition
than I was. He had owned several Model "T"s and his experience proved
invaluable. Soon I bought a second Model "T" for spare parts, this
time a 1922 wood-sided taxi that someone had irreverently converted into a
delivery van. The restoration was not a professional a job, but for a
fifteen-year-old, it was a commendable effort. My efforts were more than
compensated by the people who stopped to admire progress. Few kids my age were
engaged in restoring an antique car. The project attracted as much attention as a custom or hot rod, but there was one
big drawback: it was not fast! Nevertheless, I gained a deep respect and
appreciation for historic vehicles which remains to this day.
My first car at 15 years of age was a 1924 Model T Ford
sedan, which I rebuilt and restored. The delivery wagon came soon afterwards,
but was only used for parts.
While in High School I joined the "Future Farmers of America."
I had no intention of becoming a farmer, but there was a large workshop
in the FFA Department where farm boys could learn to weld, rebuild engines and
do other interesting things. I found working with my hands to be much more
satisfying than studying Algebra, World History and Social Studies.
In the FFA classes, we learned that exhaust gas contains unburned particles of fuel.
The teacher demonstrated this on the exhaust of a tractor with a welding torch.
In that moment, an idea was born in my mind. At home, I was restoring a Model-T
Ford, which used "ignition coils" to fire the sparkplugs. An ignition
coil could send a continuous charge of electricity to a sparkplug, welded into
the tailpipe of a car! I began to imagine flame throwing exhausts lighting
up the night!
My best friend Paul, volunteered his 1948 Studebaker for the experiment. Looking like
two airplane cockpits welded end to end, it was an ideal car for our
undertaking. The six-cylinder engine even had a split manifold and dual exhaust
system. We installed
cable-controlled muffler by-passes on both exhaust pipes. This not only allowed
a maximum amount of unburned fuel to reach the sparkplugs, but it also provided
the appropriate sound effects! A hex nut with the same thread as the sparkplugs was
sliced in half with a hacksaw, and one half of the nut welded into each exhaust
pipe about six inches from the end. One terminal of the Model "T" coil
was connected to the car battery and the other to the sparkplugs. An electrical
switch on the dashboard turned the "after burners" on and off, and
another cable activated the muffler bypasses.
A short test drive gave us the satisfaction of a job well done! Our experiment worked
better than we could ever have anticipated. The blue and yellow flames were
quite impressive at night. We were ready for some fun!
Our first excursion in the flame-throwing Studebaker was to the stock car races at
Alcyon Park Raceway in Pitman. We parked the car on the infield near the pits
just opposite the grandstands. When the races were over, Paul started his car,
opened the by-passes and revved the engine to about 3000 RPM. When he let off
the gas pedal, the "suck-back" in the exhaust pipes sounded like
amplified machine-gun fire! A thousand astonished eyes were locked onto that
Studebaker when Paul switched on the "afterburners" and sped for the
Later that night, we located a long hill which led through a housing development.
Paul drove the Studebaker as fast as it would go up the back side of the hill. Once
over the top, we picked up speed rapidly. As the first houses came into view,
Paul shifted the car back into first gear and overdrive, something that can probably
only be done with a '48 Studebaker! The engine was internally hemorrhaging when
he opened the exhaust by-passes and turned on the coil which fed the sparkplugs.
The noise was deafening! Two gorgeous blue flames blasted several feet out of
the exhaust pipes, illuminating fences and bushes as we passed. While Paul
drove, I watched through the wrap-around back window. One porch light after
another came on as people rushed from their houses and onto the street. At the
bottom of the hill we turned off the afterburners and drove back to
Circle City, laughing uncontrollably all the way! To this day I often wonder
what residents of that hillside concluded about our unidentified flying
object! For the next few months, I was swamped with orders for flame throwers.
The 1946 Ford on the left was my first car after
obtaining my driver's license at 17. I owned a total of 9 Ford "rag
The '52 convertible was originally green. Tail fins were added
and some chrome removed before painting. This was the very first airbrush flame
paint job on a car east of the Mississippi!
For some reason, I was always infatuated with convertibles. Even as a small child, I
dreamed of the day when I would have one of my own. Shortly before my
seventeenth birthday, I began to shop around for my first "real" car. I wasn't
really particular as long as it was a Ford "ragtop" from
the '30s or '40s.
After running down several leads from newspaper ads, I decided to check out the junk
yards. I planned to rebuild the car anyway, so it wouldn't need to be in A-1
condition. When I finally discovered my car, it was love at first sight! I found
a 1946 Ford convertible in a Mullica Hill junk yard, that had been involved in a
head-on collision. Someone had already removed the engine, but the junk dealer
agreed to sell the remainder for $50. Parents and neighbors shook their heads
in disbelief when I towed my dream car into the driveway. To them, my treasure
was nothing more than scrap metal and belonged right where I had bought it!
I located fenders, hood and a bumper in another junk yard. The flat-head engine
came from a '39 Mercury coupe, but I quickly recognized it to be a Ford truck engine with
25 additional HP. I spent every waking hour
working on that car and every sleeping hour dreaming of what it would be like
when finished. I removed most of the chrome trim and filled the holes. The rear
end was lowered until it nearly scraped the ground. After adding fender skirts
and sanding until my fingers were blistered, I drove the car to a body shop to have
it painted. I chose the bright coral pink of the new ’55 Ford and did the
interior in pink and black vinyl.
I painted my own cars after that. A neighbor once joked that I painted my cars
more often than I washed them!
I loved the feel of rushing wind in my face, and the sense of freedom that only a
"ragtop" can provide. I must admit that I didn’t mind all the
attention my cars got, but the big thrill was simply driving a convertible. With
no roof, I could also hear the deep throated sound of the dual exhausts better
than in a closed vehicle.
It probably was not intentional, but farmers always seemed to position their
irrigation pipes so we convertible drivers would get drenched. If there was only
one sprinkler next to the road, I would stop and wait until it turned before
driving past. But more often than not, the farmers placed an entire row of
sprinklers next to the road and there was no escaping them! After getting wet several
times, I figured a way to get even with the farmers. I had driven tractors often
enough to know that cultivating young corn or tomato plants was a tedious job.
Whenever I passed the field of a farmer who was cultivating, I would slow down,
honk my horn and wave frantically. The farmer could usually be distracted long
enough to plow out several rows of tender young plants.
I liked to drive with the convertible
top down in all kinds of weather, even in winter. In August of 1955, Hurricane Diane blasted the eastern
seaboard, doing over 500 million dollars worth of damage and causing 184 deaths.
I decided to see if my car could sail. I found a long, straight stretch of
highway which ran parallel to the wind. After raising the canvas top to its
highest point, I opened both doors and attained the respectable speed of 45 mph
with the ignition turned off!
I wasn't particularly interested in girls. My main interest was cars, a subject girls
could seldom relate to. Although girls liked boys who drove flashy convertibles,
they would usually insist on putting the top up to keep the wind from ruining
GOATS AND CONVERTIBLES DON'T MIX
When the Doctor advised my father to drink goat's milk for his ulcers, my
thought it would be just great to have our own goat! Pop bought a goat and Helen
was elated. Her joy lasted only a few days however, after which I was the one
who had to feed and milk the beast.
The day came when our nanny gave birth to the cutest twin kids you ever laid eyes
We all fell in love with the critters, but the love affair was short-lived. Pop
came home from work one day and discovered that the kid goats had chewed the
bark off his young fruit trees. Three of them could not be saved. While
exchanging storm windows for screens (that was in the days before combination
windows), the twins jumped through an open window into the house. They leaped
onto tables, sofas and even managed to get onto the fireplace mantle. We chased
them out but they found another open window and soon the chase was on
again. It was an hour before we could finally pen them up.
The kid goats' meanest trick was played on me. I usually parked my car on the road by
the lake, just outside my bedroom window. One morning I awoke to the pitiful
bleating of the "twins" as we called them. I looked out the window to
see those little brats on the roof of my convertible, eight little legs
protruding through the roof, kicking frantically to get free! That was the last straw!
I quickly pulled on my jeans and ran
down the stairs, determined to make mince meat of the rascals. They must
have known what was on my mind, for they managed to extract themselves from
their death trap before I got to them.
A REPUTATION FOR FAST CARS
I owned three different 5-window Ford coupes and one
roadster from 1931-32. The '31 on the right had a chopped top.
This cinnamon red '32 had a full-race '55 Plymouth mill, was channeled
and had Plymouth bumpers. The 100% steel body was rare even in 1962!
I took two coupes in trade for another car and sold this
'40 Ford Standard to my brother Dave that same day. I also sold him a '55 Chrysler
Hemi V-8 which Dave promptly installed. The 2-cycle 180cc Harley Davidson also belonged
This fire-engine red '38 Ford roadster was built in the year of my birth.
Although some of the cars I owned were plenty fast, there were enough others
in the area that
could have wiped me out. I didn't like to race because it was too easy to blow
an engine or drop a transmission. I earned money repairing damage done to other
cars while racing and was not eager to repair my own.
My reputation for fast cars came quite by chance. I was sitting in the Circle City
Diner one evening, finishing a Boston cream pie and chocolate milkshake, when
several hot rods pulled into the parking lot. The drivers climbed out of their
roadsters and coupes and began to examine my car. After paying my bill, I left
the diner and sauntered over to my pink convertible as though I owned the world.
One of the strangers noticed a dual carburetor manifold lying on
the back seat and asked if the car was fast. I lied to him, saying that the
manifold had just been replaced by a triple carb manifold. He pointed to his
fenderless coupe and asked if I wanted to drag.
The long and straight Elmer-Shirley Road was not far away. Without batting an eyelash, I
heard myself saying, "title for title!" It was too late to back down
now. I wondered what in the world had possessed me to make such an offer! Except
for a racing cam and high compression heads, my engine was basically stock. The
exhaust system however, sounded like pure power! I slipped behind the wheel,
turned on the electric fuel pump and started the engine. It had a rough idle due
to the cam, and must have scared the stranger. I gave him a side glance through
the window and asked with an easy drawl, "Are we ready?
By this time at least a dozen others were standing around. The stranger asked, "Are
you serious about that title business?" I turned to one of my buddies, who
was looking on and asked, "Tell him if I'm serious!" He played the
part better than I could ever have imagined. Pointing to his own car, he said,
"I just bought my car back yesterday!" Fortunately for me,
the stranger said that he needed to make some adjustments to his engine first.
He climbed into his rod and drove off with tires screeching. I discovered later
that he owned what was probably the fastest street rod in South Jersey! Word
spread rapidly, that my car was even faster!
One lovely Sunday morning, Pop was driving Mom and ten of the kids to church. The
eleventh (me) was following the family station wagon on Route 40 at slightly
above the speed limit. I spotted the radar trap next to the highway, but since
they let Pop go, I didn't bother to slow down. When the State Trooper pulled me
over, I protested, "Why didn't you stop that station wagon? It was
traveling at the same speed!" The policeman continued to write the ticket,
at first ignoring my question. When he was finished, he handed me the ticket and
explained, "That man had a car full of kids; he obviously can't afford to
pay for a speeding ticket!
After church, one of the guys who had a rather fast ’55 Chevy, decided to drive out
to where the radar was set up to ask a favor of the police. He approached a
State Trooper who was reading the meters and asked if he would be so kind as to
check his speedometer. "Why certainly, son," the officer replied,
"I would be glad to!" The youth then drove through radar at 80 mph! When he returned, the ticket was ready
and waiting. "Here, you have it in writing, son," the officer grinned!
That youth must have learned his lesson well, for he is now a bank president.
I developed a keen eye for patrol cars and radar traps, but the spectacular paint
jobs and loud mufflers of my cars seemed to have a magnetic attraction for both
Municipal and State Police. According to New Jersey law, one could lose his
drivers license after accumulating twelve points. My points piled up so rapidly,
that I had 22 points by the time my license was finally revoked.
RODS AND CUSTOMS
It was popular during the fifties to "de-chrome" a car. The DuPont Company
came out with a fantastic fiberglass putty that became like steel when mixed
with a hardener. I was one of the first in our area to try the new product on
cars. I found it to be much easier to fill holes with fiberglass than to braze
them shut and smooth them over with hot lead.
I also learned how to "chop a top" (cut a horizontal section out of the top
of a car, welding it back together again); to "Z" a frame (cut and
weld a car frame, to make it lower); "channel" the body (set the
chassis down around the frame instead of on top of it) and much more. As I
gained experience, friends started to ask for advice and I was beginning to feel
like an expert! Within five years of graduation from High School, I had owned 25
cars! Three of them were featured in car magazines.
Some of the stunts I pulled as a young person were not much different from those of any
normal youth. Like the time I "borrowed" a large sign from a junkyard
in Vineland and placed it in front of the Elmer funeral parlor. The sign read, "Good used Body Parts."
Many of the pranks we pulled as youth were somehow associated with Route 40 and the
traffic circle. In the little town of Elmer, there was a dangerous curve on
Route 40. Homes located in the curve were often mistaken for
"drive-ins" by sleepy, drunk or careless drivers. Once, several of us
posted ourselves under a street light in the curve, standing on both sides of
the highway. Whenever a car approached too rapidly, we bent over and pretended
to pick up a rope, bracing ourselves in a fixed pose as though we were
stretching the rope across the street. The reaction of drivers varied. Nearly
all stopped or slowed to a crawl. Some became angry and threatened us but others
simply laughed. In any case, we would remain in our position without smiling or
speaking until the car passed out of sight.
I wasn't always that safety conscious. Some things I did were downright dangerous. Like
the time I tied the steering wheel of my car and let it idle around the traffic
circle all by itself. The circle was perfectly round back in those days. Every
few minutes, I had to run along side of the slowly moving vehicle and jump on
the running board to make a course correction. This took place during the wee
hours of the morning when few cars were on the road. Still, it was a rather
stupid thing to do.
On another occasion, I taped two sealed beam headlights to a broom handle and wired
them to a car battery. I carried this contraption out to a long, straight
stretch of Route 40, where I stood with the lights turned on until a car
appeared in the distance. As the car approached, I ran off the road with the
headlights bouncing. After rolling the broomstick end for end, I turned off the
lights and hid in a corn field. The drivers inevitably stopped to look for tire
tracks. I quit after one driver reported the incident to the police. They
searched the area with spotlights but fortunately for me, they were not looking
Several of us worked nights in the two Pole Tavern service stations, pumping gas. It
didn't pay much, but on summer weekends, there was always something going on at
Circle City. Whoever pumped gas was certain to have plenty of company. Once, a
friend named Norman, who stuttered, was manning the pumps. A big black Chrysler
pulled in to get gas. The driver rolled down his window and said, "F-f-f-fi-fi-fi-fill
er up!" Norm dutifully placed the nozzle in the tank and turned it on. He then returned to the driver's window
and asked, "Sh-sh-sh-sh-shall I ch-ch-ch-ch-check the oil?" The driver
thought Norm was mocking him and became angry. He shouted, "W-w-w-w-w-wise
guy!", threw his car into drive, hit the gas and disappeared into the
night. The gas hose was ripped from the pump and dragged several yards before it
fell onto the road. Norm just stood there totally confused. Still holding the
gas cap in his hand, he asked, "Wha-wha-what was e-e-eating
hi-hi-him?" The rest of us were laughing so hard, our stomachs hurt!
When things got dull at Circle City, we could usually think of crazy things to do.
Tomato farmers used to park their trucks and wagons loaded with tomatoes at the
circle. There was a weigh station there, and the farmers could get an early
start to the cannery by lining up for weighing the night before. One summer
night, neither station was pumping much gas. We walked over to a truck and
fetched a basket of tomatoes. At first, we just ate them, but then one of us
threw a tomato at the guys in the station across the circle. Within seconds, an
all-out tomato war was raging. After several baskets of ammunition had been
expended and we were all dripping red, a customer drove into our station. He
took one look at us and was ready to notify the ambulance and police, but we
were able to convince him that there was no need for concern. We spent the next
hour hosing down the stations and each other.
HEY DAD, THAT'S COOL!
When Pop Harvey was building an addition onto the First Baptist Church in
Elmer, he asked if he
could drive my ’38 Ford Roadster to the lumber yard. He used to
own a '38 Ford and thought it would be fun to drive one again. My car was not a
sedate family sedan like the one he had owned, but a fire-engine-red
convertible. I had altered so much on the vehicle that there were few
similarities to the car he once owned. When he returned an hour later, his face
was as red as the paint. He was reluctant to share details of his brief
acquaintance with my car, but swore that he would never, ever, drive it again!
I heard the rest of the story from a reliable witness. It was a lovely October day and
the convertible top was down. At the town's main intersection, the car stalled
and refused to start. A group of teenage girls on their way home from High
School stood on the corner and watched with amusement, as a father of eleven children attempted to
restart the engine. He remembered that those older cars usually had a hand-choke
and pulled it out, but the "Ahoogah" horn sounded instead. He then
accidentally stepped on a button which rang my "Bermuda Carriage
Bell". When the engine finally started, he somehow activated the "Wolf
Whistle," which operated on vacuum from the intake manifold. The girls
were giggling and waving by this time. Pop got nervous, gave the car too much
gas and screeching tires added a lovely soprano to the deep-throated bass of the
dual exhaust system!
A POLICE CHASE
In May of 1956, I was involved in an escapade which ended in a wild police chase.
One warm spring evening, a carload of guys drove into a gas station at
Circle City. They had been taunting a drunk farmer "just for kicks".
They drove past his house blowing the horn until he got into
his old pickup truck and tried to chase them. He was so drunk, he could hardly
keep his vehicle on the road.
Always ready for some fun, I jumped into my convertible and followed them to
the farm. A friend was
with me and a third car filled with youth also joined us. We drove to the farmhouse
and began to blow our horns and yell, hoping the farmer would again chase us in
his pickup. Sure enough, headlights turned on in the driveway and began to move
rapidly toward the road. We fled the scene with exhaust pipes roaring and tires
What we did not know, was that the drunk farmer's wife had notified the police. Only
after the patrol car turned on it's flashing red lights, did it become clear to
us that we were not trying to out-run a drunk in an old truck! Instead of stopping to take
our medicine, all three cars sped away as fast as we could travel, which was
pretty fast! Arriving at an intersection with a stop sign, the driver of the first car switched off his
lights and drove straight through. There was a curve after the intersection and he lost control of the vehicle,
landing upside down in a field. The driver of the second car slammed on his brakes and appeared to be stopping, but
instead, he too switched off his headlights, made a right turn, and disappeared
into the night.
Almost rolling my own car in the process, I too turned off the lights, veered left and
hit the gas. The friend who was
riding with me confessed later that he had never been so scared in all his
life. With lights off, I pushed my car to it’s limit and was relieved to note
in the rear view mirror, that the patrol car had stopped to check out the
accident. Fortunately, no one was killed or badly injured in the crash. After
taking my friend home, I parked the car behind our house and sneaked upstairs to bed.
To my dismay, a State Trooper showed up at our house the following day with a summons
to appear in court. He had not been
able to note my license tag, but had a clear description of the car (I
discovered later, that someone at the traffic circle had provided the
The day of our court appearance arrived and one driver involved had his driver's license
revoked indefinitely. This was not his first serious offense. I tried denying, but it was of
no use. The judge said that if I could prove there was another pink convertible with flames
painted across the hood and down the sides, he would consider the possibility of my innocence!
The driver of the accident car and I received stiff fines. After the
hearing was over, I saw that the court clerk had left his desk unattended. On my
way out of the courtroom, I reached out and grabbed the folder containing my
records. I had 30 days to pay the fine, but decided to wait, hoping that I could
get away without paying.
A month later, I received another summons to appear before the judge. There was no
discussion at all. The judge simply ordered me locked up in the county jail for
failing to pay the fine! I had not
expected this! I pleaded for another chance and promised to pay the fine within
24 hours. It was of no use. The judge probably suspected that I had stolen the
records, but he also knew that there was little hope of proving it. I soon
found myself locked up in a smoke-filled room with a dozen or more inmates,
wondering what to do next.
I recalled a previous occasion, when my father had to pick
me up at the police station. I had skipped school and gotten caught shoplifting.
I shall never forget the trip home. My father hardly spoke a word, but tears
were streaming down his face. I tried to apologize, but he didn't answer. That
was one occasion, when I didn't get a whipping, but I felt even worse for the
pain I had inflicted on my parents.
The inmates welcomed me and invited me to play cards with them, but I declined. When
supper was served, I had no appetite. I wondered how my parents would react and
cringed at the prospect of them visiting me in jail!
The warden seemed to read my thoughts and asked for my name. He said that he knew my father and offered to let me call
home. I declined. It seemed like an eternity, but after only six hours I was
released. The warden apparently put
in a good word for me. I was given exactly 24 hours to pay the fine, plus an
additional fine for missing the deadline. I didn't have enough money and decided
to sell my car rather than try to borrow the cash. I made numerous phone
calls and drove to several used car lots. Finally, a used car dealer offered to take the
car, but his offer was only a fraction of what it was worth. I accepted
rather than risk going back to jail!
Some 35 years later, I was to be reminded again of this experience. In order to get a
permanent visa in Austria, I needed to obtain a "Good Conduct
Reference" from the Salem County Courthouse in New Jersey. The letter
stated that my records had been searched back as far as June, 1956 and that no
criminal records could be found. When my wife read that, she asked, "What
did you do in 1956?”
I knew that God was trying to speak to me, but was still not prepared to listen. I
should have been sobered by recent experiences, but my main concern was
getting another car!
The owner of a junk yard near where I lived, seemed amused at the way I could put a
decent car together, using parts from various junk cars. He would let me collect
all the components and quote me a price when finished. I was not long without
transportation. This time, my car cost only $50 less engine, which I had sitting
in the garage at home. On May 29,
1956, I worked late into the night to get the car running. The next day was
Memorial Day, and I had invited a girl to accompany me to the beach.
GOD'S PATIENT PRODDING
In the morning, I went to pick up my date. As I drove into the driveway of her house,
there was a loud bang and steam began to escape from the engine
compartment. I had forgotten to tighten down the bolts on the fan blade, which
came loose, slicing the upper water hose. It
was Memorial Day and no auto parts stores were open on holidays back then.
The girl's parents were Christians, and actually appeared to be relieved at my dilemma. They
invited us to accompany them on a picnic to "Camp Haluwasa". The name
sounds like an Indian name, but is actually derived from the words,
"Hallelujah, what a Savior!" I was familiar with the camp, having been
there with our church youth group. I had a great admiration for the founder and
Director of the camp, Charlie Ashmen. We had much in common, particularly the
enjoyment we received, making something worthwhile out of junk! Our youth group
helped to clear brush out of low lying areas, which later became lakes. I
also helped with construction work on cabins and the main pavilion. Although I
was not keen about riding with my date's parents, I always enjoyed visiting Camp
Haluwasa. Besides, I had no other option! Little
did I know, as I climbed into the back seat of their big Packard, that this was
to be the last ride for the "old" Ralph Harvey!
During the picnic lunch, someone placed a closed can of baked beans in a charcoal
griller. The can exploded, splattering me and others with hot beans. No one was
injured, but it scared me.
In the afternoon, there was a meeting in the "Tabernacle", as the pavilion
was called. I had helped to put on the roof just a few days earlier. During
services, the swimming and boating areas were closed, so there was no way to
escape attending the meeting. There was always lively singing with instrumental
accompaniment at Camp Haluwasa. My sister Helen, even sang in the girl's trio. A
visiting preacher preached on the parable of the prodigal son and as I listened,
God spoke to me.
My mind wandered back to my first camping experience and that night by the campfire. I
had reacted like any normal kid back then. The choice between heaven and hell,
underscored by a blazing fire, was really no choice at all! It was not the
prodding of the Holy Spirit and conviction of sin, which had induced me to make
a "decision". I felt as though I had been tricked into a conversion.
I was also reminded of a summer night two years earlier, when God had spoken clearly
to me. It was apparent that circumstances leading up to this moment could not be
dismissed as "human manipulation", designed to trick me into becoming
a Christian. Nor were recent events in my life the result of mere chance. I was
under deep conviction of sin. I was the one who was obviously guilty of
"dirty tricks"! I was a
"prodigal son, wasting my substance in riotous living." This sermon
was meant for me and I knew it! An
invitation was given, but I could not raise my hand or go forward. This was a
matter that had to be settled between God and myself. I prayed in my heart,
confessing my wickedness and asking forgiveness. I promised God that I
would live for him with all my heart and life. Still not certain if God had
accepted or even heard me, I determined to keep my promise to God.
THE NEW RALPH
I must have been very quiet on the trip home. I can only remember wondering if my
conversation with God had been heard. Over and over, I promised God that this
time, I meant business! The second worst thing a person can do in this life
is to refuse God’s gift of forgiveness and eternal life. The worst thing is to
accept that gift and then live as if it were of no value. I had held back for a
long time, knowing that a conversion would mean yielding everything to God. But
now I vowed to God, that I would go anywhere and do anything He wanted. From
that moment on, I belonged to Him!
The following day, it seemed like the entire world was different. I can't explain
the feeling, but the birds had never sung so pretty and the grass had never been
so green. Some would claim that I
had spring fever, but I somehow felt that God had taken me at my word. Two weeks
later, a member of the church approached me, saying that he had noticed a
remarkable change in me. I said
that I had accepted Christ. That was my first testimony as a Christian. Some are
still convinced that I was converted at a campfire service, but I know
better! Apparently, I also “accepted Christ” as a small child on an Easter
Sunday, for I have an undated letter from a missionary in Columbia
congratulating me on this wonderful event!
Soon after my conversion, I had the first opportunity to put my new found faith to
practical use. I had been given the job of picking up the badly damaged door of
a mobile home, which was to be repaired. I was instructed to make a temporary
replacement door which could be used until the original was repaired. The owner
ran a service station and kept money in the trailer. He said that I would have to equip the
makeshift door with a lock. I drove to a hardware store, looking for a lock
that would do the job, but all to no avail. Then I remembered that I could pray!
For what seemed like ages, I prayed, thought, studied and experimented, but
could come up with no viable solution to the problem. Finally, I rigged a simple
bar latch to the inside of the door, drilled a hole and bent a stiff wire so
that the door could be opened from the outside by inserting and turning the
wire. The owner was not home, so I explained to his wife how the “lock”
worked and left.
All the way home I wondered why God had failed to answer my prayers. I began to wonder
if anything had changed after all. Had I simply fooled myself into thinking that
I was a child of God? I even had difficulty sleeping that night. The next day,
the door was repaired and I headed for the mobile home, hoping that the
owner would not be home and that burglars had not cleaned him out.
To my amazement, the owner of the mobile home was full of praise for my
“clever invention”! He said he had told people, that there was no way to
devise a lock without drilling holes in the mobile home. When he arrived home
that evening and inspected the job, he couldn't get over how simple, yet
effective that lock was. “No burglar would ever guess that he only needed a
piece of wire to get in”, he said. “That was a stroke of genius!” “Oh no,” I replied, “I just prayed about it and this is
what I came up with.”
While installing the new door, I asked God to forgive me for my lack of faith and poor
attitude. As I was cleaning up, I suddenly realized that I could have simply
unscrewed the lock from the damaged door and attached it to the temporary door.
The job could have been completed in a few minutes and the owner would even be
able to use his key! But that would not have been conceived as a “stroke of
genius” nor an answered prayer, so God led otherwise!
I had an unsettling experience soon after my conversion. Several Christian youth admitted
that they had actually envied me in my unsaved condition. I was miserable and
under conviction of sin, yet these Christians had actually been jealous of me!
They were even looking to me as a role model, "the guy who had everything
going for him"!
I had never seen myself in any kind of an enviable position, yet looking back now, I
can understand. Our family lived in a spacious house next to a lake, with
boating, fishing and swimming on our doorstep. The Delaware River was not far
away and it was only an hour’s drive to the New Jersey beaches. My father was
a successful builder and as the oldest son, my future looked bright. My annual
income in 1956 was $2,274, certainly not as much as some earned,
but in those days it was enough to purchase a new Ford or Chevy and keep it
filled with gasoline for a year. I had plenty of reason to be thankful to God,
but for 19 years, I wasn’t.
FROM JUNK TO TREASURE
As a child, I used to spend hours creating miniature towns with houses made
of twigs, moss for grass and ground pine for trees. I always enjoyed making
valuable things from worthless material or fixing things that others had broken
and discarded. It gave me more satisfaction to restore old cars or build
them from junkyard parts than buying a new one ever could have given. Restoring
magnificent works of art is also a rewarding challenge (see next section: "More
I think that is how God must have looked at me. For 19 years I did what I
wanted with my life until I had made a mess of it. When I was completely down,
however, God picked me up and restored me. The Bible calls this becoming a
"new creature". When God makes us over, there is very little to
remind you of the former depraved and desolate condition. The Apostle Paul was
filled with hatred and persecuted the Christian church, but God entered his life
and he was struck down, blind and helpless. Once Paul committed himself to the
Creator, God began to show the world what wonderful things He could do with that
life. I married a fantastic wife and we served in Europe as missionaries for 38 years.
I still enjoy working on old cars and fixing things. I can appreciate the
hard work that goes into a good restoration job. But my greatest joy and thrill
is working with people who have been cast off by society, yet transformed by
God's grace into valuable and fruitful individuals. We worked 10 years with
drug addicts and a good number are now happy, productive Christians. We have
seen lives changed by Christ in our youth ministries. We have seen lives formed
in the Bible Institute. When we leave this earth, we must leave car, house and
things behind, but the people in whose lives we invested will spend eternity with
us. What a reward that is!
There is another lesson I have learned from working with old cars. The
greatest treasure is finding a well preserved car that has received good care
and been kept in good condition. That certainly beats trying to restore a badly
abused rust bucket! I recently bought my wife a 30-year old Mercedes SLC, which had been
well cared for and was almost like new (read the rest of
the story at the end of this article). I encourage young people to be what
their creator intended them to be, to live according to his design, and take care
not to abuse their bodies and souls. Preserved treasure is better than restored
treasure, but God delights in both.
MORE CAR STORIES
COLLEGE AND CARS
I bought this '40 Ford Deluxe Coupe while in college. It
never got past the gray primer stage before I sold it.
Slightly modified '46 Mercury coupe and '54 Ford
I found learning at the University to be more difficult than I had imagined. I should
have applied myself more in High School, but now was not the time for remorse,
but rather for hard work! Because I
received no financial help from home, I had to work many hours after classes and during
vacations. My carpenter experience
proved helpful in finding employment in the school repair shop, fixing broken
There was no end of original ways I discovered to save money. I made regular visits to
the showers, collecting leftover scraps of soap from the soap dishes. By
pressing these together while still soft, they could be formed into nice,
multi-colored soap bars. To earn money, I bought and sold articles and ran
errands. I always delighted in making useful and worthwhile things from other
people's rubbish. I began to make minor appliance repairs. Once a month, there
was a "Lost & Found Auction" on the University campus. I purchased
broken or damaged items, especially umbrellas, and after fixing them, sold them
for a handsome profit. My roommates complained about the room looking like an
umbrella factory, but I did provide them with free umbrellas.
My experience with cars also came in handy (my driver's license was restored after
six months). I discovered that old cars were plentiful and inexpensive in South
Carolina, where they don't use salt on the highways. For the same reason, late
model cars were cheaper in the North. After summer and Christmas holidays, I
purchased cars with my hard-earned money. After necessary repairs and
sometimes painting them, I would drive them back to college and sell them for a
profit. For the trip north, I bought "oldies" to sell in New Jersey.
Filling the car with paying passengers more than covered travel expenses.
Towards the beginning of my second semester, the University Art Museum was looking for
someone to help with alterations on picture frames. The shop foreman recommended
me for the job. I found the work
challenging and soon became an expert at applying gold leaf, wood carving, and
other processes involved in making picture frames.
The process of making new frames appear old, called "antiquing",
was exactly the opposite of what I usually did. But the principle is the same. That inner longing to make something worthwhile from
substances of little value, found ample opportunity to express itself in making
picture frames. Chestnut trees, which had been killed by a blight, were riddled
with perfectly natural worm holes. One could still locate wood from these trees
on a few farms. Frames made from wormy chestnut were difficult to
distinguish from the "genuine" articles. In addition to chemical
substances, I experimented successfully with coffee grounds, shoe polish, carbon
paper, sandpaper and just plain dirt. The Owner of a large custom frame
manufacturer in New York City was so impressed with my work, that he offered me
a lucrative job after graduation. God had other plans for me.
I also learned to do specialized work, such as cleaning and restoration of paintings
and icons. The most challenging and fascinating job was transferring paintings
from warped wooden panels to canvas. For this, we had a giant heat table filled
with wax. The painted side of the panel was covered with a very thin plastic attached with a special glue that could not harm the painting. Then we turned
the heat on until the wax liquefied, taking the shape of the painting surface. A
vibrator helped eliminate air pockets. The wax
was then allowed to cool. Then began the tedious process of carefully
scraping wood from the back side of the panel. The process slowed down considerably
as we neared the gesso ground coat. When all
traces of the wood were removed, the wax was re-heated to allow the painting to
flatten. It would then be allowed to harden again for the final step; attaching the canvas.
In my Senior year, I twice drove a large truck to New York City to
pick up paintings and medieval furniture for the Art Gallery. A student
accompanied me on the first trip. We left at night and I asked if he
wanted to drive first, but he said “no”. Instead of sleeping, however, he
talked incessantly. I finally told him to drive while I slept, but he kept
talking so that I couldn’t sleep. When I finally did drift off, a
sudden jolt awoke me. The huge truck had veered onto the shoulder and was
precariously close to a ditch. My companion had fallen asleep at the wheel! I
reached over and grabbed the wheel, guiding the vehicle safely back onto the
roadway. I insisted on driving the rest of the way myself just to stay
alive. My companion slept like a baby for the remainder of the trip!
I was accompanied the second time by a member of staff and we had an uneventful trip
to the city, but arrived in New York on garbage collection day!. When we
finally reached our destination, we parked the truck on a street where parking
lights were required. The 24-volt battery was dead in the morning, so we took it
to a garage for fast charging while we loaded the truck. I got the job of
re-installing the battery and will never forget that experience. I dropped an
open-end wrench, which landed on the battery, short circuiting the connecting
posts. With a loud bang, the battery literally exploded, spraying me with pieces
of battery and acid. Without a moment's hesitation, I stripped down to my under
shorts in the middle of that busy New York street! The truck cab needed a
new paint job after that, and a new pot-hole was added to the street, but
fortunately for me, only a few drops of acid landed on my skin. My clothes were
ruined. Since my arrival at the university, I had gained several additional career options,
but “truck driver” was struck from the list that
For the final trip home after graduation, I purchased a 1950 Packard
from a University Art Professor for $45. A tree had fallen on the car, crushing
the roof almost down to the seats. Otherwise, the car was in great
condition. I crawled inside and laying on the seat, kicked out the roof with my
feet. I sprained an ankle in the process but it worked.
I had no money before our wedding, not even enough to buy an engagement ring. Income from
various jobs, buying and selling cars etc. was barely enough to pay off my
college debts. A month before our wedding, I borrowed $700 from the bank and
purchased a 28' 1956 Cadet Buddy trailer for our first home. It needed a lot of
work, but after painting it, installing a new hot water heater, Formica counter
top and making other repairs, it was livable. When we sold it a year
later, we got all of our money back including the cost of improvements.
When we got married, we had a '50 Packard. Verna bought this '50 Oldsmobile
Rocket 88 for $150 while I was at work.
Our wedding took place in the First Baptist Church of Meadville on March 9th,
1963. My brothers
dutifully decorated our old Packard and Verna's parents helped to make our
wedding a memorable one. Years afterward, the pastor stated that ours was the
nicest wedding of his career. My father injured his back shortly before the
wedding date and had to lay on his back for the eight-hour trip across
Pennsylvania. Hundreds of relatives and guests attended the wedding, bringing
piles of lovely gifts. I only had about $50 to my name and was secretly hoping
for some cash gifts, but there was no such luck!
We left in our Packard for a two-night honeymoon in Niagara Falls. The weather was icy cold and snow drifts along the road nearly reached
the telephone wires. Our motel room was equipped with steam heat and a TV, yet
cost only $4 per night. Gasoline was cheap and we ate inexpensive meals, so we still
had $5 when we arrived back in New Jersey. Half way home, the rear wheel bearing
started to make strange noises and by the time we reached the Delaware Memorial
Bridge, it was literally screaming. We prayed the car all the way to our little
trailer home. As we drove into the driveway, the car stopped and refused
to budge another inch. Later inspection showed that the wheel bearing was welded
to the axle from the heat! A farm implement dealer happened to have an old Packard sitting on
his lot and agreed to sell me the entire rear axle for my last $5.
OFF TO AUSTRIA!
I owned over 40 cars before leaving for Austria, but during our first year
in Austria, we had no car whatsoever. For a car nut, that is a long
time to be without wheels! Vienna has a great public transportation system,
but we wanted to
see some of the scenery we had heard so much about. Our problem was money.
Our monthly income of $212 was equivalent to what my weekly salary had been in America.
In June, 1965, we became acquainted with a Swedish Christian lady who was visiting Vienna.
Three months later, she sent us a check for $120 to use any way we wanted. Just
the previous day, I had spotted the "perfect car" on my way home from
the university. It was a thirteen-year-old 1952 "Pretzel" Volkswagen, so
named because of the shape of its split rear window. The car had been
purchased new during the allied occupation of Austria when cars were scarce and expensive. It even had a canvas sunroof. That was as
close to a convertible as I would ever dare to own as a missionary! There were
air vents by the front doors, mechanical turning signals that flipped out of
slots behind the doors and an unsynchronized 4-speed transmission. The 27 hp
engine was not much compared to what I was accustomed to, but
it would have to do. The owner agreed to the price I offered ($120) so we were soon the proud owners of this car. A year later, the
engine breathed its last breath, but not before showing us some of the most
delightful scenery that we had ever laid eyes upon.
Above: 1952 VW with split rear window and winkers; 1957 VW Samba Bus
with 27 windows!
I donated our old beetle to a pastor for parts and purchased a
1957 VW Samba Bus. It was in great condition except that the 32 HP engine had died.
It is no wonder too, for this limited edition 9-passenger bus was
really heavy! It boasted lots of extra chrome trim, a large canvas sunroof, pleated
vinyl seats, 27 windows and a double
insulated floor. The latter not only kept the frame from rusting, but also
allowed a trickle of hot air produced by the air-cooled boxer engine to escape
the forward vents. None of this precious heat was allowed to warm the feet, for
every bit was needed to keep the windshield transparent. After installing a new engine,
the Samba served us
well. The biggest drawback was driving in winter, not only because you could get
frostbite, but this vehicle was not easy to keep on the road in snow. You had to get it up to full speed going downhill if you didn't
want to push it all the way up the next. The real trick was shifting back to second
and then first gear without destroying the transmission.
father offered to loan us money to purchase a brand new VW Bus in 1967, we were
delighted. The new van had 50 HP and a 12-volt battery! If we had stored our
first two VWs in a garage somewhere, we could get a fortune for them today!
Fiat Multipla, Forerunner of the Modern Minivan
Our first place of ministry was in a town called Ampflwang. If you ever hear of
another word that contains five consecutive consonants, let me know! We were
asked to fill in for other missionaries while they were on furlough. The church had a
Fiat Multipla for church use and the missionary also had a Multipla for personal
use. These vehicles, which were first produced in 1956, were predestined to become the favorite missionary
transportation, with only 19 HP and a seating capacity for six or seven persons!
It was a true forerunner of the modern minivan. In 2001, Fiat reminded the
world of this fact by producing a new Multipla.
The missionary we were substituting for, decided to fly to America for
additional study and asked us to sell his Multipla. It was a newer 1960 model with seven seats and 27 PS. He was asking $500.
Our mission co-workers, Frank and Gwen Wiebe owned an older Multipla that was badly rusted and constantly in
need of repairs. Worst of all,
the engine threatened to give up the ghost at any time. They desperately needed
another car but had no money.
Verna and I were praying about this matter one morning, when a lady we had met in
Vienna suddenly came to mind. I stopped praying and asked Verna if she
remembered her. It was towards the end of our language study when we met her and
at the time, our acquaintance seemed quite casual. She was traveling through
Europe with a tour group and found the address of the Baptist Church in a
phone book. When she appeared in the morning worship service, we offered to
translate for her and invited her to Sunday dinner. After the meal, we drove her
back to the hotel in our “Pretzel”. In parting, she gave us her address and
said, “Please send me your newsletters. And if you ever have a special need, let me know. Perhaps I can help out in some way.”
I recalled that the lady was from Texas and the missionary who was selling the Multipla was studying in Texas. Should
we write her?” Verna agreed that it would be worth a postage stamp,
so we sent off a friendly letter, telling about our work and family. Then
we reminded her what she had told us and explained the need of our co-workers. Within ten days we received her reply. She wrote, “I went to the bank to deposit some
money, but arrived right after the bank closed. I was at first disappointed, but
the Lord seemed to tell me that He needed that money. I returned home and found
your letter in the mail. The amount needed for the car corresponded exactly to the money I was going to deposit!” She had contacted the
school and gotten the missionary's address. A check for $500 had already been sent to
him and our friends could pick up their car immediately!
We notified Frank and Gwen of the good news. They promptly wrote a warm letter of thanks
to their unknown benefactor. They had been driving their car for two weeks, when
the letter was returned unopened. One word was stamped on the envelope: “Deceased”!
Verna’s father bought a new Oldsmobile in 1967. Because his old ’56 Buick Super was such a
good-running car and the dealer wouldn't give him much in trade, he parked it behind
the house. When we came home for our first furlough, he offered us the car. It was an unusual tri-color, 4-door
hardtop which had basically the same body as the Cadillac El Dorado. The car
boasted a Dynaflow transmission, radio with automatic search activated by a foot
pedal, air conditioning, electric windows and much more. The car was rusty, but it ran like a dream
and even got good mileage for its size. The floor
of the trunk was rusted completely through and we had to carry our belongings in
the back seat with the boys. But there was plenty of room in that car!
In May, we farmed out our boys to my sister and headed for South Carolina for a
conference. Somewhere in Virginia, I heard a loud noise and looked in the rear view mirror just in time
to see a large piece of fender bouncing on the pavement. I stopped and removed
the metal from the highway and tore another loose piece from the car as a
We arrived back in New Jersey after 1200 otherwise uneventful miles of
traveling and I
decided to change the oil. I drove the car into the garage over the grease pit, but when I applied the brakes,
the brake pedal went to the floor! The car kept rolling until it rammed a work bench. I was relieved to see that
little damage had been done, but when I discovered the cause of the
problem, I turned white. The
brake line had rusted through and didn’t break until I was driving into the
During a visit at my brother's house, I noticed a pink and white ’56
Buick with no tags sitting in his neighbor’s yard. I asked my brother if it was for sale. He
called and the owner replied, “It is my
wife’s car, but she is very sick and can no longer drive.” They sold us the
car for $50.
The Buick had been driven mainly in the south and had no rust. It was a smaller
Century model, but also a 4-door hardtop. As a youth, I liked pink and
painted two of my cars that color, but pink didn’t seem like
the right color for a missionary car. I de-chromed the trunk, put dual
exhausts on it and painted it red and white - an ideal missionary car!
When we were ready to return to Austria, I put a “for sale” sign in the window.
That evening we attended a funeral and the Funeral Director’s son saw my car. He
had just wrecked his Corvette and needed another car until his was fixed. He
handed me $350 and even drove us home from the funeral.
1956 Buick Century after painting and 1968 Renault R-10
1968 RENAULT R-10
During our furlough in 1968, my brother, Bob, loaned us his economical new Renault for
a trip to the Northwoods of Michigan. We fell in love with the little car and
decided it would be nice to have a car like that someday.
We served in the large city of Linz during our second term in Austria.
There were enormous distances involved in our many ministries. Many Sundays I
preached in three churches, driving hundreds of kilometers. We were also
responsible for the youth work and since two of the youth had gone
together to purchase a VW Bus, there was no longer any need for us to have one. In July, 1969, we decided
to sell it and purchase a more economical car. I received permission from the owner
of a service station to put our bus on his parking lot with a "For Sale" sign in the window.
The following day, there was a nearly new 1968 Renault R-10 sitting right next to it. It had less
than 5,000 miles on the tachometer, but had been sideswiped. The owner said he was going to fix it up to sell. I expressed an
interest and when he named an unbelievably low price, a contract was soon signed.
After selling our bus, we even had money left over!
1970 MAZDA STATION WAGON
A year later, our third child was born and we felt a bit cramped in the little Renault.
Verna began to talk about how convenient the VW Bus had been, but I reminded her
that it was also expensive to drive.
The first Japanese cars were introduced in Austria in 1970. Mazda was first and a
year later, Toyota. People were leery about how well they would hold up and
whether parts and services would be available. Because the cars were not
selling, Mazda dealers dropped prices and began to invent ways to promote them.
They offered cars to taxi owners at dealer’s cost with the condition that
they keep accurate records on economy and repairs.
I saw a little white Mazda station
wagon in a showroom one day and stopped to look. The young salesman didn’t want to
miss a chance to sell and started to bargain with me. While he talked, I did some calculating in my head.
Our Renault was only three years old, looked and ran great, but it needed tires,
shocks, brakes and other minor repairs worth
about $600. The salesman offered me more than we had paid for the Renault and the difference seemed manageable.
When he tried to seal the deal, I said, “I need to go home and pray with my wife about
this.” Thinking he had heard incorrectly, the salesman asked, “You pray about buying cars?”
I assured him that this was our practice.
returned the next day, he was more interested in my prayer life than in selling
the car. He began coming to our youth center and we became good friends. He and
his wife even came to our home for Sunday dinner, but he couldn’t bring
himself to accept Christ. His staunch Catholic family had all but severed
relationships with him when he married a Muslim girl. If he became a believer,
he felt he would also lose his wife. No, he couldn’t make that sacrifice.
But we bought the car! I kept good mileage records and that information helped
our salesman friend sell more cars.
A VESPA FOR THE POPE’S YOUTH LEADER
In February, 1972, a boy who attended our youth center moved to Germany. I
noticed that his 1961 150cc Vespa was still parked along the road getting
rusty, so on a visit to his home, I asked him about it. He handed me the title and said,
“You can have it!”
I worked over the engine until it purred like a kitten. Then I repainted it and put it up for sale.
In order to sell it, I needed to transfer the title to my own name, but it wasn’t necessary to get tags. At the Motor Vehicle Agency,
I was handed a lengthy form to fill out. I completed what I felt to be pertinent like my name and address,
VIN number and other vital statistics. I handed it to the official and after a quick glance, he gave
the form back saying, "The form must be filled out in its entirety! You left out several lines."
Dutifully, I filled out the form in detail, giving my birthplace, date of
birth, citizenship, academic degree, title and religious affiliation. Under
“occupation”, I was uncertain about what to write. If I wrote “missionary”,
he would assume that I lived and worked in Africa or some other exotic land. In
the minds of Austrians, missionaries only go to heathen lands and that would
certainly exclude Austria! If I wrote
“carpenter” or any other profession into the blank, I would be required to
give the name and address of my employer and tax number. I finally wrote
"migrant laborer" in the blank and got back in line.
The official first took issue with my religious affiliation. “What is a
Papstist?” , he asked.
“Do you mean Catholic?” The German word for Pope is “Papst” and “Papstist” means
follower of the Pope.
I explained that there are creatures called Baptists and that he could look in
the phone book if he didn’t believe me.
When he came to “occupation”, he nearly exploded. “Who ever
heard of a migrant laborer from America!” I explained that I had learned
the carpenter trade but Austrian law prevented me from giving this
as my occupation because I had not learned it in Austria. I then told him that I was a youth leader in the
Baptist Church. He crossed out "migrant laborer" and wrote “Papstist Jungendleiter” (Papal Youth
Leader!) into the blank.
1960 VW Micro Bus and 1967 Opel Kadett (I repainted both)
When my parents came to visit us in 1971, they wanted to rent a
car, but I offered them our Mazda instead. I said that if they would send me
$300 in advance, I would buy an older vehicle to use while they traveled around
Europe. I bought a 1960 VW bus. After they returned to America, I painted it and
sold it for a nice profit.
In 1972, the youth who had the VW bus sold it
and purchased cars, so we traded our Mazda for a like new 1971 VW bus. Just
before our furlough in 1973, we were able to sell it again for a good price and
took an older Opel Kadett station wagon in trade. I painted it copper bronze and
sold it before leaving for our furlough.
Furlough cars have been both a source of joy and pain, but in every case they provide
memories! In our thirty eight years of missionary work, we have had many
experiences with furlough cars.
We once met a single missionary from Spain who was complaining about her furlough car. She
lamented, "I just can't understand it! I bought the car from a pastor for
whom I have much respect. He told me that he had never, ever had any problems
with this car and was selling it only because the Lord had
miraculously provided him another vehicle. I have had nothing but problems
with this car!"
Without much thought, I mentioned that the Lord must have had good reasons
for giving the pastor another car! I knew right away that it was the wrong thing to say,
but it was too late.
1968 LTD STATION WAGON
In 1973, we left for another furlough in America. My brother Dave offered to
find us a good station wagon and even bought it for us to use without charge.
It was a 1968 Ford LTD with room for ten passengers. We drove the car to
California and back with only one minor problem. The air conditioning quit in
Utah, so we crossed the salt desert at night and slept during the day. We got it
1974 FORD PINTO
That was the only furlough we ever took that lasted a whole year; it was a good furlough
in every respect. We were able to purchase printing equipment for the print shop
and we even had enough money to purchase a new car. Our Ford Pinto station wagon
cost $2,782 in December of 1973. We also bought a second-hand pop-up camping trailer for $125.
1974 Ford Pinto
Travel by air had become less expensive than by ship,
but with so much to take back, we opted for the latter. I built shipping crates for the printing equipment and
our personal belongings which would fit in the camping trailer. By taking the
car and trailer, we would save money that normally would be spent on ground transportation from the port to Austria.
We drove our Pinto pulling the trailer to New York City, where we boarded the S.S. France.
This was to be its final
Atlantic crossing before being sold to Norway. We stood on the deck of the ship
watching dock workers load containers,
crates, cars, boats and campers into the hold of the largest passenger liner
afloat. After fifteen minutes, we still hadn't seen our car, so I asked a lady
standing next to us if she had
seen them load a metallic bronze station wagon. "Oh
no!" she responded, "Was that your car?" She then told us that a cable
had snapped during loading and the car
fell four decks down to
the bottom of the ship! It was totally demolished! Our heats sank. "Are you
sure it was a metallic bronze-colored station wagon -- was it a Ford
Pinto?" She said that she didn't know what make the car was, but it was
definitely a metallic bronze station wagon!
I ran down to the purser's office and tried to get information, but there had been no
report of a damaged car. It wasn't until we were several hours out to sea that
we received word on the car. The wrecked car was indeed a bronze station wagon;
but it was an American Motors "Ambassador," registered in Canada. Our
car was not damaged. When we arrived in France, we saw
the wrecked vehicle on the pier. We also watched a dock worker drive another luxury
car over a large wooden block. The car got jammed and would move neither forward
nor backward. The worker kept gunning the motor in an attempt to free the car until the automatic transmission housing
was punctured and oil gushed out onto the pier. We
thanked the Lord for His protection.
FUN WITH LICENSE PLATES
After returning to Austria, we drove our car with the New Jersey plates for
three months. That was quite an experience! Soon after our arrival, a fellow missionary
accompanied me to visit a lady from the church. I parked the car in a parking
spot that was limited to 90 minutes. There are no parking meters in Austria, but one must
have a cardboard or plastic clock visible through the windshield, which can be
set showing the time of arrival. If a policeman
sees that the hour-and-a-half time limit has expired or that the clock had been
set wrong (some try cheating by setting it for a later time), the owner receives a ticket. I had not
gotten one of those clocks yet, but
since we were only stopping for a minute or two, I didn't worry about it.
When we returned to the car, a policeman had just placed a ticket under the windshield
wiper. While the officer watched from across the street, I took the
ticket, studied it for a minute, and then asked my fellow worker in English if
he knew what it said. He just shrugged. I speared the ticket onto the radio antenna
and drove away. I wonder if he sent the ticket to "Garden State
NJ" to collect the $2 fine!
We visited the Austrian equivalent of a county fair, but every parking space within
a mile of the fair grounds was filled. There were a few open spaces right next
to the entrance, but a sign declared that those spaces were reserved for VIPs,
mainly politicians. A policeman was standing there to make certain that no one else used them. I drove right into one of the
empty spots and greeted the policeman with a friendly “Good
morning, sir!” He smiled back and wished me a good day. After several hours,
we returned to find the friendly policeman still guarding our car. As I unlocked the
door, we again exchanged friendly smiles
and greetings - in English of course!
The city of Linz was in the midst of several ambitious building projects and planning
even more. Because these cost a lot of tax money, there are critics who argue about the necessity of such
expenditures. City officials
decided to display models of future projects and invite the public to view them,
ask questions and express their opinions. The date they chose was a Sunday, and
I was to be in Steyr all day. I really wanted to see the exhibit
and decided that if we arrived when it opened, we could still get to church on time.
I drove up to the main entrance in our Ford Pinto with its American license plates.
Several Mercedes and BMW limousines were already parked at the curb
and a group of distinguished gentlemen stood near them, chatting and puffing on
cigars. I got out and opened the door for Verna and our three children. All of
us were dressed in our Sunday attire and I realized that we had become the focal
point of attention as we marched into the building. An important looking man
greeted us and gave us a royal tour of the displays, sharing details and asking if we had any questions. Looking at my watch, I said that we really
didn’t have much time and that I was most interested in the traffic projects planned for the city. He graciously obliged and
began elaborating on the necessity, cost and other details of a projected 4-lane
highway and cloverleaf. I was enjoying all this attention and after a brief examination of
the cloverleaf, I asked if bicycles would be allowed and if so, where would they ride
without causing congestion or getting killed. He studied the model and then
looked at the plans on paper. With an embarrassed expression on his face, he admitted that this
aspect had apparently not been considered. He hastily thanked me for my insight
and added that he would make careful note of this for the engineers. We returned
to the car, curious eyes following us all the way. I knew what they were
asking each other: “Who on earth were those people?” Whenever I drive on that
cloverleaf and see the bicycle path, I am reminded of that Sunday!
Not every experience we had was enjoyable. Verna and I drove into the city one
hot day to do some errands. While Verna waited in the car, I ran into a store to
get something. A man of about
fifty walked by, stopped, looked at the license tags and muttered, “USA - [expletive
deleted]!” Then he took a few steps backward and spit in Verna's face through the open car window!
GETTING AUSTRIAN TAGS
I had three months to get the car changed over to Austrian tags and registration. I
had done my homework well, paying close attention to requirements of
the law for importing a vehicle. Before driving to the customs office, I
carefully arranged the documents and
translations in my briefcase.
When it was my turn, I greeted the official by his proper title and explained my errand
briefly. I said that I realized this was a very complicated process and I
was very likely missing some piece of paper, stamp or permit. Then I laid one
document after another on his desk, quoting the laws, rulings and stipulations
pertaining to that particular item. When everything was lying in order, I again
apologized that I was not experienced at this sort of thing and asked him to let
me know if something was missing. He was obviously not accustomed to that kind of
efficiency and studied everything carefully. Finally, he said that all was in order and stamped “duty free” on
The next step was getting the car through inspection. An official in the
office ascertained that
all my papers were in order and sent me to an inspection station, where
the car was examined in detail. I had already changed the headlights and
taillights to conform to Austrian standards. Turning lights must be amber,
so I painted
the inside of the backup light lenses with special paint and wired them accordingly. I
a back-up light, but not two of them. I mounted an accessory light on the
bumper to fulfill that purpose.
A mechanic got in the car to start it, but nothing happened when he turned
the key. I explained
that he needed to hook up the seat belt before it would start. He muttered
something under his breath and obliged. When he unbelted himself with the motor
running, a buzzer sounded and he wanted to know what that was. He shook his
head in disbelief when I told him how safety-conscious Americans were. I
explained that the massive bumpers would withstand an impact of 10 mph. The
mechanic then shoved a tube up the exhaust pipe to check emissions. The gauge of his
machine didn't move. He pressed down on the gas, but the needle barely moved. He cursed and gave the machine a kick with his
foot. I had to explain that Americans were also quite concerned about the
environment. This car had many pollution controls! Today, Europeans think that
the Americans are not careful enough about such things.
Once the car passed inspection, I headed home, elated that everything had gone so
well. It was only noon, but the Motor Vehicle Agency is only open in the mornings. I
would have to wait until the following day to get the tags and
I was one of the first in line at the Motor Vehicle Agency. When I got to the
window, I placed my pile of documents on the counter and explained what I was
after in as friendly a tone as possible. The inspector leafed through the papers
carefully. Finally satisfied that everything
was in order, he pulled out a pair of tags and started to type. I realized that
he was about to give me temporary tags, which are normally only given to migrant
laborers. Recalling what a representative of the same agency had told me before
about migrant workers, I said, “Excuse me Sir, but I am an American and live permanently in Austria. I have
always been issued regular Austrian plates.” Perhaps he had a spat with his spouse that morning,
or maybe his superior had criticized his work. He replied gruffly, “You are a foreigner!
You get temporary tags!”
I knew what this would mean. I would be stopped repeatedly by the police to see
if my papers were in order. The tags cost nearly double and had to be renewed
each year. I attempted again to convince the agent, “If you check my file
Sir, you will see that my last car had regular tags. I have lived here for many
years.” He was not about to change his mind and let me know this in no
uncertain terms. Having no other recourse, I said nothing more and accepted the
As already mentioned, we also brought a pop-up tent camper back with us. Because we hadn’t owned it six months before
entering Austria, I knew that we would have to pay
import duty. The trailer was twelve
years old and only cost $125 dollars, so I wasn’t too concerned about that.
I went through the same process with the trailer as with the car. The
customs officer recognized me right away and took care of the matter in short
order. Looking in a big book, he noted the distance between America and
Austria, multiplying this by a sum of Austrian money. Then he calculated the
exchange rate for what I paid for the trailer and added this to the figure. I wound up
paying $200, but didn’t complain. We had saved much more than that on shipping
and transportation costs.
At the inspection station, the same man who checked the Pinto, took care of the
trailer. I had changed the lights but he said that I would have to
remove the four support jacks from the corners of the trailer. No sharp edges were
allowed in Austria! I got out my tools and unbolted the scissor jacks. While I
was doing so, the inspector said, “You can remount them when you get home. No
one is going to check up on you!”
The following day I was at the Motor Vehicle Agency again. The man at the counter
took one look at my papers and asked for my car registration - the one he had
just issued two days earlier. He glanced at the document and said with a
harsh tone, “I can’t issue you tags for the trailer.” I wanted to know
what papers were missing. He said that nothing was missing. Austrian law
requires that a trailer have the same type of tags as the vehicle towing it, but
there are no temporary tags for trailers. I argued, “But I paid duty on it and
paid to get it inspected." He assured me that there was nothing he could do. I
hesitated and then asked hopefully, “Could you give me regular tags for both
vehicles?” With a note of finality in his voice, he let me know that
no amount of argumentation would be of any benefit.
I checked with the Austrian Touring Club and a lawyer, but they said there was
nothing I could do unless the official changed his mind. I knew what they meant.
If I bribed him, he would likely change his mind. Christian friends had
told me that this was sometimes a “necessary evil” in Austria. I have spoken
with missionaries from third world countries who have to pay bribes
for just about every service including mail delivery! The missionaries
there consider it "tipping" because officials receive very little pay
for exactly this reason. The idea of bribing a well-paid Austrian public official,
however, was repulsive and I was determined not to stoop that low.
When summer arrived, we wanted to use the trailer for our vacation, so I returned to
the Motor Vehicle Agency and courteously requested regular tags for the car and trailer. The
agent recognized me and remained adamant, saying he couldn’t give me the
tags. I was prepared for his response and argued that he had issued regular tags
to other foreigners living in Linz. Why did he give them preference over me? He answered,
“The gods were with them!” I replied, “I don’t believe
in gods; I believe in God and He is going to help me get regular tags.”
At this remark, he stared at me with a quizzical look and said, “And how do
you expect to accomplish that?” I pulled a list of names and addresses out of
my briefcase (important Austrians always carry these). I said, “All the
people on this list are foreigners like me, but you have issued them regular
plates. Some of them have doctorates and others are high
ranking officials in the local industries. Either I get regular license
plates or these persons will have to relinquish theirs and get temporary tags! I am prepared
to take this case to court.”
The agent looked briefly at my list and saw that I was not bluffing. He said,
“Just a moment while I make a phone call.” I was familiar with that trick
and knew I had won! He picked up the phone and talked briefly with a fictitious person on the other
end of the line. After hanging up, he returned and said that he had received permission to make an exception in my case.
Months later, I accompanied Verna to the same office to pick up her driver’s license.
We had to walk by the window of that agent and he spotted me from a distance. He
said, “Good morning, Mr. Harvey, is there anything I can do for you today?”
1976 Ford Taunus
GOD’S DEALS ON WHEELS
We were able to import our Ford Pinto duty free but were not allowed to sell it for two
years after registering it. The Pinto was only a four passenger vehicle and our
children kept growing. Soon we faced a battle every time we took our children on a longer trip.
Becky was not happy about always having to sit in the middle. „I don’t want to sit on the hump again!”,
she would complain. Taking turns was not a solution, for the boys were both so tall
that they blocked the rear view mirror. We anxiously awaited November 1, 1976,
the day when we could sell our Pinto without paying the duty.
In October, I started scouring the newspapers for a five passenger station wagon.
Having already owned at least forty Fords, this was of course my preference.
Near the end of the month, on a Monday morning, I saw a classified ad for
a German Ford Taunus station wagon. According to the ad, it was a 1976 model, but
the price listed was only half the new price. I assumed that there was either a printing
error or that it had been damaged. I called the number given and reached a BMW/Simca dealership.
The car was indeed a 1976 model and had not been in an accident. It was ten months
old with 10,000 kilometers (6,000 miles) and was still under the new-car warranty!
The price given in the newspaper was also correct.
I said that I would be right over to look at the car, but the dealer told me that I would have to wait.
He had taken the Ford in trade but the present owner was still driving it until
his new car was ready for delivery. The car would not come in until Tuesday evening.
He said that if I came by on Wednesday morning, they would have the car cleaned and ready to test drive.
I told Verna and we immediately made this a matter of prayer. We had no money and no
prospective buyer for our Pinto. It was doubtful that the dealer would accept an
American car in trade.
Tuesday was a rainy day and I had to do
some errands in town. It was about 4:00 PM when I was finished and I decided to
make a detour to the BMW agency about fifteen miles away. As I drove, I spotted a Ford station wagon
several cars ahead of me which matched the description of the one advertised. Sure enough, the driver turned into the
dealership and I stopped behind him. I politely asked the driver if he was
trading the car in and when he replied affirmatively, I asked if there
was anything wrong with the car. He said “no”. A salesman approached and led
him to his new car. After a few minutes, he returned to take the tags off the Ford.
When he saw me looking it over, he asked if was interested.
After a short drive, the salesman said that if I wanted the car, I could sign the papers
immediately. I replied that I had no money with me, but he said it didn’t
matter; I could pay for the vehicle when I picked it up, even if it took a
couple of weeks. I of course signed on the dotted line. I probably never bought
a car as fast as that one!
When I got home, I told Verna that I had seen the car and that it was everything the
ad had promised. She was excited and asked if I thought there was any chance
of us getting the car. I tried to look dejected and replied, “The car is already
sold.” She looked very dissapointed, so I quickly added, “...to us!” I pulled out
the sales contract and showed it to her. “The salesman said we don’t
have to pay for it until we pick it up.”
A member of the Baptist Church in Linz had recently purchased a
car just like this one, except for the color. I called him and told him about my
lucky find. He responded in unbelief at first, but when I assured him that I was
not joking, he asked, “Did you read the small print on the back of the contract?” He
continued, “If no down payment is involved, the dealer often reserves the
right to sell the car to another paying customer.” I quickly examined the
contract and found the mentioned clause. When I told him, he surprised me by
saying, “Come to my house first thing tomorrow. I will stop by the bank and get
the money so you can pay for it before someone else gets it. That way, you can
take your time and try to get the best price for your old car.”
The following morning, I picked up the money and drove to the dealership. The dealer's wife
met me and when I explained my business, she said, “You know you
got a good deal, don’t you?” I nodded with a smile. She then told me that after I left, at least ten
prospective customers came to buy the car. One was so angry when he heard
that it was sold, that he put large posters on the sides of his car and picketed
the agency for unfair business practices! He was convinced that the ad was designed to
entice people in. She said that her husband got out his “blue book” and
almost fell over when he saw how cheaply he had sold the car. After the paper
work was completed and the title was in my hand, I mentioned the small print on
the back of the sales contract, saying that I was afraid they would sell it to
someone else. She replied that they would never do such a thing... but then
added, “If you had not come by this morning, we might have been tempted!”
I polished our ’73 Pinto and parked it along a busy highway near our home with a sign in the window. We
soon sold it for enough to completely pay for our 1976 Taunus Station Wagon!
After some quick calculation, I realized that we actually made profit of $1,200
over the new price three years and 60,000 miles later!
SUMMER TEAM BUS
The story of how we got the van for our 1976 summer team is worth mentioning here. We
a total of eight VW vans during our nearly four decades of missionary work. At
the time, I considered myself to be an expert on these vehicles. I had replaced and
rebuilt the engines, done welding on rusted frames and knew about all their
mysterious quirks. For this reason, I was not too concerned about finding the
About two months before the team was to arrive, I saw an ad in the paper for a
9-passenger VW bus. I called the number given and asked “intelligent”
questions. The seller should know that I was an expert when it came to VW vans.
The price was reasonable and it was a 1967 model, my favorite. That was the last
year Volkswagen produced the older style body, but it had a 12-volt battery. The
older vans had less weight for the tiny boxer motors to push around. The owner
said that the vehicle only needed paint. I had painted many cars, so this was no
hindrance and would allow me to choose my favorite color (wine red).
About that time, Verna asked me if I would go to the store to buy bread and milk for the
weekend. In Austria, stores close at noon on Saturday until don’t reopen until Monday
morning. After leaving the house, I decided to check out the VW bus. It
was sitting in a gas station not too far from our home. The engine started
immediately and because there were no tags on it, I just drove the van around
the gas pumps a couple of times. There were a few scratches and small dents, but
nothing that couldn’t be easily fixed with fiberglass putty and elbow grease.
It seemed to be a good buy, so after getting the owner
down on the price, I signed the papers and gave
him the money. When I arrived home, I proudly announced my acquisition to Verna,
elaborating on all the technical details to a woman who couldn’t have cared
less. When I paused, she asked, “Where is the milk and
bread?” I had forgotten, and now the stores were closed!
A closer investigation of my prize bus revealed that it had no reverse gear.
The battery was no good but the owner had apparently given it a fresh
charge before I arrived. The
generator didn't work either, but the indicator light had been disconnected so I wouldn’t notice. When I discovered that the heat exchangers were
the fate of that van was sealed. Leaky exchangers can be deadly,
pumping lethal exhaust gas into the interior of the vehicle. And they cost $300 to
replace. Verna graciously helped me tow the bus to a junk yard.
My ego was badly deflated, but I learned a valuable lesson. There were people out there
who knew more about selling than I knew about buying! I also learned to trust
prayer more than my own expertise. That occurrence has since become a family
joke. Every once in a while
Verna or one of the children would say, “Never send Dad to the store for milk
and bread! He will return with an old car!”
Before the team arrived, our co-workers, Rudy and Linda Meier left
for a year of furlough in America. They asked me to sell their car for them and
keep the money to purchase another car when they returned. As an afterthought, Rudy added, “You
can buy a van for the team with the money.”
A few hours after I sold their car, a pastor called to ask
for my “expert” assistance. The church had decided to get rid of their
Volkswagen bus and buy an economical station wagon. Could I please help them
find a buyer? The church sold us the van for exactly what we got for Meier’s
car and when the campaign was over, we got the entire purchase price back! Incidentally, the van was my favorite wine red color!
1964 MERCURY COMET
Verna’s brother got married on July 4th, 1964, two weeks before our first departure for
Austria. We had already
sold our 1950 Oldsmobile and were wondering how we could get to the wedding. A
member of the church offered to loan us his new Mercury Comet for the 800 mile round trip. We
liked the car so much, that Verna said, “I hope we can get a
car like this for our furlough some day.” That is exactly what happened thirteen years
later! In 1977 we bought a Mercury identical except for the color. Our
1964 Comet served us well and we even got the purchase price back when
it was sold.
1964 Mercuy Comet and 1980 Ford Taunus
FROM RED TO BLUE
By 1981, we had driven our red '76 Taunus nearly 300,000 kilometers
and decided that it was time to look for another station wagon before it fell
apart. We found an almost new blue station wagon with 6,000 miles on.
There had been a fire in the motor department which burned much of the wiring
and paint off the front. The owner was given a new vehicle and this one was
fixed up and sold to us for 40% under the new price. The car served us well
1971 Chevrolet Impala
OUR FIRST CHEVY
Although the Lord has always provided exactly the right car for each furlough,
we once mentioned this need as a prayer request in our
newsletter. We were offered a one-owner Chevrolet Impala with low mileage, which
had been owned by a little old
lady, who never drove it over 50 mph!
Only once had I heard that claim made of an automobile. It
was back in 1956 and the car was a pink and white 1955 Ford Convertible with Douglas glasspack mufflers, three
carburetors and a continental tire kit. There was a logical explanation of course. The little old
lady was the legal owner, but her nephew was the principle driver! That Ford was
just what I had been dreaming of, but I couldn’t afford the price they were
The little old lady who had owned the Chevy was my own aunt who had recently passed away!
I was a Ford fan and never liked Chevys, but
as the old expression goes, "You don't look a gift horse in the
mouth." I felt that this was one deal I couldn't afford to pass up.
When I picked up the car at my sister's house, it was splattered
with fresh mud even though it had not been registered for a year. I should have become
suspicious, but the engine started and ran smoothly. The transmission shifted fine, but all four
tires were well-worn. I bought new tires and registered the car immediately.
In order to get the car through inspection, I spent two days working on the wiring,
which included removal of the dashboard. The first time it rained, I
found water on the floor due to a leaky windshield and in the trunk where the rear window leaked.
I fixed the leaks with rubber cement, but the trunk floor was badly rusted.
When I tossed our suitcases into the trunk for our first trip to visit Verna's
parents, the floor dropped onto the axle and tailpipe. I found a piece of heavy sheet aluminum
and pop-riveted a new floor into the trunk. Our problems had just begun, however.
After spending Thanksgiving with Verna's parents in Meadville, Pennsylvania, we set
out Sunday morning on the eight-hour return trip to New Jersey. before we reached
Oil City, it started to rain. I turned on the wipers, but they quit working
within five minutes. I stopped to see what was wrong and discovered that they
had become disconnected from the shaft of the wiper motor. A nut had been loose
so long that the threads were worn smooth. I pushed the arm back on
and tightened the nut as best I could. The wipers worked for three more wipes
and I had to repeat this task. After doing this several times, it became obvious that we could
not stop every mile of our 400-mile journey.
I stopped in three service stations, looking for a mechanic on duty,
but no mechanics worked on Sunday. I finally found a friendly pump attendant who
agreed to let me to use his tools to fix the car myself. His garage was well-equipped
and after re-threading the shaft, I screwed the nut back on. Wanting to be certain that the nut
didn't loosen, I gave it an extra turn and snapped off the entire shaft! No
dealerships or junk yards are open on Sundays in that part of Pennsylvania. If
we had not had tickets for a Monday morning flight to Kansas City, we would have looked for a motel.
We decided to continue our journey without windshield wipers. The Lord would be
with us! I drove slowly, wiping off as much rain as possible with my left arm.
The heater fan didn't work and with temperatures near freezing, we were all
praying that the Lord would cause the rain to stop. It did stop -- and started to sleet!
Now I had to stop every mile or two to scrape ice.
With three hundred miles to go, we found ourselves in a traffic jam. The roads had
turned to sheet ice and nothing was moving. Not even the salt trucks were able
to get through! We were on a divided highway and several cars began to drive on
the icy grass median, so we followed suit. Soon, hundreds of cars were driving
down the center and the regular traffic lanes were virtually empty! I still kick
myself for not taking a picture of that scene!
By the time we reached Harrisburg, we had been traveling over ten hours. The ice storm was
over, but darkness had set in and it was still raining hard. My eyes were
hurting so much that tears streamed down my face. Approaching the Delaware
Memorial Twin Bridges, I wiped my eyes with my handkerchief and discovered to my
horror, that it had turned red! Somehow, I managed to keep driving until we
reached our home in Elmer. It was nearly midnight and I was never so happy to get
to bed as I was that night.
Early the next morning, we left the kids with my parents and flew from
Philadelphia to Kansas City. Everyone stared at me, but they were too polite
to ask why my eyes were so red. I think I slept the entire trip.
A FREE CAR FROM UNCLE SAM!
1973 Ford LTD
When we reached our mission headquarters in Kansas City, I went directly to the
treasurer and asked if it was possible to borrow money for a car. He smiled and
answered that we might not need a loan. He had just received a check from the
United States Treasury Department for Ralph and Verna Harvey. It was made out
for about $750!
In 1982, the IRS had "picked our name out of a hat" (according to the agent)
for an audit of our 1981 income tax return. At the time, we were very upset
about this. American citizens living outside of the country were allowed to earn
$80,000 per year tax free and our income was below poverty level. We were required
to produce receipts pertaining to our rent and utilities and even had to give silly information such as the exact dates when our children went off to
boarding school in Germany. None of this was even remotely related to taxation.
According to the letter accompanying our check, the IRS discovered that we had paid too
much Social Security in 1981. They were returning the overpaid amount plus interest!
After returning to Elmer, I began immediately to look for a good station
wagon for $750. This time it had to be a Ford! My first stop was at the Ford
dealership only a block away from where we lived. The dealer was a Christian
and we had purchased cars from him before. He had a nice yellow 1977
LTD wagon for only $1,500, but that was twice what we had available. I traveled all over
South Jersey and Philadelphia looking at cars, but found nothing suitable in our
price range. In fact, the best deal I had found all day, was that yellow LTD
back in Elmer!
Late that evening, I returned to Elmer, dejected that we still hadn't found a
car. As I drove past the Ford dealership, I stopped again to look at the yellow
station wagon, thinking we could possibly borrow money to buy it. Behind the dealership
I saw another green LTD wagon without tags. Curious, I asked the dealer
about the car. He said that they had just taken it in trade. It was an older '73
model, but in good condition except for the tires. The dealer said that we could
have the car "as is" for $700!
While a salesman mounted tags for a test drive, I looked over the car. It had less
than half as many miles on it as the yellow car! The tires looked like new, but when we
went for a drive, it began to leap like a kangaroo at ten miles per hour! The dealer explained that
the tires contained a substance that sealed small punctures. Normally you don't even
need to balance them. The car had been purchased to pull a large camper to Florida,
but the owners had a small car that they used for most travel. The station wagon had
been parked a long time in a hot Florida garage and the sticky stuff in the tires
had settled at the bottom. There was no way to make it spread evenly again.
I signed the necessary papers and went to see Fritz Harz, the tire dealer where I had
purchased tires for the Chevy. He was a fine Christian and had supported our ministry
from the very outset. I explained my situation and asked if it would be possible to use
the Chevy tires on the Ford LTD. He looked in a book and replied, "The tires
but we will have to remount them on the Ford rims and balance them". After
a pause, he added, "according to this chart, the only Chevy rims that fit a Ford are the 1971 model." That was exactly what we had!
That 10-passenger LTD station wagon had every conceivable extra including the
most powerful engine Ford ever installed in a car. Nine months later, we sold it for
$300 more than we paid for it!
ANOTHER NEW STATION WAGON
1985 Ford Sierra
In April, 1985, we set out for the Black Forest Academy to return our kids after the Easter break. Our
blue station wagon had accumulated many miles, the windshield had a big crack and the shocks were bad, but it
still ran great. We had only driven ten miles when unusual noises developed. We stopped at a Ford dealership to
get it checked out. The mechanic told us that there was a bad bearing in the
transmission and it would only hold out about 100 kilometers. There was no time to get it repaired and we had no money,
so we began to discuss our options. The dealer came over and after looking over
the car, he said,
"You would be best off buying a new one!" I agreed heartily, but said
that we couldn't afford it. He checked his book and then said, I will give you 45,000
Shillings in trade. That was equivalent to around $2,000, but we were still
not convinced. Then Verna started to calculate and said, "Have you
considered the exchange rate for the Dollar?
After Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States,
the exchange rate for the US Dollar began to climb steadily. After several years
of devaluations, this was a refreshing development! I quickly figured that
with the generous trade-in allowance, we would only have to pay $5,500 for a
brand new station wagon. Immediate repairs needed for the old car would cost
about $1000 and it had 240,000 kilometers on it. With the improved exchange
rate, we would be able to make payments.
We had a prayer meeting in the car and
decided to sign. It would be a couple of weeks before the new car could be
delivered, so we got back into the car to continue our 8-hour journey. The
mechanic said, you are NOT going to travel that far with a bad transmission, are
you? I replied that we had no other choice. Besides, I belonged to the
Touring Club and if the car broke down outside Austria, we could get free towing
and a rental car. He just shook his head and said, "Good luck!"
We drove 8 hours there and another 8 hours back home again.
The transmission was much noisier, but it kept going for two more weeks until
our new car was delivered!
We had many great and
unusual experiences with our cars and our '85 Sierra was no exception. Our
daughter still laughs about the time I drove off a roof, but she was pretty
scared at the time. The roof was actually a parking lot and in turning, I backed
up too far. One rear wheel was left hanging in the air and since the car had
rear wheel drive, that meant we were going nowhere fast. Another friendly
motorist attached a rope and pulled the car back onto the roof.
We were in Prague,
Czechoslovakia in 1990, soon after the Iron Curtain
make preparations for the arrival of new missionaries. While there,
thieves smashed our car window in an attempt to steal the radio. Fortunately, they
couldn’t figure out how to unlock the doors and gave up.
We made a few visits with Czech pastors and one of them said that a thief had recently
ruined the windshields of five Skodas which belonged to pastors attending a conference. Four windshields were shattered
when the thief attempted to
remove them, but he was apparently successful on the fifth try. His own windshield had
probably been stolen or damaged and he was just "shopping" for a
replacement. The Czech pastor said that you could wait months to get a
windshield from a dealer.
The day after our return from Prague, I picked up a Romanian Pastor at the train
station, who wanted to visit Christian friends in Austria. I said that I needed
to drive to Salzburg to get a window replaced and he seemed delighted at the
prospect of seeing this city, which he heard so much about. Once on the
Autobahn, I noticed that the Romanian pastor seemed very tense. He clutched his
seat with both hands, apparently expecting the car to take flight or blow up! I
was driving below the 75 mph speed limit and most cars were passing me. He
explained that he had never traveled that fast in his life. In Salzburg, I drove
to the Ford agency and walked up to the parts window. I explained to the
man that I needed a left-rear-side-window for a 1985
Ford Sierra station wagon. He asked if it was tinted and what shade of tint. After
looking up the part on the micro-film machine, he read the part number into a
microphone. Within seconds, a young man showed up with the glass, wrapped in
brown cardboard. The clerk typed the price into a computer which spit out the
receipt. I then pushed my bank card into an automat and typed in my code number
to pay for the part.
The Romanian acted like he had been resurrected from the dead a century after his
death! He shared his impressions with me in broken German. In Romania, the roads were so full of pot holes, that
even a fast western car could not drive more than 20 or 30 mph. The new cars in
the Ford dealership were breathtaking, but what really fascinated him was how I
got the exact window I needed in a matter of seconds - and I didn’t even open the package to make sure it was the
right part! Paying for something with a plastic card was also unheard of!
ANOTHER VOLKSWAGEN BUS
After opening the Austrian Bible Institute in 1984, it soon became apparent that
we would need a bus. One of the teachers said that his father had an older
bus which had been used on his farm. There were few kilometers on it and
had windows, there were no seats except in front. With all my experience, this posed no great
problem. I bought the bus for $250 and found another with a bad engine for $50. A friend in America had given me two gallons of bright red airplane
paint, which Verna carried across the ocean as "carry on" luggage!
Before installing the seats and headliner, I painted the bus inside and out.
I always preferred Fords, but we did have one
really nice Chevrolet. In 1987, we arrived in America and went directly to the
Ford dealership in Elmer. After examining all the Fords and finding nothing
suitable in our price range, I reluctantly checked out a 1976 Chevrolet Caprice.
It was a real creampuff of a car that had obviously enjoyed TLC. A test drive
showed no problems, so we bought the car for $1000. We drove it many thousands
of miles with only one slight problem.
After parking the car on a hot day, pressure built up in the radiator and
burst a water hose. We later sold the car for $1000, just what we paid for it.
1976 Chevrolet Caprice
Eight years later, we were again on furlough. Fritz and Joan Harz offered to
let us live in an empty house he owned and we happily accepted
the offer. A Rolls Royce Silver Shadow was parked behind the house and I asked if it belonged to them. Fritz responded by handing me the keys and saying,
“Feel free to use it for your deputation travels!”
Rolls Royce Silver Shadow or 1981 Chevrolet Citation?
Needless to say, we declined their generous offer. How would supporters and
potential donors react? I did want to take a ride in the
plush vehicle, however. I tried to start the Rolls one day, but the battery was dead. I looked for the battery
but couldn’t figure out how to get under the "bonnet". I finally resorted to the
owner’s manual in the glove compartment, which looked more like a luxuriously
bound family Bible. The book gave instructions on how to open the “boot” but not
the “bonnet” and there was no mention of a battery, so I gave up. I was later
told that the Rolls Royce doesn't have mechanical
problems, and if it does, the owner has no business trying to solve them.
Since we only planned to be in America three months, we rented a car from an
agency that serves only missionaries. It
was a Chevrolet and within two weeks the transmission quit. We gave the car back
and went to the local Ford dealership to look for a dependable car. There was only one car in our price range that seemed
okay -- another Chevrolet. We bought the car and in less than a month, that transmission failed!
Two transmissions within a month was a difficult pill to swallow, but rather than risk
a third, we had the transmission
rebuilt to the tune of $600. Then the power steering failed! That would have cost another
$600 to fix, so we decided to drive without this luxury.
After Rick finished college, he planned to return to Austria as a missionary.
He would need a car for deputation, so we gave him our “Citation” for his graduation present.
When he left for Austria the following year, the car was parked next to my parent’s garage.
We planned to repair the steering and use it for our next furlough, but that was not to be.
Our next trip to America was in December, 1991. Pop Harvey said that we should not
bother to get the Citation fixed. We could use his nice Toyota Camry instead.
His doctor had told him that he was not allowed to drive. We gladly accepted the
In January, Pop became ill and we thought he was going to die. He was taken by
ambulance to the hospital, but was home again in a few hours. The doctors said
that he just had the flu. He was so weak that he couldn’t stand, so I had to
carry him into the shower to bathe him. It was a painful experience for my
father and wasn’t easy for me either.
On February 11, we were in Meadville, PA to speak in Verna’s home church.
Just before the service, my brother Dave called. He said that there had been
a fire in the workshop at Daretown. Pop Harvey had attempted to put it out and
was overcome by smoke. He was now in heaven.
Early the following morning we headed for New Jersey. The fire had completely demolished the
shop and our Citation was also burned out. We were of course saddened by the
death of Pop Harvey, but even in this tragedy, we experienced God's
provision. The insurance company paid us the book value for our old Chevy because it was
"in storage". With the defective power steering, this was far more than we could ever have gotten
for the car. The Camry, which we had been driving would not have been
insured because it was registered!
A tragic fire
In 1994, the Austrian government began taxing cars heavily if they had no catalytic
converter. In addition, owners of such cars would not be allowed to drive on
days when there was a smog warning. Some major cities even considered banning
vehicles without a “cat” within the city limits. Our
car was one of the last to be manufactured without this feature and we had
driven it over 260,000 kilometers in nine years. We really liked the car and
although it never
gave us any trouble, the
handwriting was on the wall. It was time for a change.
We had requested our mission to set aside money from our account for car
replacement. We accumulated $10,000 in nine years time, but the Dollar
had been devalued considerably since 1985. Prices for new cars
had also doubled, so we only had enough for a used station
wagon. We finally located a two year-old Ford with an economical 1,8 liter diesel
engine and only 20,000 miles on the tachometer. Diesel fuel cost only $2.39/gallon as
opposed to $3.47 for gasoline back then. Because the car also got better
mileage, we calculated that we would save more than a third on fuel costs.
When the money was transferred to our account, service
charges and Social Security deductions to the tune of $1,500 were subtracted. We had not considered
these costs and had to borrow
money from the bank to close the deal.
Almost immediately, however, we began to have serious doubts about our acquisition.
The US Dollar took another big plunge on the foreign exchange. Our freezer
quit and in order to save our frozen meats and vegetables, we had to buy a
new one. We were still trying to recover from the
expenses of our daughter's wedding when Richard got married. In Austria, parents of the groom are expected to share
We had pledged to support an Albanian student in the
Austrian Bible Institute and expenses with the church
ministry in Frankenburg were higher than expected.
Instead of paying off the bank loan, we had to borrow more money until we owed
more than $4500!
OUR “MONDAY CAR”
We decided to sell the car in order to get out of debt. We got $2500
less than we paid for it only six months earlier and bought an older Ford station wagon with lots of miles on
it. It at least had a catalytic converter! From the very beginning, however, we had trouble
with the car. Austrians call such vehicles
I had owned a total of 41 Fords, but only this one gave us trouble! A mystery
problem developed soon after we purchased it. While driving,
the engine would simply cut out for apparently no reason
whatsoever. I took the car to three different Ford dealers a total of six times.
Each time they did something, but the problem persisted.
Of course, I had to pay the bill, because our car “needed” whatever
One garage said it was the electric fuel pump and they removed the gas tank
in order to replace it. When I got
home, I noticed gasoline leaking onto the
asphalt parking lot. Not willing to risk an explosion, I had a church member tow
the car back to the shop. Two days later, I got the car again and drove away, but while waiting for a train, a
cyclist informed me that gasoline was again pouring out of the tank! I had the
car towed back to the shop a second time! When I returned to pick it up, I was nearly knocked over by the
stench of gasoline. The mechanic apologized that my car wasn’t finished and
said that he had a problem. That was quite obvious! Gasoline from the tank had
run all over the floor and the mechanic was standing in the middle of the puddle
holding a lighted cigarette in
his hand! A missionary
should be concerned about lost souls, but I ran out of the shop to save my own
and secretly hoped that both car
and mechanic would be blown sky high. The tank didn’t leak any more after that, but the
engine continued to cut out at the most inopportune times.
I took the car to the Touring Club but their experts were no more successful
in finding what caused the engine to cut out. After spending more than $2,000 for repairs, I
finally found and fixed the problem
myself. I twisted a bundle of electric cables in the engine compartment with my
hands and the motor ran properly again!
Soon after that victory, a new mystery unfolded. Every
once in a while for no apparent reason, the car simply refused to start. It
wouldn’t even fire, yet when the car was pushed, it started immediately. Once
more, I spent a small fortune and much time trying to get the problem solved,
but all to no effect. I learned to park it on an incline whenever possible.
In summer, a choir from Canada arrived to help us with special meetings. We
had 43 meetings in six weeks all over Austria. I bought a Mitsubishi van for transportation, but we also used our station wagon pulling a trailer for transporting
instruments and projection equipment. Fortunately, there were a dozen strong young people to
push the car when it wouldn't start. Our singers had to push-start the station wagon
about twenty times, and when it was rainy, they got their nice clothes dirty. At
the end of their stay, I delivered them to the airport and Verna gave me one last tow job with the van at 11:00 PM - in the
pouring rain of course! Two drenched and exhausted people headed for home and a
nice warm bed, determined to get rid of that Monday car even if we had to junk it!
A LONE NEWSPAPER AD
I scanned the Saturday papers the next day,
looking for a used station wagon with rear wheel drive (see the next section for
more on this subject). There was only one
rear-wheel drive station wagon listed, so we checked it out. It was a Ford
Scorpio with sun roof, power locks and windows, power
steering, anti blocking brakes and even a burglar alarm! It was four years old,
but had low mileage and the price was right. Best of all, the dealer
offered us a the full book value of $3,500 for our old car -- even though it
wouldn’t start for him either! We
said that we wanted to pray about it before making a decision (that always gets raised eyebrows!). On Monday, we collaborated with the car’s future
co-owners (the bank), explaining that after selling the Mitsubishi van, a keyboard
and P.A. system, we would be able to pay for it.
Out of curiosity, I looked through the used car ads on the following weekend and
counted 14 ads for Ford station wagons!
1992 Ford Scorpio
Front wheel drive cars: 1983 Dodge Colt Vista, 1984 VW Golf and 1992 Buick Century
REAR WHEEL or FRONT WHEEL DRIVE?
I have always preferred cars with rear wheel drive and am convinced that
they are better than front wheel drive cars in mountainous terrain. On flat
ground in curves, a front-wheel drive car has certain advantages, but I still
prefer a rear-wheel drive car. Friends tell me that no one but a fool would buy a rear wheel drive car today.
They argue that car manufacturers must have good
reasons why they no longer produce these “relics of the past”. I agree to
this wholeheartedly. Car manufacturers and dealers prefer front wheel drive
cars. They are cheaper to build because the entire drive train can be installed
in one operation. If involved in an accident, front wheel drive cars are more often
scrapped, resulting in more car sales. Even hitting a curb or pot hole can
tidy little sum of money for the service department.
If only fools prefer cars with rear wheel drive, I am in good company. The two
European car makers which still manufacture them are Mercedes Benz and BMW.
For die-hard fans of the front wheel drive, here are my arguments for the rear wheel
drive car: When driving up hills, some of the car’s weight shifts to the rear
wheels, which means there is less grip on the front wheels. If a
car goes into a skid going down an icy hill, the driver’s proper response
depends upon which type of vehicle he is driving. To pull a front wheel drive
car out of a skid, you step on the gas. With rear wheel drive, you take your foot
off the gas and the motor straightens you out. I prefer the latter method.
One of our church members was a mailman who liked to chide me about my preference for
rear wheel drive cars. One snowy Sunday, I took a lady home from church and
found his car hopelessly stuck on a steep hill. His wife and three kids were
pushing, but the car wouldn’t budge. I stopped next to his car and suggested
that he back down the hill and drive up in reverse. He was skeptical, but tried
and made it to the top with no difficulty!
Once, I was driving down a mountain with two other missionary couples as
passengers. In a curve, we suddenly came on blank ice from melted snow which
covered the entire road. The car went into a skid and our hearts stopped beating
as it headed for the edge of the road and an abrupt drop of several hundred feet
onto the rocks below. There was no guard rail to stop us. I had the presence of
mind to take my foot off the gas and let the engine do the breaking. The car
began to straighten out and I was able to steer it onto dry pavement just before
reaching the precipice. All of us agreed that we would have been killed if the
car had not had rear wheel drive.
Still, we have had several cars with front wheel drive that gave
A NATURAL ROAD BLOCK
One stormy Sunday, I was taking two elderly ladies home from church when a
hundred yards ahead of our car, a large tree fell across the road. Fortunately, I
managed to stop the car in time, but the tree was two feet thick and there
was no way to get around it. Because the road was heavily traveled,
vehicles were soon lined up in both directions.
I got out of the car and contemplated what I should do. As I looked at the
cars on the other side of the tree, I recognized the driver of the first
car. He was a missionary who was on his way to show slides of his work in the Bible Institute.
I crawled under the tree and introduced myself. Then I suggested that we exchange cars.
Soon the four passengers in his car and two ladies from my car had traded places. After a U-turn, we continued to our destinations. It was only after
seeing the startled look on the faces of people in the other cars that I
realized how strange this must have looked to them! Adding to the confusion,
our license plates were from different Austrian provinces! I should have rolled
down my window and suggested to the driver of the Mercedes behind me, that he follow suit!
After all, there were more cars on the other side! Speaking of Mercedes...
VERNA'S MERCEDES SPORTS CAR
Back in 1975, Verna paused in front of a car
dealership in Germany where a certain car caught her attention. "That is a
nice car, what is it?" she asked. I replied that it was a Mercedes
SLC (sports coupe) and added without much thought, "When we retire, I will buy you
one of those!"
Twenty-six years passed faster than I anticipated. I never forgot my promise nor did my wife
let me forget. Whenever she saw an SLC, she would ask, "Is that my car?" When we
retired from service in Austria, she expected me to buy her a model car, but it turned out
differently. After much searching and checking on prices, I bid secretly on
several Mercedes SLCs on E-Bay. Most of them were not in good condition and sold
for too much money, but I was determined to keep my promise. I kept bidding and
finally got one in fantastic condition for half its book value!
The car was a 1975 SLC and could be driven
with historic tags and car insurance costing only $62 per year - and no inspections
required! Best of all, the car would not depreciate, but rather increase in value!
Verna's "oldie" even had an electrically operated sun roof and air
conditioning, not so common 29 years ago! The original burgundy-red metallic
color really shined! The interior was genuine leather, the body and chassis
were solid and
the chrome perfect. The previous owners had pampered it for 26 years,
driving it only 2000 - 3000 miles per year.
The SLC is a foot longer than
the convertible version, has a small rear seat and more room in the trunk. It
was originally intended to attract young couples, but after the SLC won several
major races, even defeating the Porsches, it grew in popularity. Germans
are re-importing the 450 SLs and SLCs because most of them were sold in America
and they are worth more in Europe.
We kept the car for a year until after our kids came to visit.
We needed a second car during this time. We sold it in November, 2004 and more
than recouped the costs. We poured a cement floor and driveway with the
proceeds, so we can honestly tell people that Verna's car is in the driveway or
in the garage. You can see detailed photos of this car on our website
ENOUGH FOR NOW!
I hope you have enjoyed these car tales. There is much more to tell, but I
have to stop somewhere and this is as good a place as any!
And by the way, if you ever hear someone feeling sorry for missionaries, give
them a copy of this article. God takes good care of us. We may have many
hardships, but we also have plenty of fun!