Herald Journal Columns
April 14, 2003 Herald Journal
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Looking back on Lester Prairie's classic cars


The car that I drive daily is a 1987 Pontiac. It's about shot.

Sometimes the automatic transmission doesn't shift into third gear, causing the motor to rev about 1,000 rpm's faster than necessary. The other problem is more serious in that the car won't turn to the right if it's below freezing. So it's time to buy a car, another used car.

I don't have any desire to own a brand new car, and I believe this aversion to new vehicles is based on the fact that I grew up in an era (1950s and 60s) when cars had more character and flash.

In contrast to these classics, the models of today all have a certain sameness or blandness to them. Most of them are patterned after the Honda Accord.

They have rounded corners and smoothed edges; they all have sloping hoods; the front ends are lower than the back; 75 percent are gray or beige in color; most of their parts are plastic and made in Japan; and, if you're over age 55, they cost about as much as your first house did.

I long for the cars of days gone by; and as I look back in time to those that traveled down Main Street in Lester Prairie when I was growing up, there are many that stand out in my memory.

The oldest belonged to my Uncle Walter who drove a 1929 Model A coupe with a rumble seat in the back. I know that it was still on the road as late as 1957, because my brother Harold used it to pull the senior class homecoming float, which displayed a huge paper-mache beet and a rock. The car was the Ford in the slogan "Beet Rock Ford."

Cars were longer and heavier back then, and fuel economy was not an issue, as gasoline prices were in the 20-30 cents per gallon range.

My dad's flamingo pink and iceberg white, 1958 Super 88 Oldsmobile was one of the heaviest cars in town. I'll bet its chromed embellishments accounted for 1,000 pounds of its hefty weight. No plastic, disintegrating bumpers here.

I recall other cars because of their distinctive tail fins. Larry Burandt drove a black Plymouth, which had two of the tallest. One of the most colorful finned cars of the period was owned by Albert Theil.

It was a purple and white, 1958 DeSoto two-door hardtop. I can still see Ruth Ann, Al's daughter, flying by, windows down, blonde hair in the wind, with Elvis playing on the radio. She was a heartbreaker ­ the car, I mean.

Without a doubt, the cleanest and best maintained car in town belonged to Ralph Machemehl. It was a 1957 Chevrolet. I don't know how often he washed and waxed it; but as it sat beside Jenneke Oil, its black finish and chrome trim literally glistened in the sun.

I also recall some classics that were abused by their owners to the opposite extreme. A classmate of mine, Kendall Zellman, was pretty hard on his rides.

Some shortsighted Detroit engineer, who had no teenage sons of his own, invented push button drive, and the Chrysler Corporation installed it in a big green boat of a car that Kenny eventually bought used.

It had a huge 400 cubic inch engine. With the car in neutral, Kenny would stand on the accelerator and rev that beast until it sounded like it was ready to blow, and then he would jamb his thumb down on the "D" button and laugh like crazy as the bald tires squealed in pain and the car fishtailed down the street in a cloud of smoke.

He bought the car in spring; but by the end of the summer, the third transmission sounded like a garbage can full of marbles, so he junked it.

The loudest car around belonged to Gerald Stuedemann. It was a 1960 Chevy, which he fitted with a split exhaust manifold and flow-through, glass pack mufflers.

When Gerry was late for school (which was most days), you could hear him far out on County Road #9 as he downshifted before braking to make the corner into town.

Even though it only had a six cylinder, it was apparently still too much car for Gerry to keep on the road. Many Sunday mornings it could be seen parked on their farmyard with mud, cornstalks, or barbed wire hanging from the underside.

Although these classic cars didn't sport the electronic gadgetry found on today's models, there was one car in Lester that was equipped with an automatic pilot (at any rate it could steer itself).

It belonged to David Briesemeister. One night, not quite by accident, we discovered that the distance between the front wheels of his '51 Chevy matched exactly the distance between the railroad tracks.

And through a bit of trial and error, we learned that if we let about 10 lbs. of air out of all four tires, they would cup themselves slightly around the rails. But the key to keeping the car on the tracks was not to touch the steering wheel, for when we did, the car would jump off and go bumping across the ties.

It was sometime after 10:00 p.m., when town constable Rell Packer was asleep in his old blue Ford parked under the Mobil Oil canopy at the end of the block, that we turned onto the railroad tracks just east of Lesters, Inc. and rolled slowly westward through town with our lights off.

When we left the city limits and crossed Highway 261, our confidence began to build and Breezy sped up to about 35 mph.

Even with the windows rolled down, it was still a quiet ride. With no stones or gravel beneath the wheels, and with only the sound of the wind and the softly purring motor, the spongy tires made it feel as if we were floating down the rails.

Feeling pretty cocky, Mike Schultz in the back seat joked that we should go all the way to Hutch.

Then suddenly, as if the thought had occurred to all of us simultaneously, we began shouting, "The bridge! What about the bridge?"

Luckily, Breezy didn't panic, touch the steering wheel, or, worse yet, hit the brakes. If he had, we certainly would have careened down the cinder covered embankment and crashed. Instead, he slowly let up on the gas a little, and with hearts pounding, we rolled across the trestle.

Gary Jenneke, in a dry voice, said, "Boy, that sure was fun," and we all laughed. We knew that there were at least two more bridges between our present location and Hutchinson.

About half a mile further down the tracks, when we spotted the steeple of the Bergen Church standing tall in the moonlight, we, without say so, took it as a sign that perhaps we had tested God's protection enough for one night.

So we turned off the tracks at the next crossing and headed back to town, pledging to each other that next time we would complete the trip.

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