Herald-Whig

LIFE STORIES: Model T collection keeps retired engineer young

Ford Model T enthusiast Elvin Townsend stands next to a 1923 "track rod" he built Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017, in his Quincy garage. Townsend, a former engineer, has extensive knowledge and a worldwide reputation in the model T community for building, repairing and fabricating parts for the classic automobiles. | H-W Photo/Phil Carlson
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Nov. 20, 2017 10:10 am Updated: Nov. 20, 2017 10:22 am

QUINCY -- Machines are an art form for Elvin Townsend.

The 85-year-old's garages are a testament to his mechanical inclinations. He has several Model Ts -- eight antique vehicles in total -- from the early 1900s, most of which he either built or restored by himself.

"You start with trash like that," Townsend said pointing to his stripped down rat rod, a 1940s era hot rod.

"And you get that," he said, pivoting over to his fully-restored red track rod. "That's three years work."

The track rod, which was originally going to be a restored Model-T before Townsend changed his mind, recently won a best in show award and is Townsend's current favorite. The highly customized car is built on a 1923 Ford Roadster body and houses a Ford Flathead V8 engine.

"I've been laying under cars since I was 10 or 12 years old," Townsend said.

The son of a schoolteacher and an auto mechanic, Townsend remembers foregoing weekends with his friends in high school to do tune-ups on his teachers' vehicles. When he wasn't working on cars, he was tromping through scrapyards looking for pieces of machinery he could put to use. Scrap still is a precious commodity for him, as is evidenced by a massive pile of Model T parts in the corner of his garage, from which he constructed a complete Model T.

"Machinery is like artwork" he said. "It has to be in your soul."

When he joined the Navy Ready Reserve as a young man, he found himself thrown into a crash course on the nature of mechanics while working as a snipe on the four massive locomotive engines below the deck of a ship.

"Beneath the deck, the mechanics are all around you," he said. "It's the same as a college education."

When he returned from his 23-month tour of active duty aboard the U.S.S. Seneca, he responded to an ad to be a team member on a project at Gardner Denver. The constant desire to learn more quickly drew the attention of his superiors. Bypassing many with longer tenure, he became assistant manager of the tool design department.

"I started out as an introverted kid hanging out in the scrap yard," he said, "and I grew from there."

He left Gardner Denver in 1982 as a manufacturing engineer who had signed for $8.5 million worth of massive machines that still are in use at the facility -- a point of pride in his career. He was recruited by Quincy Compressor, and he finished his career there in 1992.

Townsend toured the Gardner Denver facility two years ago. Seeing the machines still in use today was a moving sight for him, but the tour also showed how much the industry has evolved in the years since his retirement.

"The industry is dramatic in that it makes unbelievable changes," he said, "and then six months later, it can be dead.

"I was in a building that had 1,500 horsepower pumps, the size of two gymnasiums, that were worth $350,000 -- close to $1 billion now -- unsold and couldn't be sold. Two years later, they'd cleaned the building out and couldn't keep up."

Life lessons

Townsend has a few sayings he likes to share when given the opportunity.

"Every man ought to die with a major project half-done," he says often.

Between the car restoration, his blacksmithing hobby and his collection of antique inboard and outboard boat motors, Townsend still has a few projects he's kicking around.

One of his most prized possessions is his 1901 Oldsmobile Curved Dash, which was the first mass-produced automobile and is likely one of the oldest still-running motor vehicles in Adams County

Townsend is the oldest member of the Early Tin Dusters and the Quincy Exchange Club. The cars are a callback to his youth that he can still enjoy in his retirement.

"Autmobiles have always been an excuse for me to travel," he said.

Shortly after he met his wife of 10 years, Ida May, the two hopped in a pickup truck and embarked on a month-long journey out west, without any particular destination in mind. Townsend likes to note that they made the trip without any GPS, relying solely upon old atlases.

Tacked to the wall of his shop is an old photo of a hot rod with "1951" scrawled above it. Looking at the black-and-white picture takes Townsend back to a wild night when he, still a teenager then, got pulled over for racing around in a hot rod. The following Monday, he left for the service. Although he missed his court date, which also was Monday, the judge learned Townsend was on his way to basic training and said "it looks to me like careless driving."

The street-racing story is one of his favorites to tell. Townsend paid a $29 fine for the incident.

On occasion, he still will pull one of his Model Ts or hot rods out to do doughnuts in the yard or to really open it up and see how fast it can go. Driving a Model T is an artform in its own right.

"Driving one of these somewhere is like taking a long walk through the woods," he said. "You don't see anything at 70 miles per hour. In one of these, you're connected to nature."

Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.