Family that keeps history alive and running
Antique pieces: From his garage in Guilderland, Charlie Stewart has restored dozens of cars from the 1920s and earlier eras. A picture of Henry Ford, along with a blueprint of one of his first vehicles, hangs nearby. Parts of a 1921 Model T, a 1913 Buick, and a nearly completed 1922 Oldsmobile are cluttered around him.
GUILDERLAND — Few 13-year-olds can drive a car; even fewer could build one, but that’s exactly what Charlie Stewart, now 63, and his two younger brothers did.
“We actually put together a Model T Ford from parts,” recalled Stewart this week, “We put the parts and engine together and drove it around the lawn. We built a little body made of plywood and we found a buggy seat.”
Under the guidance of a few relatives and neighborly car collectors, the three brothers spent all summer putting the Model T together.
Their father, John Stewart, was a machinist with a passion for old cars, a passion also shared by several other older family members, including their second cousin, Neil Rose.
The family encouraged the youths to pursue the hobby.
A couple of years later, the boys approached a Voorheesville farmer about buying a discarded and deteriorated 1921 Model T delivery truck that they had spotted in a storage barn. The farmer refused the offer but, within a year, the persistence of the brothers would convince him to sell it to them.
None of the brothers were old enough to have a license yet but they were rebuilding their second antique car.
By the time it was finished, though, Stewart had just turned 16 and passed his driver’s test. He began driving the Model T truck to school.
“It was a challenge to make something old run again. It was very exciting when we got it restored and going because by that time I was old enough to get my license — which I did as soon as I could,” said Stewart.
“We drove it to Guilderland High School. We drove it all around — downtown. People knew who we were,” he said.
The Stewart brothers would rebuild a third antique car before graduating, a 1933 Plymouth. After high school, the brothers decided to split the three vehicles among them.
“We decided we should each own one so we drew straws and I ended up with the Model T delivery truck. I still have it but it’s in the process of being redone again,” said Stewart, who drew the longest straw, allowing him to pick the most coveted of the three vehicles.
Though Stewart still has the Model T he and his brothers built, his siblings no longer have theirs, though they own other Model Ts.
As an adult, Stewart continued to restore antique cars as a hobby while he worked as a full-time mechanic, a printing press operator, and maintenance supervisor, before retiring.
He said he doesn’t do it for the money and rarely sells his vehicles.
He has five working vehicles including a 1922 Oldsmobile, a 1925 Model T Huckster, and a 1924 Dodge screen-side delivery truck.
He also has other vehicles, which are in the process of being built and reassembled, including the one he had in high school and a 1913 Buick.
Of his collection, Stewart says the Model Ts are his favorite.
Earlier this month, Stewart and his wife joined 47 members of the Model T Club of America for a five-day, 400-mile ride through Maine.
Top speed for most original Model Ts is about 40 miles an hour. They did not have odometers or speedometers installed in them, which could be optionally purchase from private vendors as a luxury. Older models have kerosene or acetylene lamps for lighting.
The gas pedal is not a pedal at all but a lever on the wheel. The Model Ts don’t have turn signals either; they each run on a six-volt battery, and get about 12 to 18 miles per gallon.
“One thing that’s a little frustrating is people don’t seem to understand hand signals anymore,” Stewart said.
“Most people see you coming down the road give you a thumbs up,” said Stewart. He also said strangers often come up to him and his wife in parking lots and restaurants to comment on the Model T.
“They’re curious and like to know where you’re from, how far you drove, how long you’ve had the car,” he said.
Stewart and other courteous Model T drivers avoid major roads and higher-speed areas when they can and pull over for cars that are behind them.
In 2008, Stewart, along with other family members, took their Model Ts to Richmond, Ind. to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Model T. They joined 700 other drivers in the heart of the city to mark the occasion.
Then something happened to Stewart that had never happened before.
“They blocked off this area for parking in the city. When we came out, we had a hard time finding our Model T because they were all Model Ts,” he said.
More than 27 million Model Ts were produced between 1908 and 1927, more than any other vehicle in its time.
“Henry Ford wanted to create something ordinary people could afford. There were a lot of cars available but most were expensive — the Model T was about a third of the price,” said Stewart.
He said a 1922 Oldsmobile Touring Car cost about $923 while a comparable 1922 Model T Ford was about $310.
“Right now, the big trend is not to destroy the originality,” said Stewart.
He said serious collectors go through a lot of effort to restore the cars to their original designs, but some parts that are under prolonged stress, especially those in the engine, have to be replaced over time.
“The fun part is keeping them running. Doing the little things to improve them, make them more reliable and safe,” Stewart said. “It’s important to keep them original because you’re looking at a piece of history that has survived and been taken care of.”
Stewart’s oldest daughter has three children who are 7, 10 and 12 years old.
“They are very, very mechanically inclined and they’re always fixing things and helping me. They have a Model T Ford my brother helped them obtain,” he said. “My daughter says they’re ‘real Stewart now.’”