Free Issue! Try Saltscapes Magazine before you buy. Download Now

Celebrating automobiles from a more elegant time

by Rudy Croken, as told to Philip Moscovitch

As a pre-schooler, Rudy Croken would stand by the fence, waiting to watch his neighbour take out the car. And his love of old vehicles continues to this day. He bought his first antique car in the 1970s, and today owns classics ranging from 25 to nearly 70 years old.

Rudy grew up in Kensington, PEI, and still lives there with his wife, Ruth. (“She enjoys the cars too,” he says. “It’s not just my craziness.”) Well-known locally for his volunteer efforts and years as a teacher and vice-principal at Summerside Intermediate School, Rudy is also president of the PEI Antique Car Club. When we speak, he’s just returned from the invitation-only Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance show near Owen Sound, Ontario—a show he’s judged at in the past. He says, “It’s amazing that someone would spend $200,000 redoing a ’67 Nova that he spent $3,000 for in 1967.” Even though PEI can claim Canada’s first automobile—it arrived in 1867—the province banned cars in the early 1900s (when there were only seven on the Island). Rudy researched that history for his 2017 book Ban the Automobile: Instrument of Death.

Rudy and Ruth with their 1971 Buick LeSabre. “She enjoys the cars too,” he says. “It’s not just my craziness.” (Nathaniel Croken)

My father was a railroad man, and he didn’t have a car when I was growing up. We lived right here in Kensington and I guess he just didn’t feel the need for a car. He’d had a licence in the 1930s and ’40s, and let it lapse. Then, when he bought a car in the late ’50s, he just wrote to motor vehicles in Charlottetown and said he was going to start driving again, and could they send him a driver’s licence. And they did. It was a simpler, simpler world back in those days.

There was a gentleman that lived next to us—he was a salesman who had a blue ’56 Chev. It was a beautiful car, and it certainly caught my interest. It must have had a terrific engine, because he always drove it very fast. He just drove the dickens out of it.

I didn’t get my licence ’til I was 20. My mother had passed away, and I decided to live at home with my father. So I got my licence and bought a Toyota Sprinter. I don’t know if you could even find one today.

I believe it was 1973 when I got my first antique. It came up for sale here in Kensington. It was a 1952 Pontiac Fleetleader, and it only had 19,000 miles on it.

For some reason, I took a real interest in that car. The story apparently was that a lot of people had tried to buy it from the old guy, but he wouldn’t sell it. When he passed away, the car was still there. It came up in an estate sale and you had to put a bid on it. There was a car salesman here in Kensington, and that car was the first one he ever sold on commission. And he was putting a bid in, too.

After I’d won it, he asked me how much I’d bid, and when I told him $1,301 he said, “You’re crazy.” I said, “Well, there’s one thing different about me and you. I’ve got the car and you don’t.”

We still enjoy the old car. It’s what they call the business coupe. There’s nothing power on it. I could see why they call them ‘armstrong steering,’ because it took all your strength to move it. And to parallel park? That was another story. You had to have a visor on the driver’s side. That was standard. But the one on the passenger side was an option.

A 1911 McKay Touring, registered to Richard C. Grant of Charlottetown. (Douglas B. MacDonald collection)

The old guy who owned it originally just wanted the cheapest transportation. He knew he wouldn’t drive it in the winter, so it didn’t need a heater. He was a carpenter by trade, so he needed the back seat out to put his tools in. And it was all finished off at the back with a sheet of plywood across there. So it was just the cheapest car he could buy.

I headed out in it one day when there was just a light drizzle of rain coming down, and this old fellow lumbered up the hill and motioned me to stop. He said, “This is probably the first time that car was ever in the rain. Harry wouldn’t take it out in the rain. He’d hitchhike to the store in New London and just wait around ’til someone was coming his way to come home.”

Since then, we’ve owned quite a few antique cars: We’ve owned a ’58 Edsel. We had a 1957 International half-ton. It was a gold-coloured truck with all kinds of chrome on the front, the dash, all around the top of the box across the tailgate. It’s a really nice-looking truck. They were very rare back in the day; each dealer only got two of them. You couldn’t just go and order one.

Then we had a ’65 Dodge Polara. And today we’ve got a ’71 Buick LeSabre four-door hardtop—beautiful car—a ’94 Bronco, and, of course, we have the ’52 Pontiac.

The Edsel was the model that had push-buttons for shifting gears on the inside of the steering wheel. I think everyone that had an Edsel had headaches with that. It wasn’t the greatest invention. I would have needed a much higher-paying job to keep that car on the road. We went to Montague one time, I filled up before we left and I had to get gas again in Hunter River coming back. [A distance of less than 200 kilometres.] It was the first car I ever owned that you could actually see the gas gauge moving as you drove down the highway.

The restored steam carriage at the Car Life Museum, Bonshaw PEI. (Car Life Museum)

Those big old cars—they’re just a delight to drive. They just float down the road and almost drive themselves. Even for all its problems, the Edsel was a unique car. You know, people certainly took notice of it.

But the cars back then too, you know they were pretty simple. I mean, our ’52 Pontiac, it’s just a block of metal with a steering wheel and four tires.

In the late ’50s, every car was so unique in its design and style, and you don’t see that today. Like the bullet-nosed Studebaker. I mean, what could be more unique than that? Now, if you see a car come up the road, it could be a Toyota, Nissan, Kia, or a Honda.

We’ve lost so much. If you go through the rural areas, all those garages are closed. They’re just done. Years ago, if you had a problem with your starter, you’d fix the starter. Now what do they do? They put a new one on. Most of the parts are throwaways. Get the new part,  put it on, you’re done.

I really don’t have much in terms of mechanical skills or abilities, and that sort of amazes me because I’ve been involved with cars for so long. Ninety-five per cent of my repairs go ka-ching, ka-ching—out with the money.

I have two people I can call on to work on them. One of them is my nephew and other fellow is an older mechanic who worked on these cars back in the ’50s. Now he’s getting close on to 80. I think some of these older mechanics are sort of glad to see the older cars, because they don’t have much respect for the more modern ones.

1898 Mason Steam Carriage. (Car Life Museum)

The car transformed society in so many ways. Before long, you needed garages, you needed places to sell gas, you needed motels along the highway because people started moving further from home—so they needed some place to stay overnight. Up until the time when automobiles became popular, most people would find their spouses within 20 miles of where they lived. After that, someone in Moncton would marry someone in Fredericton, or someone in Charlottetown would marry someone from Tignish. Because they could.

In 2010, I thought it would be interesting to look up some old automobile history, and I learned cars were banned on the Island in 1908. The total ban lasted from 1908 to 1913. And the punishment was six months in jail or $500. A $500 fine equated to $13,500 in 2018. When they got banned, there were only seven cars on the island. That information kind of piqued my interest.

So anyway, I spent six years basically going back and forth to Charlottetown researching, and I figured that at the end of it I had read about 15,000 newspapers. To go through that many on microfilm, I think you’ve got to be a little crazy to do that. I put my back out twice and I blamed it on leaning into those readers for hours on end.

Once I got started at it, I couldn’t leave it. It was almost like an addiction. Some of those articles back in the day, holy jumpin’ some of the things they put in the paper were scandalous!

One of the early quotes I found was from a woman, and it was written in 1908. Here’s the quote: ‘It is unfortunately too true that too many men have wishbones where their backbone should be. They should put their shoulder to the wheel and get rid of this nuisance.’

In all my research, I really didn’t find many incidents where horses were in accidents because of cars. At that time there were over 30,000 horses on the Island, and that was one of the big arguments: It would scare the horses.

PEI holds claim to the first automobile in Canada, which arrived in 1867. (Car Life Museum)

I don’t know if you’re aware, but Nova Scotia did have counties that banned the automobile—areas that only allowed cars on the road so many days a week. There was a doctor in the legislature up in Cape Breton. He thought that people with their horses should be armed with guns to shoot anyone that was driving an automobile. He never got that approved, but that was his way of solving the problem.

Ruth and I have been across Canada three times with other antique car owners, and one thing about travelling with old cars is there’s no shortage of people to help. Every time a car breaks down, you’ve got about five sets of heels poking out from under the engine bottom, and there’s always an opinion as to what was wrong with the car and so on. One fellow—he was a mobile welder—him and his two sons worked on a car from 4:30 ’til 9:30 at night in a campground, going back and forth to their shop to get parts. And they just walked away at the end. Five hours for the three of them. They didn’t take a nickel. Just said have a good trip. There just seems to be a love of old cars.

I just like being around cars, and I think the people that are involved with old cars are just amazing. Almost without fail, they’re people who would help you with any problem.”   

Other Stories You May Enjoy

Book Review: 6•12•17

If you’re looking for a great gift for the history enthusiast in your world, and they have an interest in the Halifax Explosion, John Boileau’s book is ideal. It reminds me a bit of a scrapbook,...

Stark Beauty

Moravian missionaries from Europe established a presence in northern Labrador dating back to the mid 1700s. In 1830 they expanded their efforts and built the Hebron Mission Station. Along with their...

Travellers Checks

The world's most expensive overnight accommodation, Forbes magazine says, is the Imperial Suite at the President Wilson Hotel in Geneva. Converted into Canadian dollars it will set you back $45,656 for...