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Driven by a longtime love PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 19 July 2017 19:36

With restoration of their 1956 Ford Fairlane, couple preserves precious memories for future generations

    Most people have fond memories of their first car, be it a ready-to-die clunker or a sporty little number.
    Jim “Babe” Ruth of Port Washington has more than memories, he has the car — a 1956 bright metallic-blue, four-door Ford Fairlane.
 Jim Ruth s1071317537 4C   He and his wife Patty recently restored the vehicle, and they can often be seen taking a cruise around town in it.
    “It’s really been fun,” Jim said. “I think guys my age would all like to have their first cars back.”
    Unlike the cars of today, which are relatively generic in appearance, the cars of the ’50s and ’60s have personality, and this car’s distinctive design — with fins and curves and round headlights — garners attention wherever the couple goes.
    The couple recalled a redheaded boy about 8 years old who saw them driving in Fredonia and gave them a thumbs up, and a 40-something-year-old woman who asked if she could sit in it.
    “It reminded her of her father,” Jim said.
    A man in his 20s told him simply, “I love it.”
    “People come up to you and reminisce,” Jim said. “They say, ‘My dad had this car’ or ‘You’ve got the car my neighbor had when I was growing up.’”
    Nostalgia is a big part of the reason the couple kept the car and why, not too many years ago, they decided to restore it.
    “It’s the memories,” Jim said. “We had our first date in this car — we went to a Sha Na Na concert. We had our first fight in this car. We broke up in this car, and we got back together again in it.”
    Jim, who’s 64, bought the car in 1971, when he was 18 and a senior in high school, from a friend who had purchased it from its original owner.
    His buddy brought the car home, but his father ordered him to “get rid of it.” Jim offered him $175 for it — the same price his friend had paid — but ended up paying $200 for the vehicle, which had about 57,000 miles on it.
    “Eight easy payments of $25,” Jim said, noting his father lent him the money for the car. The car originally sold for about $2,100.
    He named the car Betty Lou.
    “We don’t talk about that,” Ruth said, laughing, when asked about the origin of the name. Pointing to his wife he added, “It’s not her.”
    Later, he said the name isn’t a reference to anyone in particular.
    “It’s just a fun ’50s name,” Jim said. “Our cars, our boats — we always name them.”
    The car was his first love, Jim said — “I actually wrote a poem about it, that she was my first love,” he said. He drove her everywhere, including to St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn., where he met his future wife.
    They traveled to and from school — he was from Mequon and she from Chicago — and took it on trips throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois.
    “We ran out of gas twice,” Patty said. “And we walked miles to get some.”
    At one point, the windshield wipers stopped working, so Jim rigged a hanger to the driver’s side wiper and would manually pull it while driving so he could see.
    “My mom didn’t trust this car,” Patty said, recalling that her mother often asked her to find another way home from school after hearing Jim would be driving.
    “My mom didn’t either,” Jim said.
    Patty was the only person other than Jim to drive the car through the years — although their sons do today.
    “I could hardly see over the steering wheel,” Patty said. “I had to sit on things.”
    After the couple married and started a family, their priorities shifted. Eventually, they realized they couldn’t afford to insure the car, so it sat — first outside Jim’s father’s house, then in the couple’s garage.
    They had a car restoration fund, Jim said, but something else always came up and took priority.
    Then, a few years ago on Christmas Eve, Jim suggested they go sit in Betty Lou. They grabbed a couple of beers and reminisced.
    “We had a discussion, either we do something with it or it’s just going to completely deteriorate,” Jim said.
    They bit the bullet and decided to restore the car to its original glory, hiring local experts Mike Dimmer for the body work and Randy Yokes for the interior. It’s been a six-year project.
    “It’s hard to find the parts for it,” Jim said.  “There’s a million ’55, ’56, ’57 Chevys, but you don’t see a lot of mid-’50s Fords.
    “It took time.”
    While the car looked like it was in pretty good shape, “you start to peel it back and you find the rust,” Jim said.
    They refurbished or replaced virtually everything down to the curb feelers — wires fitted to the car close to the wheels that would scrape against the curb, alerting the driver when he was the right distance away to park without scraping the whitewall tires.
    The engine had a cracked block and they couldn’t find a replica, so the car now sports a 1970 Mustang motor and transmission.
    Once the guts of the car were replaced, they undertook a restoration of the interior, even finding a manufacturer who makes the original embroidered upholstery fabric, called blue scroll.
    The car, which has collector plates, is a tribute to a time long ago. Fuzzy blue dice hang from the front mirror, as well as a garter from Jim’s high school prom date, and blue plastic dice are affixed to the top of the door locks, just like they did when Jim first had the car.
    A hula girl stands on the dashboard, while a 1956 Major League Baseball schedule, a book of S&H green stamps and a 1956 map of Wisconsin — as well as a model of the Fairlane in a case — sit on the rear window ledge. Dwight D. Eisenhower campaign buttons are affixed to the upholstery facing the rear windows, and a Prince Albert tobacco tin graces the front seat.
     In the trunk, Jim carries a copy of the car’s original manual — unlike flimsy modern versions, this is a hardcover book — as well as a Ford cooler and a replica of the original bag that came with the car that holds accessories such as jumper cables. It matches the interior upholstery.  
     The most recent improvement to the car was the addition of “Betty Lou” painted on the rear by Allen Beck of Fredonia.
     “I still have about 5% left to do with it,” Jim said, noting the clock isn’t working right and the windshield washer needs to be hooked up.
     In the meantime, the couple’s enjoying Betty Lou, taking her around town and visiting car shows.
     “It’s a different experience driving these cars,” Jim said — especially in an age where companies are seriously discussing driverless cars. “When was the last time you drove around with the window down?”
     “It just feels like a simpler time,” Patty said.
     Jim added, “We’ve had a lot of fun with it, and hopefully we’ll have a lot more.
     “That’s why we did it.”

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