Down life's highway in a Model A

Cruising through Magnolia neighborhoods in the passenger seat of Merlin Cavender's historic Model A Ford, I imagine myself adorned in a silk V-neck dress, silk stockings and a maroon beret as I wave to people on the sidewalks.

"Here, you want some air conditioning?" Merlin asks as he grins and cracks open the front windshield.

Earlier, Merlin and his wife Dianne, both longtime Magnolia residents, led me to their back yard to show off their Model A, Merlin leaning over to unlatch the engine cover to emphasize the simplicity. It still looked complicated to me.

Miniature American flags act as the hood ornament, and the forest-green color of the car body is so deep it almost looks black. With black fenders and a covered truck bed, the cozy two-seater is a reminder that people were a bit more compact in the 1920s.

Posing for a photo in their Model A, Dianne leans over Merlin and jokes that she loves not wearing a seatbelt.

"I hate those things!" laughs Dianne.

A simple car

Debuting in 1927, the Model A was known as the workingman's automobile and remains one of the simplest car designs ever built.

A car lover as well as an expert mechanic, Merlin acquired his first Model A in boxes of disassembled parts from a neighbor in 1975. A mere six months later, the parts became what is now Merlin's two-door Model A pickup.

Along with his acquisition of the Model A, Merlin also joined the local Model A group, the Evergreen A's. It was through the organization that Merlin was able to learn more about his Model A and solicit tips on how to put it together.

The Evergreen A's have about 165 members and hold monthly meetings. The nationally recognized organization provides many activities for Model A owners throughout the year.

Regional convention

One of the largest regional events of the year, the Model A convention, was put on last month by the Evergreen A's. Merlin, a co-chair, has spent three years coordinating the event, securing a location and putting together activities. This year's convention was held in Silverdale, Wash.

"I decided I didn't really want the convention in the Seattle area," Merlin says. "It's too congested, and the cars don't drive that fast. It's too hard for people to get around in the city. Plus, Silverdale is a pretty neat place."

The convention draws Model A owners from Canada, Oregon, Washington and Idaho; recently, it's been drawing a significant crowd from Northern California, too. The regional meets are held once a year and are put on by different Northwest region Model A organizations. National-level Model A conventions are held every other year, with locations alternating between the East and West coasts.

"We really enjoy going to all of the regional meets," Merlin says. "And we try to make it to the West Coast nationals if we can."

Although participation for this year's regional convention was slightly down from previous years, there was still a full schedule of activities and functions. More than 300 participants and about 140 Model As took part.

One activity required Model A drivers to place a bag over their heads while they blindly attempted to back into a garage with the assistance of their passenger (no, there is no major damage suffered by the vehicles - the garage is simulated by cones in a parking lot).

"[The games committee] does all kinds of goofy things," Merlin laughs.

One of the most popular events year in and year out is the Hubley Derby, in which people build basic model Hubleys and race them down a hill. About 80 cars were entered this year.

Another event that both Merlin and his wife participated in is Era Fashions. Through the years Merlin managed to collect a fully authentic outfit from the 20s. He rummages around in area vintage-clothing stores and swap meets, and even owns a pair of underwear and garters from the '20s.

"I got the underwear from a white-elephant gift exchange," Merlin recalls. "Someone didn't want them, so I grabbed them."

Dianna wore a reproduction of a 1929 silk blue dress with black polka dots, which she sewed, with T-strap black patent leather shoes.

Participants and their vehicles also took a grand tour through Port Townsend and the surrounding area, after which the convention concluded with an awards banquet.

"We try hard to make it a family-oriented event, and it really used to be, but participation has shifted to mostly retired people," Merlin says.

Although it was a ton of work, Merlin says planning the convention afforded him a lot of fun.

Merlin and Dianne spend the warmer half of the year (April through October) touring the Northwest in their Model A. They tour with other Model A owners and usually take about five or six trips a year.

Dianne got involved with the Model A's by default when Merlin started in with them in the '70s, but says she now really enjoys the traveling and friendships she's made.

The furthest they have traveled in their Model A is to Breckenridge, Colo., four years ago. "It was about 10 days going," Merlin says. "But it was a three-week trip in all."

Their Model A can travel at 55 to 60 m.p.h. and has a 10-gallon gas tank; the car gets about 20 miles to the gallon.

"We have to stop a lot to fill 'er up," Dianne says. "But by that time, my legs are ready for a stretch break."

In addition to touring, the Cavenders also participate in local events such as the Seafair and the local Magnolia parades and display their car at local retirement homes.

Megan Flynn is a freelance writer living in Seattle.

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