'Why doesn't he put that in the garage?' Model A enthusiast stops in Ames on slow-moving Lincoln Highway tour

Ronna Faaborg
Ames Tribune

The Lincoln Highway was still in its teens when Tom Stevenson’s four-door 1931 Ford Model A Phaeton was built. 

Stevenson is on a cross-country tour of the historic highway and stopped in Ames last weekend with his friend Fritz Beich, who joined him for this leg of the trip.

“I’m driving it from Maine to California, down the coast of California and then I’ll catch Route 66 back to Maine,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson has homes in Belfast, Maine, and New Braunfels, Texas, both of which have been the starting points for some of his tours in his Model As.

Tom Stevenson, right, and his friend Fritz Beich pose by Stevenson's 1931 Model A July 10 as they stopped in Ames during their Lincoln Highway journey.

A longtime Model A enthusiast, Stevenson got his start with the Ford model when he bought his first car in high school and fell in love with it, he said.

“I bought that Model A for $400, and my mother said it was leaking oil and I’d better sell it,” Stevenson said. “So I sold it for $400.”

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He’s bought and sold many Model As over the years and currently has two Ford Phaetons — a two-door he keeps in Texas and the four-door he drove through Ames.

“I like that they’re kind of sporty, and I like to be able to put the top down,” Stevenson said. “They’re not always all that comfortable because of the wind and rain and elements.”

A quail is featured on the hood ornament of the Model A Phaeton.

The car is a conversation piece everywhere Stevenson has stopped along his route. He’s being accompanied by his son and various friends, who are riding with him one at a time on legs of the journey. Beich is a friend from Stevenson’s law school days in the 1970s. Beich became an attorney, but Stevenson decided it wasn’t the career for him and worked as a home builder for 40 years.

“Our focus is on U.S. 30,” Beich said. “There is a lot of U.S. 30 that is the Lincoln Highway, but sometimes we divert off 30 because the highway diverts off 30.”

Lincoln Highway was dedicated in 1913 and was the country’s first transcontinental road, according to the Lincoln Highway Association. At about 3,000 miles long, the highway connects New York City and San Francisco. The historic road cuts through Story County, where it becomes Lincoln Way in Ames and where longtime locals sometimes refer to it as “Old 30.”

Stevenson had already driven about 2,000 miles of the 9,000-mile six-week journey when he arrived in Ames.

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'Bless his heart... why doesn't he put that in the garage?'

While maintaining a maximum speed of 50 mph, Stevenson has plotted a trip of 150 to 200 miles per day. The Model A can go up to 60 mph but he likes to go at a slower pace. And he likes to keep to smaller highways.

“People are pretty understanding because I stay off of interstates whenever possible,” Stevenson said. “And they see the car and they say, ‘Bless his heart. He doesn’t have any sense. Why doesn’t he put that in the garage?’”

Tom Stevenson looks under the hood of his four-door 1931 Model A Phaeton, which he is driving cross-country on the Lincoln Highway. His friend Fritz Beich was with him on the leg of the trip that brought him through Ames on July 10.

He’s kidding, of course, because people stop to ask him about the car several times a day.

That enthusiasm for the vehicle becomes an important factor if Stevenson has problems on the road. For example, around Pittsburgh, the Model A sustained damage to a rim on a back wheel.

“Two cars stopped, wanting to help us,” he said. “My wife calls them Model A angels.”

Stevenson carries a list with him of Model A owners all across the country. He was able to call an owner in Pittsburgh who had the parts Stevenson needed to repair the rim, and he was back on the road in no time, he said.

Stevenson carries a variety of spare parts and tools with him in the Phaeton.

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What do you do when your Model A needs repairs during a cross-country trip? Call a Model A Angel. Tom Stevenson was able to find a Model A enthusiast in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who had the needed parts on hand.

“You’re not going to find these parts at AutoZone,” Stevenson said. “I was lucky the man in Pittsburgh had the rims.”

Stevenson’s Phaeton has its original engine block with some upgrades to make it more comfortable and more reliable. For example, an oil filter was added. The original design didn’t have a filter, which necessitated an oil change every 500 miles.

“I have a 12-volt system that allows me to charge my cell phone as I use it to navigate,” Stevenson said. “I have a synchromesh original shift transmission, and I put a gear splitter on it where I’ve got extra high and low gears for climbing mountains or braking down mountains.”

While driving in mountainous areas of New Hampshire on a recent trip, Stevenson climbed about 7,000 feet in the Phaeton.

The Model A had about 12,000 miles on it when Stevenson and Beich stopped in Ames.