For the week of May 19, 1999  thru May 25, 1999  

Slow ride across America

Student discovers the romance of the road, slowly

Express Staff Writer

y19car.jpg (11066 bytes)Community School senior Derek Osen sidles up to his 1928 Model-A Ford. As part of his senior project, "Across America in a Model-A," Osen drove the sage-green sedan from Wisconsin to Idaho.

"Life is a series of experiences, each of which makes us bigger even though it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and griefs which we endure help us in our marching onward."

Those words, uttered by automobile magnate Henry Ford, were taken to heart by Community School senior Derek Osen.

For his senior project, Osen made a nearly 2,000-mile journey from Marshfield, Wis., to Ketchum in his grandfather’s 1928 Model-A two-door Ford sedan.

Community School seniors spend up to six weeks in spring working on a project that combines academic research with experiential learning.

Lured by what he called the romance of the road, Osen returned to his hometown in Marshfield to pick up the Model-A and travel companion Zach Hill, a friend since the fourth grade.

More than just easy riders, the friends used the journey to memorialize Hill’s father, who died of cancer a week before the departure. The trip became their way of saying "goodbye" to a father and friend.

Osen spent almost a year planning the trip. He studied the Model-A, mapped out the flattest travel route because the car doesn’t have the power to ascend steep inclines, and read travel and beatnik writers like Jack Keroac and William Least Heat Moon.

The Model-A, designed by Henry Ford to be "everyman’s car," sold for under $500 when new.

It was also "Henry’s idea" to create a more luxurious car than the Model-T, Osen said

It may look luxurious, but the ride is a bit shabby compared to today’s cars.

Vibrations are impossible to ignore, although Osen said his Model-A has a "sweet spot" near its top speed of 43 miles-per-hour.

"The heating system is just a hole that goes right up to the engine, which we named ‘Hell,’" Osen said. "It’ll melt your shoe rubber."

Only eight bolts hold the chassis together.

The Model-A has mechanical brakes, a gravity-flow gas feed, manual choke and a hand-and-foot throttle, which turn driving into a physical work-out.

The 48-horsepower engine gets about 10 miles to a gallon of gas or 120 miles to a tank of gas, so there’s no such thing as a long haul.

Stops for gas and food and the occasional breakdown (three requiring mechanical support) put Osen and Hill in touch with small-town America.

"We saw the other side of America, the one without freeways and fast food," Osen said.

Hill said he experienced up-beat encounters with people on the road.

"We met so many good people," Hill said. "It makes you proud to be an American when you see how nice people are out there."

The Model-A was a magnet for "Ford freaks" and especially for older people, who told Hill and Osen they remembered driving the car themselves.

"That car would bridge generation gaps," Osen said. "Older people would talk to us as if they were our best friends."

Osen and Hill also abided by one of Henry Ford’s other maxims: "Don’t find fault, find a remedy."

Breakdowns in remote towns like Casper, Wyo., and Scottsbluff, Neb., tested their mechanical skills and resolve.

"We kept telling ourselves not to give up, to keep going," Hill said.

Osen said the only tools typically needed to fix the simple 200-cubic-inch, 4-cyclinder engine are a screwdriver, a crescent wrench and pliers.

The "Ford freaks" would come out of the woodwork when Osen’s wrenches wouldn’t do the trick.

Mechanics, who now have hero status with Osen and Hill, came to the rescue when the generator, water pump and radiator riled the ride.

Osen and Hill rolled into Ketchum as scheduled just in time for Osen’s eighteenth birthday and for the Community School prom-although the Ford had to be carted in on a flatbed truck.

"My grandfather said he thought I was nuts for making the trip," said Osen, who corresponded with his grandfather from the road. "He told me he was impressed that we made it as far as Twin. I am too actually."


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