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Pontiac Patriarch

Everyone needs a companion

Andy Bolig - December 20, 2012 10:00 AM

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ImageImage: vernon calaman
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Vernon Calaman has been a long-time auto enthusiast, although you might wonder what his 1922 Oakland Sport Touring four-door might be doing at the Carlisle GM Nationals.

That’s where the story gets interesting and a quick history lesson is at hand.

Edward M. Murphy started building cars under the Oakland brand in 1907. Prior to that, the company was called Pontiac Buggy and appropriately enough, they built carriages in Pontiac, Michigan. The Oakland Motor Car Company continued to manufacture cars autonomously until GM bought half of the shares in 1909. When Mr. Murphy died later that year, GM assumed the remaining shares of the company and Oakland then became the Oakland Motors Division of GM, positioned slightly above the Chevrolet brand and nestled comfortably under the premium Oldsmobile and Buick brands.

By the early 1920s, quality had begun to falter at Oakland. Under the guidance of General Manager Fred Hannum, steps were in place and quality began to improve. One such improvement was a new quick-drying bright blue lacquer paint that gave way to the brand’s “True Blue Oakland” marketing slogan. As GM’s various brands competed for customer dollars, top brass laid out their options much like a ladder, with Chevrolet listed among the lower rungs, followed by Oakland slightly up the ladder and then Oldsmobile and Buick reaching further skyward with Cadillac as the premier brand in their offerings.

The distance between the rungs on the ladder began to stretch out much like the economy of the roaring ’20s. As a dangling carrot to entice buyers to make the leap between marques, GM established smaller stepping stones, called the Companion Make Program. Considered a half-step between brands, these “companions” were manufactured under a specific brand, but would cost slightly less, to help fill the gaps that were quickly delineating each of the offerings. Cadillac offered the LaSalle, Buick began the Marquette, Olds had the Viking and Oakland would try to fish customers beginning with the 1926 Pontiac.

The Pontiac was a shorter-wheelbased six, priced like a four-cylinder. It was the first companion marque introduced and outsold its larger, more expensive Oakland patriarch. By the end of the decade, many more buyers were opting for the Pontiac over the heavier Oakland and in 1931, GM made the announcement that it was discontinuing Oakland, positioning Pontiac as the only companion make to outlive its parent brand. Pontiac would go on as a thriving member of the GM family for decades until that fateful day in 2010 when GM announced that Pontiac had finally met the same fate as its parent marque.

In 1944, Vernon Calaman was much like Pontiac enthusiasts today. He was staring at this 1922 Oakland project that had been recently orphaned, wondering how he might obtain the necessary parts to complete it. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In the summer of 1943, Vernon started working after school at a garage part time. He became friends with another mechanic, fresh from the war, named Warren Knouse. The two used to ride around the Pennsylvania countryside in a Model T Ford they owned collectively. That is, until they were flagged down by some G.I.s who wanted to buy the T. They parted ways with the T for the princely sum of $100. They heard about this ’22 Oakland from a customer who explained that it had been sitting in an apple orchard. That evening, they drove over the mountain, bought the car with the $100, and towed it home. They changed the oil and when they tried to fill the radiator, water spewed out through a crack in the block about as fast as they could pour it in!

Had they gone through with their plan to junk the car, this story would never have happened, but thankfully, Vernon bought out his friend’s share of the car and it sat at his house until he could locate both the parts and the time to complete it. In 1946, Vernon obtained his second companion, this time, his wife. He continued to search for a block but most folks had never heard of an Oakland, let alone had parts for it. Then, one day he asked a welder friend of his if he could try welding the block. He said, “Sure!” Then, he kept it for three weeks. Turns out that to ensure his work, he would fill the block with water and watch for signs of rust. If it rusted, water was still working its way through the crack. After all these years, Vernon still sees no sign of rusting.

Vernon continued to re-assemble the car, facing various hurdles with the very same “can-do” attitude that exemplifies many enthusiasts from his generation. Once the 19hp engine was together and running, it would constantly overheat. Vernon found out that a plate inside the water pump had gone AWOL. With the help of a fellow club member, he located a battered original and used it as a template to fabricate his own replacement.

As the restoration of the rest of the touring car moved forward, Vernon was faced with obtaining a new set of wood bows for the folding top. New pieces were available through mail order, but Vernon lives in central Pennsylvania, where horse-drawn Amish buggies are the norm. He asked a “buggy technician” if he could fabricate a new set of four bows, to which he did, for the whopping sum of $12 each! Another friend reupholstered the bows and even used the original beveled glass rear window that the car left the factory with.

The “True Blue” hue was applied by Heckendorn’s Auto Body and is set off with the black fenders wrapping around the 34x4-inch yellow spoked wheels. With a new set of tires, a cool-running 177-inch six-cylinder and all new brown leather skins inside and vinyl on top, Vernon was finally ready to start hitting the show circuit. Since then, he has brought home many awards and trophies, many of which ride home with him since he prefers to drive his car to and from events. That’s why you’ll see a fanny-flag inside the rear tire of Vernon’s touring car. Although, with only rear brakes, anything he might encounter on the roads would have better braking.

When Vernon and Warren purchased the car, it had only 3,400 miles on the odometer. Mileage has more than doubled since Vernon completed the car, with just over 7,600 miles on the clock. While that might not seem like much for a car of this vintage, keep in mind that cars of this vintage were not intended for long-term driving duties. Technology has provided much of the durability that we enjoy today and life-preserving items like lubrication were not taken for granted like in today’s vehicles. To help keep these early engines alive, the owner’s manual suggests opening up the hood and hand-feeding oil to each one of the rocker arms atop the engine in preparation for each trip, or 75 miles, whichever comes first.

Vernon also has to split the driving duties between this car and his ’23 Oakland Huckster truck. Like his Sport Touring, the Huckster was a project from the get-go, coming home in cardboard boxes. It took about two and a half years for Vernon to complete the project but now, he’s splitting driving duties between both of his companions and having too much fun doing it.

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