A week or so ago, a small armada of Ford Model Ts left New York on their way here to Seattle in commemoration of a transcontinental race that took place in 1909 and followed pretty much the same route across America to end at the University of Washington’s Alaska Yukon Exposition that year. The winner of that race was initially announced to be a Model T, and Ford wasted no time in capitalizing on that news to get a jump on sales of what became America’s first favorite car. The fact that a different car was announced the winner after it was discovered that the Model T team had replaced their engine midway through the race has done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm with which Model T fans remember the event.
Like the original, the commemorative journey ended at Drumheller fountain on the UW campus. We were there this morning at 10 a.m. to greet them along with several hundred fans of the Model T, or maybe of automotive history in general, and a brass band that included members in full regalia.
Mara had been looking forward to this for some time. She calls all vintage cars Chitty cars, after the star of one of her favorite movies and mine, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). We parked on the Ave and walked under increasingly grey skies through the west side of the campus into Red Square, then down Rainier Vista to the fountain, which was leaping about as festively as a ton of duckwater can manage. We heard the band playing on the far side of the circle of the fountain and joined the little crowd there. A few were dressed in the garb of the 20th century’s first decade, women in thickly layered dresses holding parasols and men in smart bow ties and bowler hats.
The excitement surprised me. The cars, scheduled to arrive “between 10 and 11”, were not yet there. The band played a few tunes, and I was aware of a growing delight within me that there seemed to be some confusion among the crowd as to how the cars would actually get into the fountain area, and from which direction they would arrive. I must say, having a brass band play, with their earnest imprecision and wind carrying away both their notes and their sheet music, really brought a charm and — what — I guess a humble kind of dignity if I might suggest an oxymoron, to the occasion. It made me realize, comparing this atmosphere to that of last weekend’s city-sponsored fireworks event, how much I dislike the fact that the putters-on of the Independence Day display feel the need to blast a recorded soundtrack of popular music during the bursting of rockets, as though without music to give the fireworks form and meaning we would all be bored out of our skulls and not know what to do.
By contrast, with just a few toots today’s homespun, local, and (I suspect) volunteer musical corps succeeded in creating an atmosphere perfectly suited to the occasion. Their music framed and elevated the arrival of the Chitty cars to a place of legend.
A ripple of happy alarm charged through the crowd like a P-wave, and we turned to see a line of the jolly motorcars descending Rainier Vista toward the fountain. I lifted Mara up so she could see as they broke into two columns and circled the fountain on each flank, then met in the middle on the other side, right where we were. The cars parked all in a tight angled formation so we could talk to the drivers, admire their simple engines and beautiful paint jobs, and pose in front of them.
Mayor Nickels was due to speak, as was the president of the university, but we didn’t stay for any of that. A rainstorm opened up on us just as the cars were all getting parked, and we were soaked under a 15-minute gullywasher (go figure, no rain all season and then this). Mara and Angela both have colds, so after talking to one driver from Essex, Great Britain tell us how he’d put his Model T on a boat in England to get it to New York, snapping a photo of two anachronistically attired ladies, and listening briefly to a another group in period costume sing a gladsome song, we beat it back to our own Chitty car (Mara calls our Subaru Forester Chitty, though it neither flies nor floats, that I know of), and went home to eat chicken noodle soup.