This post is a tribute to my friend, Van, who passed away recently, just a few weeks shy of his 92nd birthday. Though we’d only known Van for about the last 10 years or so, he was like family to my wife and son and I. When we got married, Van walked my wife down the aisle. My son called him grandpa. And although he was actually very close in age to my own dad, he was much like a grandfather to me as well.
Van was a veteran of WWII, and like many from his generation, he could build or fix anything. He built his own house pretty much by himself and was the resident fix-it guy for his camping club. When my wife and I bought our house, we had to run a gas line for the clothes dryer. Van was about 85 then and already using a cane to get around. But he was enthusiastic to lend a hand, so he came over and hobbled down our steep basement stairs to help me measure and determine what parts were needed. He drove me to the hardware store and helped me pick out the materials. Then he sat upstairs and shouted down to me as I squeezed into the crawlspace to drill up through the floor. When it came down to the final hook-up, an old piece of flex hose was frozen to the back of the dryer. So Van traded his cane for the wrench, got down on the floor and broke that hose loose for me.
During the 1960s, Van worked at and eventually became the owner of Continental Motors in Wichita, the local dealership of Austin, MG, Jaguar and Triumph. His favorite car among them all was the XKE. When his own kids were teenagers, he would take them down to Shreveport and each of them would drive back in a new Jaguar to sell on the lot. He used to talk about how he taught his kids to “heel and toe” – braking and revving the engine with the same foot so they wouldn’t have to downshift around corners. When he acquired one XKE that had been wrecked, he had his body men fix it up and he kept it for himself to drive. He told me a few times that he wished he had held on to that car. Here is a great photo of Van in his beloved XKE.
Here’s a fun photo of Continental Motors taken by Mike Rosebery in the mid-70s, probably a few years after Van sold the dealership.
When he was about 87, Van decided to buy an old 70s MG Midget for he and his grandson to tinker with. They got it running pretty well and when my own car was in the shop, Van loaned me the MG for a couple of days. Driving that little 3-speed hardtop convertible down the freeway, being passed by 18-wheelers, was as frightening as it was exhilarating. My favorite thing about the car were the “special” graphics on the sides. After a few months of playing with it, they sold the car and probably made a healthy profit.
Van was well aware that I was a toy car collector, as my wife often joked with him about how she had to put up with my bad habits. But he never said much about it and I assumed that he probably thought of it as a silly hobby. A few years back, I saw this Johnny Lighting XKE in a store and commented to my wife that it was the car he loved. She suggested I buy it for him and I did so a little reluctantly. Much to my surprise, he took it out of the package and put it in the curio cabinet next to his recliner where he sat every day, where he also kept the treasured photos of his children and grandchildren.
We’ll miss Van, but I’m sure he’s in a good place right now. I have no doubt that his version of the afterlife includes a nice road course and an eternal supply of gas for his old Jaguar XKE.