The real prize was indoors, but whenever Don Elson visited that Kansas farmhouse around 1957, he liked to slip out to the hillside in the back where a couple of old cars were parked. The cars were a 1931 Model A and a 1939 Lincoln Zephyr, which the Shippy family had recently put aside in favor of a new 1955 Ford.
Because the cloth top of the Model A had decayed, someone had placed the seats from the Model A inside the Zephyr, making it hard to judge the condition of the Zephyr’s interior. He could see the front axle was gone – scavenged for use on a two-wheeled trailer. The Lincoln’s exterior was in fine shape, though – testament to the heavy steel and good paint used on the 3,670-pound car.
After admiring the relics for some minutes, Don Elson would return to the farmhouse. Inside was the young woman he was courting: Amy Shippy.
The two, both natives of Kansas, married in 1959 and moved to Blacksburg in 1971. Don taught vocational technical education at Virginia Tech’s College of Education (when it was still in existence), eventually becoming head of a project to research and evaluate vocational programs throughout Virginia. He retired in 1998.
Earlier than that, though, he had finally loosened the vehicular gem that had caught his eye on that Kansas farm, bringing the Zephyr to Virginia in 1975. Its glass was demolished. The upholstery needed to be redone, and it needed new wiring, but it had the original engine and the exterior still looked good.
“You could have taken rubbing compound to it and it would have showed well,” Don recalls. He didn’t have time to restore the car himself, so he took it to a specialist outside of Harrisonburg (Broadway), who himself had other projects to tackle. The restoration was finally completed in 1990.
That year, the Elsons took the car to its first show – a national Lincoln Zephyr show – and it received first prize in its class. The couple continued to show the car until a few years ago. It has 63, 526 original miles, 500 put on since the restoration.
The Zephyr, which Don calls “one of the first really aerodynamic cars” has a 12-cylinder engine which “really starts to smooth out at 65 mph.” Amy adds: “It’s a very quiet, smooth running car.”
It has a three-speed transmission with Columbia overdrive – which Don has never experienced. He’s driven it to 65 mph, but not fast enough to require the overdrive to kick in. Amy remembers the overdrive from her childhood in Kansas, though. “My cousin said, ‘I never saw fence posts going by so fast,’” she recalls. “We were used to driving the Model A.”
The Elsons eventually acquired the Model A, and transported it to Virginia in 1980. It was restored at the same shop where the Zephyr had been refurbished. The Shippys had purchased the Model A new in 1932. “It was our only car until 1944,” Amy says, “when we bought the Zephyr. We were able to pile our whole family – parents and six kids – into the Model A. We were skinnier then.”
As the Zephyr is a trailer queen, the Model A is the car the Elsons choose when they’re looking to drive one of their collectibles. They have driven it as far as Michigan and still drive it around the New River Valley for pleasure and events.
Earlier in Don’s retirement, the Elsons had a second Zephyr, which they purchased almost completely restored. It was a limousine with the same body shape as a standard Zephyr, but with a curved interior divider glass between front and back seats. When they took it to shows Don would dress in a chauffeur’s uniform, and Amy would ride in back. They sold it at the car show in Hershey to a Zephyr collector who, according to Don, “wanted a baker’s dozen – he already had a dozen Lincoln Zephyrs.”
The Elsons’ family heirloom Zephyr has a number of interesting details. The speedometer – which has a late Art Deco style – is in the center of the front dash, permitting two glove boxes on either side. On the outside, the fenders and headlight surrounds are chrome, while the grill is pot metal, and the racing detail stripes are stainless steel. The car does have hydraulic brakes, which were introduced by Ford in 1939.
The car was restored to original specifications, but there is one feature the Elsons do not have: the original four-piece luggage set, designed to fit the dimensions of the vehicle’s trunk. More important to Don, though, is what he’s able to include inside the car’s cabin: his wife, Amy, the reason he ever went to that farm in the first place.
By Karl H. Kazaks
Photo by Mary Pendleton Stafford♦ End