After a bunch of Bugs, finally a Model T

Willis Duerksen restored 85 VW Bugs over a span of more than three decades, but his ultimate goal was always “to have an old Ford.” His dream came true a little over five years ago when he found this nifty 1926 Model T roadster, road-ready.
Willis Duerksen restored 85 VW Bugs over a span of more than three decades, but his ultimate goal was always “to have an old Ford.” His dream came true a little over five years ago when he found this nifty 1926 Model T roadster, road-ready. The Wichita Eagle

NEWTON – Sometimes, the path to achieving a goal isn’t always by the most direct route.

Willis Duerksen spent a good portion of his life fixing up Volkswagens. And he had a good time doing it.

“I got interested in VWs in the late ’70s. I had 85 VW Bugs, plus four Rabbit pickups and a bunch of other VWs in about 32 years,” he said.

“But I always wanted an old Ford.”

Restoring and selling Volkswagens was a means to that end for Duerksen, who retired on his 75th birthday after logging a little over 30 years at Excel Industries Inc. in Hesston.

By then he had filled his two2-car garage with all kinds of VW parts and pieces, including several complete engines. He decided it was time to clean things out and get serious about finding that “old Ford.”

He thought he had found it when he located a 1931 Ford coupe restoration project. But then one morning a little over five years ago, while paging through a used car sales paper, he spotted something that looked even better. His wife, Joan, noticed and asked him what he was looking at, but he told her it was probably more than he could justify paying.

It was a 1926 Model T Roadster that looked road-ready and it was in Haysville.

“She said, `When can we go look at it?’ I thought, ‘This is not her,’” Duerksen recalled. But he wasn’t going to argue the point.

“So we drove down to Haysville that afternoon and we haggled around for an hour or two on the price. He wanted more than I could put into it, so we got back in the car and were headed down the driveway when he came running out. I thought maybe I had a flat tire or something.

“He said, no, his wife said to get that car out of here, so I got it for the price I had quoted him,” Duerksen said. He borrowed a trailer and towed the car home to Newton.

Although he had grown up watching his older brothers drive a Model T car converted into a grain hauler, he had never driven a Model T himself before he started this one up and drove it off the trailer. He quickly mastered the 3-pedal setup, one pedal for reverse, one for brakes and one for shifting between low and high gear.

He sold the unfinished Model A project to someone who promised him it would not be cut up into a hot rod.

The Model T had been restored by the previous owner’s son, who operated a body shop.

“He painted it the closest color to Ford green that he could find. It’s actually Triumph green,” said Duerksen. The fenders are glossy black and the car has a new top and period-correct black button-tufted interior.

“I will not put the top down on it because once you do, you get a crease in it that you can’t get out.”

Duerksen said he has done little to the roadster since acquiring it. He did install a battery cutoff switch and converted the car to a 12-volt electrical system. He also installed a clevis inside the rear bumper to allow him to winch the Model T onto the trailer that he uses to haul it to car shows around the area.

He did have to correct a bad shimmy in the front suspension by realigning the wheels, but the car drives great now, he said.

The roadster came with an accessory outside rear view mirror bolted to the windshield frame and a pair of brass/rubber bulb horns on each side. Duerksen said you could get a 1926 Model T with either old-style wooden wheels or the new wire-spoked wheels that are installed on his car. They are painted a bright white and mount 4.5x21-inch reproduction tires.

“So many people ask me what this is for,” he said, pointing to the accordion-style rack mounted to the driver’s side running board. “So last summer I found this suitcase. It had to be short enough so I could close the door.”

He has collected a fair share of trophies and plaques with the Model T, but mostly enjoys sharing the car with other folks.

“I had a lady come up and tell me that she was looking for a car as old as she was,” Duerksen said. “I asked her what year she was born and she said 1926, and I said, `Well, there it is.’ She climbed all over that car.”

Since the Model T has no speedometer, he isn’t exactly sure how fast the car, powered by a 20 horsepower 4-cylinder engine, will run. He said a grandson did clock him doing 35 mph down a street, which seemed a lot faster in the lightweight, open roadster.

Now that he finally has the Ford he always wanted, Willis Duerksen and his wife enjoy it as often as possible.

“On a Sunday afternoon, we often just go out cruising in it,” he said. And it was all made possible by a long string of Volkswagens.

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