For someone who doesn’t consider himself a collector of cars, Ken Helm of rural Cawston, BC certainly has a lot of them. When I asked “how many?” he replied, “I don’t know. Besides, what is a car? I have bodies of cars and plenty of parts. Just haven’t had time to put them all together.
A congenial man with a snow white beard, Ken is eager to share his encyclopedic knowledge of vintage automobiles and their genius creators. We were treated to a virtual seminar as he took us on a tour through several sturdy, weatherbeaten structures, some of which he had moved to his farm from places like Hedley, Princeton and Manning Park. “I married the farmer’s daughter,” he said to explain how he had come to own this 15 acre property with a phenomenal view.
Ken bought his first car, a 1929 Model A coupe, when he was 16. After restoring it, at age 20 he was interviewed for a job by a B.C. Tel (now Telus) foreman. He realized I knew something about electronics and liked the fact I’d rebuilt a car. They needed someone to fix equipment in remote areas.” He was assigned to the Hedley Microwave site and traveled to this area in the Model A. He drove the car to work every day for at least 20 years.
An incomplete (“approximately 1916”) McLaughlin awaited us in his work place. “I had only the 6 cylinder motor when I started this one,“ he said. “I’ve put electric lights on it. In the early years, cars had coal oil lamps for headlights. The fuel tank is a small barrel held in place with brackets from school desks. The throttle is on the steering wheel. It will be a 2 seater, with motor and driver exposed to the elements.”
For Ken, much of the joy comes from being unorthodox and innovative. “I’m trying to be a bit creative,” he told us. “I have a picking pile. When I need a part I look until I find one that interests me. Sometimes I make a part.”
In a long narrow building I counted 20 motors lined up on sturdy shelving, ready for him to pick one that interests him. In another structure numerous headlamps and steering wheels were hanging from the ceiling.
“Finding the right part is like a treasure hunt,” he said. “It’s a big part of the fun. I’m excited when I come up with something totally unique.”
For most of us, driving these elderly vehicles would be a nightmare. Not for Ken, although he admits “you’re pretty much on your own for figuring out how to fix them.” He has vivid memories of a trip to Horsefly in a 1928 Model A. “The car went through 15 quarts of oil and 7 tires. When my last tire went flat, a waitress in a café said her ex-boyfriend had tires. He did.”
This trip provided another significant challenge when one of the wooden wheels broke going around a corner. “Luckily, I was able to get a wire wheel from a farmer,” Ken said. “I welded it on and we continued.”
Some of Ken’s cars offer unusual features, like a tiny BMW with a single door at the front. The steering wheel is attached to the door and swings out with the door. This little gem cost him $800. to buy and fix. There is also a Czech built 2 cylinder model with a canvas body. To put it in reverse the motor must be shut off. The same to go forward. Not likely it was ever a big seller.
Some of the concepts incorporated into early automobiles would baffle today’s young drivers accustomed to high levels of technology. Looking at a Model T, I said, “you’d have to crank to start it?”
“Yes,” Ken responded. “They don’t have a starter.”
In retirement, Ken is still blessed with the enthusiasm of a 20 year old. As we were preparing to leave, I asked what inspires him to continue accumulating and creating what I think of as cars with unique character and sparkling personality. He considered for a moment, stroking the snow white beard, then said, “I think a guy likes to feel he’s part of something. It’s deeply rewarding when you can figure out how to fix a tough problem. It’s a way of expressing who I am.”