TO keep a car running for many years, change the oil every 3,000 miles, says Clarence Cleveland Curtiss. His advice is not new, especially for anybody who owns a 1990 Buick, a 1980 Chevy or even a 1964 Volkswagen.
But Mr. Curtiss, 84, of Shelton, has followed the advice with the first car he ever owned, a 1929 Ford Model A; it has 200,000 miles on it and still runs.
Mr. Curtiss said he was 15 in 1938 when he bought the car, which sold for $400 when new, from a Derby man for $10. It was during the Depression.
“He was out of work, and he was hungry,” Mr. Curtiss said. “I drove it for a year with no license, and the day I turned 16, I got my license with this car.”
Mr. Curtiss has made one major upgrade, installing a Hudson Terraplane engine in 1940, because, he said, “I raced kids home from high school with it, but there were a couple of cars I couldn’t beat.” That allowed it to go more than 80 miles an hour, compared with 55 m.p.h for a standard Model A. “Then I could beat them all,” he said.
Part of the car’s allure is that it has never been restored. There is a hole in one of the floorboards, cotton is coming out of the seats and some of the paint is wearing off. Mr. Curtiss has kits to restore it, but he can’t bring himself to use them. “People just love seeing it the way it is,” he said.
Mr. Curtiss also has a strong emotional attachment to the car. He met his wife, Dorothy, shortly after he bought it, when he was 17 and she was 14; they had been married 56 years when she died in 1998. The initials they carved on the steering wheel as teenagers can still be seen. “She was the first and only girl I ever kissed in the car,” he said. “It’s priceless because of that, as far as I’m concerned.”
“People say, ‘You’re probably glad that car can’t talk,’ ” he added.
Mr. Curtiss and Dorothy drove to the New York World’s Fair in Queens in 1940, and he drove to six Army camps from Massachusetts to Georgia when he served during World War II.
The Ford Motor Company made slightly more than five million Model A’s from 1928 through 1931. Chuck E. Christensen, 68, technical director of the Model A Ford Club of America, a collectors’ club based in La Habra, Calif., said there were an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 of those cars left. He said longtime owners like Mr. Curtiss were rare. “In most cases, the cars have been passed around many times over the years,” he said.
Bob Casey, curator of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., said the Model A had a better transmission and braking system and a sleeker design than its predecessor, the Model T. “The style of the Model A was very much similar to the Lincolns of the era,” he said. “The styling was overseen by Henry Ford’s son, Edsel, and he had a much better eye for the appearance of cars than his father did.”
Mr. Curtiss, who in the 1970s sold the Shelton car dealership that still bears his name, Curtiss-Ryan Honda, takes his Model A to 12 to 14 car shows a year. Signs on the doors proclaim it as his first car, and the handwritten story behind it is taped to a side window. It has won 14 trophies.
“It’s always the worst-looking car at every car show, but it always wins trophies because of the story behind it,” he said.
Mr. Curtiss said the car was not worth much because of its condition, and he planned to leave it to his family. “I’d love to keep on with the tradition of driving the car,” said his great-grandson, Mike Zenisky, 16, of Shelton. “It’s kind of a symbol of the love my great-grandfather and great-grandmother had for each other.”
The Model A is one of about 25 cars that Mr. Curtiss owns, including a 1907 Sears Auto Buggy, a 1937 Rolls-Royce, a 1949 Cadillac and a 1975 Sebring-Vanguard electric car that he still drives around town. But it’s the Model A, which carries memories of that first kiss and won all those high school races, that tugs at his heart.
“I had the first hot rod in Connecticut, as far as I know,” he said.