Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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On the day after General Motors entered bankruptcy, it's worth recalling that there was a time, 50 years ago and more, when Routt County residents frequently boarded a train to travel 1,400 miles to Flint, Mich., just to retrieve their new Buicks.
This is the story of a little Buick that almost didn't make it home to Steamboat, and of Grandpa Peter Stanko, who loved new cars but had a peculiar driving style.
In retirement, whenever he drove his '52 Buick Super with its straight-8 engine out the gravel road to visit the ranch, the neighbors knew he was coming.
"Grandpa only knew one way to drive," grandson Jim Stanko said. "He put his foot to the floor and rode the brakes. He had that thing all wound up. The neighbors out in the fields always said they could hear that Buick screaming down the road."
For a good chunk of the 20th century, Homer Bash sold Buicks at Bash Motors on the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Ninth Street in the building now occupied by Steamboat Art Co. With only two or three automobiles on display in the showroom, it was understood that many customers would place a custom order for the automobile they wanted. Then, they would wait for several months to receive word that it was coming off the assembly line.
In those days, people from across the country saved money by picking up their new cars themselves in Michigan.
Look closely around Routt County, and you can still find tangible evidence of that era. The 1952 Buick Special slowly succumbing to time and the elements behind a machine shed on the Centennial Stanko Ranch is one example.
Buick was the original General Motors automobile - GM was founded in 1908 as a holding company for Buick. Peter Stanko came from Walsenburg in 1907 to build a home on the ranch outside Steamboat that he purchased from one of the Crawford boys. Stanko and Buick were destined to be constant companions for 34 years.
"The first vehicle he bought was a Buick he purchased in 1928," grandson Jim Stanko said. He recalls playing in its abandoned body in the ranch yard with his siblings.
"The next was a '36 or '38 he bought just before the war," Jim said. "Then they bought a '47 or '48 right after the war. It was black, and it was the first with a Dynaflo (automatic) transmission."
Finally, retired to a house in town, Grandpa Peter Stanko bought the 1952 Buick that almost didn't make it home. It was the last new car purchased by the pioneer rancher before he died in 1963.
The entire Stanko family, grandkids included, began the journey east to pick up the Buick by taking the train to Denver, where they caught the Rock Island Line. Most of the family disembarked in Omaha to visit other relatives on an Iowa dairy farm. Only Grandpa Peter and Jim's father, Peter Jr., continued on to Flint via Chicago.
By the time the Stankos escaped from Flint, their new car wasn't so new. Grandpa crashed into another car not more than two miles from the dealership. The car's fender was damaged, and they were stranded for five days before it could be repaired. Then they were on their way to retrieve the rest of the family in Iowa.
When Jim Stanko obtained his first driver's license, he quickly found out that his grandfather was a softer touch than his father when it came to borrowing the keys. He remembers taking friends to see a movie on Friday nights.
"We'd come out of the picture show, and on the way out to the ranch, we could tune in one of the first 50,000 watt stations out of Del Rio, Texas," Jim said.
Those were the good old days for the '52 Super. Now, it sits alone behind the machine shed, its tires slowly merging with the soil. Its chrome still gleams in a few spots, but the rodents have chewed up the driver's seat, and its half-repaired transmission sits in the back seat.
Evidence of the trip to Flint still can be found in the glove box of the car.
A dusty Michigan road map sponsored by Marathon service stations is still there along with a small map of Flint. It was produced by Buick to help car buyers coming in from out of state.
At the top of the map is an advertising slogan: "When better automobiles are built, Buick will build them!"
It doesn't take too much imagination to believe the old Buick is faithfully waiting for that old advertising slogan to become true once again.
To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org