19 August 2013

The one that didn’t get away

Frank Maniatis’ Model A lifetime.

 

Everyone who loves old cars has a story about the one that got away. This isn’t one of those stories. Frank Maniatis so treasured his 1929 Ford Model A roadster that 75 years after he bought it, the car still owns a special place in his daughter’s heart.

“It makes me feel very connected to my dad,” says Tina Higgins, whose father died in 2005. “He worked hard and was thankful for every opportunity. This was his first girlfriend. He did everything with her.”

Maniatis was born and raised in Steubenville, Ohio, the son of a Greek immigrant who came to America in 1910. Tina says Frank was only 13 when his father died in 1933, “so he had to grow up pretty fast.”

With help from his auto mechanic uncle, Maniatis purchased the Model A in 1937. He claimed the $35 price tag was more than the going rate, but the car had new front tires and a rebuilt engine. "He thought it would last a while," Higgins says.

And last it has. It was his everyday driver well into the 1940s. It took him through college in Pennsylvania, a post-Navy road trip from New Jersey to California, a job in Detroit and back to the West Coast again to accept an engineering position with the Howard Hughes Aircraft Company, where he worked on the Spruce Goose. Maniatis always did his own repairs, even successfully substituting a pork belly for a piston ring to get the car home one night in 1939.

He and his wife, Iris, moved to Portland, Oregon, in 1952, and Maniatis worked in the electronics industry before starting his own business. In December 1998, while closing shop in preparation for retirement, someone stole the Model A. Tina, who by then was living in Phoenix with her husband, Mike, and their children, Tyler and Katie, will never forget her father’s late-night phone call.

“He was a big, tough guy. Even when my mom passed away (in 1982), he never let us see him cry,” Tina says. “But he did then. He was so sad.”

Tina contacted as many news agencies and car clubs as she could, and despite advisement from police that the Model A would likely never be recovered, the thieves abandoned the car six days later. When police returned the Model A to a grateful Maniatis, he said it was the first time it had ever been towed.

“I guess it’s unusual for a car to stay in the same family for so long,” Tina says of the now-restored Ford, which both she and — years later — her son took to their senior proms. “I can’t imagine ever letting it go.”

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