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Model T Citizen

Vintage car hobbyist Ron Carey’s $5,000,000 collection breathes new life into Heritage Park

By Laura Pellerine

Antique car collector Ron Carey was 14 when he got his driver’s licence. “I lied about my age,” he admits with a sheepish grin. He’s quick to point out that “back then,” growing up on a farm in eastern Alberta in the ’40s, he would have only been driving on old back country roads.

He started driving a Ford Model A roadster (think open-cab mob movie cars) when he was 12, and a life long passion for cars was born. Since 1974 Carey has been purchasing and restoring vintage cars, trucks and gas pumps as a hobby.

In 2002 he approached Heritage Park Historical Village with the thought of donating his collection to the museum—not only did the park agree, they decided to build the Gasoline Alley Museum, a separate on-site building dedicated to displaying his antique cars and memorabilia.

As Canada’s largest living history museum, Heritage Park tells the story of the settlement of Western Canada with costumed interpreters and a recreated pioneer village. Carey knew his collection would be in good hands.

“It’s easy enough to sell these kind of cars, but then what? You spend the money and it’s gone. I wanted to give it to a place that would never go broke, so the items could never be sold off.”

It was a great excuse for a park expansion. Along with Gasoline Alley, the $65-million price tag also included the Haskayne Mercantile Block, Big Rock Interpretive Brewery, Selkirk Grille, the Bissett Wetlands and the 1893 Canadian Pacific Railway Station, bringing the park’s original 66 acres up to 127 acres.

The 1932 Auburn limo.

The 1932 Auburn limo.

Gasoline Alley’s 75,000 square feet displays 25 restored vehicles, 77 gas pumps, 193 signs, one 1959 camper, and a replicated 1930s service station. The approach, as with the rest of the park, is an interactive walk through time. Visitors can experience a traffic jam, a drive-in movie, get a special Heritage Park kid’s driver’s license, and participate in a recreation of a Ford Model T assembly line.

A rusted 1924 International truck sits at the entrance with weathered wood, and deteriorating metal. “This is in good condition,” Carey says, explaining that most of the cars he finds are in similar or worse shape.

It’s become more difficult to find vehicles like this now, but over the past four decades they could be found on old farmsteads. His very first project was a 1956 Lincoln that he found on a farm in Hanna.

“When I was a young boy working on the oil rigs I had one, so that was always my first love,” he explains. It took him a couple of years to finish it, but once he did he was hooked.

He now spends up to 2,000 hours on each vehicle. “Restoring the framework is easy,” he says, “but the last 10 per cent of the car, takes 90 per cent of the time.” It’s the motor that’s the most difficult task, but Carey is up for the challenge. Every car on display is fully functional, and he says they are perfectly preserved to last another 100 years.

The gas pump collection is especially unique. “You could never put together another collection like this,” he says. Each pump has been painstakingly researched with the help of old advertisements, so that colours and styles are historically accurate.

Some of the vehicle highlights include a bright orange 1931 Cord L29 Rumble Seat roadster, an original Ford Model T truck, and a 1932 Auburn limo. They’re beautiful and large, and appear like works of art. Quite different than the cars of today, Carey observes. “They’re not built to last,” he says.

One of his hopes for the museum is that it will take visitors back to a simpler time, a time when seeing an automobile was a big deal. Judging by the “oohs and aahs” (and camera flashes), he has succeeded.

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