A girl and her classic car: A story worth telling, and retelling

Mary Kate Teske has taken a lot of photographs of Ol’ Frank, her 1961 Dodge Lancer, including this one in Glacier National Park.

By Mary Kate Teske/Last Best News

I’m really only good at telling one story, and that’s the story of my car.

Daily, it seems, I’m asked how I obtained such an odd machine. I drive a 1961 Dodge Lancer. I call him Ol’ Frank. He’s painted the same teal as when originally manufactured, has the original slant-six with a push-button transmission and has only 83,000 original miles.

I’ve been driving Ol’ Frank for almost eight years now and, blessed with the curiosity of others, have been able to tell his story more times than I can remember.

In the early 1980s, my grandparents owned a gas station on Clyde Hill in Seattle. It was a family operation, employing my dad and uncles during their high school and early college years. The three of them worked at both the gas station and the attached mechanic’s shop.

My grandmother kept the books while my grandfather conducted business. They treated everyone with kindness, which built them a foundation of returning faces, including some well-known figures like Bill Gates and Ken Griffey Jr.

Along with the steady flow of people surging in and out of the station, there was also an influx of cars. Being car enthusiasts, my dad, uncles and grandpa each had the opportunity to buy, sell and trade different makes and models while staying busy with various mechanical projects.

One afternoon a young man came into the station and asked to speak with my grandpa. He pulled my grandpa aside and told him that his mother had been one of his loyal customers. The young man ultimately informed him that she had died, and knowing that my grandfather had an affinity for cars, had willed her car, the 1961 Dodge Lancer, to him. My grandfather, feeling the weight of her kindness, accepted the car without having any real use for it, and it remained parked at the gas station.

Almost a year later, another loyal customer, Louise West, pulled into the pumps to fill up her 1970s Maverick. She and her husband were on their way to a nursing home an hour outside the city. Mrs. West was elderly and could no longer take care of her husband, who was ill with Alzheimer’s. After years of caring for him on her own, she had decided it was time to allow others to help.

After filling up, Mrs. West went to start her car, but the engine wouldn’t turn over. My grandpa and dad inspected the engine and found that the pistons had blown out. They told her what they had found and that fixing it would be equivalent to buying a new car.

She was dumbfounded and at a loss for what to do, knowing that she had no other form of transportation. Starting to cry, she told my grandpa what she was doing that day, and how important it was that she get her husband to the nursing home. My grandpa, having the Lancer at the time, traded her for her Maverick. She was beyond grateful and wanted to give it back after she was finished taking her husband to the nursing home. My grandpa wouldn’t hear of it and told her to keep the car, so she did.

Aside from business, and from working on cars, my dad and uncles eventually met and fell in love with their wives at the station. Whenever my family and I tell stories, we always refer to the spot on Clyde Hill as “The Station of Love.”

A few years passed, and business at “The Station of Love” continued. My mom and dad became pregnant and nine months later had me, followed shortly after by my sister.

Meanwhile, the area around Clyde Hill had begun to change and the gas station was frequently being broken into. My grandpa was uneasy about the break-ins and began to want a safer environment for his family, especially since my sister and I were so young. He and my grandma weighed their options and decided it was time to sell the gas station.

An era was ending, and having farmed in the past, they agreed to return to that lifestyle once more. My grandparents began visiting farms and ranches across the country, eventually settling on a 2,000-acre place near the badlands of Eastern Montana. My dad, mom, uncle and aunt, along with my sister and I, followed my grandparents out to Terry, Mont., where the farm began to grow and operate, producing crops including wheat, sugar beets and alfalfa.

A year into living on the farm, my grandpa received a phone call from Mrs. West. She told him, sadly, that she was nearing the end of her life and that she wanted the car he had given to her to find its way back to him. He struggled with the notion and told her that the car belonged to her. But Mrs. West, knowing that she had little time left, insisted he take it back. He reluctantly agreed, and my Uncle Scott, who had stayed in the Seattle area, drove the Lancer to the farm, where it sat parked along with a collection of other classic cars that my grandpa had amassed over time.

The farm prospered and my family continued life in Eastern Montana. My mom and dad, however, eventually decided that they needed more than a secluded rural life, so when I was 8 we moved from Terry to Billings, where we’ve collectively stayed since.

As we grew up, though, my siblings and I spent all our summers in Terry, working and enjoying the company of my grandparents and each other. Summers on the farm were full of hard work and long hours, but each day was rewarding, teaching me lessons I will never forget.

One summer, when I was 15, my grandpa pulled me aside and showed me the Lancer he had kept for so many years. I was intrigued and fascinated by the machine, as well as by the story my grandpa shared about how the car had found its way to him twice, eventually coming to rest at the farm. He finished telling the story with a proposal, stating that if I worked on and restored the car with him I could have it as my own.

My eyes lit up, and I excitedly agreed to the proposition. The Lancer at this time had 36,000 original miles, seats that had been destroyed by dry rot, an engine needing to be rebuilt, and a paint job that was lackluster and needed to be redone. So, after our days of farm work, my cousins, siblings, uncle, grandpa and I started rebuilding the car together, working on it day in and day out for almost a month.

I watched the Lancer slowly come to life as we sanded the car’s body, redid the seats and pieced together the engine with working parts. My family and I worked diligently until the project came to a close, and the car was finished.

Mary Kate Teske and Ol’ Frank, in the midst of their travels.

I am blessed in having a first car that has affected me so immensely, and I will always be grateful for the way it has changed the course of my life.

Ol’ Frank has taken me on many adventures, but the adventure I am currently planning to embark on is the adventure of living out of my car to travel and pursue my love of photography. I’ve been taking photographs for as long as I can remember, but in the past year have pursued it more seriously.

Last year, in hopes of laying the foundation of my portfolio, Ol’ Frank and I set out on a 7,000-mile road trip along the West Coast, documenting the locations we visited and the friends we met along the way. I’ve been back in Billings since the trip ended, continuing to travel and take photos, but I’ve wanted to feel the same sense of adventure, as well as the immersion into photography, that I felt while on my trip.

Slowly making the move into my car, I’ve been eliminating a surplus of material items from my life while preserving the necessities that will keep me on the road. My desire for the next stage in my life is to stay primarily in Montana, exploring the state I’ve loved and called home for many years.

But I know that life is subject to change, so as long as Ol’ Frank is running and I’m pursuing my dreams, we’ll without a doubt be following the road in any direction for as long as I feel the call to keep driving.

A little bit more

Mary Kate and her Dodge Lancer also came to the attention of  Yellowstone Public Radio, which aired this audio story Wednesday evening.