By Brian Earnest
Tom Schweikert admits his fantastic 1928 Pontiac Landau coupe seemed to be a most unlikely candidate to ever turn heads and collect ribbons at big car shows. For most of its long life, the old green coupe was nothing more than a symbol of family discord in the Schweikert clan and a strange, imprisoned piece of playground equipment for Tom and his brother.
“I always knew about the car, but I never dreamed of owning it,” admits Schweikert, a resident of New Castle, Pa. “But when I got it, I was going to make it perfect. That’s just me. That’s the way I am. That’s the only way I restore cars. I want to do it right, to the best of my ability, or I’m not going to do it at all.”
The Pontiac’s strange saga began in 1928 when the car was purchased by William Dowd. Somehow, Dowd and Schweikert's uncle, Frantz Schweikert of New Castle, got into a family feud over money, and Frantz wound up car-jacking the Pontiac and taking it back to his Pennsylvania farm. He could never get the car legally licensed in the state because Dowd still had the title, however, and in 1938 the car was parked in a small building for the what turned out to be a 37-year slumber.
“This was on a farm and we used to go up there when we were kids and we knew where it was," Schweikert said. "The car was in their old living quarters — where they lived on the farm early on. It was almost like a small garage, one stall. We used to climb all over it and peer in the windows … I knew about the car, but it just sat in that building for years and years.
“I always knew it was still there and that my uncle never sold it. He had been approached about it, because word spreads about a car like that. But he always kept it."
Uncle Frantz died in 1975, and when his estate was being settled and liquidated, he had no immediate family that was interested in the car. Eventually, Bob Schweikert, Tom’s brother, decided to purchase the car from the estate for $900. He intended to restore the old Pontiac, but months turned into years and eventually his health began to fail.
“He just had the car sit there all those years and then Bob got sick, so I bought the car from my brother in 2005 and started the restoration immediately,” Schweikert said. “It had been sitting up on heavy real thick wooden blocks, not on its tires. The car was never really covered … It was covered by boxes and some stuff and it had a few dings in the trunk and it needed a total restoration ...
“Everything was there when I got it, but the bad part is it was in boxes, jars and cans from when my brother took it part … It’s tough to put a car together if you weren’t the one who took it apart. But I got a shop manual, and I’d go to shows and look for things and look for cars like it … But I never saw another ’28. They aren’t common, and to this day I haven’t seen a finished ’28. I just had to figure out some of these things myself.
“It wasn’t easy to get everything in place, but eventually I did get everything right!” he added with a laugh.
The Pontiac’s engine had been stuck for many years, and the electrical system was shot. “I think somewhere along the way they put a 12-volt on it and tried to jump it and they burned up the wiring,” Schweikert said. “And just the fact that the engine turned over probably scored the cylinder walls.”
Beyond that, though, the car was in remarkably good shape with only some minor dings and almost no rust.
Schweikert invested most of his free time on a five-year restoration that concluded in June of 2011. During that time he gave the car a complete nut-and-bolt makeover, fixing and renovating every square inch of the Pontiac. He did almost all of the work himself, farming out only some machining on the block, the sewing on the front seat and a few other specific jobs. He had step plates and the hood ornament specially made, and the Delco shock absorbers rebuilt. Everything that could be rebuilt in the engine got the full treatment — starter, water pump, radiator, etc. Schweikert installed the new interior himself, did his own bodywork and even sprayed the green body paint and black fenders himself.
His reasoning for taking so long and doing so much of the work is simple: He wanted everything done perfectly, and he trusts himself more than he trusts the work of others.
“I’m a cabinet maker, and when I make a piece of furniture, it’s got to be perfect,” he said. “Even the places you don’t see, they have to be perfect. I’ve restored four cars, and that’s the way I do it — as good as I can do it… If there’s places on the car you can’t see, they’re done …
“It was a body-off and the chassis I spent a couple years on. It’s perfect. There’s not a nut or bolt that hasn’t been given attention. That was my goal. I love to go to shows and I love competition. I love seeing buddies and all that and talking with people, but when it comes to crunch time, I’m there to win, and I want to win.”
Schweikert has found ’28 Pontiacs coupe sightings to be few and far between these days, but there were actually seven different body styles built by the company for that model year. The two-door, two-passenger coupe was the cheapest model at $745 — the two-door sedan and two-door roadster were the same price — and it weighed in at $2,435 lbs.
The ’28s were tweaked slightly from the previous year, with slightly less boxy designs and a narrower radiator shell. The cars still had crowned fenders that sloped sharply behind the front wheels. A new Indian brave hood ornament was introduced, but the bigger news was the new cross-flow radiator, which allowed steam to collect in the radiator body and then cool and drain back into body, thus conserving coolant.
The cars rode on 29 x 5-inch wooden artillery wheels — disc wheels were optional — and changed gears through a three-speed floor-mounted shifter. Options included a chrome front bumper and rear bumper, sidemount spare and heater.
Production figures by model were never recorded, but roughly 130,000 Pontiacs were built for the model year, according to the “Standard Catalog of American Cars 1805-1942”.
Schweikert says his only concessions to non-originality so far are his choice of carpeting instead of floor mats for his Pontiac, and seat fabric that does not exactly match the original. “The upholstery’s not proper. It’s not correct, but it’s something I picked out and something I liked,” he said. “I also chrome-plated all the places that would have been nickel. It’s hard for a lot of people to tell, but nickel and chrome are not exactly the same. They look a wee bit different.”
Schweikert used an acrylic lacquer for the paint, rather than the period-correct nitrocellulose. “The newer acrylic lacquers, they stay shiny,” Schweikert said. “So that’s what I used on this car, and it’s always easier for an amateur like me.”
During his five-year Pontiac renovation project, Schweikert got plenty of help and advice from a fellow enthusiast whom he had never met. Ron Carpenter lives half a continent away in Westminster, Colo., but he turned out to be a huge help. “He has a friend with a ’28 Pontiac, and he’d go down and see his buddy’s car and come back home and call me with information I needed,” Schweikert said. “To this day, he’s a friend, but a friend by phone. I’ve never met him.” Scwhweikert was also quick to credit the “third hand” often provided by his friend and neighbor Larry Hill. “He was a great help,” he said. “Anytime I’d call him, he’d come right over and help me out.”
He had moved it back and forth in the driveway a few times under its own power, but June 15, 2011, was the first time Schweikert actually hit the road and took the car for a ride. It was the first time the car had been driven in 73 years. That first ride was a special moment for Schweikert in more ways than one.
“My father passed away when I was 12, and he drove the car round the farm up there when they first got it,” he said. “He drove it around the field because it didn’t have a license … so before I finished it I’m thinking, ‘I can’t wait to wrap my hands around the wheel of the car that my dad had driven.’ When I did, I could almost feel the energy … Really, I could almost feel the energy from my dad. It was great.”
A week later, at the Father’s Day Car Show in Hermitage, Pa., the Pontiac earned Best of Show honors. Organizers of the Glenmoor Gathering of Significant Automobiles spotted the Pontiac in Hermitage and Schweikert was later invited to the concours event in Canton, Ohio. The ’28 made it 2-for-2 at the prestigious event, earning a blue ribbon in its class. Schweikert had set his sights high, but even he was surprised at the reception the car got.
“I never dreamed it could happen with this Pontiac,” he said.
He also never dreamed he’d get so attached to a car that he never expected to own in the first place. Now, he says car and owner are permanently attached.
“There’s no money, believe, me, no money that could buy this car,” Schweikert insisted. "It’s part of my family, and after all these years, I know this car as well as I know the back of my own hand.”
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