Rolling with Clyde
One thing you can definitely say about Doug Knuth: When it comes to his cars, he doesn’t get discouraged easily.
When he started disassembling his 1926 Chevrolet not long after he bought it as a project car in the winter of 1999, he began laying out all the parts and discovered just how much work he had ahead of him. The Chevrolet basically needed everything, but Knuth’s optimism never wavered.
“I had looked at pictures of them in magazines and stuff and thought, ‘This thing is going to be really cool when it’s done,’” says Knuth, a resident of New London, Wis.
Doug and his wife Linda affectionately refer to their red-and-black Chevrolet as “Clyde,” and of course there is a story behind the nickname. Doug’s longtime buddy and fellow car lover Jon Gehrke bought a 1926 Chevrolet back in the late ’90s and dubbed his car “Bonnie.” Doug had been interested in buying the same car, which had been for sale near his home, but instead went looking for another car so the pair would each have one. He found “Clyde” in the small town of Iron Ridge, Wis. The Chevy was rough at the time, but it was mostly intact and Knuth knew he wasn’t likely to come across too many other ’26s that he could restore.
“The only thing I knew about it was the guy said it ran. It looked awful,” Knuth recalled. “It was all roller-brushed black and it had tape with plastic all over the windows and tape stuck everywhere. It was just horrible looking, but it ran. And it was all there. All the sheet metal was there and in fairly decent shape. I did have to find better fenders in the front and it had a Dodge radiator in it and I had to spend a few years at the swap meet in Iola [Wis.] digging up parts and finding a radiator and a shell and getting it all back together.
“The only [history] I know is that digging through the papers from the gentleman that sold it to me, it was registered in 1963, I believe. Somebody was still driving it in ’63. Other than that, I don’t know any history on it.”
Knuth enlisted the help of his dad, Ronnie, when it came time to start tearing into the body of the ’26. As was the case with nearly all cars in the 1920s, the Fisher body used a wood skeleton under a skin of sheet metal. Knuth assumed a lot of the wood must have deteriorated over time, and he was right.
“Luckily, my dad was a carpenter and I grew up as a carpenter’s son, so we had all the woodworking tools. We had it in his shed and [we laid] all the broken and rotten pieces out together and tried to sketch them and lay them back out and make some drawings of them and start fabricating them …. The one thing that my dad and I [found] is how much, even in ’26, they didn’t waste any lumber. There were finger joints all over this thing and they were putting pieces of lumber together and salvaging everything to make the car economical. But it’s not like that anymore. There are all solid ash and white oak pieces in it now.”
Knuth also recruited some valuable help from another car buddy, Scott Ziemann, of Minnesota, who owned a ’25 Chevrolet. “Scott’s done a lot of work on aircraft interiors. He’s kind of an interior guy, and he helped me do a lot of pieces for the interior… It was all definitely a learn-as-you-go experience. But between working on Scott’s ’25 and Jon’s ’26 and this ’26, if something was missing, you’d look at one of the other ones and figure it out.”
The Knuths will always fondly recall the infamous “Y2K” new year when the world was waiting to see if their computers were all going to crash. The couple celebrated with Gehrke by taking their old Chevys out in the barren fields and joyriding away the final hours of 1999. “We thought ours would be the only cars running after that!” Doug joked.
The plan was for the restoration on the ’26 to commence shortly thereafter. Sadly, the project stalled in the early 2000s when Ronnie’s health began to fail. In 2006, he passed away and the ’26 Chevy went into mothballs.
THE ‘SUPERIOR’ CHEVROLET
Chevrolet named its 1923 line the “Superior” model and the name stuck for four years, with a different letter identifying each of the four models: 1923 was Series B; 1924 was F; 1925 was K; and 1926 was V. The Series V was introduced in mid-1926 and was marketed into the first part of the 1927 sales year. It was similar to the previous Series K, a notable change being a tie-bar connecting the drum-shaped headlamps.
At the time, the Ford Model T was still king of the road in the U.S., but Chevrolet and others had begun to narrow the sales gap and 1926 proved to be a big year for the bow-tie brand — one that paved the way for the 1927 lineup that finally overtook Ford as the top-selling brand in the country. By most measures, the Chevrolet was simply a better car by ’26, easier to operate with a simpler three-speed floor-shifted sliding gear transmission, a better suspension and reliable 171-cid four-cylinder engine that made 26 hp. A Carter carburetor drank from a 10-gallon gas tank and the engine used a splash pump within the crankcase to keep the internals lubricated.
The 103-in.-wheelbase chassis was unique among other GM offerings of the day. Buicks, Cadillacs, GMCs, Oaklands and Oldsmobiles were built on different platforms.
Six different models were offered for ’26 and prices ranged from $510 for the two-door roadster to $765 for the newly introduced four-door Landau sedan. A two-door, five-passenger coach such as the Knuths’ car would have carried a price of $645 before add-ons, which could have included step plates, mirrors, a spare tire cover, whitewall tires, Boyce MotoMeter, wood wheels and special-order paint.
It all added up to a vehicle that forced a seismic shift in the automotive landscape for 1928. To keep up with Chevrolet, Ford retired its beloved Tin Lizzie and introduced the landmark Model A.
‘CLYDE’ RIDES AGAIN
Knuth didn’t work on his ’26 Chevy for a year or so, but his son Tony convinced him that the car was worth finishing. “He was a little guy of about 13 maybe, and he started putting his foot in my butt and saying we needed to finish the car, and we had all Grandpa’s work sitting there going to pot and not getting finished. He was putting on the guilt trip, no doubt!”
Along the way, Doug did a lot of parts chasing, finding bits and pieces that he either needed, or figured he might need some day. He eventually wound up snatching a pair of wood-spoked wheels off a car that Gehrke wanted to sell. He did all the paint and bodywork himself, settling on a dark red-and-black combination he thought looked perfect on the car. “I’d be lying to say I knew what the actual colors were for ’26, but anytime I saw an old antique car that was two-toned, it had that red-maroon in the center with the black, and I just fell in love with that back when the car was in pieces.”
Knuth was willing to tackle pretty much any part of the project, but he wanted to find somebody else to do the upholstery work. He had an expert nearby, but she was a little on the eccentric side and needed plenty of convincing.
“We had this lady we called the ‘crazy upholstery lady,’ and she stomped up and down that she would not do the seats,” he laughs. “But we kept talking to her, and we wound up trading a roofing job on her garage for doing the seats. She lived in New London. I couldn’t even remember what her name is, I don’t think she’s around here anymore. She was a crazy old hippy in her sixties. She quit doing any auto seats. She hated working for auto customers because they are just too picky. I said, ‘Well, these seats are unbelievably simple.’ Of course it’s not the exact material, but it’s really close with the ribbing in there.
“Everything we do on my cars, we do ourselves. And as much as I would have liked to pony up for like the LeBaron Bonney interior kit for it, I just couldn’t come up with the scratch … And she did a really nice job on the seats the way it is.
“When I pass on, it will be [Tony’s] car, and then when he passes on, it better be [grandson] Derek’s car,” chuckles Knuth, “so there isn’t going to be anybody to pick on it and say it doesn’t have the right interior in it!”
During his various show and salvage yard visits, Knuth found a 1927 Chevrolet engine and hauled it home “just in case.” That engine came in handy when the original power plant for the ’26 finally kicked the bucket.
“We were heading to the local Waupaca Fourth of July parade and climbing up a hill on the way … and the valve keeper fell out and the valve fell down and just exploded a piston,” Knuth chuckled. “That was the end of that engine. We had that ’27 engine sitting here ready to go, and we just put that in. It’s the same four-cylinder engine, they just modernized the head a little and enclosed the side covers over the push rods.”
Knuth says one of the biggest improvements he made was something nobody will ever see, and only the driver will feel. He wound up swapping in the old worn-out clutch disc and replaced it with a plate from, of all things, a 1971 Chevy Monza. “I found a guy online that had done it and I was working at a machine shop .. and I got one of the guys there to help me with it,” Knuth recalled. “Now I can pull away from a stop sign nice and smooth. That was the only modernization done to the car — a new clutch disc and a little re-working of the flywheel. And the side mirrors are accessories, of course, but I have those on there so you can see better.”
The Knuths have a small fleet of nice collector vehicles that regularly get time on the road, but it’s clear “Clyde” holds a special place of honor in the four-wheeled hierarchy. The car has served as a wedding chariot for son Tony and daughter Amy’s weddings, and takes a bow at local parades and car shows in the summer.
Chevrolet survivors from the era are anything but common, and ones that look and drive as nice as “Clyde” are special treats.
“Everything that has been done to it, we’ve done to it. We restore our cars ourselves,” Doug says proudly. “Yeah, there are some flaws, and things that I missed when I was doing the bodywork, and doing the paint, but we drive it like I drive all my cars. I’m actually really impressed with how it does drive. It handles real nice down the road. I’ll cruise along at 40, 45 with it even. It rolls right along and the engine isn’t laboring or screaming too hard.
“We drive it all over the place. A good friend of ours has a ’32 and we’ll go out for breakfast on Sunday mornings after church and we’ll take the old cars. It’s a lot of fun to go out and drive these old cars.”
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