Good Island Cars

What exactly do Islanders mean when they speak of the Island car? It can mean a car that has never been off the Island, one that isn’t fit for any main road off the Island, or one that holds a personal Island history.

Maynard Silva of Oak Bluffs recalls his first Island car, a Ford wagon he bought for a dollar from Gene Shalit. Back in 1966, Maynard, now a prominent blues musician, sign painter, and leading authority on “important stuff,” was still living at home with his folks in Vineyard Haven. Somehow, Gene Shalit, the Today show critic, owed Maynard’s father, Frank, money, and in some convoluted way, in the midst of Shalit’s divorce, he wound up bestowing his 1956 Ford wagon, with a police engine, upon the younger Silva for the lone dollar bill. Maynard was fifteen at the time, not yet old enough to drive. (This did not keep him from doing so.)
What exactly do Islanders mean when they speak of the Island car? It can mean a car that has never been off the Island, one that isn’t fit for any main road off the Island, or one that holds a personal Island history. Every car that comes to Martha’s Vineyard is some form of Island car, sentenced to an Island life . . . and death, if not burial.
For instance, after Billy Dias’s 1951 Mercury convertible completed its long and well-used life, it was buried up off the Edgartown Road. Billy, of Snake Hollow in Tisbury, says that a few years after the internment, Mike Carroll found out what the car was worth and wanted to dig it up. It seems that Billy’s Merc, which had belonged to his uncle, George Silva, was one of only eight hundred built and worthy of collection.
Then there was the mass grave: wooden boatbuilder Rick Brown of Oak Bluffs remembers being at a sandy construction site in West Tisbury a few years back where they uncovered a brace of Bugs. He says the backhoe hit something solid on its first bite. Turned out to be a vintage Volkswagen. Rick says they all had a good laugh about that, but were truly impressed when the backhoe struck still another V.W. below the first. “The second one was absolutely full of empty wine bottles,” he says, “but the upholstery was perfect.”
But the Crunch was the noblest way of all to down a good Island car.
Carl Widdiss still does most of the towing around Aquinnah, and not too long ago his town possessed a remarkable collection of old junk cars. Summer would come to an end, but some of these cars hadn’t, quite. So beginning in 1978 and running for the next four summers, Huey and Jeannie Taylor would host a demolition derby, the Crunch, on the splendid glen of lawn between the Outermost Inn and the water.
Carl’s brother, Donald, recalls a Crunch when someone – undoubtedly an unshorn and overeducated carpenter with a pickup and a loyal dog – parked his well-worn truck a bit too close to the competition. Some of the contestants entered the unmanned truck into the event by proxy. Donald says the carpenter was happily watching the contestants collide and steam until the last moment, when the demo derby hunters seemed to spot the young man’s vehicle all at once and crashed into it from all sides.
Moving from destruction to reconstruction, we alight on Leonard Athearn’s place in West Tisbury, where he’s restored seven Model T’s and two Doodle-Bugs – Model A’s cut down to serve as tractors during World War II.
Leonard, who was born and still lives in the house his grandfather built off New Road in West Tisbury, has some beauties. Leonard’s father, Horace “Harry” Athearn, who died in 1954, actually started the Ford tradition in the Athearn family. Leonard says that his father, who was born in 1883, used to drive his Model T to Tisbury every day, and began to buy up other old cars, generally for $5 or $10 apiece, for spare parts. There were parts all around the family farm, and the woods are still full of them.  
Leonard keeps all his cars – except the contemporary Dodge truck he puts to daily use – in garages or barns around the property. His oldest is a 1916 Ford. He recalls that a friend told him he had something in his basement that might pique Leonard’s interest, and after the two dug around in a pile of shingles for a while, the radiator cap, the radiator, and then the front end of a 1916 Model T emerged, which Leonard restored.  
Which proves an underlying thesis about why Vineyarders hang on to their good Island cars: very few of them can be separated from the history they wind up making here:
Before he illegally drove around in Gene Shalit’s old Ford wagon, Maynard Silva pretended to drive a Model A. The car belonged to his brother, who went off to fight in Korea for what turned out to be the rest of his life. Maynard was a baby when his brother died, but says as a kid he’d sit in the Model A in the family barn. Maynard would pretend to drive it and think about a family picture of himself as a baby, in the arms of a young Marine in uniform he would never get to know.