California man logs miles, memories in durable 1927 Chevrolet house car xTC

March 29, 1992|By Bruce Grant | Bruce Grant,McClatchy News Service

GRASS VALLEY, Calif. -- The year was 1946 and Roy W. Peterson was stranded on the side of a dusty Idaho road in his 1927 Chevrolet house car. Inside, his wife and two small children waited for him to figure out how to replace a thrown rod.

Then luck and a mechanic happened along at the same time.

For $10, Roy swapped his engine for a replacement plucked from a pasture, and he was on his way in just one day.

That's one of the many tales Mr. Peterson, 75, can tell about his Chevrolet house car, which he still drives in parades and other civic functions near his home.

In 1945, he discovered the truck parked next to a house he rented east of Sacramento. The "house" part of the car was custom-built by an elderly cabinetmaker.

Mr. Peterson's daughter, Joan, age 3 at the time, fell in love with the rig in the short time they lived in the rental house. When they moved into a permanent home later that year, Joan persuaded her father to buy her the "playhouse."

Mr. Peterson, who confessed he liked the rig too, paid $125 for the house car and drove it the short distance to his new home.

"My wife lamented that we could not afford a $125 playhouse," he recalled. Little did the couple know the role the house car would play in their lives.

In the years immediately after the end of World War II, it took time for America to make the transition from wartime to peacetime production of things like automobiles.

Mr. Peterson was waiting to buy a new car when it came time in 1946 to take a trip from California to visit relatives in North Dakota. The family car that had carried the Petersons through the war years wasn't up to the cross-country trip.

The 1927 Chevrolet house car "was in good running order," and to win a bet, Mr. Peterson decided to take it to North Dakota.

After all, it had all the comforts of home -- two bunks, a drop-down table, clothes closet, many drawers and cubbyholes, water tank, a sink and a shelf for a camp stove, and even a vented "potty."

Mr. Peterson, his wife, Ellen, daughter and infant son, Wayne, embarked upon their odyssey in August 1946.

They traversed the Sierra and crossed northwestern Nevada into Idaho without incident. But as they headed east from Boise, near Arco, the engine threw a rod.

"Arco's a small town, and the people there told me I'd have to hitchhike to Pocatello to get parts," Mr. Peterson said.

"A young man stopped to pick me up," he remembered. "When I told him my problem, he said, 'Hey, I'm a mechanic and I'm out of work. I know out at a sheep ranch where there's a motor just like this. For $10, I'll put it in.' "

So Mr. Peterson and the mechanic went to the ranch and found the engine in a pasture. "We brushed it off and in a day the young man had it in our house car," Mr. Peterson said.

Continuing their journey, the Petersons had more interesting experiences.

In Idaho, a sheepherder offered to trade a car and a trailer for the house car.

In a small town in Montana, a policeman "escorted us out of town, accompanied by barking dogs, because he thought we were Gypsies," Mr. Peterson said.

The house car arrived in Watford City, N.D., six days after leaving California.

"My wife's parents owned a store in Watford City -- a town of about 1,000 population," Mr. Peterson said. "We could see they were not proud that their daughter had come to visit in such an unorthodox manner."

The house car made the return trip to California, where it was excused from future cross-county trips under its own power. In summer 1947, the Petersons returned to Watford City in the new Dodge they had been waiting to buy.

"My relatives and friends were amazed at how well I had succeeded in the past year," -- Mr. Peterson said -- comparing the elegance of the postwar sedan with the austerity of the pre-Depression house car.

While it has never been driven on another cross-country trip, the house car was taken by trailer to North Dakota for Mr. Peterson's 55th high school reunion in 1989.

He recalled, "I was able to put all the survivors [10-12 people] of the Class of '34 in the house car, which led the reunion parade."

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