Willard Prentice, 91, engineer, vintage car collector

September 03, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For Willard J. Prentice, retired civil engineer and vintage car collector, there was no sweeter sound than that of his red 1909 Ford Model T touring car as it putt-putted over roads and highways.

Mr. Prentice, who spent 40 years with the Army Corps of Engineers before retiring as section chief of the engineering division of the Baltimore District in 1975, died Thursday of pneumonia at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. He was 91.

A Timonium resident for 30 years, Mr. Prentice began his career with the Army Corps of Engineers in 1934 in Detroit and was transferred to Baltimore, where he was a hydraulic engineer and civil engineer.

His work consisted primarily of planning and writing engineering reports on flood control programs and making recommendations for dams, levees and pumping stations, which afforded flood protection in the five-state region then comprising the Baltimore District.

It was his purchase in 1949 of a 1922 Ford roadster for $45 that turned him into an antique auto enthusiast. In subsequent years, he had bought and sold more old cars until purchasing the 1909 Model T in Livermore, Maine, for $850 in 1953.

"We were living on 35th Street near Memorial Stadium then, and he had cars stashed in every neighborhood garage," said his son, Warren S. Prentice Sr. of Lutherville.

"He had the car shipped to Baltimore by freight car, and it took him two years to restore it. We then drove it back to Michigan at 30 mph to visit his parents. It took us three days to get there," he said.

Mr. Prentice drove the car for years to antique auto meets, and it appeared in local shows and parades. When the Harbor Tunnel opened in 1957, his 1909 Ford was second in the procession. When the lead car broke down, his Model T took over and charged out of the tunnel.

In 1994, he sold the car to Norman E. Rose of Auburn, Maine, who had first seen the car while riding with his grandmother one day in 1951.

"I've been a Model T nut since I was a kid, and I had just graduated from high school, and the car had a $950 price tag on it. There was no way I could buy it," said Mr. Rose, yesterday.

"I never forgot the car and kept up with it, and through the years I got to know Mr. Prentice. In 1994, he told me, `Father Time has taken its toll, not on the car but me.' So I came to Baltimore and bought it," Mr. Rose said.

"The reason the car is so valuable is because it has its original motor, numbered 2859," said Rose. Between 1909 and 1919, Ford produced millions of the Model T cars, he added.

Some of the other classic autos Mr. Prentice owned and sold through the years included two air-cooled Franklin sedans from the 1920s, a 1928 Packard 6, a 1929 LaSalle Convertible coupe with a rumble seat and a 1928 Pierce-Arrow coupe.

His favorite cars was a cherry red 1940 Packard 110 convertible Victoria, a 1960 Nash Metropolitan hardtop coupe and a cream-colored 1959 Edsel Ranger which he drove until selling the car in 1998.

"He certainly had all the nice cars," said Ernie Gill, a well-known collector and longtime friend who owns a 1912 Packard and a Ford of the same vintage.

Mr. Prentice was a co-founder in 1955 of the Chesapeake Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America.

He wrote about the history of automobile making in Maryland and the District of Columbia for Antique Automobile, the official publication of the automobile club.

In his story, he recalled the names of such long-forgotten cars and trucks as the Steinmetz, the Paragon roadster, Eshelman and the Calvert.

Mr. Prentice was born in Douglas, Mich., the son of a farmer, and raised in Saugatuck, Mich., where he graduated from high school.

He earned his engineering degree in 1936 from the University of Detroit.

Mr. Prentice also was a licensed amateur radio operator and a duckpin bowler.

In 1986, he published a book on Prentice family genealogy, which traced his family back to Massachusetts in 1649, when they came from England.

In 1942, he married Agnes Elizabeth Roby, who died in 1982.

Services were held yesterday .

In addition to his son, Mr. Prentice is survived by a daughter, Mary Lynn Smith of Elkins, W.Va.; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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