Local guy has lots of drive – in an 84-year-old Lincoln
by LEN LEAR
Steve Schonwald, 66, a long-time Mt. Airy resident, is in most ways a pretty ordinary guy. For the past 32 years he has been a “small landlord.” Currently he and his daughter and business partner, Jennifer, own and manage 40 rental units in Mt. Airy, Germantown, Wyncote and Jenkintown. Before he was into real estate management, Steve sold insurance and mutual funds.

It is believed that no one has ever driven the entire length of Canada and back in a car as old as Steve Schonwald’s 1927 Lincoln “Doctor’s Coupe,” a feat he achieved between May and August of this year.

Steve is also a pretty good folksinger. He used to have a band that played regularly at the Mermaid Inn, mostly maritime songs and ballads. For 20 years, in fact, he was a co-chairman of the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which he stopped doing when he got seriously into tall ship sailing, which would take him away from the Delaware Valley in late August, when the Folk Festival is held every year. For almost 15 years he even worked on the actual ship that was used as “The Bounty” in the legendary 1962 movie, “Mutiny on the Bounty,” that starred Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard. (Schonwald has a tattoo on his forearm of “The Bounty,” so he’s not likely to forget about it.)

But we are writing about Steve now not because of his insurance sales or real estate properties or his folksinging or his fascination with tall ships. It is because of his car, which could easily get him as many admiring stares as if George Clooney were seen strolling down Germantown Avenue. No; it’s not a Porsche or Mercedes convertible or Bentley or Maserati or some other symbol of opulence. It’s a 1927 Lincoln “Doctor’s Coupe,” which he purchased 18 years ago from a man in Jenkintown for a price he would rather not disclose.

“It was intended to be a rich man’s car,” Steve explained. “In 1927 it cost $5,000, which was a tremendous amount of money at the time. To give you an idea, the average schoolteacher made $500 a year back then. Lincoln made only 756 of these over a seven-year period, and there are only three of this particular product line left in the world.”

(Ed. Note: I tried to confirm these statistics by Googling but was not able to get the information I was seeking. All I came up with was prices for parts for antique cars and information about old “Lincoln pennies.”)

Schonwald has a collection of other antique cars as well — a 1923 Dodge Brothers touring car, a 1929 Dodge one-and-a-half ton truck and a 1928 Lincoln seven-passenger sedan. Now, it’s not unusual for people to collect antique cars, but most of these cars are almost never driven, except to take them to antique car shows or on a rare occasion for a few miles, just to keep away the rust.

After all, it’s not the easiest thing to drive these gorgeous old cars. For example, Steve’s 1927 Lincoln “Doctor’s Coupe” has no radio, no oil filter, no air-conditioner, no GPS; it’s noisy and bumpy; the headlights can only illuminate up to 20 feet; the brakes hardly work at all going downhill, etc. Despite all this, Steve drives 480 miles to Toronto every other week to visit his wife, Susan Lawrence (his third marriage), a musician and former journalist. (That’s another story. Although they are happily married, Susan, a native of Canada, is living in Toronto because she has a serious medical condition, and her treatment is far less expensive under the Canadian National Health Care system.)

“When I drive the 1927 Lincoln to Toronto,” said Steve, “it takes me about 15 hours instead of the usual nine. When the car was new, it could go a maximum of 60 miles per hour, but now I do mostly 45 on the open road. I could push it up to about 55, but then I would have a valve problem. I can’t stop fast; I can’t drive in the rain or snow, and I get about 10 miles per gallon.” The car has a V-8 engine, 80 horsepower (the original engine is intact) and wood spoke split-rim wheels, among other things.

But even the trip to and from Toronto is not the most compelling part of this story. That would be Steve’s plan to make history when he left Mt. Airy on May 10 of this year in his wood-framed 1927 Lincoln for a trip that would eventually traverse 9,000 miles and take 13 weeks. Steve drove from the far eastern part of Canada, Newfoundland, to the far west, Vancouver Island, and back again. And almost all of it was on back roads, not major highways.

Steve’s car is probably the oldest car ever to make such a trip. “I’ve met some other people who have done the same sort of thing,” he said, “but I have never found anyone who did it in a 1927 car or earlier.” Steve did read about a couple who made the trip in 1924, but they relied mostly on horses and trains. And in 1967 a man drove a 1946 Ford across the entire country.

Before starting the trip, Steve did a great deal of research to find out, for example, the condition of various roads, how far gas stations were apart, etc. Since he is not likely to get into the Guinness Book of World Records, why did Steve undertake such a risky enterprise? “First,” he replied, “I wanted to find out if the car was well built enough to do it. Also, like most Americans, I did not know much about Canada. It is a great country and very different from the U.S. I wanted to meet the Canadian people, and you cannot do that by driving on the major highways. And I did meet a lot of really great people. I was tired every night, and I looked forward to starting out again every morning. And finally, I wanted to know if I would even like my own company. And I guess I did because I loved the trip.”

It should be mentioned that the trip was not without its potholes (figuratively speaking). The car broke down numerous times. Part of the universal joint shattered at one point; he had serious generator problems more than once; the speedometer broke down; a tire had to be replaced, and car had to be towed to Thunder Bay from Terrace Bay. And needless to say, getting replacement parts was basically impossible. They had to be made from scratch.

“In New Brunswick, I said to the tow truck driver, ‘Get me to a garage where there are old men working because young kids won’t have any idea what they are looking at.” Steve did find an old mechanic who was able to make a part for him, but it only lasted four days (because it was made of mild steel instead of spring steel). He then contacted a machine shop, where a man spent four hours making the new part for him.

Steve was stopped by a cop once for having a day-glow symbol on his car, which the cop said was only permitted for farm equipment, but the Mt. Airyite was not given a ticket. On another occasion a cop gave him a police escort out of town with a siren blaring. Steve estimates that only about 20 percent of other motorists stared at him on the roads, where he stays in the right lane and lets other cars pass him. “People are completely focused on their own stuff,” he says.

When his car broke down near Thunder Bay, a Native American (called “First Nation” in Canada) woman and her husband took Steve into their home on the reservation for five nights, “and they would not accept any money from me.”

Steve, who says he “has gotten much more into Canadian music,” is now researching and planning a possible trip in the 1927 Lincoln to the Yukon. “That is probably two or three years from now,” he said. “I have a lot of homework to do. I may have to take my own gas.”

To contact Steve, email stevesail2@aol.com.