Canada’s own Rocket Man, is a Car Guy at Heart
Chris Hadfield may well be one of the most famous Canadians ever.
OWEN SOUND ONTARIO—Chris Hadfield may well be one of the most famous Canadians ever.
The fellow Miltonian — his family has lived there for years — is obviously best known for his three astronaut missions.
While up there, he also showed off his amazing singing voice, performing “A Space Oddity,” his reworking of the David Bowie song, which he also sang at the Sept.14 dinner at the Cobble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
I caught up with him there as he was showing off yet another of his accomplishments, a beautiful 1955 Ford Thunderbird.
Actually, we chatted in the car with his little dog snuggled up between us.
Where did this interest in things mechanical come from?
“I grew up on a farm,” he says. “There were always tractors, trucks, cars, combines, machinery of all sorts. We were always working on something!”
His father Roger (also a car collector; his magnificent 1948 Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith Sedanca de Ville won a price at Cobble) was a pilot, as are many in the family. When his dad joined Air Canada, the family moved from Chris’s birthplace of Sarnia to a farm near Milton to be closer to the Toronto airport.
“My first car was a 1962 Oldsmobile Dynamic 88,” he recalls, noting that it had a 394-cubic-inch “Rocket” V8 engine.
Presaging his future? Perhaps.
“We were always buying old cars and trucks, fixing them up,” he remembers.
“My first date with my wife was in a 1964 Fargo four-door pickup truck!”
She can’t say she wasn’t warned.
How did the love affair with the Thunderbird get started?
“Those early T-birds and Corvettes were big favourites — sculpted, gorgeous pieces. They weren’t really race cars, they were more about design and elegance.
“To me, the car that captured that best was the ’55 Thunderbird,” he continues.
“They did some things with later models, adding the ‘continental spare tire’ kit, and fins …”, his voice tails off.
“I thought if there was ever a chance, I’d love to have one of those ’55s. It was a little-boy dream to own one.”
Just like it was a dream to fly and become an astronaut?
“Yup! That started when I was nine yeas old! What kid at that age didn’t dream about becoming an astronaut?
“Anyway, I was working as NASA’s director in Russia for a couple of years,” he recalls, “mostly away from the family.
“But you get a little extra per diem allowance when serving overseas, so I saved it up, and after a couple of years, I thought I might be able to buy a car like that.
“At that stage in my life, I was in my early-mid 40s, I’d flown in space a couple of times, and thought maybe now was the time to get that car.
“I was looking around at the online sites, and my dad was looking for me too.
“In 2001, we came upon this one near London, Ont. My parents had grown up in that area, so my dad went to look at it.
“It was actually pretty comical. I’m in Russia, there’s an eight-hour time difference, so it’s 10 p.m. where I was, 2 p.m. here.
“Dad calls me and says, ‘It looks pretty good!’
“Over the phone, I could hear the car running and it was making a racket.
“‘There’s no muffler on it!,’” says Dad.
“‘And the back window’s broken out. But most of the car looks really sound, it’s mostly cosmetic, and the price is really good. I think you should buy it!’
“So I tell him to go ahead and make the deal.
“He then says, ‘Here, negotiate with the owner,’ and hands the phone to the guy.
“‘Negotiate?’ I say to him. ‘Based on what?’ I’m thinking, how am I going to negotiate from Russia?”
“So I say to the owner, ‘Hey, it sounds really loud!’
“And the guy says, ‘Yeah, it needs a muffler.’
“‘And my Dad tells me the window is busted out and it needs a bunch of cosmetic stuff.’
“I mean, I have no idea what I’m doing!
“Then finally he says, ’Yeah, you’re right on all those things.’
“‘Great, so hand me back to my Dad.’
“So Dad negotiates a price and we buy the car.
“When I got back home, my dad, my son, Evan, and I worked on it to make it run.
“When I got assigned to the Space Center in Houston, Evan and I were going to drive it down. That was March 2002.
“It was snowing when we left Milton, so we had snow tires on it.
“When we got to Detroit, a fan blade fell off. Not a bad place for a Ford to break down! Fortunately, it didn’t hit the radiator, so it was a fairly easy fix.
“We turned that drive into one of those classic road trips. We bought one of those tour books that outlined all the tourist attractions and we hit most of them. We even went to Graceland!
“The car became my daily driver for a decade down there, except I had the removable hardtop roof stored in the garage, so I only drove it when it wasn’t raining — and it rains a lot down there.
“I was getting ready for my third space flight in 2012 — 2013. (That would be the Space Oddity one.) After that, I retired, returned to Canada and had the car shipped back.
“By now, it needed a lot of work. It had had a mediocre body job in the ’70s, so we sent it to Dave Harrison in Straffordville, Ont. (about 50 kilometres south of Woodstock.)
“Dave is just an artist — he did the bodywork on my dad’s Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith; you can see from that just how perfect his work is.”
No lie — that car’s finish looks like a mirror.
“And as I’m talking to you, I’m running my hand along the body of my car, showing you the perfect smoothness of the job Dave did.”
Again, no lie.
“Dave had it for over a year, took it right down to the bare bones.
They left no stone unturned.
“And pretty much every time we rolled one stone over, we’d find something else that needed doing.
“It turned out to be a pretty big project. Dave had to recreate some parts from scratch.
“We didn’t take the dash apart at that point, just got almost everything working.
“We finally took it out of the garage this past August, and I got to drive it a little this summer.
“There were a couple of little problems — the gas gauge wasn’t working. I’m not sure it ever has worked!
“We had converted the electrical system from six-volt to 12-volt, and figured maybe it was just a six-volt gauge. I figured we’d just leave it until we could find a proper replacement.
“It has a three-speed manual transmission with electric overdrive, and the overdrive wasn’t working either. It had worked before — Dave hadn’t done anything with it — so I went online to look into it. The first thing it said was ‘Check the fuse.’ Sure enough …
“I drive it on the highway. It cruises along at 60 to 65 miles per hour, turning about 2,400 r.p.m.
“It has the original 292-cubic-inch Y-block V8 engine, which had 193 horsepower.
“It’s just a joy to drive.”
Chris Hadfield has had an amazing career. He considers himself the luckiest man alive because he has been able to do so many extraordinary things.
The thing he seems to love best now is driving his ’55 T-Bird.
Yes, Canada’s own Rocket Man is a Car Guy at heart.
Jim Kenzie is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star.