Vintage cars fit him to a ‘T’

1:51:00 PM


Zeeland Township, MI —
As a teenager with a sketchy driving record, Gerhard “Jerk” Ritsema found himself in front of an appeal board trying to keep from losing his driver’s license.
He wasn’t bargaining from a position of power, but Ritsema threw a deal on the table, opening to reach a compromise.
He told the board he would agree with its requirement that he sell his hot rods in order retain his license, but he wanted to keep the old Ford Model T he was going to restore.
The board relented, and six decades later Ritsema is still collecting Model Ts.
“I got out of the hot rod business and got into Model Ts,” said Ritsema, 74, of Zeeland Township. “They are fascinating. A Model T is a car that each one has its own temperament.”
The Model T was far and away the most popular vehicle of its day.
The Ford Motor Company produced more than 15 million of them from 1908 and 1927, and more than a few of them have passed through Ritsema’s hands.
He said he doesn’t know how many of them he has owned — or currently owns, for that matter — and he doesn’t know how many he’s fixed up for others. And he certainly doesn’t know how much money he’s invested over the years or what his collection is worth today.
It doesn’t matter, Ritsema said, because none of his collection is for sale.
“I don’t know, and I don’t want to know,” he said of his collection’s value. “I bought a lot of my stuff when it was cheaper, but nothing is for sale. You get money for it and you spend it and you’ve got nothing.”
Ritsema’s stuff has added up over they years — enough that he has filled two barns on his small hobby farm.
He has a 40-foot by 100-foot pole barn that doubles as a workshop and a storage facility for his restored or nearly restored vehicles. Behind the pole barn is a three-level hip roof barn that is filled — from top to bottom — with parts, most of which are arranged in some sort of order on hundreds of feet of shelving.
Ritsema’s son, Robert, 46, of Hamilton, was asked how many Model Ts could be built from all of the spare parts.
“Completely?” he asked. “Probably none.”
In the workshop sits a 1919 Model T Bus that is almost completely restored.
Jerk Ritsema said the body was built in the late 1800s by Janesville Carriage Works in Wisconsin, and was originally pulled by horses. The bodies were later added to modified Model T truck frames and converted to small buses, he said.
Out back, in the storage area of the pole barn, are several other Model Ts. There is a 1925 Huckster that is belongs to Ritsema’s oldest son, Gerrit, 52, of Borculo. There’s a 1914 Speedster Jerk originally restored for his dad, and a 1918 Coupe that was on display at the Ford Piquette Plant in Detroit in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Model T. There is also an old Ford tractor built on a Model T frame and a 1948 Plymouth, a reminder of Jerk’s first car.
Model Ts have been a large part of the Ritsemas’ lives for many years. Gerrit Ritsema had one before he was born, and Robert got one when he was still in grade school.
They have been working on cars together for a long as they can remember and have passed their love onto the next generation. Robert’s son Michael, a Grand Valley student, has a 1923 Model T of his own.
“It’s kept us talking together as a family,” Robert said.
“They’ve kept us out of trouble or gotten us into trouble,” Gerrit added. “We haven’t figured that one out yet.”
Carol Ritsema, who married Jerk 37 years ago, said the Model Ts certainly keep her husband busy. She said the former Herman Miller employee spends time in the workshop almost every day.
And when Jerk Ritsema isn’t working on his cars, he’s likely to be driving them. He doesn’t build showpieces that sit idly around, he builds them to be driven and shared with others.
He helped found the Holland Vintage Car Club, of which he and Carol are still members, and is active in local and regional Model T clubs as well.
The Ritsemas enjoy the frequent car tours they take with club members.
“People love to stop and talk (about the cars),” Carol said. “And if there are kids around, Jerk will give them all rides.”
Perhaps the vehicle in his collection that stands out the most is Ritsema’s 1920 Model T hearse. It is so freshly restored that the smell of varnish still permeates the wooden casket storage area. Ritsema joked that the hearse will come in handy some day.
“You never know when I’m going to go, but it’s ready,” he said. “I want my last ride to be in a Model T.”


By GARY BROWER
GateHouse News Service

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