World War I ambulance receives call to duty
Norwich - Don't call George King III's 1916 Ford Model T World War I ambulance a replica.
His five and a half years of research and construction have yielded a historical recreation down to the brushstroke. Its wood is Ivory Coast-imported mahogany, its paint job a particular dusky cornflower hue called "horizon blue," the signature of the French infantry. King has researched at the American Field Service archives in New York City, mining the diaries and letters home of American ambulance drivers, young would-be soldiers aching for the front line.
It's a $20,000, 21,000-pound, 14-foot-7-inch-long by 7 foot and 3/8 inch-tall labor of love and scrutiny.
King prefers "restored Model T with a newly constructed body."
"'Replica' waters down the accuracy," he said.
King, 65, and Ambulance 255, French number 32020, a reincarnation of the one donated by the Groton School in Massachusetts to the young American volunteer ambulance drivers in France during World War I, will be part of procession in President Barack Obama's inauguration parade Jan. 21 - one of 63 parade participants selected from a pool of more than 2,000.
"The mission of the Ambulance 255 project is not only to tell the story of these volunteers from a century ago, but to use it as an example to encourage young people to volunteer in service to their communities and their country today," King said. "We're very busy with that mission, I might add."
This won't be King's first inauguration parade - that was Nixon's in 1969, back when King was a seaman recruit with the Coast Guard. (He would work his way up to become a senior chief musician with the cadet bands at the Academy, retiring in 1990.) King has marched in several others, including Nixon's second and those of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
"It'll be nice to ride in a parade rather than walk in one," he said.
Eleven years ago, King started his company, Connecticut Antique Engine Restoration, out of the North Franklin home he shares with his wife, Kathleen. He has just one employee at the moment, but occasionally employs work-study students or interns from McPherson College in Kansas, where he is an adjunct faculty member at the only college in the country with a degree program in automotive restoration.
The president of the Four Seasons Model T Association and card-carrying member of the Model A Restorers Club, the Model T Ford Club International, the Horseless Carriage Club of America and the Steamship Historical Society of America, he has restored engines now in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., and six different countries in Europe. He's restored marine engines, steam tractors and rollers, Model Ts, Model As, one-lungers and an up-and-down sawmill.
He said he's never advertised; collectors come to him through word of mouth.
"When we restore engines, we pride ourselves on being the fussiest bastards in the world," he said.
King wore a gray sweatshirt Sunday afternoon in an American Ambulance Service garage in Norwich, where he works on Ambulance 255 in the winter.
Across the front was an image of his masterpiece, with "Spirit of the American Volunteer" in red script beneath. His blue beanie matched his eyes.
King said ambulance, from the French word originally meaning a mobile hospital following an army, was seized and forever changed by Americans and Brits to mean the vehicles themselves.
King enjoys these sorts of details.
He inherited his backward-glancing tendencies from his railroad historian father. He grew up in Walpole, Mass., in a house built in 1778 and got his first Model T as a sophomore in high school. (He now owns six.) After retiring as chief engineer for the 1908 steamboat Sabino at Mystic Seaport - and serving as the Seaport's engine collection manager - he turned his hobby into a full-time job.
The seeds for Ambulance 255 were planted when King visited a Massachusetts museum in 2006, among whose collection of antique vehicles was a World War I ambulance.
It wasn't historically accurate.
"I know Model Ts. It had a 1912 windshield, a 1923 engine," he said. "You know, it was all just mismatched parts."
In order to advise the museum on precisely how to remedy the mistakes, King began to do his homework and came across the name American Field Service for the first time. Mostly recent grads or current students of Ivy League schools operated the ambulances for the first three years of World War I in France, paying their way to France to fight beside French soldiers. Their education makes the American Field Service uniquely well documented, King said, with academically detailed written accounts.
"It's a phenomenal story of American volunteers," he said, "and I decided at some point that the only way to tell the story was to build an ambulance."
About 40 people in all helped in various ways over the next few years, donating money, parts and time. The effort culminated in a trip to France to visit the only existing original ambulance at the Musée National de la Voiture et du Tourisme in Compiègne, where the World War I armistice was signed.
The final product is a veritable specimen of time-travel, as best King could manage.
The wheels, axles, running gear and engine are all 1916 Model-T Ford materials. And the son of a World War I veteran gifted King with his father's steel Adrian helmet - the first modern combat helmet, replacing the soft hats of the French military. King knows of seven in existence; one sits perched on the leather seat of 255.
Even the features not in view are accurate: A brass marine-style lock keeps shut a compartment stocked with an original Model T jack and 5-liter cans for gas, lamp oil and motor oil; beneath the dark paint-taut canvas roof are layers of linen and felt.
Just last week, King tracked down one last, prized part - a tiny French latch for a square glass window.
It took him four years.
"It's tough to find one small enough to do the job," he said. "I found it on eBay France."
King said he still has some fine-tuning to do before the big day. Upon almost too-close inspection, bits of paint here and there have scraped, revealing a lighter blue shade of primer. And he needs some leather straps to replace the white string holding in place the original stretchers piled in the back, and to fasten the black leather seat cushion in front.
"I don't know if you're ever totally done working on it," he said.
But for now, it should do. King has his electrically warmed motorcycle gear ready for his frigid post steering 255 down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. He'll wear it under a $1,000 French infantry uniform, specially made by a theater seamstress - yes, a replica.
"It should be a high adventure," he said.
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