First off, some background...a little character development...colorful narrative to make this thread worth reading...just in case purely technical content is not enough to rope you in. Forgive me if you've read this before...its a bit wordy...you can just jump to the next post if you get bored.
I've been a gearhead internal combustion fanatic since I was old enough to make "Brrrm Brrrrm" noises with my Matchbox cars. This is surprising as neither my father nor anyone else in my family shared my affliction...probably because we were too poor. At the ripe old age of 6 or 7, I was afforded a bit of freedom to explore my neighborhood with my friends on our bikes. It was the late 70's so nobody seemed to be worried about predators or pedophiles or gangs or drugs or much of anything...we just hit the streets when the sun came up and ran home when the street lights came on...good times to be sure. I cruised every inch of those neighborhood streets...taking in everything I could...investigating anything with a motor...a bright blue K5 blazer with big tires and a white top...an orange 1972 Corvette Stingray...a customized SWB van with shag carpeting and side pipes...an old CJ5...sparkly blue '69 Camaro...a GTO Judge...motorcycles of every size and shape...it was a new and exciting world and I was out to explore every garage, shed, and backyard. I stopped and talked to everybody...asking way too many questions...following them around their yards...looking under tarps...peeking in sheds...probing into others' business in the way that only children can get away with. I was probably a huge pain in the a$$.
There was one house in the neighborhood that attracted me like a moth to a flame...a tidy little white bungalow with a detached 2 car garage and about 5 sheds scattered around the property...meticulously maintained and austere...with one incongruous exception. Atop all of the sheds were dozens of bird houses, weathervanes, miniature windmills, and intricate wind driven ornaments...hand formed copper cups spinning in mesmerizing patterns...little mechanical men cutting firewood or casting fishing rods...a bear pulling a salmon from a river...children pumping water...a sun dial.
The entire scene was mesmerizing to my 6 year old brain...I would ride back and forth in front of the house all day long...craning my neck and standing on the pedals...hopeful to uncover some new discovery from my limited access. From my perspective, this place was Oz...and I was outside the city walls. It was a full time preoccupation. So many mechanical things to behold...kinetic sculptures with a Norman Rockwell sensibility...Americana born of the Industrial Revolution. More important than the wind-a-ma-jigs, were the motors we'd hear roar to life at different times of the day...often from within the darkened interior of the garage or one of the outbuildings. Big singles...2 strokes...multis...Hit-and-miss...steam...not that I recognized any of these in such an early stage of my motorized maturation. I just knew that I loved the sounds, the smells, and the excitement.
I would see an old man working in the yard...coming and going out of the garage...carrying tools...tending to the property. I'd ride past and try to look as conspicuous as possible...attempting to engage the man in some way. He was indifferent to my presence...never smiling...never saying anything remotely inviting...carrying on about his business...always wearing the same style green work pants and shirt...like a millwright from a 1950s factory (which is what he was). I can still remember the day that I finally mustered the courage...leaving my bike by the curb and cautiously walking up the driveway to investigate an open garage. There was an engine running inside...billowing smoke out of the open doors...revving...sputtering...revving again. I just had to see it...consequences be damned. I walked up the hill toward the gaping yaw of the unknown...my tiny mind incapable of processing all of the possible consequences...I don't even think I had any idea what "trespassing" even meant.
I approached the open overhead door and peered inside...and what I saw within that garage during that first peak would frame my ideal of the perfect garage for decades to follow. It was roughly 20x20...dark, but cozy...work benches lining the rear and right walls...a coal stove on the left wall...a stairway to an attic...multi-pane windows on every wall; hazy with dust and smoke...there were tools hanging above the benches...drawers of tools below...shelves of parts and paint cans...old Army pictures...more weathervanes...vices...works in progress...a leather sand bag...wood carvings...patina galore...a place for everything and everything in its place. There were small engines and garden tractors everywhere...including the one that was roaring away on a stand in the middle of the room with 2 men standing over it...one watching while the other, a cigarette hanging from the edge of his lip, was tweaking the carburetor.
In the far left rear corner of the garage, sat a turquoise colored machine that immediately caught my eye...a substantial nose and bug-eyed headlights staring back at the tiny child in the doorway. The 2 men also took notice of the boy...and then continued to go about their business.
I stood in the doorway for what seemed like forever...the men saw that I was standing there, but continued about their business with indifference. I was just happy that they didn't yell and chase me away. The older gentleman was actively tinkering on the running motor...moving this would result in the engine revving...move this and it would sputter...he was moving about like the wizard behind the curtain...deftly controlling internal combustion with his own two hands. To my young brain, this was nothing short of magic.The younger man, his 20ish year old son, was handling "gopher" duties...go for a wrench...go for a screw driver...go for this...go for that. At that moment, I thought he was the luckiest guy in the world...I wanted nothing more than to be the "gopher" for this guy who seemed to hold the keys to universe in the shirt pocket of his Dickies work shirt...with his soft pack of smokes. In the days and weeks to follow, I'd keep going back over and over again. The younger guy, Mark, was quite friendly and he would allow me to follow him around as he performed his chores or pursued his hobbies. He had an immense collection of model trains and cars and boats and all things mechanical. His father, however, was a small engine guy. He collected, rebuilt, and maintained a vast collection of motorized machinery...the sheds were lined with shelves of exotic equipment...a 2-manned chainsaw...mowers...pumps...augers...toys...things I couldn't even begin to identify. The smells of gas and oil and starting fluid and spray pain and WD-40 were everywhere...intoxicating...exciting...I couldn't get enough.
In the garage, there were always projects under way...pistons and connecting rods on work benches...garden tractors in various states of disassembly...machinery of all kinds. Mark's father, Mr. D, never really warmed up to me in any specific way...never really talking to me or even asking my name...but he never chased me away either...he'd let me stand around and watch while he worked on whatever project was underway...following him in and out of the garage...my mind set on "record" for every movement. When Mr. D wasn't working on machinery, he was pounding out delicate copper cups out of sheets of metal and brazing them onto wind catchers or carving intricate shapes out of wood. He was always in motion...always working...as if driven by some invisible task master...from sun up to sun down...but he had purpose and focus and seemed happy enough doing it...even if all I ever earned was a grunt of acknowledgement here and there.
Always...throughout my time at Mr. D's...there was a constant presence in the corner of the garage...a turquoise tractor...an incongruous color that I'd never seen on a piece of machinery...overbuilt and heavy with agricultural tires and a monstrous cast iron nose...weird bug-eye headlights...a metal seat right out of Green Acres...mechanical levers and metal fenders. It had a presence to it that the Simplicity tractor in the next spot could not emulate. I was always drawn to it. Sometimes, they'd even let me sit on it; pulling levers and turning the substantial steering wheel. I dreamt the unlikely dream of someday owning one just like it.
In the years to come, all the years of my childhood in fact, I would continue to gravitate towards Mr. D's garage...hanging around there as often as possible. Whenever we hung around in the garage, myself and other neighbor kids, I'd always park my butt on that metal sprung seat...wishing that it were mine...the name PANZER imprinted on my brain. At some point, Mark even let me drive it around the yard...mower deck disengaged. I think it might have been the first motorized vehicle that I ever drove. A riding lawnmower was far too extravagant for my family...we had only recently moved up from an old reel mower to a gas powered push mower. In the summers, Mark would use the Panzer and a set of gang mowers to mow the neighborhood field where we all played. Mr. D never really warmed up to us kids...at least he never really spoke to us...he'd let us hang around and watch him...even begrudgingly answering a question or two...but he was always on some mechanical mission that we were unaware of. I'd still follow him around and watch everything he did. Offering my "gopher" services for any and all requests...asking the name and purpose of every tool...soaking in every turn of a wrench. He was always gruff...never showing any sign of warmth...I was mostly afraid of him...and I don't think that he ever liked me...but he never told me to leave so I kept on coming. He was the only person in my universe that was engaged in this type of mechanical activity and I couldn't get enough...even though I was in constant fear of getting yelled at or chased out, I'd muster all the courage that I could and I'd ask just one more question. On one occasion, he was immersed in a project and he actually asked me to grab a rag or a wrench and hand it to him...I was over the moon...in my mind "we" had just fixed something. Best feeling ever! When he wasn't around, I'd explore his garage and inspect every project...peppering Mark with questions about his father's activities. Somewhere around 4th or 5th grade, my parents bought me an old mini-bike to terrorize the neighborhood with. Of course, I rode it right to Mr. D's house to show that I was now a full-fledged member or the mechanical fraternity. Popping and smoking, I proudly roared back and forth in front of the house...hoping to get the old man's approval. He was working in the yard and showing his usual disinterest, but at some point, as I popped and sputtered past at full throttle, he motioned me up to the garage. Without saying anything, he rolled the bike inside and started fettering with the bike. He pulled the plug, inspected it, and replaced it with one from his vast collection. He started it up, fettered with the carb a bit, pulled and cleaned the float bowl, tightened a couple bits, and handed it back off to me. I don't remember much in the way of dialogue, but those 15 or 20 minutes have stuck with me for a lifetime. The bike immediately ran better and I couldn't wait to perform some high speed testing. "We" had fixed it.
In retrospect, Mr. D's garage was probably one of the biggest influences in my gearhead life. I hung around there intermittently right through high school...stopping in to visit Mark and see what was going on in the shop. Mr. D passed away sometime when I was a freshman in high school I think and Mark, still a bachelor, stuck around to care for his mother and take care of the place. In his father's absence, things started to get a little rough around the edges...the lawn was not as neatly manicured...the sheds started to fall into disrepair...there were no more small engine projects...no more metalwork...no new weathervanes. The spark was gone from the place.
I finished high school...training in vocational electronics...joined the Army where I worked as a Biomedical Electronics Technician... and carried with me the passion for all things internal combustion and mechanical. Always thinking fondly of the years I spent hanging around in Mr. D's garage...promising myself that I would one day own a Panzer tractor just like the one that Mr. D had. I had stopped back to visit Mark a few times over the years...usually when I was visiting my parents' house during leaves...and I had wanted badly to ask him about the Panzer...wishing that he might be willing to sell it to me...wishing for some connection to those happy days of gas, oil, combustion, and tools. However, I never managed to get back into the garage and the conversations never led to a place where I'd feel comfortable asking. I couldn't bring myself to inquire about selling the family heirloom.
Flash forward to the mid-90s...I was working as a Manufacturing Engineer at a factory in North Adams, MA...a 130 year old brick mill with an endless supply of mechanical and electrical problems to solve and repair...learning as much as I could about machining, welding, painting, plumbing, fabrication, and anything else that I could...seeking out those same talented "Mr. D's" and absorbing everything that I could...employing the same tactics that I had learned when I was 7 years old...pay attention...listen...keep your mouth shut...and always be willing to play "gopher". It was a great time.
Aside from the craftsmen working the trades within the factory, my favorite people were the ones who shared my passion for mechanical things and spent their free time restoring cars, or motorcycles, or tractors...tractors were my favorite...the older and more mechanical the better. I'd always make time to hear about someone's latest project...I couldn't get enough. In one case, there was a woman named Joan whose husband restored old farm tractors...Allis Chalmers were their favorites. I'd talk to her and ask about what model they were working on. At one point, we were talking tractors and I mentioned that I'd always wanted to find an old Panzer...like the one I took my first drive on...turquoise blue with white wheels and ag tires. In the days before Craigslist, I had scoured back roads and newspaper classifieds, but I had never seen another one like Mr. D's in all of my travels. Nobody that I had ever spoke to had even heard of a Panzer. To my surprise, Joan said that they owned one. I was shocked. I asked if it was blue and she said yes. I couldn't believe it. I told her that I had been looking for one for years and I probably told her about my formative years in Mr. D's garage. I told her that I'd love to see it if they would ever consider selling it. She said that they used it for towing the grandchildren around and doubted that they'd ever part with it.
For the next few months...maybe a year...whenever I saw Joan...I'd ask her if she was ready to part with the Panzer. I saw her and her husband at the vintage tractor pulls and saw that tractors were truly her husband's passion...his garage, his yard, and his driveway were full of them. He didn't strike me as a guy who ever let things go.
Then, unexpectedly, while at work one day, Joan asked me if I was still interested in the Panzer. They were making some space or raising revenue for another project and they were willing to let it go for $350. I knew there were numerous different Panzer models and this one was unlikely to be the same model as the one I grew up with, but it was Panzer blue and that might be enough to satiate my feelings of nostalgia. I took $350 out of the bank and drove up to Joan's house with my pick-up truck. They gave me a tour of some tractors and cool equipment before we made our way to a garage. After putting up a brief fight, the door creaked and groaned its way up the track and we peered into a dark garage filled with machinery of every shape and size. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I felt like that 7 year old kid all over again...as I looked in, a pair of strange bug eyed headlights looked back out at me...a familiar pair of headlights...installed by a young Mark D sometime 20+ years previous...a dirty white Super Jet bicycle grip still on the mowing deck lever...
This wasn't the exact model that I wanted...this was the EXACT tractor! It was Mr. D's Panzer sitting in a dark garage...10 years and 3 towns away from where I last saw it. I almost cried on the spot. I didn't need to hear it run...I didn't need to inspect it...no dickering...no nothing...I sputtered and stuttered and asked where they had bought it. They said they bought it from a guy in Pittsfield. I asked if it was Mark D and they confirmed. I bought it on the spot and I would have paid way more for it if they had asked.
The old girl fired right up and we drove up the ramps into the truck. That ride home might have been one of my happiest ever to follow a purchase. I was beside myself with joy and couldn't wait to tell my wife that I had found the EXACT Panzer that I had always wanted. It came home and I parked it in a position of prominence in my garage.
In the years to follow, I worked it routinely...mowing the lawn...pulling implausible loads...and generally acting as my own personal time machine...bringing me back to 80s at a moment's notice. However, as the years wore on and I was pulled in other directions by children, home renovations, and motorcycle addiction, the Panzer has languished in the shed. I kept it dry and I sprayed it down with a fresh coating of WD-40 every year or so, but it eventually fell out of regular service. However, this winter I find myself with an open bay in the garage and no significant car, Jeep, or motorcycle projects...so...I'm planning to strip the old girl down and give her the attention that is so long overdue. I'm hoping that I might channel a little of Mr. D myself and maybe one of my kids will be inspired by this beautiful old machine.
Hell, I might even get me some Dickies and a soft pack of Luckies just to get it right.