For Clair Banta it’s a love affair more than half a century in the making. A devoted Ford Model-T collector; he has found a lifetime of enjoyment in the building, rebuilding and preservation of these beloved classic motor carriages.
“I had a Model-T when I was in high school,” recalled Banta. “I had so much fun with it. There was a family here in town that had the first car; I think their name was Foss. They delivered mail south of town and when they drove those real bad roads, they’d drive that Model-T. He sold it to me a couple of years before I graduated [high school] in 1948.”
Lingering in the cool shade of his large Model-T garage on a hot south-central Kansas day, Banta is as comfortable around piles of antique Ford engine parts as he is rocking gently in his favorite armchair.
“I’d go to swap meets and if I’d see something cheap I’d pick it up,” he said. “A lot of this stuff I’d go out into farmyards and people would give it to me. And that’s how I accumulated this stuff over the years.”
If you’ve ever wondered about the differences between a two-door hardtop Model-T and a touring Model-T, Banta is the man to ask. His restored 1918 four-seat Touring Model-T is a living history book, with Banta courteously providing the narration.
Of the five Model-T’s in his collection, which are all in various states of restoration, his favorite car is the 1915 brass Model-T Roadster.
“I found this car in Colorado,” he said. “I used to do things for Mr. Burke, who had a museum here in town. I use to work on his cars. I went out to Fort Collins, Colo., with him and this car was sitting in this guy’s shop. It wasn’t done. It needed some attention and [needed to be] put together. I finally talked him out of the car and Mr. Burke and I returned with this car. I went ahead and restored it. This is the first car I completely restored. It has an original motor. Everything is original but the wheels.”
Banta is quick to talk about the different wheels, in case any Model-T buffs see the photos. He’s replaced the wooden spoke wheels with more modern metal ones. “They are nice to tour with,” he said.
He talks about the thousands of miles he and his wife, Wilda, have spent behind the wheel of his favorite car, driving across the United States.
“My wife gets in here with me and we just drive,” he shares while strolling around the garage sharing stories about each of his prized cars.
A number of them were severely damaged during the May 4, 2007 tornado that hit Greensburg. “I really didn’t want to restore them again,” he said, but of course he did.
He can also tell you where any of the hundreds of parts had come from.
His memory, slowed by a stroke, is still sharp as a tack when it comes to engines and pistons and hand cranks.
But in a display of humanistic duplicity, Banta accepted that at some point, his lovingly acquired collection would go to another. “Maybe I’m going to have a sale one of these days and just get rid of all of my Model-T stuff.”
Each of his cars had, at one time, been bequeathed to his children.
“I had a car for each one of them. My son in Iowa he’ll take one. My son in Texas, I don’t know if he’d care for one of them or not. But my kids, my kids will have to fight over them,” he laughed.
An April 2012 tornado crossed through a northern part of Kiowa County. It destroyed the family farmhouse, a 100-year-old home, where all of the Banta children grew up.
He also lost his son Robert last August, making it a very trying year for the Greensburg native.
“I had a car for him. He really loved it, in fact him and his son wanted to take it and restore it.”
He acknowledged that his cars and his workshop were a sanctuary for him, during a very emotional time. When asked if working on his cars helped him in his grieving process, Banta said “definitely.”
The next stop on the Banta tour was a bright red 1926 Model-T Roadster with a half-built truck bed. The small wooden box, sitting over the rear axle was mid-construction. He’s been cutting each of the planks by hand on a nearby saw, hopeful that it will be finished for upcoming family nuptials.
“My granddaughter wants me to bring it to Colorado and haul her to her wedding. That tornado come along and put a hold on this,” he added. “I would have had this done a long time ago. We’ll go up there for her wedding, and I’m going to stay out there and relax a little while.”
But the collection of cars in his garage is only a fraction of the work he has done over his lifetime. He said that he’s helped numerous other Model-T collectors across Kansas and the U.S. He’s repaired, rebuilt and restored Model-T’s that will crisscross the back roads and byways of America for generations to come.
“I’ve rebuilt engines for collectors across the country,” he added,” and that’s pretty neat.”