Island life and more, as conveyed via classic cars and their ilk.
Here’s a trivia question for you: what does the 1951 Hudson Hornet used by Don Messer and His Islanders in two Canadian tours have in common with one of Elvis’s famous pink Cadillacs?
Answer: they can both be found at PEI’s popular Car Life Museum.
Located at Bonshaw, midway between Charlottetown and the Confederation Bridge, this quirky private museum has more than 20 beautifully restored antique cars on display, most of them previously owned and driven on the Island, illuminating a slice of Island life in the fast lane.
The collection includes several Model T Fords (two trucks and a car), a 1909 Maxwell, and also Messer’s 1962 Thunderbird. The museum’s oldest automobile is an 1898 Mason Steam Carriage, which needed an hour to fire up the burner and build a head of steam before it could be driven.
There is also an assortment of vintage tractors, and a random selection of antique farm machinery—including a dog-powered treadmill for churning butter; the world’s first reaper, built in 1931; and a machine for knocking bugs off potato plants that operated, according to the hand-lettered signage, on “1 wife-power.”
The Car Life Museum started off as a weekend hobby for PEI car salesman Newton MacKay, who began collecting vintage vehicles and restoring them to their former glory in the late 1950s. In 1964 one of his treasures, a 1920 McLaughlin Buick, won top prizes in the first Halifax Auto Show.
“When he won those awards,” says his grandson Greg MacKay, “he realized that he loved restoring cars and was good at it.” He also realized that what he really wanted to do was create an antique car museum. In 1966, with four automobiles to exhibit, the dream became a reality.
Newton MacKay died in 1979, but his wife, Doris, kept the museum open with the help of her sons and grandsons.
“I still love the cars,” she says. “I wouldn’t sell them.”
Greg, 20, recalls that finding old cars on the Island became his granddad’s passion. “He’d put his four kids in the back seat of his car, and he and his wife would go travelling through the countryside looking for cars, following word-of-mouth tips.
“It was a family thing—every Sunday they’d go look at cars for the museum.”
Newton’s own car—also in the museum—was a four-wheeled advertisement, with “Car Life Museum, Bonshaw” painted in large carnivalesque letters along the side.
They would find old ruins rusting in rural barns, and haul them back for restoration.
“When he started,” says Doris, “ I never really thought it would be as big as it is. We only had four cars, and charged 50 cents admission. Then when he saw there was such an interest, he added to it. It wasn’t really an expensive hobby, because he did all the work himself. He loved cars and knew everything about them.”
“We just kind of keep the place going, in his memory. We’ve kept the museum as it was.”
The Car Life Museum is open from mid-June to mid-September; it welcomes 30 to 40 visitors on an average day. Seniors, says Greg, “really enjoy the cars, because they can relate to them.”
Kids love climbing all over the old tractors.
Most of the cars are in working order—or would be, after a little tune-up, he says. Indeed, in 1997 when the Confederation Bridge opened, one of the first vehicles to cross it was the museum’s 1909 Maxwell, described as a “Gentleman’s speedster with mother-in-law-seat.” With a top speed of 25 mph (40 km/h), it took a while to cross the 13-kilometre span, Greg recalls.
And Elvis’s iconic ride? Greg’s father, Kevin, apparently came up with the idea of bringing in the pink Caddy as a drawing card. The car bears a placard in the window declaring it to be “Elvis Presley’s Show Promotion Car.”
Who cares if it was or it wasn’t? The Car Life Museum is about dreams and nostalgia—and in that context, it’s the thought that counts.
Moncton’s Car Mardis Gras
For car enthusiasts, Moncton is the only place to be from July 7 to 10—when the city is taken over by all things automotive, as North America’s largest car show rolls into town.
With nearly 2,000 cars and up to 30,000 spectators expected from across Canada and the US, the 11th Annual Atlantic Nationals Automotive Extravaganza will show off some of the hottest rods and vintage cars on the continent, in the past everything from Corvettes, Camaros and Mustangs to 1923 Model T Fords and a Hupmobile.
The brainchild of the Greater Moncton Street Rod Association, the Nationals are intended to “promote the automotive enthusiast’s hobby, and improve tourism in Moncton,” says Tom Miller, one of the organizers of the volunteer-run event. It is non-profit, and in the past 10 years has raised $600,000 for local charities and projects such as a wheelchair-accessible playground.
The show is open to “anyone who has what we classify as a ‘special interest’ car, [made] prior to 1980—nice cars that people put a little money into,” say Miller, who recently sold his 1927 Model T and is now in the process of building a 1950 Mercury.
Activities on the first day include breakfast, a cruise, a barbecue and a drive-in movie. On the second day, there’s a gala parade down Moncton’s Main Street and a free concert.
The last two days of the show take place in Centennial Park, where industry professionals lead workshops in specialized car skills such as detailing and dent repair, welding and painting. Suppliers will have their wares on display. Prizes and awards will be handed out to participants. “We have the largest prize pool of any car show in North America,” Miller says proudly. Indeed, the grand prize is a custom-built 1932 Rod Action 3-Window Coupe.
“It’s a good time,” Miller adds. “We have a lot of fun doing it, and we get to see a lot of nice cars and meet a lot of nice people.”