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My grandfather’s home built car

Cars Energy & Sustainability
My grandfather’s home built car

[Photo from Uncle Ray]

Long before my time, my grandfather Raymond Albert Sheffield, was messing about with cars. When I was about 10 or 11, we sat on a beach on Martha’s Vineyard watching the ferries come and go exchanging cars and passengers while he told me of the car that he had built in his younger days.

Apparently, not having enough money for a vehicle was not going to stop him, so he built his own version of what I recall was a Model A. Where the model name would have been embossed, he put his own name. During the winters, he needed to get his ride off the street, so he and his mates dismantled the vehicle so that it could be carried down the stairs to the basement of the house he and my grandmother lived in. I imagine that he spent the winter modding and tuning the components for a better vehicle in the following year’s driving season. In several of the pictures here, you can see the gleeful pride he had in owning and driving the vehicle that he made with his own hands. In this one you can see the excitement he had of driving his project.

My uncle Ray inherited the task of dealing with the room full of photos (no kidding!) after my grandfather passed on. He has since scanned and archived the decades of black and white photos that my grandfather shot, developed and printed in a darkroom located in his office.

My grandfather went on to become something of an inventor, tinkerer, and maker. Some time in the 1970’s, I recall being at his Cambridge workshop, Air Conditioning Engineering, and seeing all the metallic creations he was cooking up with the help of his staff. One that I recall was a tubed fireplace contraption that drew the cool air from below the fire and expelled warm air out the top of the tubes, increasing the efficiency of the average wood burning fireplace.

Much of my grandfather’s life’s work seemed to track back to the creation of his car, the RayBiltIt, and the practical joy of a useful project. We should all do what we can to cultivate this kind of competent pursuit of dreams in the young people around us. Who knows what can come of such interests? New inventions, new technologies, new solutions to the world’s problems, or maybe just some good wholesome fun with innovation?

If you have a father in your life who has nurtured your making spirit, you can share some stories with us in the comments, and if you are still hunting for the perfect gift, he may enjoy a discounted subscription to MAKE magazine.

10 thoughts on “My grandfather’s home built car

  1. Tercero says:

    Don’t get me wrong. I admire that he was able to put together what is essentially a kit car from other car parts, but, it’s not like he cast the motor and chasis in his kitchen oven, and pressed panels in a flat press in his living room.

    1. steve mitchell says:

      So Tercero,
      He must cast his own parts or his efforts are discounted?

      Must he also dig the ore from the ground and smelt it himself as well (in order to be your version of a maker…)?

      To quote the site’s motto at the top of this page:
      Void your warranty, violate a user agreement, fry a circuit, blow a fuse, poke an eye out. Make: The risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things… Welcome to Make: Online!

      How are “true makers” to do any of that–violate a user agreement or void a warranty–if they have to dig the ore and smelt it themselves too?

      Without being harsh to you, I want to make the point that modifying existing things is as much a part of “making” as starting from scratch is.

      I am a maker and I own a cnc machine shop. But I buy bars of steel to make
      parts out of, not cast my own.


  2. Chris G says:

    Fantastic! Even though he didn’t ‘cast’ his own cylinders, etc… he instilled the spirit of ‘Maker’ vs. ‘Consumer’ on his kids and grandkids.

    My father (and mother) did that for me also. They would always say ‘We can do that’, and then in some small way we would free ourselves from being just ‘consumers’
    I am old enough to remember going to the drug store to buy replacement tubes for the TV, getting out the tools and replacing the motor on our washer, etc… My mother made clothes from patterns, and altered clothes as good as any tailor.

    Even now, while it is more difficult to do, I try to show my kids how to modify their toys, make their own creations, and not accept ‘mass produced’ items at outrageous prices.

    My kids know that on trash day I will do my share of ‘Dumpster diving’, and my wife tries not to be in the car with me on those days (out of embarrassment). But we have found, (and more importantly reused) furniture, bicycles, toys, computers, etc…

    And what we did not use, (and that we repaired) we would donate back to shelters and goodwill stores.

    ‘Making’ does not mean that you mine the ore, smelt the metal, etc… As long as you take something and make it your own.

    And please don’t forget the safety glasses!

  3. Velifer says:

    The stove you wrote of? I have a commercial one, called an “Aurora.” Your grandfather was in on a good idea. I can heat my place all night on a single log.

    In fact, I can suck out so much heat with the fan and baffles that I can put a raging fire out!

    Great that you have such great pictures and memories.

  4. Steve Poling says:

    My grandfather built such a device. My father told me that it was not uncommon, particularly during WW2 for the mechanically inclined to cobble up what parts were available from a non-running car and/or tractor or two into what they called a “doodlebug.”

    They were primarily for hauling things on the farm, and to market, but they lacked the traction of a tractor. No doubt they would not be street-legal today.

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