It’s 2 p.m. on a sweltering July Saturday, and John Grace is at the tail end of a parade in Findlay, Ohio. In front of him 70 men and women decked out in knickers, white shirts and sporty red ties peddle antique high-wheel bicycles in a dizzying display of spokes and wooden tires straight out of the 19th century.
Behind them come another 70 or so men, women and children in period dress mounted on antique safety bikes, the women’s skirts swaying modestly as they peddle along, the children’s heads encased in shiny, new helmets.
Sheriff’s deputies ride shotgun in the outside lane, their bright yellow shirts looking out of place among the styles and fashions of an earlier age, their modern touring bikes almost, but not quite, blending in with the crowd.
And Grace ’90 Eng is at the back of the pack, a police cruiser off to his right.
But today Grace isn't out in the sun riding his high-wheeler alongside his wife and daughters. Today he’s in his 2004 Ford F-250, hauling water, tools and a couple of tired riders.
“It was my turn to drive the chase truck,” he says with a sheepish smile. “Somebody has to do it.”
Driving is something Grace, who attended Penn State Beaver from 1985 to 1987, does a lot of, and he doesn't seem to mind whether what he’s driving is old or new.
Most days it’s new. As the managing engineer of the paint facility at the Ford Motor Company’s Dearborn Truck Plant near Detroit, Grace has access to plenty of newborn F-150s. Nearly every night when he leaves work, he slides into one of the 1,260 trucks made that day to evaluate it on his daily commute.
In his basement at home in suburban Detroit and in a garage in a nearby industrial park, there’s plenty of old.
Grace and his wife, Dorothy ’91 Lib, own 16 antique cars, 11 of them made prior to 1915, and 120 bikes, ranging in era from the 1880s to the present. They drive the cars in a variety of parades, shows and road rallies each year, including the Old Car Festival, which they help organize each fall at The Henry Ford Museum’s Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich.
When the couple was married at Old Economy Village in Ambridge in 1995, their wedding party drove to the reception in John’s 1907 Cadillac and 1915 Ford Model T and John’s father’s 1904 Oldsmobile. The couple honeymooned by driving the Model T around eastern Pennsylvania.
Antique cars seem to run in the family. “I actually got the Model T from my grandfather,” he says. “He didn't buy it new or anything. He bought it as a collector car and never did anything with it.”
In 2009 Dorothy and their oldest daughter, Emma, drove their 1911 Regal and, after the Regal broke down, the Model T across the United States to mark the 100th anniversary of the first coast-to-coast drive by a woman.
“The hills in New York were tough,” Dorothy says. “The Rockies were fine. I went across the Rockies on I-80. It was relatively flat.”
“There was this one town in New York,” John says. “We came across a river, and the road was going straight up, like being in downtown Pittsburgh. Straight up. I thought she was going to have trouble with it. She got over it, but I was surprised. It was right up the side of a mountain.”
But despite the couple’s love for cars, it was the bikes — and Penn State — that drew them together. “I've been into bikes since before I was born,” says Dorothy, who attended Penn State Abington Campus before moving on to Penn State University Park. Her dad put her in a baby backpack and took her on a high-wheeler when she was a few weeks old. “When my mom found out, she wanted to kill him,” she says.
Grace’s introduction to antique bicycles came a little later. “My dad in the early ’80s decided he wanted to get one of those balloon tire Schwinns like he had as a kid, so we started going to bike meets,” he says. “My brother (Ed Grace ’92 Eng) and I got fascinated with the early bikes and became part of the Wheelmen.”
Dorothy’s father is a founding member of the Wheelmen, a national organization dedicated to keeping the heritage of American cycling alive. The group participates in parades, swap meets and other cycling events across the country.
At its national convention in Findlay, Ohio, last July, members got together to set a world record for the number of high-wheelers stacked next to each other. John joined 155 other riders who lined up shoulder-to-shoulder to blast the previous record of 131 set in England in 2003.
John and Dorothy met in an elevator in Wisconsin during a Wheelmen event in the late 1980s when John overheard Dorothy say something about Penn State. Both were students at University Park at the time, and John looked her up when they returned to campus. “We had a nice conversation one night on the phone, and that was it,” he says. “We really didn't cross paths anymore.”
A few years later he saw her again at a meet in Vermont. “I was standing there with my bike, and Dorothy and her sister were standing in front of me with their bikes, and I said, ‘Didn't one of you go to Penn State?’ I couldn't remember which one she was.”
It turned out that John and Dorothy had both moved to the Detroit area after graduation, and he convinced her to get involved in the local Wheelmen’s chapter. “We started riding in parades and hanging out, and there you go.”
Grace moved to Michigan to take a job at Ford’s River Rouge Plant after getting his Penn State degree in electrical engineering. He started in the Ford College Graduate Program making Mustangs.
“It was all about the cars,” he says, grinning
Mustangs eventually gave way to pickups at River Rouge, and Grace advanced to paint manufacturing engineering manager of the Ford Truck Plant. He’s second in charge of the plant, supervising 90 hourly and 12 salary employees in two buildings, and is responsible for all maintenance, automation, processing and cleaning activities in the paint shop.
As Grace walks around the plant dressed in coveralls and a Ford hat, he explains the paint process.
He points to a roller-coaster-like track overhead where the shells of the truck cabs and beds come into the plant on separate skids. Though they start off next to each other, the pieces are inevitably separated during painting and must be reunited before heading to the assembly plant floor. A barcode system built into the skids allows machines and workers to keep track of which bed goes with which cab, as well as the truck’s paint scheme and history.
The first step in the painting process is cleaning and priming the metal by dipping both pieces in several vats of chemicals. As the tour progresses past one of the dip tanks, the moving line of trucks comes to a halt, cabs and beds dangling on chains from an overhead track. Grace radios the control room to alert them to the problem.
“They’d have caught that in about 30 seconds, but I figured as long as I was here I’d let them know,” he says as the line starts back up again. Had the problem not been corrected quickly, millions of dollars of solvent would have been ruined.
“There’s a lot of pressure placed on us when things break. You've got to be able to react fast,” he says. “It would be nice to have a spare shop that you could just flip a switch and move production over to, but that’s not reality. Reality is that you have to figure out how to fix it very quickly. It’s the challenge of engineering on the fly.”
After a series of quality checks and the application of plastic to mask out two-tone paint jobs, the trucks hit the carwash-like paint booths. Computers read the bar codes on the skids and tell the paint robots what color to use.
“People think we only run one color at a time, maybe doing blue one day and red the next,” Grace says. “That would really slow down production.”
After the robots purge the previous color from their nozzles, a series of reticulated arms spray every nook and cranny of the beds and cabs.
The process ends with a final check for quality by both robots and humans. Cabs and beds with too many flaws are sent back for a new coat of paint or are scrapped if they have been through the paint booth too many times. Those that pass inspection are hoisted on an elevator to an overhead conveyor that sends them to an enormous holding building next door.
In a scene reminiscent of the closet-door sorting machine in Disney/Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.,” huge robots in the holding building shuffle the fronts and backs of trucks into and out of what amounts to 756 oversized mail slots.
Once both pieces are in the building, the truck is scheduled for assembly, reunited in the correct order and sent overhead to the assembly plant next door.
“If a line goes down and it’s not painting vehicles, it’s not just our department that’s affected,” Grace says. “We’re not able to send any vehicles to final build. There are 200 people standing around over there not working.”
Grace credits his time at Beaver campus and University Park for teaching him to think under pressure.
“The whole thing about engineering is being able to take the conditions that are given to you, organize them and solve the problem,” he says. “Some days are a little more painful than others, but it’s fun to leave every day and say, ‘We painted those trucks today.’ ”
Grace, who graduated from Ambridge High School in 1985 after growing up in Sharon, says having the opportunity to go to Penn State while living at home was a big plus.
“I wanted to go to Beaver Campus. I’m not a person who likes crowds, so going to the main campus was a little intimidating. Beaver campus was a little more casual. You could just concentrate on your studies and didn't have to worry about the dynamics of a big campus,” he says.
Grace took five years to finish his bachelor’s degree because he participated in the College of Engineering’s Co-op Program at University Park. In only its second year when Grace entered the program, the co-op pairs employers with students, who alternate semesters of classes with semesters of working full time.
Grace says working in the maintenance department at Cytemp Specialty Steel in Titusville helped him understand what he was learning in class. “I can comprehend things so much better when I can get my hands on them. You can understand the theory, but it’s still theory until you actually do it. When you’re actually using what you’re learning, it becomes real,” he says.
“At the steel mill, I kind of decided that I liked that challenge of keeping the place running to provide a product,” Grace says. “I’m not an engineer who makes things. I keep things going.”
Sometimes that means keeping something going just long enough to get it repaired.
“The other day a conveyor broke and stopped the line,” he says. “I got the idea to prop it up with a pneumatic jack until Sunday when we could get in there and figure out how to fix it.
“It’s the same thing with the antique cars. When you’re broken down on the side of the road, there’s no one to fix your car. There are no standardized parts for pre-1915 cars. You can’t call AAA to fix it,” he says. “It’s just you and your tools and your ability to make it work.”
For the most part, his goal with his cars and bikes is to preserve them rather than restore them. Sometimes, though, preservation alone isn't possible.
The bikes I restore are really basket cases that are unusable as they are,” he says. “Usually they need frames welded back together and things like that. I have a men’s hard-tire safety that I restored that literally looked like it had been at the bottom of a lake for years. It’s beautiful now.”
Unlike many collectors, Grace expects to use the vehicles he buys and repairs.
“People see these cars in museums. And they just say, ‘Yeah, that’s a cool looking old car,’ ” Grace says. “But when we have a car show around here and we come driving in, it just blows everyone’s minds. They say, ‘You’re actually driving it? On roads?’ Yeah, we are. It’s a blast.”
Stories inside the 2013 edition of the Nittany News
- Alumni Information
- Penn State Beaver Alumni Society
- Beaver Valley Area Chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association