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Central Minnesota man finds, now owns same car he wanted in the '50s

Frank Chan of Forada stands next to his beloved 1958 Edsel Pacer, the identical car he had wanted to buy 61 years ago. He got another chance a few years ago, and has been driving it ever since. Ross Evavold / Forum News Service1 / 2
Frank Chan climbs behind the wheel of his '58 Edsel at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, where he had it on display with other classic cars. Ross Evavold / Forum News Service2 / 2

ALEXANDRIA, Minn.—In September 1957, Frank Chan walked into the Noonan Motors showroom in Alexandria, across from the Ford dealer on Hawthorne Street, and couldn't believe what he saw: a shiny, brand-new turquoise, two-door hardtop.

He had checked out other new car models when they were unveiled, but there was something special about this one.

"I just liked the way it looked," he recounted this week.

It was a 1958 Edsel Pacer, the only year that model was produced, and the first of just three years of Edsels. Manufactured by the Ford Motor Company, Edsels never caught on with the American public, but this particular one really turned Chan's head.

It also had several nods to the future, original ideas still found on today's cars. But other innovations didn't catch on, such as the "teletouch" shifter, push buttons spaced around the hub of the steering wheel that controlled the automatic transmission.

He went home that night and told his wife Alice all about it. That included the price tag, which he remembers being $3,200, and his intentions. After all, he wanted to buy it.

"She said I couldn't afford it," Frank recalls as if it were yesterday, "and she was right."

They had only been married a little over four years at that time, and couldn't swing the purchase on what he was making at Engstrom Furniture Store & Funeral Home.

So he continued driving his 1946 Ford, and he kept driving past Noonan Motors, paying no attention to their Studebakers and Packards but fixing his gaze on that new Edsel.

Then one day it was gone. Chan learned it was snapped up by a gentleman from Osakis. The decades flew by, but he never forgot about that car.

Would you believe?

A half-dozen years ago he struck up a conversation with Bob Mostad of Osakis, who he had known for years. They were attending a meeting for people with Parkinson's with their wives at Nelson Gables. Alice had been diagnosed with the disease in 2004, and she died the day after Christmas last winter, six months shy of their 65th wedding anniversary.

Mostad mentioned he had this old car that he had bought a long time ago from his neighbor, Arthur Larson. Chan eventually pieced it together, and figured out that it was the same car that he had wanted back in the 1950s. This time he wasn't about to let that '58 Pacer slip through his grasp.

"I was interested, right now," he said.

However, the car had been parked in a quonset building, open to the south, for decades.

"The dirt was that high on it," Chan said, holding two fingers several inches apart.

Nothing could deter him from buying it, not even the price, which was no longer the same as was listed on that September day in '57.

"It was quite a bit more," Chan admits.

Of course, as his wife observed, if he had bought it new 61 years ago, it's doubtful he and the car would be together now.

"I would have probably never kept it," he said.

Bringing it back to life

Chan figured the dirt that was caked on it couldn't hurt the paint, and he was right. After a good car wash it all fell off, leaving the original paint job that caught Chan's eye more than half a century earlier. It needed a new headliner and new tires and a new electric motor on the transmission, but that was about it.

Bob Baas, owner of B&J's Auto Services on Sixth Avenue, got it tuned up and running, and the 85-year-old Chan has been driving it for the last handful of years, in parades and in car shows, including every third Wednesday to the A&W in Glenwood.

Both Chan and Baas — who owns what is likely the oldest car in the area, a 1913 Model T touring car — belong to the Vintage Car Club in Alexandria. So does Chan's daughter, Judy Chlian, and her husband Jim.

All these years later, Edsels have made a bit of a comeback. While fewer than 6,000 are still around, according to a webpage devoted to the carmaker, it claims that each one is a cherished classic. That is most assuredly true for Chan.

"It's my favorite car," he says of his Pacer.

He knows all too well the reputation they got in the three short years they were produced. Edsel even became shorthand for a failure.

"Everybody had a bad name for an Edsel, but they weren't a bad car," Baas said, noting how the push-button electric transmission scared off people.

"They were a flop from the beginning, and I don't know why," Chan said.

It no longer matters. As unlikely as it seems, he and the car he first fell in love with at Noonan Motors have been reunited, as if by fate. Some things are just meant to be.