A work of art: Local Columbus Model A Restorers Club return car sculpture to its former glory

Mike Wolanin | The Republic A view of the sculpture titled When I Was Your Age by John Seward Johnson Jr. near the Bartholomew Consolidated Schools Corporation administration building in Columbus, Ind., Thursday, May 9, 2024. The Ford Model A in the sculpture was recently restored by the Columbus Model A Restorers Club.

A two-year restoration of a 93-year-old car integrated into a sculpture commissioned by a now-defunct Columbus corporation is finally finished.

Four members of the Columbus Model A Restorers Club did most of the work on the body of the maroon-colored 1931 Ford Model A Coupe, club President Tim Diehn said. While members including Larry Morlock, Ron Huddleston, Ronnie Lawson and Diehn volunteered their time, the required materials totaled about $10,000, the club president said.

The sculpture, titled “When I Was Your Age,” by artist J. Seward Johnson, Jr. (1930-2020) was commissioned by Arvin Industries in May 1989. The artwork was dedicated in late 1991 to commemorate the grand opening of Arvin Industries’ world headquarters in the former Garfield School.

Johnson’s work would have been unveiled earlier in 1991, but it was placed in the middle of a roundabout at 13th Street and Cottage Avenue. The night before the scheduled dedication, an intoxicated driver plowed into the exhibit and the unveiling had to postponed for several weeks while repairs were made.

The former Arvin headquarters is now the administrative offices of the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. The sculpture is now located in the middle of a well-kept grassy park area halfway between the BCSC building and the Doug Otto United Way building.

All about an air pump

“When I Was Your Age” features a fatherly-figure dressed in 1930s fashion using an air pump to inflate the Model A’s front left tire. The father’s cap, jacket and scarf can be seen on the hood of the car. Behind the wheel is a young son happily pretending he’s old enough to drive and peeling down the road in his family’s coupe.

From the public’s perspective, the sculpture seems to display one remote connection to Arvin Industries.

“It’s funny,” Diehn said. “You have this huge sculpture, and it’s all about that little air pump.”

Recently retired from Cummins, Inc., Diehn is referring to the fact that Arvin started life in 1919 as the Indianapolis Air Pump Co.

But the local contribution to the Ford Model A was much more than that, Diehn said. From 1927 to 1950, the company was known as Noblitt-Sparks, Inc. When the sculpture’s automotive chassis came off the assembly line, Ford was purchasing hubcaps, tire jacks and polished metalwork from the Columbus manufacturer for the Model A, the club president said.

The late historian and Republic columnist Harry McCawley picked up on another reflection of local heritage. McCawley wrote the father’s bemused, but proud look as he watches his young son illustrates the love of automobiles passed down from one generation to the next.

Faurecia’s gift

The sculpture was nearly forgotten when Arvin Industries was bought out by Meritor Corp. in July 2000. For a short time, the company was called ArvinMeritor Inc., but eventually Arvin was completely dropped from Meritor’s corporate identity.

Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. acquired the former corporate headquarters as its new administration building in 2005. A number of the corporation’s former properties, including “When I Was Your Age,” were acquired by Faurecia, a French global automotive supplier. For a time, the sculpture was exhibited at one of the company’s facilities near Walesboro.

As a gift to the community, Faurecia ordered the reconditioning of Johnson’s sculpture in 2014 at a cost of about $60,000. It was presented to BCSC and rededicated in 2016 after being placed in its current location.

It was the school district’s administrators who made a decision to keep the sculpture far from the streets, placing it in a circular area that resembles a roundabout. Faurecia, the Arvin Foundation and The Heritage Fund – The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County provided funds to create the display area, install a protective pergola and put up the metal fencing.

“When I Was Your Age” appeared to be in pristine condition to members of the Columbus Model A Restorers Club, Diehn said.

“Visually, it appeared an outstanding job had been done,” the club president said. “But after awhile, we could see it was slowly starting to deteriorate. Something with the maroon paint they used just didn’t hold up. It started peeling off the body.”

A long-term commitment

By the time the club approached BCSC Director of Operations Brett Boezeman in 2022 about allowing his club to do a restoration, “you could literally peel off sheets of the Bondo (metal filler) from the car,” Diehn said.

The agreement reached by Diehn and Boezeman was simple: If club members agreed to volunteer their labor, BCSC would purchase all needed materials for the restoration. The Model A Restorers Club took possession of the antique car in March 2022.

“First, we took the car down to the bare minimum,” Diehn said. “We chemically dipped it to get rid of all the contaminates in the metal, and just started building our way up by putting on high-quality primers and very expensive paints.”

With the realization that an inferior quality of paint likely caused rapid deterioration after the 2014-2016 restoration, a professional automotive paint with a price tag of $2,000 a gallon was used, Diehn said. He added the primers, fillers and clear coats were also premium-grade, as well.

“We didn’t just want to use Rust-Oleum,” he said. “We wanted to use something that was designed to weather the elements. They put on a lot of filler in 2014. We tried to do more metal work than filler work.”

When questions arose concerning what chemicals should be used in the restoration, the club contacted a representative of the late artist, Diehn said. The representative provided answers to their questions, as well as instructions on how to properly apply the chemicals, he said.

Besides Diehn, Morlock, Huddleston and Lawson, a number of other club members helped out when their schedules permitted. In total, it took hundreds of hours over the next two years to complete the restoration that is designed to last for the next 20 years.

The car was finally moved back to the display area on May 7, just as heavy rain started to fall the evening of Indiana’s primary election, Diehn said.

In the eight years since BCSC took control of “When I Was Your Age,” the only items taken by vandals have been an air hose, a radiator cap and a gas cap. And while a number of Bartholomew County residents may be forgotten about the sculpture, Diehn said several Model A enthusiasts from across the country have made favorable comments about Johnson’s sculpture in Columbus during regional and national conventions.

According to the club president, there have been some recent conversations about moving the sculpture to one of the many classic car museums in the country. But Diehn says he hopes the Model A stays in Bartholomew County because “When I Was Your Age” is part of the history of both the city and Arvin Industries.

“People do respect this sculpture,” Diehn said. “It makes us proud that we have this in our backyard.”

About the artist: J. Seward Johnson, Jr.

Artist, John Seward Johnson II was born on April 16, 1930, a grandson and heir to Robert Wood Johnson, the co-founder of the Johnson & Johnson – ranked the 40th largest U.S. corporation in 2023.

He developed a style of creating life-size bronze statues depicting people in daily activities, such as reading a newspaper. Johnson described his sculptures as “normal-size people reclaiming their humanness”. Many of his designs have been installed in public places where they seamlessly blend into the environment.

Not all of his art is normal-size. Among his best-known sculptures is the 26-foot-tall “Forever Marilyn,” a depiction of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt blowing upwards from the 1955 film “The Seven Year Itch.” Another sculpture is “Unconditional Surrender,” which captures the iconic moment in Times Square when a sailor and nurse kiss at the end of World War II. The original sculpture can be found in Sarasota Springs, Florida.

While critics and curators often accused Johnson of plagiarizing images created by others, his work remains immensely popular with the general public. With a large staff of technicians to fabricate his designs, as well as the use of computers and digital technology, copies of Johnson’s sculptures can still be created and purchased – four years after his death at the age of 89.