My Ride

My Ride

By Niki D’Andrea / Photos by Kimberly Carrillo

Michael and Tina Higgins’ 1929 Ford Model A

Many people keep scrapbooks filled with photos and mementos of their families. Michael and Tina Higgins have multiple scrapbooks filled with photos and mementos of their 1929 Ford Model A. It makes sense when you consider the car has been in Tina’s family since 1937.

Tina’s father, Frank Maniatis, bought the car that year at a junkyard in Steubenville, Ohio, for the lump sum of $35. Maniatis was 18 when he bought the car, which he named the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, aka the “Shaganooga Choo-Choo.” The Higgins still have the original purchase receipt in one of the scrapbooks.

“My dad was a hoarder. He kept everything,” Tina Higgins says. “He was a member of the American Automobile Association since 1936.”

That first AAA membership card is also in a scrapbook, along with a speeding ticket from 1938 for doing 45mph in a 35mph zone, and several black and white photos of the car in all sorts of places, including the Redwood Forest, Sultan Sea, Plaster City, Coachella, Yellowstone National Park, Imperial Desert, and El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Maniatis probably took more photos of his car throughout the 1940s than many people took of their children.

During World War II, Maniatis joined the Navy and worked on planes. Scrapbook photos show Maniatis in his military uniform, posing next to his Ford Model A, with the car dressed up to look like a boat.

After the war, Maniatis worked for Howard Hughes on the Spruce Goose plane; the Higgins have a piece of that spruce in their house. It was while Maniatis was working for Hughes that he met Tina’s mother. On their first date, he drove them to the L.A. County Fair in his Chattanooga Choo-Choo. He later drove Tina to her high school prom in the car.

Michael Higgins first saw the car in the late 1980s, in Tina’s dad’s warehouse, covered in dust. “It looked like a pile of junk – it was covered in tarps and paint cans,” he recalls.

In 1999, while Maniatis was living in Portland, Oregon and preparing to retire from owning his own business, the Ford Model A was stolen. Tina Higgins remembers her dad was devastated. “It was like his wife and baby combined were gone,” she says.

When the car was discovered abandoned six days later, it had been stripped of its rumble seat, and the custom top that Maniatis, a very tall man, had built for himself from bent walnut was missing (it was never recovered, and the car remains topless).

When police had the car towed to Maniatis, it marked the first time in 62 years the vehicle had ever been towed, because “(Tina’s dad) knew how to fix things and keep them on the road,” Michael Higgins says. “When he was 19, he drove to Pennsylvania for an air show. The car blew a piston ring, and he went to a nearby farm and asked for a pork rind, and he wrapped it around the piston. And it ran for a week after that.”

In 2008, the Higgins redid the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Originally green with black fenders, the car was painted “Tacoma Cream.” The original spoke rim tires were replaced with the wheels off an Oldsmobile. The car got a new transmission and drive train, and the Higgins installed speakers and a plug-in for an iPod in the trunk, where they also installed a new rumble seat. Custom touches like an eight-ball gear shifter and matching eight-ball tire tube caps were added, and the upholstery was replaced. When the original upholstery was pulled out, they found ads for Armour Bacon from 1937 behind the paneling in one of the doors.

The Higgins still drive their beloved family heirloom, and have taken it as far as Heber-Overgaard in northeastern Arizona. The original wheels and radiator cover for the car hang on the wall in the Higgins’ garage.

Michael Higgins, principal of Higgins Architects in Scottsdale, which has designed high-end homes all over the Valley, will often introduce clients to the Chattanooga Choo-Choo.

“His clients love it,” Tina Higgins says. “A lot of them are older and into these kinds of cars.” 

Do you have a remarkable car with a story to tell? We’d love to hear it and share it in a future “My Ride” feature. Send an email with the subject line “My Ride” to ndandrea@timespublications.com for more information.