We were the crazy Europeans who shipped a ‘76 Oldsmobile 6,900 kilometers from Luxembourg to America to attend the Oldsmobile Homecoming in Lansing, Michigan.
“Yellow plates? They’re not American, are they?” asked a man with a T-shirt reading “I don’t care what GM says. Oldsmobile will never die.”
I would have liked to say the plates were Luxembourgish, but what would have been the point?
“No, they are European.”
“Oh, you're the people from Europe, I heard about you!”
Yes, we were those crazy Europeans.
There I was, a 19-year-old girl at a show dedicated to a car that started being manufactured long before I was born and stopped being made before I can remember. I don’t really know much about Oldsmobiles, apart from the 1976 Cutlass Supreme that is my father’s.
My dad was busy chatting about the car with one person after the other all day, and when people saw that he wasn’t available, they turned to me. Like I said, I’m no expert on Oldsmobiles, not even on the one usually parked in our garage in Luxembourg. So when I was asked if the vinyl roof was original, I had no idea what to answer. I looked over to my dad, but he was mid-conversation with someone else, so I went with my gut feeling and told the guy it probably was. A couple of minutes later, I went to my dad and asked him, for future reference, if the vinyl roof was original, and he informed me that it was not. Luckily, that guy never came back with any follow-up questions.
The car had been my grandfather’s daily drive in Stockholm in the 1980s before he sold it in 1983. When he died in 2011, my father decided to track it down. He found it with its fifth owner, a farmer on the west coast of Sweden. My father told him about the car‘s history, but the farmer was unmoved. But after nine months of persistent negotiation, the car was on its way to our home in Luxembourg.
In June 2017, our Oldsmobile, after 36 years in Sweden and five years in Luxembourg, was on its way to the city in which it was made in 1976.
The Oldsmobile Homecoming wasn’t the sole purpose of our trip to America. It was also a chance to follow in the footsteps of my great grandfather, Johannes Lindberg, who emigrated to America in 1914 from Sunne, Sweden, leaving his lover, first-born child and responsibilities behind. The woman, Stina, eventually joined him in America, but their daughter was left behind to be forgotten. It was not his proudest moment.
In my grandfather’s car, my father Johan and I, Johanna, (yes, we are related, and no, the names were not meant to be this similar), drove in Johannes Lindberg’s footsteps from Chicago to Winnipeg, Canada, where my grandfather was born in 1920. It is a place I have wanted to visit since I was very young. I have always wanted to see where my grandfather was born and to know a little more about him. I bugged my father about it for many years. He finally gave in.
The journey started in Chicago, where Johannes married Stina, had his second daughter and worked as a journalist, among other things, at the Chicago Tribune. This is where the Oldsmobile arrived, after we shipped it by boat to New York and then by land to Chicago. From there, we made our way to Lansing, Michigan, home of the Oldsmobile.
The highlight of the Oldsmobile Homecoming - I got to sit of the hood of my father’s car. To anyone who does not know my father, this might sound like a very irrelevant statement. My father likes his cars clean, to say the least. I have been raised to know you don’t eat in the car, you don’t wear shoes in the car if you are under the age of eight (and raised by him, of course) and you especially don’t touch the outside of the car - or even worse, sit on it.
After a couple of days in Lansing, we were off to our next stop: Minneapolis. During the 11-hour drive, I came to master the art of breaking with my left foot. While other parents teach their kids to pretend their left foot is super-glued to the floor when driving an automatic, I was taught to do it “the right way” when driving an old American car, using my left foot for the break and the right one for the gas pedal.
In Minneapolis, we visited The American Swedish Institute and a mansion built in 1908 by a fellow Swede who made a fortune in the newspaper business. We were looking for links to my great grandfather, who stopped in Minneapolis on his way to Canada, where he was going to work as a pastor in the Lutheran church (as a way to get an education). We searched through the institute’s archives but found no links to Johannes.
Without any luck in Minneapolis, we drove up to Winnipeg, the birthplace of my grandfather. Crossing the border, we got a lot of questions. What is your business in Canada? Is this really your daughter? Why didn’t you just rent a car to do a road trip? All valid questions, some easier to answer than others.
We wanted to visit the church where Johannes had worked. I began to search for Lutheran churches in Winnipeg and found more than we could visit in two days. I visited their websites and decided that we should go to St Mark’s Lutheran Church.
After a little searching through the church registry with the help of the current pastor, we found them. Pastor Johannes Emanuel Lindberg and his wife and three children, born in Chicago, Kenora and Winnipeg. We finally found our first link to our family’s life in America. It felt extremely strange to see our name in a church registry in Canada. We even found my grandfather’s baptism certificate from May 1920.
It turned out that Pastor Lindberg hadn’t actually been a pastor in Winnipeg like we thought, but in Kenora, two hours east of Winnipeg. We decided to drive up to Kenora the next day to see the town where the family lived.
Then we were on the road again, Winnipeg to St Cloud, Minnesota, and then St Cloud to Chicago, back to where we started, 4,000 kilometers later.
In Chicago, we did our best to get some more information about Johannes in America. We ran back and forth between the Tribune tower and the Tribune’s printing headquarters, and finally found someone to speak to. Unfortunately, the Chicago Tribune did not have records going back far enough for us to find out anything about my great grandfather‘s work there. What we do know, though, is that he wasn't very good at sticking to one profession, switching between the church and journalism several times.
A unique trip, to say the least: A little father/daughter bonding, discussions about the fundamentals of politics (Trump might have come up once or twice), a recap of all the family feuds, speculation about the petrol that is going straight through the “old lady” (also a discussion topic, is it male or female?) and things to know for any future road trips of my own in the Oldsmobile.
We spent about 40 hours over 13 days in a car. Luckily, that was exactly what it was built for. It was also very nice to drive it on roads that were actually made for these cars, not like the narrow streets of Luxembourg (“narrow” being an understatement when you are driving the spaceship that is an Oldsmobile). Even though this story has links to many different places, Luxembourg is the most important one, because it is where we always come back to.
The car is now sitting in a container, on a boat, in the middle of the Atlantic, but it will soon be seen on the streets of Luxembourg again. Now that we have returned, people keep asking my father the same question.
“If you are so cautious about your car, how could you let your daughter drive it?”
“Of course, I let her drive my car - I raised her to.”
Yes, we were those crazy Europeans. Not only in the eyes of the Americans at the Oldsmobile Homecoming but according to pretty much everyone we spoke to. Forty hours in a car isn’t everyone’s idea of a vacation, and most people would probably have just rented a car, any car. But we are not like most people.