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At age 5, Cody Schuckman remembers quietly pulling a plastic cover off the 1986 Ford Escort GT in the garage at his aunt’s and uncle’s house in Taylor. He and his brother and cousin played in that car for hours every day. 

“We’d all hop in and pretend like we were cruising down the street or running from the bad guys,” said Schuckman, now 26, of Taylor. “My parents were both working and they’d drop us off at my cousin’s in the summertime. We had nothing to do. When you’re kids, everything is a jungle gym.”

Dennis Wallace, right, of Taylor talks with retired Ford Escort designer Jack Telnack about Wallace’s 1986 Ford Escort GT. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

He can’t remember exactly how the dents to the hood and roof happened, injuries to the vehicle that his Uncle Dennis couldn’t afford to repair at first and then decided not to repair when he had the money.

To Dennis Wallace, the 1986 Ford Escort GT is a family heirloom.

It is restored, cherished and protected like a precious diamond now.

For Wallace, the Escort represents a time long gone, when children didn’t spend so many hours with video games, cellphones, tablets and other computer technology — instead passing time with each other, laughing and making up stories. It reminds him of miles traveled with a younger brother who has died, and how far his family has come despite struggles because they supported each other.

And, sometimes, it reminds him that people with little money can be the richest of all.

This is the story of a car model  that hundreds of thousands of people have left on a trash heap. But one family has kept it like a scrapbook. Some people collect expensive cars, like classic Mustangs and vintage Lincoln Continentals, but not Wallace. 

“I was 25 years old when I purchased my new 1986 Ford Escort GT from Ray Whitfield Ford in Taylor. I took delivery on April 3, 1986, and drove that Escort for my job as a computer tech for the White Castle hamburger chain,” said Wallace, 59, who retired as an assistant maintenance supervisor. “I drove that Escort until 1992, when I had to park it due to engine problems. It had 142,692 miles. I put a cover on it until 2012, when we had the money to make repairs to make it drivable again.”

The dents in the hood and roof, well, that happened when his son, Derick, was 7 and his nephews Cody and Connor, 5 and 3, were playing on Christmas Day 1999.

“I heard a lot of noise coming from the garage. I opened the door and the boys were standing on top of the Escort. I asked them to get off the car, it was time to open gifts,” Wallace said. “When I uncovered the Escort in 2012, I discovered the many dents. We had the money to fix the dents by then. But as of Oct. 23, 2020, they remain.”

The dents remind him of children’s laughter.

Cars and trucks

That car, Cody Schuckman said, “sparked a part” in his uncle’s heart.

“We grew up going to a lot of car shows together,” Schuckman said. “We would always go to the Telegraph Cruise. I remember being at Southgate at Burger King, so they must have done car shows there. When we finally got it running, our adventure-mobile came to life as teenagers.”

They spent time with that little car while their mother worked as a medical aide at U.S. Steel and their father, an Iraq War veteran, served as an Air National Guardsman who came home to test airplane engine parts in Ann Arbor.

That little boy grew up to become a UAW technician, waterproofing the shell of Ford F-150 trucks before they’re painted at the Dearborn Truck Plant. These days, Schuckman reflects about being a father and his kids and what it all means, and how families spend time together.

His brother Connor, now 24, a cement worker from Allen Park, said, “My cousin, brother and I loved that car growing up. We would get inside and act like we were cruising around on whatever adventure we had going. Still to this day, the car brings a nostalgic feeling of all the memories and adventures we had in it. A literal time capsuleto our childhood fun.”

Escort vs. Mustang

Passion for the Ford Mustang might be expected.

Passion for a Ford Escort GT is somewhat unusual. 

The Mustang is a legendary muscle car. The Escort GT is the sporty version of an unassuming compact.

Jack Telnack said the whole thing is sort of shocking and wonderful at the same time.

Telnack, 83, of Grosse Ile is the former vice president of global design at Ford best known for his incredible work on the Mustang and the Taurus. He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2008.

No one, ever, has asked him to autograph a Ford Escort. Until now.

“I signed it on the instrument panel, the dashboard, and also signed the engine on the air filter,” Telnack told the Free Press in mid-November, just three weeks after meeting Wallace.

Wallace had tracked down the designer, the plant manager, the production line inspector and the painter to sign his car much like a collector of Broadway playbills would have actors sign program pages.

“It’s incredible, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Telnack said. “He was wearing a jacket that had been embroidered on the back, ‘My Escort signed by Jack Telnack.’ I’ve never had that before. I was pleased and excited. He was just ecstatic. The car was in absolute mint condition. He had pictures of people who worked on the car, original delivery papers from the dealer. Unbelievable.”

Telnack worked at Ford from 1958 to 1998 with stints in Europe and Australia and North America. He started at age 22 working on the original 1964-1/2 Mustang. 

“I had the honor of having done the wheel covers and they’ve must’ve been good because a lot have been stolen,” Telnack said. “I did sketches on the first fastback Mustang about 1963.” Then the 1979 Fox Mustang, which was a breakthrough in terms of aerodynamics. And the 1983 Thunderbird and the 1986 Taurus.

As for the Escort, Telnack said, “I had no idea it would be that important and that kind of a collector item. I was surprised and delighted. It’s a great car and fun to drive.”

“When I’m driving down the road and I see one of the cars I had a hand in, sometimes I think I could’ve tweaked it a little here and there. I can’t stop designing. That’s how it is with designers. You’re designing right up until it goes into production,” he said. “I had a boss that once said, ‘Once the car hits the production line, stop designing.’ After all these years, the Escort is still a good looking car. …

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“But for a guy to wear a jacket with my name on it. I can’t think of a greater compliment. It was almost embarrassing,” said Telnack, who now drives a 2020 Ford Mustang GT and a 2020 Lincoln Aviator SUV.

Jack Telnack, a top automotive designer at Ford Motor Co., stands in 1981 with a clay model of a Lincoln in the production studio in Dearborn. (Photo: Ford Motor Company)

When Telnack’s neighbor Courtney Solenberger-McNeill heard of Wallace’s passion for his Escort, she set up the meeting at the Grosse Ile Police Department in October.

“To see a man who cared so much about this little car that he owned, to watch the man who designed it come up and shake his hand, it was powerful, looking at them together,” said Solenberger-McNeill, 67, of Grosse Ille, who has a ’68 Corvette and appreciates families who spend time fixing up classics.

“I hold the bumper while my husband is screwing in washers,” she said, having met Wallace at a car show in Leo’s Restaurant parking lot in Riverview in August. “It wasn’t really a car show, just a bunch of people who give a damn about vehicles, cleaning them up and bringing their grandkids and walking around.”

Just part of growing up in Michigan, she said, laughing.

Changing times

Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, said traditional classic cars will always play an important role with traditional collectors. 

But Wallace reflects a new trend.

“Twenty-five years ago, many museums focused on unusual or expensive cars,” he said. “Today most museums — and even many private collectors — are just as interested in the stories behind the cars as they are in the vehicles themselves.”

Erich Merkle, U.S. sales analyst at Ford, said the Escort was an important car.

“When Escort made its debut in 1980, it was truly a global car for Ford Motor Co. Sales hit their peak in 1985 with almost 440,000 at the time, making it one of America’s best-selling cars. ‘Out of Africa’ received the Academy Award for best picture that year, the top billboard song was ‘Careless Whisper.’ “

For Wallace, whose younger brothers had Fox Body Mustangs, the Escort is priceless.

“At the time, I was just buying a new home, I was single, money was kind of tight. The Escort seemed to be the most economical car,” Wallace said. “My brothers and father worked for Fords. My brother Jamie, he’s a forklift driver at the Mustang plant in Flat Rock. There now with the UAW for 22 years. He’s 49.”

His brother Jeff, who would’ve turned 56 in October, died in an accident in 2016. The two brothers grew up learning about cars together, and that’s part of the Escort love.

“Jeff and I, and our father, he was a real car nut. We didn’t get to grow up with him so much. Our stepfather, Edward, we got more involved in cars with him,” Wallace said. “He did body and paint work and that’s kind of how we got into cars. He did work for Fords Dearborn Assembly.”

Looking back, Wallace remembers meeting his wife, Shanna, when they both worked at White Castle. He moved from Lincoln Park to Taylor. They married in 1989 and welcomed their son Derick, whose wife, Samantha, is now expecting a second child. The family doesn’t miss the Woodward Dream Cruise or any of the smaller meetups.

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At one point, Wallace left his Escort with a note outside Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn asking whether anyone associated with the car might sign it. . Though the annual park and meetup in August is primarily for Mustang owners, other Ford owners are welcome, too.

Dennis Wallace, right, talks with retired Ford Escort designer Jack Telnack about Wallace’s 1986 Ford Escort GT. (Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press)

“You park with all the non-Mustang cars in with all the others, any year, it doesn’t matter — Fairlanes, Torinos,” said Wallace, who drives a 2013 F-150 now. “After my brother Jeff had passed in 2016, I was inspired to go on a journey with this car.”

The beloved Escort had a sticker of $9,665 with a $100 discount in 1986.

“A lot of people tell me they drove this car when they were 16 or 17. It’s a rare car now because they were daily drivers,” Wallace said. “Our son Derick is now 28 years old. The Escort GT will be his when we  are up in heaven.”

A son responds

Derick Wallace, during his lunch break on Thanksgiving eve as a warehouse worker in Oregon, Ohio, said his father never has talked about his death or what might happen to the beloved Escort.

“It was down for so long and now it’s running right and he takes it to car shows and has won awards. It makes me happy that the car makes him happy. You’re not going to find another Escort like that running and looking as good as it is. Most are in the junkyard or scrapped out,” he said.

When told of his father’s mention of heaven, Derick Wallace responded with silence.

“That’s news to me. He never actually told me that. It’s bittersweet he said that, and I just hope I can take care of it good enough when I do inherit it,” he said. “That car will definitely stay in the family. It’s not going anywhere.”

Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-222-6512or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid. Read more on Ford and sign up for our autos newsletter.

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