DEARBORN - At the age of 12, John Stopa learned how to drive a Ford tractor. He became so proficient at it that when he was 13, Ford Motor Company asked him and another young boy to demonstrate the ease of operating their new line of tractors at a big outdoor event in Dearborn. Among those in attendance was none other than Henry Ford himself.
“There was a torrential rainstorm in Dearborn that day, and Mr. Ford had his workers dig trenches around the tents and haul the water away in buckets,” said Stopa, recalling the day in 1944 when he met the famous Ford.
“The people who hired us to drive the tractors had us dressed up very neatly, and when they brought us up to him and asked him what he thought of our outfits, Mr. Ford looked at them and said, ‘Well, why are they just standing around with their hands in their pockets? Put them to work.’”
That is one of many memories that Stopa, now 80, recalls fondly. And it marked the beginning of a lifelong relationship with Ford Motor Company that shaped the course of his life.
Stopa graduated from the Henry Ford Trade School in 1949, and took his first official job with Ford as a tractor technician that same year. He moved into General Engineering a couple of years later and then landed a job in Product Study Vehicles working on future vehicles, which he describes as a “thrill.”
“I don’t think the opportunity to work on experimental vehicles can be matched by anybody anywhere,” he said. “They allowed me to work with design people right at the start. And my experience in trade school in the different departments – from the drill press all the way up to the most sophisticated machinery – all seemed to gel, and it gave me the ability to analyze things mechanically.”
One of the highlights of Stopa’s career in research was working on a project called “Big Red,” a gas turbine super-transport prototype designed to operate on the country’s then-developing interstate highway system.
“We built the whole truck in a little room at the Research Center,” he recalled. “We had to have the maintenance people cut out an opening in the wall to move the truck out the door.”
To demonstrate Big Red’s performance on the highway, Stopa was asked to take the 96-foot vehicle on a 2½ -month nationwide tour that began in San Francisco and ended at the World’s Fair in New York. He says it was the first time he had ever driven a truck in his life.
“The vehicle is so high off the ground. You get up into it, and it’s a whole new world,” he said. “I just can’t explain the feeling.”
Stopa also has difficulty putting into words how he felt when he was asked to take another famous Ford – Henry Ford II – for a ride in Big Red on the Ford Test Track in Dearborn.
“I drive up. He goes up the ladder and gets in, and you’ve got to remember, this is the first time I’ve ever been on this part of the track with Big Red and here I’m going to drive Henry Ford II around the course at 70 mph,” he recalled. “After we went around once, I asked Mr. Ford if he wanted to do a second round. He said, ‘Go for it. I’d love to.’ So I turned on the headlights and blew the horn.”
When asked to describe that part of his life, Stopa – who retired in 1987 – says “it was the chance of a lifetime.”
“Being a technician, growing up on an agricultural farm with no higher education and given the assignment to operate a vehicle like Big Red and give the man who owns the company a ride at 70 mph around the test track? It was a thrill,” he said.
Stopa is currently working with a production company in Traverse City, Mich., to make a DVD chronicling his experiences with Big Red for his children and grandchildren.
“I still have all of this in my mind, and I want my children to know how I grew up with the Blue Oval,” he said.
He also plans to take time out to restore his Ford tractor, a 1953 Golden Jubilee that he has kept and used for 58 years.
“It has a lot of sentimental value to me because of my historical background with Ford and my love for Ford tractors,” he said. “If you treat it and service it right, it will last forever.”