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05-13-1998

Restoring The Past: Clarkson Student Paul Finnegan Is Helping To Recreate A Piece Of Automotive History

POTSDAM, N.Y. -- This summer, many of Clarkson University's 2,700 students will go back home for a break. Paul F. Finnegan will go back to the 1890s.

As he has done for the past three summers, Finnegan, a mechanical engineering major, and son of Paul H. and Maria M. Finnegan, will work for the Joseph J. Merli Manufacturing Company in Duanesburg, N.Y., helping to build pushcarts and horse-drawn style wagons reminiscent of days gone by.

It's kind of interesting, said the resident of Delanson, N.Y, who will be a junior in the fall. "I never had a chance to do anything like this before I went to work there. You get to learn about how things were a hundred years ago."

Some of the carts he has worked on have found their way into hotels, restaurants and supermarkets all over the country, as well as Las Vegas casinos and theme parks such as Walt Disney World, Busch Gardens, and Paramount. His biggest project, however, isn't going anywhere except into automotive history.

These cars are replicas of two of 11 different cars created by Olds, who sought to create an affordable, suitable, self-propelled vehicle. In all, Olds constructed some 15 vehicles between 1897 and 1900, all propelled by either gas or electric power. A 1901 fire destroyed every one of Olds' experimental cars, with the exception of two, which survive today--an 1899 electric Olds and an 1897 gas vehicle. The original 1897 experimental gas vehicle was donated to the Smithsonian in 1915 by Ransom Olds himself, and is now on loan to the Olds Museum.

Finnegan said that Oldsmobile does not have any blueprints of the 1897 car, so the replica is a backup should anything happen to the original. Using the original car as a reference point, Finnegan and the others are constructing the replica from scratch. Once completed, it will be privately-owned by company president Joseph J. Merli and will be used for promotional events in conjunction with the Olds Museum and the Oldsmobile division of General Motors in Detroit.

There's a lot left to be done, Finnegan said. "It's just the frame right now. I hope to be able to get the woodwork done within two weeks after I get back there for the summer. Joe (Merli) is going to be doing the steelwork, and it's going to be a couple of years before the car is done."

Three years ago, local woodworker Kenneth Just of K&J Custom Cabinets in Duanesburg recommended to Merli a young, talented teenager fresh out of the 11th grade. Merli, who knows a good employee when he sees one, took Just's advice, and it's paid off. He knows what kind of employee he has in Finnegan.

Of course, building and restoring cars is a summer job. For the rest of the year, he is at Clarkson taking classes in mechanical engineering. He chose Clarkson because of the school's size and interesting classes. "As you go on, you get into more interesting classes," he said. "You get into things that you actually want to be doing."

And it's all done in a team-based learning atmosphere. Clarkson students learn to work together as a unit, solving problems, and trying new ideas. The skills taught to students at Clarkson prepare them to succeed in the workplace. Paul Finnegan is using what he has learned in class and applying it in a real-world atmosphere.

While graduation may be a couple of years away, Finnegan, who also does some blacksmithing, already has his future lined up. He said that he wants to return to Duanesburg and get a full-time job in the area while continuing to work at the Merli Co. part-time.

There's always something interesting going on in his shop, said Finnegan.

If someone takes him under their wing, they'll have one hell of a worker, said Merli. "He's extremely intelligent. I'd do anything in the world for this kid. The kind of things he's doing is a once-in-a-lifetime shot."

Paul Finnegan wouldn't disagree.

If I didn't take part in building it, who's to say that this kind of history will still be around for years to come?||||

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Michael P. Griffin, director of News & Digital Content Services, at 315-268-6716 or mgriffin@clarkson.edu.]

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