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Last week, I was driving along Santa Rosa Road on my way home from a meeting. The hills above the Santa Ynez River were emerald green. New leaves on the oak trees seemed to explode with the reddish color of new growth.

It is easy to be taken back in time as you travel along Santa Rosa Road, from the entrance to the Mosby Winery and the restored Rancho La Vega adobe nestled behind the grapevines south toward Lompoc, as you follow the river meandering through fields of row crops, gently rolling vineyards and cattle grazing peacefully in the afternoon sun.

I could almost picture my mom and grandfather riding through the hills gathering cattle, just as they had done while living on Rancho La Vega more than 75 years ago.

Since it was still early in the afternoon, I decided to go home via Highway 246 through Buellton. I passed Vreeland Ford and Rio Vista Chevrolet and, being in a nostalgic mood, recalled when the Ford dealership was known as Sun Motors and the Chevrolet dealer was Kelsey and Sons.

 I remembered when they both moved from their locations on opposite corners of Alisal Road and 246 in Solvang.

I am not sure why, but we had more Fords than any other make. I can recall going down with Dad in the summer of 1966, when he bought a brand-new Country Squire station wagon with simulated wood on the sides. It was a big deal to buy a new car then.

Right after Mom and Dad bought that car, they took us to Disneyland, and we were able to try out the new, factory-installed air conditioner, which none of our other cars had.

My sisters sat in the very back, where two small seats facing each other were located. You could also fold the seats down if you needed more storage space.

The girls, as we used to call my sisters, were only 5 and 6. You could not have young children seated like that with today’s laws, but we seemed to make it.

Dad knew everyone who worked at Sun Motors, from manager Tom Murphy to the mechanics back in the shop, including John Cunningham.

John ran the shop and was a great mechanic. He also used to buy lambs from my grandfather. Somewhere along the way, John moved out of the shop and began selling cars.

In 1974, I was a senior in high school, and my brother, Dana, and I were beginning to farm more acres. We needed a newer pickup, as our old 1957 Ford was pretty worn out.

I think Dana was still going to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, coming home most weekends to help farm. We decided to go down and see if we could buy a new four-wheel-drive pickup at Sun Motors.

I had some money saved up from working around the ranch, and we made the argument that the ranch needed a truck as well.

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So, between my money and help from the ranch, we were ready to buy a truck.

John Cunningham met us, and we told him what we needed. Pretty soon, the truck was ordered and on the way.

I remember that four-wheel-drive green pickup cost $5,700. John convinced us to get a four-speed manual transmission, along with an oil-bath air cleaner. That was the mechanic coming out in John.

Later, we called John and bought another pickup from him that my brother drove. If you called John and expressed any interest in buying a new car, he would have it on the lot by the time you drove down to talk to him.

Later, John left Ford and worked for Sunset Honda in Lompoc. The Ford dealership never seemed the same to us after he left. My dad kept buying cars from him, even though John always called him Mr. King.

Now, anytime I look at a new truck, especially a Ford, I always remember John Cunningham.

Kevin Merrill of Mesa Vineyard Management is president of the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau and a board member for the Central Coast Wine Growers’ Association Foundation. He can be reached at kmerril@mesavineyard.com.

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