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Sunday, February 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Story of Triumph: Family treasures roadster for many reasons

Kurt Matter and his wife Joanie take their 1959 Triumph for a spin at their home near Kettle Falls. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Kurt Matter and his wife Joanie take their 1959 Triumph for a spin at their home near Kettle Falls. (Tyler Tjomsland)

This is the story of an old car and the family that loves it.

Not just any old car. Kurt and Joanie Matter’s beloved automobile is a low-slung 1959 blue British roadster, a heads-in-the-breeze Triumph TR3 that carried this Kettle Falls couple from the church on the day of their 1971 wedding and ferried them on many adventures, both good and bad.

Like the time after Kurt’s pro football career ended and they drove the roadster from Los Angeles to Seattle without a clutch.

Or the Sunday afternoon they clobbered a deer head-on and sat in shock as the luckless critter flew luckily over their heads.

“The car’s bug-eye headlights were pointing at each other and sitting on top of the radiator,” recalled Joanie. 

Or how about the two weeks Kurt and Joanie spent negotiating country roads and graveled farm trails that led them all the way to Philadelphia.

But the Matters’ old ride is so much more than the sum of all of that. That’s why they always call it “Mark’s car” with a touch of reverence in their voices.

“It’s the most important thing in Kurt’s life,” said Joanie.

“It’s impossible to tell you exactly what it means,” agreed Kurt.

On a recent afternoon the Matters told me the tale of their Triumph. We sat in the living room of their cabin in the woods, a beautifully rustic home that they built years ago on an idyllic patch of land that overlooks the mighty Columbia River south of Kettle Falls.

The Matters are both 63. They met in 1970 while attending their first year at the University of Washington, where Kurt was a standout defensive end.

But the story of the Triumph actually begins two years earlier, when Mark Matter, Kurt’s older brother and best friend, bought the car.

Kurt, a lanky 6-foot-7, rose from his chair, walked across the room and reached up to a high shelf to grab a presentation case containing medals, documents and an American flag folded into a tight triangle.

“Mark died in combat,” he said soberly as he brought the case over for inspection. “This is Mark’s flag.”

Kurt grew up in Longview. He came out of a family of 10 kids, divided evenly between boys and girls.

Mark, 16 months older than Kurt, was a natural mechanic who enjoyed a good challenge.

That explains why a child of the “muscle car ’60s” would buy a finicky Brit-made auto.

A trip to Portland and 300 bucks, and the car was his.

Mark, by all accounts, loved the quirky two-seater with its distinctive deep growl. He did, at least, until fate intervened in the form of our ever-growing war in Southeast Asia.

With the draft hanging over his head, Mark signed up for the U.S. Army. He was bolstered by a recruiter’s assurance that his wizardry with a wrench and employment with BMW after high school would surely land him a job running a motor pool in Germany.

“Lying bastards,” snapped Kurt.

Wanting to sell his Triumph before he left, Mark didn’t have to look far. “I bought the car from him,” said Kurt, who suddenly laughed. “Paid him $400.”

Kurt bonded quickly with the Triumph. One reason is that the sleek, low sports car has more than enough legroom to accommodate a guy of Kurt’s size.

Watching Kurt slide behind the wheel is like watching a slick magic trick.

Shortly after I arrived, he gave me a quick ride in Mark’s car.

Soon I was laughing out loud at the carefree fun of roaring down Highway 25 with the heater on high to warm our feet while the brisk January wind stung our faces.

Unfortunately, Kurt’s Triumph ownership was short lived. Unable to repay his $400 loan, he sold the car, a decision he would soon regret.

There would be no motor pool in an ally nation for Mark.

His superior athletic skills put Mark in an Army reconnaissance unit. Pfc. Mark Allen Matter was killed Oct. 1, 1970, in Quang Tin Province.

The family would eventually learn that Mark and a lieutenant had tripped a land mine while on a night patrol.

A piece of shrapnel pierced Mark’s neck. Bleeding out, he was quoted as saying: “Don’t look after me. Take care of the lieutenant.”

Mark was 20 years old.

As the shockwaves ripped through his family, Kurt knew he had to get Mark’s car back.

“Every day I’d look in the newspaper.” said Kurt. “Finally, I saw two or three for sale and one for $425.”

By then, Joanie and Kurt were contemplating marriage.

“We realized we couldn’t afford to buy a car,” she said, but this was no time for logic. The couple decided to check out the Triumph and – bingo!

Mark’s car was once again where it belonged.

Until it was stolen, that is.

The crime occurred in July 1971, just two months after the Matters’ wedding.

Living in a Seattle apartment, Kurt went down into the basement garage one day to find an empty parking stall.

Police weren’t any help. “One of them asked me if I had the car locked,” said Kurt, who couldn’t help but laugh. “Locked? It doesn’t have a top.”

Two weeks later, a call came with good and bad news.

The good news was that the Triumph had been found in Vancouver, Washington.

The bad news was that the engine had been run to death.

Kurt’s insurance company said the Triumph was totaled and gave him $500. Kurt used part of the money to buy his car back from a wrecking yard. It would take major repairs, but Mark’s car would roll again.

“It was really our car then,” said Kurt. “We drove it every day.”

It carried the couple to Los Angeles, where Kurt played two preseasons with the Rams.

“They kept Merlin Olsen and let me go,” Kurt said of his Ram career.

The Triumph hauled the Matters to Portland where Kurt played two years with the city’s World Football League teams, the Storm and then the Thunder.

Each trip in the TR3 would produce the same odd phenomenon.

“Every time we’d pull over, no matter how remote the area, three people would come out of nowhere and start talking about the car,” Kurt noted.

“People just love it,” Joanie added.

The Triumph was moored in a barn after their 1995 deer encounter, in need of a full-blown restoration. By then the Matters were living on 45 acres near Kettle Falls, raising two daughters and enjoying the rural life. They fell in love with the spot during a trip to Stevens County.

Fate, however, would soon intervene when Joanie got a job as a manager with Head Start on the West Side. The Matters loaded pieces of the Triumph into the back of a pickup and moved to Sequim.

Slowly, Kurt had the car turned into a gleaming dream machine.

The Triumph was so fine, in fact, that the Matters decided to drive it cross-country and give it to daughter Amy, who was living near Philadelphia.

This was a magical trip with one hilarious highlight.

While driving through Minnesota, they approached a small town where the main street was blocked off for a parade.

Seeing the oncoming classic, an officer opened the barricade and waved the Triumph through.

“He thought we were part of the parade,” laughed Joanie.

“So we drove in but we just kept going, waving to everyone as we went by.”

Arriving at their destination, the Matters gave their cherished Triumph to Amy.

“We knew it would stay in the family, so we were happy,” observed Joanie.

In 2007, Amy and her husband Tim Cichan, were transferred to Denver. When Tim’s company refused to ship an antique, Amy had the Triumph delivered – via FedEx.

Settled in Denver, the couple had their first child, a boy.

Kurt remembers the phone call from Amy, who asked her dad if it would be OK to name the boy Mark.

“I cried for days,” he said.

Circumstances kept getting in the way of the Triumph. In 2011, for example, Amy, Tim and Mark moved to a new home. Unfortunately, it had a one-car garage.

No problem. Kurt flew down and drove the TR3 all the way back to Kettle Falls, where the Matters had returned.

Did I mention this happened in October?

“I had the heater going full blast all the way,” Kurt said, shivering from the memory.

In 2013, Kurt and Joanie drove the Triumph back to Denver when they decided to relocate close to the kids.

But the Mile High City wasn’t a good fit. So nine months later they decided to come back to Kettle Falls. This time, however, they towed Mark’s car behind a motorhome.

Joanie decided she’d had enough marathon journeys in that tiny car. It’s not so much the driving as the uncertainty of it all.

“We’ve spent so many hours stranded on the side of the road,” she said.

Kurt agreed. “The places it’s broken down,” he added, reeling off a list that included uncounted flat tires and one ride in the Triumph when the entire front right wheel fell off.

Plus all the little things a Triumph owner must file away, “like knowing that putting in the wrong brake fluid will eat all the tubing.”

Kurt shook his head and grinned.

“It’s always an adventure in Mark’s car.”

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Doug Clark
Doug Clark joined The Spokesman-Review in 1982. He is a columnist whose columns appear on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.