I treasure opportunities to be with my grandkids, to experience their enthusiasms, and to discover common interests while forgiving them of their youth and internet prowess. Well, last Friday my 14-year-old grandson Dan asked if I wanted to go with him to the local classic car show early the next morning. I remembered years ago enjoying that same monthly event in front of the Adams Avenue donut shop ... so I said, "Great Dan, I'll pick you up at 7 a.m." And we were off, just me and Dan the Man.
As we're driving Dan said the show is now every Saturday morning starting at 6 a.m. and rather than the 25 or so cars that I remembered, the entire strip mall parking lot is filled with nearly 250 antique and classic cars! We parked across the street and as we walked toward the cars and their owners, Dan's pace quickened as we heard the roar of big block engines jammed into pre-war coupes and early 30's Fords.
I was excited watching Dan appreciating an art form with so many variations and so rich in American history. The cars themselves told the story and the owners were quick to add colorful, personal details. Gathered were stock restorations of early, black Model A and assembly-line-produced Model T Fords parked right next to bright orange and yellow chopped hot rods with magnificent engines, blowers, and straight pipes. There were 4-door sedans, 2-door coupes, fastbacks, the torpedo bodies of 50's Mercs and Hudsons, barndoor and 23 window VW buses, and tiny MGs, Triumphs, and Fiats. There were wooden spokes and Woodie wagons, chrome and whitewalls, and glorious hood ornaments that are masterpieces in themselves. And as we traced the development of bodies and engines we came to the 1957s when manufacturers were running out of technology advancements. So, what the hell, to keep us astonished they added .... FINS! I told Dan how man neared perfection in the grille design of both the '34 Ford and '57 Chevy. He told me how he really liked the grilles and power of 1969 Camaros and Ford Mustangs, specifically the '69 Mustang Boss 302. I asked Dan how he knew so much about those cars and he said, "Grandpop, I did my research." And Dan continued that research as he confidently approached and initiated conversations with car owners much older than himself.
As we walked past a perfectly restored '54 Chevy Bel Air, my memory shifted into overdrive. The first car I owned was a two-tone, blue and white, '54 Chevy 210 that I bought for $125 in 1963 off a used car lot in Bel Air, Maryland when I was 19 years old. It had a straight 6 engine and a 3-speed stick shift on the column. Nothing fancy, just transportation. The car already had 97,000+ miles, but like any hungry dealer, this used car salesman guaranteed me it only had one previous owner ... a preacher no less. And he assured me there were many more miles left in her. "Why the preacher didn't even want to part with her, but his congregation wanted something newer for this well deserving man." Now even a 19-year-old kid gets suspicious as the anecdotes become a rehearsed fable conceived by a magnanimous liar, but it was the only car on the lot I could afford and with it I began an intensive home study course in auto mechanics.
I explained to Dan how every 10,000 miles or so I had to change the points, plugs, condenser, rotor, and distributor cap and then set the timing. The ignition wires, air filters, and fuel filters could go 25,000 miles. Now and then I'd have to clean and rebuild the carburetor. And once a month, to keep the engine "tapping" noise down, I'd have to adjust the valves with a feeler gauge, screw driver, and box wrench while the engine was running.
Dan asked if it was hard work. "It wasn't work Dan, I loved it. Everything was easy to get to. Why, you pop that hood open and there was enough room for a guy doing a tune-up to sit on either fender with his legs hanging down into the engine compartment. And five days a week I confidently drove that car 30 miles each way to work at Baltimore Gas and Electric near the harbor in downtown Baltimore."
"What was your gas mileage Grandpop?"
"I don't remember exactly Dan, maybe 16 to 18 mpg, but gas was only 25ȼ a gallon!"
Dan said he was working on his Dad to consider buying a "classic" when he became 16. I told Dan that his Dad (my oldest son Brian) should be a cinch because Brian had a 1957 Chevy Bel Air station wagon that I bought for $1600 when he was in high school. My four sons and I worked on that car, had it repainted and upholstered, and I let Brian use it provided he maintain it and keep it locked. One of life's great lessons learned came for Brian when he got caught leaving it unlocked for the third and final time. To prevent selling it to a stranger, Brian took a part-time job and bought it from me with monthly installments.
Two years later, for only $1500 I also acquired a '55 Buick Century for my next son Joe to use. Like the '57 Chevy it ran well, but needed a lot of continuous work that became part of the education process. Seems that my entire life has involved the process of buying nothing but cheap, old, used cars that I could afford and could keep running for our large family of 8 children. In fact, I have never owned a new car. Why? Because I too am cheap. But our cars (of which there were often five clunkers parked out front ... three of which may simultaneously have their hoods propped up for engine work) served us well, became the source of many memories, and were often identified by nicknames earned for their temperament (such as the Chevy Spectrum that we called "Rectum.") All of the kids could do maintenance and even my four daughters could change the oil and do a brake job.
I explained to Dan the practical beauty of most of these cars when it came to dating. "Dan, if you look close you'll see these are bench seats that had no seat belts. That means your honey could sit right next to you as you proudly drove with your left hand on the wheel and your right arm around her shoulder as you went to the drive-in theater or pulled into the local hamburger joint with waitresses on roller skates ready to hang your order on your partially opened window. (I didn't tell Dan about following that up by parking at the pond to watch the submarine races.) Those were the days! These were the cars! And that's where my memories were taking me.
I was amazed by how large this event had grown from 30 years ago when it only occurred on the last Saturday of each month with a mere 25 cars. I also remember how I often went to Pomona, California to visit the Classic Car Show there. It takes place about six times each year and is the largest on the West Coast. In addition to the hundreds of cars on display, there are miles of booths just selling auto parts. But even though many of the cars are for sale, a close examination reveals what really happens there.
Many of these guys have spent small fortunes restoring their cars and feeding those same great memories that I have of the good old days. Their wives have other priorities now and have told their husbands "Ed, why don't you sell that damn thing before it takes us to the poor house." And old Ed says, "OK hon, I'll go to Pomona this weekend and try to sell her for you." And true to his word, Ed parks his car on display and puts a sign in the front window, "FOR SALE."
Now Ed knows the car has a fair market value of $ 7,000 but as soon as a customer inquires of the asking price Ed says, "You know, I have to get $16,000," confidently knowing this will end any chance of a sale. Then Ed joins his other seven buddies sitting on lounge chairs behind their cars listening to old Doo-Wop music with The Flamingos singing "I Only Have Eyes for You" blasting from speakers in a huge Oldsmobile trunk which coincidentally contains a cooler of Budweiser that they're all drinking while discussing Willie Mays' catch and how the damn New York Giants swept the invincible Cleveland Indians to win the 1954 World Series.
When Ed gets home his wife asks, "Ed dear, did you have any luck selling her?" Ed says, "Well, I tried sweetheart, but just no buyers out there today." Ed was right, there were no buyers at his asking price which just made it another perfect day at the classic car show.
Yes, art takes many forms, and each of us has preferences. For Dan it's the 1969 Camaro. It keeps calling him. That's why Dan the Man, in turn, called me again this week and said, "Hey Grandpop, wanna go this Saturday? Maybe we could get there a little earlier. How about 5:50 a.m?"
Kinvara from Dunquaire Castle
Watercolor & Casein, 14" x 20", by Bill Hudson