AUGUST 8, 2015
Growing up in Louisa – Old Cars
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
It’s kind of a funny thing, you know. I have never seen myself as a ‘car guy.’ What I mean is cars to me were always just a means of getting from one place to another. In my mind they weren’t something all that romantic unless you considered those a generation or more older. I know that most boys, at least, really dug cars, but they weren’t high on my agenda. Oh, I was happy enough when Johnny Bill asked me to ‘double-date’ in his dad’s car, or when I went out with someone who had a car, but the vehicle didn’t really matter. Many of my classmates got all excited over this muscle car or that one. I noticed differences in body styles and appreciated sleek design. I knew nothing about the things ‘under the hood,’ nor did I particularly care, so long as it worked. I never grew to love muscle cars that my sons still like. One son owns one that he garages and polishes, but rarely takes on the road. I like older cars with their particular body styles. Those were the days when a car was immediately recognizable a block or two away.
I was happy for those who had cars, but I didn’t really envy them. It was enough that they had one. As for me, I didn’t have a new one, or an old one. I had nothing beyond some little tin ones surviving in a toy box stored away somewhere. Even those were older models. Since not having a real one was a fact and I didn’t have the means to change, I determined I would not care about such things. It became a mechanism that allowed me to not wallow in self-pity, but rise above it all in a snobbish kind of way. Cars simply didn’t matter. I would be a few years out of high school before I got my driver’s license or my first car. Even then, in 1963, the only car I could afford was an old 1947 Pontiac, fast-back, straight-eight, one-owner, factory, two door sedan. BORING! The one thing really good was it got me on the road. Now, I wish I had those old bones back. It was factory throughout and clean. The dumb doors weighed more than some cars today. It was like a tank.
One of my favorite pass times these days is watching period English murder mysteries. One of my sons gave me a complete set of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. I try to watch one on most nights of the week and am on my second trip through a list of sixty-some episodes. That is, except for the final one. I can’t bring myself to watching my hero die, which I understand happens in the one called ‘Curtains.’ My dear wife of 39 years joins me to watch them with me. We often point out to each other the beauty of the vehicles used in the dramas. Of course we see period Bentley’s and Rolls Royce’s, but other models pop up throughout, like Austins, MGA’s, Jags, and even a Ford! Now this is the kind of car I can really get into, so to speak.
I remember a few times as a young boy, coming across various autos, called ‘survivors,’ that were left in a garage or barn. Sometimes they were up on blocks, sometimes left rotting into the dirt floors. Even then, it was romantic and as fulfilling as a GT would ever be to someone else. Just as interesting, I note that the prices (value) of such cars easily compete with the gas-guzzlers of my high school days and the years that followed. How cool it must be when the heirs of a family estate discover the wonders of beloved vehicles long forgotten. I’m sure some have appreciation of the relicts, but some are too ready to offer them up to the junk dealers. What a loss of history that is.
There are websites galore that promote, list and sell, or give the histories of those icons of the past. Names like Stutz Bearcat, Cord, Pearce Arrow, Stanley Steamers, etc., fly off the screen inciting a rush not unlike Christmas morning. When the pictures of restored, or survivor autos, fill the homepage with promise of even more to follow I find it eye candy, indeed. Later models like Studebaker, Desoto, Nash, or Metropolitan are rare, too, but can sometimes be located. There is always hope I’ll stumble upon one. Who knows?
When I watch American Pickers and see Mike and Frank uncovering the chassis of a ’32 Ford, or a rusted body left out in the weather, I envision myself helping with the grunt work so this wonderful relic can be restored and put back on the road. Many car addicts fight for the chance to turn these bodies into ‘hot rods.’ I’m told that is where the real money is, but I’m the guy that wants it as close to ‘new’ as possible. I want to imagine myself in that wool upholstered seat and hitting the road to see America. I can even imagine dressing in vintage clothing for the trip, and like the Great Gatsby become a member of the elite; the rare ones that owned a horseless carriage.
The car ads of that day display things I mostly only saw in pictures, or nailed to some wall of a shack to stop the filtration of cold air. The ladies of the 20’s and 30’s wore slink dresses and the men were in tuxedos. Those were the days before or during the great depression, but many of the vintage cars were still on the road for me to see. I saw those few leftovers as they plowed the narrow streets of town. A lot of folks in our community couldn’t afford to replace the old models. Even if they could the ‘ole Betsy’ would be passed down like a pair of old shoes.
I met a man once who lived in the Columbus area that had a factory that built Sutphen fire trucks. Mr. Sutphen’s hobby was to seek out old derelict cars and restore them to their former glory. He specialized in fixing up Mercedes cars, which was a bit hard to find in the U.S. One restored car that he showed me had been found in Texas, upside-down in a stream bed. The story goes that a wealthy oil man had bought it for his son’s high school graduation gift and the boy had promptly driven it off a bridge into the water the same night. The car had very few miles on it, but had laid in the creek a long time. It took the gentleman nearly a year to restore it. He pointed out that it had been a convertible, but he had to make it a hardtop, but even then, he used a fabric cover to make it look like the convertible it was when was first purchased.
As Suzie and I watch our movies we often say that this car or another would look really good in front of our house. Since the family home is yellow, this one would especially fit in. Besides the crazy costs, my only other issue is whether we could keep it shining and pretty. It would be a shame to let something go to rust. Since I’m not a ‘car guy’ I don’t have the space or skillset to treat them properly. That means I can only attend an occasional vintage car show to put my hands on one. Not to buy, but just to look, enjoy and remember. When I see the dashboards, running boards, or other parts, my mind goes back to that other time. I remember things I had forgotten, and see things I’ve never seen or noticed before. How wonderful. Seeing them brings books and movies to life.
I remember as a child finding a few closed up barns or garages and sometimes seeing the wonders within. They were often covered with blankets or tarps, but surviving nonetheless. They were the prize possession of a husband long departed, or a son that didn’t return from war. I saw buggies, wagons, Model T’s and Model A’s, and other relicts waiting to be given new life. The thing I like to think about are the stories these machines could tell if they could talk. That is when cars are most romantic. The history they drove through and the wonders their owners saw is the key. That is worth writing about. Rest assured, if I knew the stories, I’d love to pass them on to you, faithful reader.