The low, throaty growl of glass pack mufflers carry long and deep on the wind of the cool night air. The desire for speed signals the primal brain to ready for flight rather than fight. The appearance of spring heralds the arrival of cars from all over the country. They roll into town and spin, like golden oldie time machines, back into the past. Thousands of vintage and classic automobiles arrive for cruisin' and draggin.' Some are daily drivers and trailer queens. Others are tubbed, frenched and fatted. Some are chopped and lowered. Others are customs, originals and street rods. Some are stroked and bored . Others are blown and Hemied. Some are primered. Others are one-off paint jobs. But all are here to enjoy these perfect weeks of cool nights, hot cars, and the police department's eye-turned-blind to the smoke of burning rubber.
For months, car shows, rod runs and Concourses d'Elegance will be staged. California, being an arid, relatively salt-free environment, is lead sled heaven. Car cancer, rust, is minimal and many models are resurrected to, once again, shine their lights in the aprés-winter climate. The trifecta of auto collecting is an original, good condition, unrestored, California rust-free car with black-letter-on-yellow-background license plates. If you have one of these, feel free to tack $$ on to your price.
Cars. For as long as I can remember, I have loved them! My first real memory of a car is from when I was very young. Perhaps four or five years old. As a young child, I remember riding around in my nana's green, 1948 Chevy. "Nellie," as nana called her, had coil spring seats. Tall from a child's point of view, they beckoned to be climbed. I felt as tall and safe in those seats as I did in my nana's arms when she sat and held me on her frieze covered chesterfield. Nellie's soft, short-bristled, mohair upholstered seats playfully tickled the backs of my stubby, summer-bared legs as we drove to the grocery store.
I loved looking at mom and dad's old, black, embossed leather photo albums filled with pictures of young adults I scarcely recognized as my parents. Curly edged photos framed black and white images of young women wearing the soft, bobbed hairdos of the 50s, men's collared, white, dress shirts, rolled-cuff dungarees and saddle Oxford shoes over white bobby socks. Often, a strand of pearls outlined the neckline of a cardigan sweater set layered over a full, mid-calf length, plaid skirt. The boys wore white T-shirts, blue jeans, black leather shoes and Pompadour hair styles. In many of the photos, the teens posed on or around cars. There were many photos of my mom and her friends striking movie star poses--one hand on the hip and the other hand on the back of their head.
One of my favorite pictures was of my father around age twenty wearing the khaki uniform of an Army Private First Class. He was standing in front of his rounded, black, 1949 Chevrolet Business Coupe--straight, proud and holding salute. Tan against black. Straight against curve. Flesh against metal. Refracting star strikes of light caromed off the Chevy's gleaming chrome bumper back into my eyes.
And I was in love. As infatuated with cars, as I was with my daddy, the center of my universe. As infatuated with cars as Americans have been for over a hundred years. Inventor Henry Ford had the vision of bringing the automobiles role from a luxurious status symbol of the rich to that of being a necessity to the masses. He said, "I will build a car for the great multitude." American tenacity, independence, perseverance, imagination and pioneer spirit became synonymous with the automobile the instant he rolled his first Model T off the assembly line in 1908. Henry had produced a car, affectionately known as the "Tin Lizzie," that was affordable to ordinary people. With this act, he undeniably changed the American way of life.
This profound change has become ingrained in our belief system, culture, music and movies. Men like Preston T. Tucker and John Z. DeLorean have continued to link the automobile to American individualism. Tucker, in the 50's and DeLorean, again in the 80s, challenged the great motor corporations of their times by attempting to establish sole-proprietor managed auto manufacturing factories. Their roguish attempts failed, but their cars, the Tucker and the DeLorean, exist as monuments to their independence.
Our music reflects the power of vehicular perseverance in such songs as the Beach Boys "409," "Little Deuce Coupe," and "Fun, Fun, Fun." In "Shut Down," their simple rhythms and intricate harmonies laud the Fuel-Injection Stingray, a Super Stock Dodge, and a 413. Wilson Pickett croons "Mustang Sally." The Rip Chords' "Hey Little Cobra," lives as testament to muscle cars of the 60s. Drag racing's demise was chronicled in the tearful "Dead Man's Curve" by Jan and Dean.
In the the 1950s, actor James Dean's portrayal of a rebellious, drag racing teenager insured that the automobile would live on as a celluloid icon to American life. His subsequent and eerie, early demise on September 30, 1955 linked the tragic, brooding star to the car crash of his Porsche Spyder 550. He died at the intersection of Route 466 and 41 near Cholame, California on his way to a racing event with his mechanic, Rolf Wuetherich. Ironically, he had filmed a public commercial for car safety just prior to his crash. In it, he cautioned teenagers to drive safely because, "The life you save might be mine." A black-and-white 1950 Ford Custom Tudor driven by a 23-year-old Cal Poly student, Donald Turnupspeed, was coming from the opposite direction. Attempting to take the fork onto State Route 41, he crossed into James Dean's lane without seeing him. Both cars hit almost straight on.
Dean's last words, "He's going to see us," infinitely race across the winds of eternity.