Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Bony Stuff

1911 Franklin valves
Originally uploaded by proscriptus
The browning of the old-car hobby

You know, when I started as an autowriter, my experience with really old cars was limited. I’d hung out at shows, had a couple of ridealongs in prewar cars, but I hadn’t been exposed in more than a passing way to early automobiles.

So it was a big eye opener when I got assignments for Hemmings Classic Car, to go shoot cars from the Teens and Oughts. Actually, it was more than that; my first serious time with early cars turned into love.

Was I the only young guy who dug this stuff? Young for the old-car hobby, anyway. No, after a couple of years, I began to realize I had company.

If you’ve been to any major show in the last couple of years, well, firstly you may have noticed how well-attended they are, but you might also have seen the crowds around the evergreen Fifties and Sixties cars thinning out. Oh, the people are still at the show, but they’ve moved on.

When I was at Hershey last fall, the Sunday AACA show was one of the best attended they ever had. By 10 AM, the show field was packed, and nowhere was it more crowded than around the big Pre-war cars.

The magnificent full classics—the Duesenbergs and Packards—have always been popular, although I can’t remember a time when people were five deep around Auburns. But the biggest crowds on the field were around the brass cars.

People who still have hair, and cars that were old when their grandparents were born, are a natural fit. Sure, every generation rediscovers the cars of their youth, and Seventies and Eighties cars, especially Japanese and German imports, are getting very strong. But even among those who grew up riding in the back seat, not everyone wants their parents car.

People go through several phases of collecting. For many of us, there’s a car early on, one that a parent or grandparent worked on, or an old car that made its way into your hands. Most of us had to give that up for a while, when making a living took over, and kids started to announce that they needed your time and money a lot more than a car.

If you had your kids early, well, firstly, you’re probably going to live a lot longer than I am, and secondly, they got to the age where maybe they were ready to pick up a wrench a lot sooner. I’m looking at being well into my fifties before my son can get a license, but that at least means maybe we’ll have time to get his car done in time. Anyway, all those children of the Baby Boomers have started to reach an age where they can think about getting into the hobby seriously. And they don’t want their parent’s cars.

Think about ii: For years, the Tri-Five was the emblem of the hobby, because all those guys who came home from WWII bought one new when they were at the peak of their earning power, in their mid Thirties, and that was when they had young kids as well. 40 years later, those kids grew up, and went out and bough Bel-Airs and Skyliners. The next population boom brought us the muscle car phenomenon. But I’m the boomer’s kid, and when I was in high school 25 years ago, we pointed and laughed at the guy who drove a Superbird around. What I remember is when one of my girlfriend’s fathers got rubber in second gear pulling out of the parking lot in a Datsun 240Z. The coolest kid in school drew BMW M-power graffiti.

So yeah, I like those cars and I’d love to have my first car, a clapped-out ’79 Corolla, back. But would I go on a quest for one and pour my heart into a restoration? For a Toyota? What, am I nuts?

No, I want what collector Dick Shappy calls “The Bony Stuff.”

Thirties cars, the stuff of the Full Classic era, are fine and all that, but the really interesting ones are either out of reach—who wouldn’t want a V-12 Cadillac?—or just too big and formal for me. I could maybe find a drivable ‘34 Studebaker President sedan in the $15,000 range, and they’re very nice and everything, but not my cup of tea. Which is why they sell in used-car range.

The Bony Stuff is from an era of the industry where the idea of an engine-powered vehicle was new enough that you displayed it proudly, along with your suspension, frame, and everything else. Bodies were sometimes an afterthought, what was important was what made the car go. For the entire brass era, the pre-1915 cars, anyone who could buy a car was born before there were cars and almost certainly took their first ride in a horse-powered vehicle. Cars were an amazement, and proud owners hung them with jewelry like a new bride.

That wonder has transcended the last century, and looking at an early car with fresh eyes is to expose yourself to amazement anew.

When a population gets older, it’s called “graying,” and as prices for essentially everything from between 1950 and 1970 have risen into annual salary range, the traditional heart of the hobby has grayed. If someone under 30 is a car nut, odds are still that they own one from the last decade, which frankly isn’t anything different than the hotrod set of 50 years ago But more and more are getting hooked on cars that bear a closer relationship to the driver.

Brass car prices have climbed like everything else, although we’re not yet at a point where Model Ts are out of reach. But part of the appeal is the relative simplicity of old cars. Don’t have good metal skills? That’s OK, because you’re better off being a carpenter. Iffy on your electrical theory? Well, can you handle a wiring harness with four wires? Never had an engine apart too look at the valvetrain? You don’t have to take it apart to see the valvetrain, it’s on the outside.
Aside from the Model T, these cars weren’t built on an assembly line, they were crafted by artisans, mostly in small quantities, by hand. There’s a longstanding movement in search of authenticity, and driving something built a century ago, before focus groups and customer surveys, connects you in a very real way directly to the roots of what made us love cars in the first place.

My observations at Hershey weren’t a fluke. Bring out a brass car to a concours, cruise night or show-n-shine, and you’ll see people desert the street rods and trucks in droves to marvel at it.

Old cars, man. They’re the future.

This post is derived from my script for an episode of the Hemmings podcast