I have always liked old cars. I’m referring here to old American cars from the 1930’s, 40’s and early 50’s. The broad swooping curves, the kaleidoscope of polished chrome, and the tail fins, my god, the tail fins. Those cars had something that the American cars I knew best growing up, the ones built in the 1970’s, just completely lacked. Style? Grace? Thoughtfulness of design? All concepts well beyond the comprehension of an 8 or 9-year old boy, but I could feel it even then.
I remember how even as a small boy, I seemed to have a built-in radar for old cars. Traveling down the road with my family, I could almost “feel” when there was an old car nearby. Most of the time I would have my head down rolling Hot Wheels cars across the bench seat in the back of the station wagon or wrestling my sister behind even the back seat of said wagon (seat belts were optional back then). All of a sudden, like a shock of electricity, I would look up and my eyes would instantly land on the old car off in the distance, or hidden amongst all the other cars in the parking lot, or tucked in an old barn behind the farm house as we zoomed past. It was magnetic.
I don’t remember ever talking about old cars or even really thinking about them when I was younger. My dad was not a car guy, and neither were any of the other dads in my neighborhood. I remember when the Morgans moved in next door from Cincinnati and brought an old Triumph motorcycle into the neighborhood. The first motorcycle I had ever been up close to. It was red and white, as big as a house and louder than anything I thought possible. It wasn’t an old car, but it was an old exotic machine, and I fell in love with it instantly.
Decades later, with my own family in tow, we moved into a house outside of Athens, Georgia that had a detached workshop. The workshop was itself larger than any house I had lived in as an adult before that time, and for the first time in my life I had a place to put an old car.
I cannot remember now how I began my search or why I chose to focus on the car I did. But early one Spring day I drove almost 200 miles from Athens over to Lake Martin, Alabama and bought a 1969 Karmann Ghia from a retired engineer named Al. Al had completely restored that car. It was painted a beautiful metallic charcoal grey, which was not by the way, a color available when such cars left the factory 40 years earlier. I didn’t mind though. It was beautiful, and now it was mine. Al’s plan when he started restoration of the car was to tow it behind his RV whenever he and his wife went vacationing. Unfortunately, his wife had knee or hip replacement surgery, I can’t remember which, shortly before he finished the car. Karmann Ghias sit really low to the ground, and the car was just too difficult for her to get in and out of.
I felt a little sorry for Al, but I hooked that car up to my truck and pulled away feeling like Prometheus right after he stole fire from the Gods. I had not brought a trailer with me, thinking that doing so would “show my hand” and compromise my negotiating leverage. Of course, I had not realized before I left Athens that Al lived a half-day’s drive from even the nearest traffic signal. So, I was kind of wondering how I was going to get two cars back to Athens. Al was a kind and generous gentleman, and he gave me a steel tow-bar to pull the car home. It looked a little like a wish bone from a chicken the size of a Tyrannosaurus, but I figured Al knew that what he was suggesting was safe and appropriate. I, however, did not know what I was doing. You really shouldn’t tow a car for long distances with only a little tow-bar, and you should definitely not do it on interstates where driving any slower than 70 mph is a threat of its own. There were a couple of times when that beautiful old car was shaking and shimmying so hard; throwing me and the truck back and forth across the lanes of the interstate. I had flashbacks of throwing up on the Tilt-A-Whirl at Six Flags back in the day.
I limped into Columbus, Georgia with my pride and enthusiasm more than just a little tarnished. My fingers hurt and my forearms felt like Popeye’s from gripping the steering wheel so hard. I pulled over outside of town and unhooked the Ghia from the truck to go find a trailer to rent. After shaking the feeling back into my legs, I signed the paperwork and pulled into the yard where the nice U-Haul fellow would help me hook up that borrowed chariot to my truck.
James was a big guy. A really big guy. The kind of really big guy you are glad not to meet on a dark street in an unfamiliar city late at night. It was hot outside, and he and I were both sweating like stuck pigs. But sensing my pending safe transport home, I was starting to get a little swagger back in my step. James must have sensed that I was excited about something.
“What you towing?” he asked.
I puffed my chest out a little and proudly replied, “A 1969 Karmann Ghia.”
“A Karmann Ghia,” I repeated, and then added, “It’s an old Volkswagen,” as if that would clarify things for him. If folks don’t recognize the name, Karmann Ghia, telling them that it was made by Volkswagen is unlikely to spark a flash of recognition.
“I don’t know what that is,” James admitted. “Why you want one of them?”
Oh, sweet Mary…the single most longed for question every old car owner so desperately wants to be asked. With a growing degree of braggadocio and now marveling at my unexpected opportunity to boast, I exclaimed, “Oh man! You should see it. It’s beautiful!”
Momentum took me away. The barn doors had been thrown open, and I was off to the races. There was no holding back. Without a moment’s thought that I might be pushing the limits of good taste, I added with a flurry of unabashed theatrical arm waving and a Cheshire smile on my face, “You should see it, James! It’s all smooth and swoopy and curvy… like a beautiful woman!”
“Oh, lordy!” James exclaimed, throwing his arms in the air and staggering back a couple steps from the trailer. “Now I done heard it all! You like some kind of James f@#^in’ Bond!” he hollered between fits of laughter.
“Yeah, yeah!” I proudly agreed, hopping nervously on the balls of my feet like an anxious child. “I am like James Bond!”
I pulled my phone out of my pocket to show him a photo that I had taken in those first giddy moments following acquisition in Al’s driveway. James got real quiet and slowly shook his head. Then he put his giant, muscular, sweaty arm over my shoulders, and we were brothers there for a minute. He stared closely at the picture in my hand before finally agreeing softly that I was indeed like James Bond.
I pulled out of the U-Haul parking lot as proud and happy as I had ever been. Not only was I again making progress on my trip back home, but I had shared a little bit of myself with a stranger and he with me, and we were both better off for it. All of those calamitous moments on the interstate a few hours earlier were but hazy memories.
My Karmann Ghia and I rolled slowly toward Athens on back roads and country lanes. Sure, the drive took over twice as long as it would have had I returned to the interstate. But that’s the thing with old cars; speed is not the point. It’s the style, the grace, the thoughtfulness of design…
I’m sure that James Bond would agree.
Very well said! Old cars definitely make you drive differently, it's a totally different feel the moment you get inside. That Karmann Ghia is lucky to have you as an owner, that's for sure!
That's a great story. And yes, the cars of yore have more personality, better lines, require you to actually drive them, and will either reward or penalize you depending how well you do it. Even though I am primarily a Fomoco guy, my Dad had three cars that stuck with me for life. The first was a '57 BelAir. The second was a '69 Superbee. And the third was a '68 Cougar. All three distinctively different, but equally beautiful cars in their own way. The Cougar stuck with me most of all, and I have one today thanks to my Dad. But That '57. Man oh man, that '57 was a beautiful ride.