At D.C. area car shows, American beauties on display

Elvis croons, and an old man with a propensity for pinstriping cars taps his foot. Nearby, men with callused hands and pompadours admire tattooed women with victory curls. Taking it all in, among a crowd of hundreds, is John Dunham, 58, who resembles Kenny Rogers and owns a 1958 Corvette with uncountable dings ­— road-gifted scars that prove that he drives it. And drives it a lot.

Dunham lives in Mechanicsville, Va. — as fate would have it — and bought the car from a junkyard when he was 16; in the decades since, he has driven it to his wedding, driven it home from the hospital after his sons were born, driven it to file for his divorce and driven it on the day he exchanged rings with a woman he plans to spend the rest of his life with. “It’s just a different way of traveling, looking over the hood of an old car,” he says. “When you own an old car, it’s more about getting there than where you’re going.” Just as the two car shows he has attended (the Fall Carlisle in Pennsylvania and the Rockabilly Hot Rod Rumble in Fredericksburg) are not just about chrome and paint. They are about determination and creativity and nostalgia. They are reminders that cars are not just for driving.

The two shows preceded this week’s Washington Auto Show by a few months, and each captures in its own way the spirit of the local car culture. The Carlisle show, with its long history and loyal following, delivers row after row of beautifully restored vehicles. The main event is a multi-day auction. At the Fredericksburg show, still in its infancy and the first of its kind in the region, some cars roll in true to their original appearance, but many are a creative hodgepodge of parts. A water sprinkler serves as a hood ornament. A shotgun stands in for a gearshift. The main attraction, though, centers on the body — but not the kind you’d think; it’s a pinup girl contest.

 
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