It was a breezy Sunday in 1965 when Bob Griner found true love. The budding jeweler had been courting a doctor's daughter, and that afternoon they were getting back from a jaunt in the country. As he walked her to the front porch of her father's house in suburban Maryland, Griner had a flash of revelation.
All at once he knew. As the waves of excitement rushed over him, making him deliciously giddy, Griner decided it was time to pop the question.
Would the good doctor, he wanted to know, agree to sell him that car outside in the garage?
It was, he could tell right off, a 1910 International Harvester Three-Seated High-Wheeler Autowagon: gleaming red wheels, original upholstery, woodwork intact. He'd needed only a glimpse to send him bounding into the house.
Against the young man's onslaught, the doctor could mount no defense, but still he refused to name his price. "Well, what would you do with the money?" the young man demanded. "Oh, well," the doctor said -- and now the doctor's daughter was looking a mite glum -- "I'd probably buy my wife a diamond ring."
At this, Griner strode out the door, in a high fever promising to return. When he did, breathless, he held out a glittering ring: the last remnant of an earlier courtship, another romance on the skids. (At which the doctor's daughter looked glummer.) The doctor took the ring, examined it like a surgeon, and before very long the deal was good as sewn.
It's a typical story. Among devotees of antique cars, who can see a dream fulfilled in nearly every rusting hulk, the passions, if not the cars, cruise at 90 miles an hour.
"Better another car," says Robert Nicholson, who's restored more old Caddys than his wife would have thought possible, "than anothe woman." Says Bill Zerega, a retired plumber from District Heights who's flirted with Stanley Steamers, "I once bought a garage, and there happened to be a house attached to it." More prosaically, former D.C. policeman Fred Long, a fancier of 1940s-vintage Hudsons, asserts, "It's a more constructive way to spend your time than hanging out in a beer joint."
As for Griner, he of the High-Wheeler, he's now 39, married (not to the doctor's daughter), and has traded his jewels for the service department of College Park Volkswagen. "So I shipped the high-wheeler to a local restorer," he recalls, "had a top made to my specifications by an Amish buggy maker in Pennsylvania, and completely refinished all the woodwork myself, repainted all the wheels and replaced all the tires. If you ask me what it's worth, I'll ask you how much your wife is worth; what would you sell your mom or dad for? How valuable are they?"
Such people, of which Washington has plenty, spend their winters with tattered copies of Hemmings Motor News , the bible of old spare parts; their early springs with pistons and rachets; and from April to October, they think nothing of scouring far-flung flea markets for the perfect running board -- no fiberglass allowed. They're willing to invest years and years, part with thousands of dollars they can't afford, if only to keep a ton of mostalgia in a dank-smelling, greasy garage.
And on rare and wondrous occasions, if the rain keeps its distance, they may actually take it out for a spin. In hopes of a trophy, they might even burnish it up for the competition of a show.
That famous American culture-watcher Tom Wolfe once summed up the '50s in an essay on customized hot rods, a treatise that bristled with italics and exclamation points to evoke the emotions involved. Had he addressed antique cars in the '80s, the flamboyant Wolfe might have observed, "There Goes (Putt-putt!) That Black-on-Black (Chug!) Septuagenarian Model-T Ford (Rattle!) Around the Bend (Clickety-clickclickclickclick . . ." But no. Old-car folks, for the most part, are quiet visionaries -- long on patience, short on swagger, blissful when they tinker in the basement.
For one thing, old-car folks generally are older , not so much recapturing their youth as perserving it for posterity. They also are indulging in a slice of the American Dream that has gone for the moment to seed. "Of course the love of the automobile has become unfashionable, there's no doubt about that," says Barbara Wurdeman of Alexandria, an ardent fan of Fords.
And then, the hobby has always been mostly male, even as it engages whole families, and sometimes collectors like Wurdeman. Despite everything, the driver's seat, or the back seat, may yet hold some primal distinction.
Take Edgar Rohr of Manassas, at 64 one of the area's best-known collectors. If he seethes with rash desires, as he very well may, he hides them under his hat. "In grade school," he says, "I had a teacher who'd tell me, 'Ed, you don't seem to get over-excited about things, you just sort of plod along.' So call me a plodder if you want."
Others, like Dick Sissions of Rockville, are more voluble, however. His heart quickens for Auburn Speedsters, an uncommonly graceful car that he restores for resale, usually in six figures. "When I look at one of them," says Sissions, 37, of the '30s-vintage sports car, "the adrenalin really starts to flow. When I drive one down the road and people gawk, it makes me feel good. When I take one to an antique car show and they drool all over it, it makes me feel proud."
But here's another tale. The place was Lovelade, a hardscrabble town in East Texa, and the time was World War II. One dusty morning, seven-year-old Holloway Wooten, a farner's son, was as usual trudging the two miles from home to Sunday school. He was walking barefoot, nose to the ground, rubbing the sweat from his neck. Suddenly he paused and pricked up his ears.
The chug of an engine had started hacking at the quiet like a scythe. The boy turned toward the source of what was quickly becoming a clatter. He gaped. Barreling at him from the middle distance, glinting against an empty sky, was a old Ford coupe, all grill-work and weathered black paint -- the canvas top missing, but what did that matter? Closer and closer it chugged, then -- here the boy gasped -- it slowed down and pulled to a stop by the roadside.
"Hop in," the driver yelled, and the boy ran, nearly losing his Bible as he did, and leaped with his heart to the running board and then into the raggedy rumble seat. The car charged away, the boy clinging to the seat, the wind blowing hard into his eyes.
"I'll have a picture of that Ford coupe in my head for the rest of my life," says Wooten, now a 44-year-old hearing examiner for the District of Columbia. A beatific smile crosses his face under the shadow of his Stetson. "It belonged to a neighbor of ours, name of Charlie C. Spiller; he was in high school at the time and I really looked up to him. Haven't seen him since the war. I've always wondered what happened to him and that car of his."
In a shed behind his Northwest Washington home, Wooten is caressing his latest flame, an imposing 1935 Cadillac model 355 D, a Gothic motor vessel that has taken up his daydreams for the last six years. He paid $2,700 for the thing when it was barely more than a shell, and has spent about $3,000 more to nurture it back to health. He rebuilt the V-8 piece by piece, sent the pistons to Santa Fe Springs, California, for rebabbitting, ordered a Stromberg carburetor from Indiana, and oak, birch and ash interior paneling from Ohio -- all because the car reminds him of that lost coupe of his youth.
"I just loved to ride in Charlie Spiller's rumble seat, sure did," Wooten says in a faraway voice. The smile comeds back. "I can't say why. Just a feeling I had."
Here's one more yarn, with a twist.In September 1979, two dentists, Herman Bernstein and Joseph Schertz, drive Shertz's 1936 Packard from Washington to Bloomington, Minnesota. Everything went fine, the two of them sitting pretty, until they foundered between Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and Rockford, Illinois. The Packard's water pressure had dropped to zero and a connecting rod had fizzled. "The ultimate, the worst thing you can have happen," Bernstein says. After several hours of frantic waving at passing trucks on the highway, they finally flagged down a trailer driver, whom they persuaded to haul them the rest of the way to Rockford. The mechanic in Rockford took one look at the Packard, smiled broadly, and informed them that not only was the connecting rod gone, the bearings had burned out as well.They left the car there and made their way home.
And waited. And waited . . .
"Finally this January," Bernstein says, "he told us the car was ready. We had to fly out there and bring it back in a tractor trailer. Of course, there's no assurance whatever that it won't break down again." And if they had it to do all over, they'd probably do it just the same, even though the bill came to $5,000.
"They just don't build cars like they used to," says Bill Bomgardner, executive director of Antique Automobile Club of America, with nary a trace of irony. "You don't have the quality today. Plastic has taken over." ("I'm not fond of plastic," sniffs Buzz Potter, one of Bomgardner's constituents, in the popular refrain.)
The 45-year-old club, based in Hershey, Pennsylvania, has 47,000 dues-paying members, though Bomgardner says that figure doesn't begin to describe the real number of old-car enthusiasts. In the Washington area, as elsewhere, small bands collectors carry the torch for specific makes -- from ubiquitous Model-T's and Model-A's, stentorian Packard Phaetons, to exotic-sounding brands like Hupmobile and Paragon.
"There's a club for just about every mark ever produced. So far, that's 2,726 different automobiles and 1,801 different trucks," says Ed Rohr, a hardware merchant who delights in driving his 1917 Detroit electic coupe to work and runs a private museum a block from his store in Manassas. He opens it to the public most Sundays when the weather's nice, free of charge. A hulking man, Rohr sports a moth-eaten cardigan sweater and a tie clip commemorating a 1903-vintage Oldsmobile. He's smitten by old things -- his museum houses, among other curios, music boxes, hand-pumped vacuum cleaners, crumb-catchers and leather license plates -- but especially by old cars.
Aside from the Detroit electric, Rohr's collection boasts 15 cars and two firetrucks, including Ford and Buick roadsters that predate the Roaring Twenties, a 1923 air-cooled Franklin sedan used by Jimmy Stewart in the movie "The FBI Story," and his cream-colored piece de resistance, a German-made convertible that goes by the name of Rohr.
"The name doesn't hurt," says Rohr, no relation to the maker of the sleek, low-slung beauty. Rohr bought the car, built specially for the German Exposition of 1933, for about $1,000 in 1963 from a collector in Minnesota. He was two years restoring it to mint condition, and since has turned aside offers in the five-figure range. "It's not for sale at any price," he insists.
But Rohr's sentimental favorite is a 1915 Model-T, which he picked up for $25 from a farmer in New York State. In that car, the night before he was born in July 1916, Rohr's mother was taken to the hospital.
I'm not against new cars as such," he says with a contemplative frown. "It's just that they make me uncomfortable.I know what they do, see, but I don't know why they do what they do.
"I guess there's never been more advanced technical information than we have today," he concedes. "But if one of these new cars gives you trouble, you're lost. It's usually impossible to get inside even to work on the damn thing, there's so much stuff under the hood. Sometimes you even wonder how to get the hood up."
Bill Harris, an asbestos worker, agrees. "When I work on my '41 Packard, that relaxes me," he says. "But working on a new car just drives me up the wall. With my Packard, I know that exactly five things can go wrong with it. So what if those five things go wrong most of the time?"
The aforementioned Buzz Potter, a housebuilder, has strewn vehicles in various states of restoration all over his property in Potomac. "We're like kids with toys," Potter says, in a cadence recalling W.C. Fields. "The more we get, the happier we are."
Potter's assortment includes a couple of "basket-case motorcycles," featuring the 1931 Harley-Davidson he used on his honeymoon in Niagara Falls, a 1928 Lincoln touring car and an array of Fords and Dodges. "There's nothing like breathing life into an old car," he says. "Every car takes on a character of its own."
Such a car is Potter's 1936 Model-T -- "my pride and joy," he calls it. It's the same car he drove brand-new as a student at the University of Maryland, the same in which he wooed and won his wife.
"I've just kept it all these years," he says with a shrug. "Sometimes, I'll dream about that old blue Ford. In my dream, I look around and suddenly I see that it's gone.