FREDERICK, MD. -- Chuck Dodson got his first car, a 1937 Ford, when he was 11. That was in 1951. The same year, he also got his first traffic ticket, for driving without a license.
Undaunted, Dodson got a second car, and then another and another. He aspired to be a racing car driver but wound up in the glass business instead.
His love of cars undiminished, Dodson eventually owned five of them, then nine. To make room, he added onto his garage at home, but it was not enough.
"It seemed a shame to have them stuck away with nobody able to look at them but me," said Dodson, 47. So he opened Memory Lane Motors Inc., off Rte. 15, five miles north of this Western Maryland city.
Here in three showrooms -- open to visitors for a $2.50 charge and covering 8,000 square feet -- are displayed more than two dozen cars dating to 1929 but mostly of 1950s vintage.
With a few exceptions, they are also for sale. Prices range from $3,200 for a 1955 Buick Special two-door hardtop to $55,000 for a rare 1955 Corvette convertible. But whatever you do, don't call it a used-car dealership.
"I don't want it to be looked at as a used-car lot," he told a car magazine advertising salesman who stopped by the other day. "People come in with the attitude: 'You expect me to pay to look at cars for sale?' No, I'll call you."
Sales are part of Dodson's strategy to market the past: "You can't have the same cars all the time. Nobody comes back. You have to buy, trade and sell to keep interest up."
Memory Lane Motors is one part of the package. Next door is Dodson's Memory Lane Flea Market, and next to that is Memory Lane Diner, which bears no resemblance to a diner but features "old-fashioned milkshakes" and banana splits.
"The ladies like the flea market antique shops. The men generally don't and have nothing to do, so they come over here," he said.
One such man stopped by en route to his daughter's home in York, Pa. He talked to Dodson about his son-in-law's collection of seven cars. "Too damn many," the man said. "He even built a garage for them. They're toys." The man asked Dodson if he would be interested in buying some of them.
Dodson said he might, but the conversation ended abruptly when the man's wife, finished with the flea market, knocked impatiently on the showroom window.
Currently, the front showroom contains a 1958 Oldsmobile J-2 Rocket hardtop, priced at $7,500, with three carburetors, and a 1979 Excalibur Pheaton for $33,900. There is also a single-speed bicycle circa 1948 to 1953.
In the second room are six vehicles -- ranging from a 1929 Ford panel delivery truck to a two-door 1951 Ford -- a 1939 Coke machine and an old scale/fortune machine that works. "Try it," a sign says. "I need even your pennies."
In the largest of his three showrooms are wall posters of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. Foam rubber dice dangle from rear-view mirrors. Rock 'n' roll hits of the 1950s are piped in to complete the time warp.
Dodson looks the part of a 1950s greaser grown up: wavy, blond hair, sideburns, rolled-up short-sleeved shirt and a tattoo he etched himself on his arm in 1955. It says, "Have bottle, will travel."
He restores the cars at home, in the garage that now houses five old autos and several mannequins he plans to dress in '50s clothes for his museum. Outside the garage are two old gas pumps he salvaged in Hays, Kan.
But it's been a rough road back to the future for Chuck Dodson. His businesses are open Fridays through Sundays and by appointment. He averages about 100 people a weekend, but he said many resent having to pay admission.
Since he opened for business in October, he has sold only six cars, most recently a 1960 Cadillac Coupe DeVille, for which he took a 1953 Studebaker and some cash.
He had hoped the museum would at least break even. But his work replacing glass in antique cabinets, always his bread and butter, has been subsidizing his car mania.
"It's been a struggle," he said.
He grew up in the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain, close to the Frederick-Montgomery county line. To hear him tell it, he was the teen-age terror of the country roads. His parents "like to went nuts. I worried them to death . . . . "
His high school jobs in auto body shops led him into the glass business. But he never gave up his love of old cars, which he began collecting seriously in 1965.
Now, said his wife Sarah, "If there's an antique car museum within 100 miles, he'll find it." One vacation, she said, "We stopped at every junkyard between here and North Carolina looking for an emblem for a Ford Galaxie." Dodson waxes eloquent over old cars:
"First, it's the coziness of the "It seemed a shame to have them stuck away with nobody able to look at them but me."
-- Chuck Dodson
interiors. When I sit down in one of these old cars, I feel relaxed and surrounded by a warm, quiet feeling. The pastels, the globs of chrome, in some cases the fins, I can relate to . . . .
"You go out and buy a new car for $10,000 or so. At the end of three years, it's worth $2,500 or $3,000, if you're lucky. Then, you buy a '55 Chevy for $12,000. At the end of three years, it's worth more . . . .
"And there's the simplicity of the engines." There's no antipollution equipment and a lot of room under the hood to work on the engine.
"I don't think anything past '79 will ever be worth anything except as transportation," he said. "They're not interesting. You can't hardly tell them apart. With few exceptions, they all look like tiny boxes. The grills, the dashes on today's cars are plastic. None of these cars got any plastic."
Oddly, it seems, Dodson normally drives a leased 1986 Lincoln Mark VII Continental. A bell rings when the gas tank is down to three gallons. Computerized controls tell him his average speed, mileage, how far he's driven since the last fill, number of miles or kilometers to or from his destination, and more.
But, Dodson said, "If it goes below 20 degrees, nothing works. If it breaks down, I'm not sure I could fix it."
When the lease expires, he said, he's swearing off new cars. There's a 1965 Thunderbird in his driveway that suits him just fine.
"With old cars, I feel totally confident," he said. "I don't like the new ones. I like to be able to fix what I got."