Decades-old clunkers with rotted body panels, noisy mufflers, dubious brakes and windows fashioned from plastic sheets have been part of island life for as long as anyone can remember.

But late-model Lexuses, Volvos and BMWs are cropping up on Peaks Island, and some fear the trend shows how the tranquil, slow-paced lifestyle is being traded in for a speedier, wealthier way of life.

"It's kind of like the canary in the coal mine," said Charles Enders, president of the Peaks Island Neighborhood Association, who contends fancy cars and busy roads are a threat to the island's simple setting.

Under state law, residents of Peaks, 13 other coastal islands and Frye Island on Sebago Lake can register motor vehicles for island use only, an option that enables owners to skip the state's annual safety inspection requirement and keep their beaters on the road.

Last year, 1,021 cars and light trucks were registered for island use, along with 84 mopeds and motorcycles and 58 golf carts.

Unlike many other inhabited islands, Peaks has a ferry that allows people to bring their cars from the mainland.

Even when a car ferry is available, the cost per trip in waiting time and money can be high. Consequently, many islanders keep a car on the mainland and an older, less dependable vehicle on the island.

Mechanically unfit or too rusted to meet mainland inspection standards, these island cars live out their golden years bouncing along unpaved roads on short trips between homes and ferry landings.

Some owners pride themselves on keeping old, high-mileage vehicles in operation well beyond their normal life spans. Most islands lack an automotive repair shop, forcing residents to do their own work or turn to a neighbor or friend for help.

Islanders have no desire to live up to mainland standards and the island use registration encourages that way of life, said Thomas Fortier, island and neighborhood administrator for the city of Portland. "You're maintaining an island character," he said.

But Peaks Island is changing, becoming what Fortier called "a desirable address." A steady rise in property values and taxes has fueled a gentrification process that has drawn wealthier residents willing and able to drive better cars.

"It's really changed a lot," Enders agreed. "When I first got here, there were some cars that didn't have windows, didn't have mirrors and otherwise were in pretty bad shape. They're around, but you don't see that many of them."

By midmorning on a summer weekday, commuters, shoppers and vacationers had filled almost all the parking spots on the streets near the ferry landing and the post office and in an adjacent lot.

The handful of true island cars stood out. Perhaps the best example was a battered Ford pickup, its keys left in the ignition and its brake pedal held up with a bungee cord to add tension.

There is also the occasional automotive oddity, such as Lynne Richard's yellow 1974 Volkswagen Thing, which she bought a few years ago with a spare transmission in the back seat. As it turned out, the transmission died, the replacement was installed and her island car is still running strong.

But vehicles with standard Maine plates outnumbered those with yellow bumper stickers that identify them as registered for island use only.

On islands such as Isle au Haut, which has no car ferry and is linked to the mainland by mail boat, beaters are still the rule.

Tony Gamage drives a 1976 Plymouth Volare station wagon that has changed ownership several times on the island. Windows and mirrors are intact, but the brakes are gone and the front end is barely hanging on. The fuel is fed from a jury-rigged six-gallon outboard tank housed in the trunk.

As manager of the island's general store, Gamage's wife, Lanie Lamson, drives its 15-year-old Dodge pickup, with no exhaust, no floorboards, taillights falling out and a tailgate that has to be tied shut with a rope.

"It's a Flintstone-mobile," Gamage said.

Island living puts a high premium on the ability to fix things and keep them running.

"They don't have to be pretty; they have to be functional," said Peter Ralston of the Island Institute.