Old men, old cars

Friday, August 22, 2008

Like most men, Eddie Davis has fond memories of his first love. Although it's been more than 30 years ago, he's never really gotten over her. She had the kind of curves that would make any man sit up and take notice, along with a shapely 340 cubic inches under the hood and four on the floor.

And man, oh man, could she fly.

"I had a '72 'Cuda when I was younger -- brand new," Eddie says. He smiles wistfully at the memory as his fingers lovingly caress the black leather bucket seats of the fully restored 1971 Plymouth Barracuda he drives today.

The Marshall County Old Car Club meets each Monday evening.

"And well," he adds, as if to explain his infidelity, "I guess I got to wanting another one."

Now Eddie is living large again. Whenever he takes his new love for a spin, they still turn heads. Just like old times.

But time has a way of changing all things.

Eddie looks at his flashy new canary yellow ride with the bold "340" emblazoned on the side and does a few quick mental calculations. "Only difference is, I bet this one cost me 10 times what that first one did," he says and laughs right out loud.

Eddie is a member of the Marshall County Old Car Club. Each Monday evening its members gather at the Sonic Drive-In on the bypass in Lewisburg to share food, fellowship and a common bond. Owner Robert Newberry gives them their burgers and fries half-price because it's good for business. They inevitably draw a crowd whenever they pull into the parking lot, baby moons shining and Edelbrock intake manifolds throbbing.

But that's not why these mostly middle-aged men come to this place or why they can spend literally hundreds of hours patiently restoring a 50-year-old car they found rusting away in some godforsaken junkyard.

It goes deeper than that.

"I tell people my mom must have run out of pacifiers when I was little, so she threw a wrench at me," member Earl Black says with a straight face. "I grew up sucking on a wrench instead of a pacifier. That's how come I'm like I am today."

Earl retired from GM, where he spent years on the Oldsmobile assembly line building GTOs. Today most people under 30 likely wouldn't know a GTO if they saw one. But back when guys like Eddie and Earl wore a younger man's clothes they knew just about everything there was to know about the car that helped to create an American legend.

GTOs defined what a "muscle car" should be.

You could get them with a ridiculous 455 cubic inches of horsepower under the hood, which is only slightly less than it takes to launch a spacecraft into orbit. The gas mileage was laughable. But nobody cared about gas mileage back then, because gas was cheap and when you mashed the accelerator those 400 horses came to life and it was the closest any 18-year-old boy who could talk his parents into co-signing the note could come to being free, really free.

It didn't hurt that 18-year-old girls loved to ride in them, either.

In today's politically correct, energy-conscious society they no longer even make GTOs -- which, of course, makes them highly desirable to classic car enthusiasts.

It's difficult to put into words exactly what it is that can turn two people who have never met into instant friends as they discuss the relative merits of a 1955 Chevy Bel-Air or a 1954 Ford Victoria. But whatever it is, it must be like a fever. Because once it gets in your blood you never want to go back to driving just an ordinary set of wheels.

Just ask Earl.

Earl estimates he owns "30 or 40" classic cars, including a 1958 Chevy "Yeoman" station wagon with U.S. Route 66 upholstery. He and his wife, Debbie, have attended car shows as far away as Biloxi, Miss., and Reno, Nev., and the massive cruise-in in Pontiac, Mich., which attracts upwards of 40,000 participants each year.

"We go to a lot of car shows," admits Earl. "I tell the kids we're spending their inheritance one car show at a time."

Restoring an old car can be an expensive proposition. Depending on the amount of work required, a fully restored car can cost many times what the original sold for. Unlike some enthusiasts, Earl does his own restoration work.

There are various schools of thought among enthusiasts about whether you can consider yourself a true classic car connoisseur if you don't sand out every rust spot by hand and tighten every nut and bolt yourself.

"It's not considered cheating if you have someone else do the work," Earl allows, "but it can get really costly."

Debbie nods in agreement, adding, "You just have more respect for the ones who do their own work."

Few really old cars today are restored exactly as they were when they rolled off the showroom floor. That's because parts are becoming increasingly hard to come by. Instead, they are "street-rodded" -- that is, the outside is painstakingly restored as close to original condition as possible, while the engine, transmission and other working parts are replaced with newer, more modern components.

"A lot of guys are grabbing these newer engines and putting them in," Earl says. Patting the hood of his '58 Yeoman, he adds, "This car is set up to hit the highway running. I can do 70-80 miles an hour all day in this one. I get better gas mileage and I don't have to baby it. The newer technology is nice they just lost their sense of styling along the way."

The Old Car Club was formed back in 1981 and boasts some two dozen members today. Earl estimates the average age of club members is "pushing 60," but says there is a growing interest in classic cars among younger drivers bored with the bland styling of most modern automobiles.

"It's better for young kids to be out here doing this," Debbie contends, "than it is doing something you don't want them to do."

Clinton Edmonson drives a classic 1970 Chevy Impala convertible he restored himself. Like a lot of his fellow enthusiasts, Clinton started "foolin' around" with classic cars as a hobby. Now he's a regular at the Monday evening cruise-ins.

"People do look when you drive by," Clinton confides. "I kind of like that. That and driving 'em I guess that's the only real satisfaction in it. Sure, it's a lot of work and time. But when you get done you can sit and look at what you've done."

Eddie Davis nods. No need for explanation; he understands completely.