For the Love of Old Cars

Once you start looking, you see them everywhere — in barns, cornfields, alongside mountain roads, in driveways angling off city streets. There’s the faded pickup that delivered prescriptions from a long-closed family pharmacy; the derelict sedan that once hauled scabby-kneed boys to Sunday school; the tattered ragtop that in its prime turned as many heads as its driver, inscrutable in her sunglasses and silk headscarf. They’re living hunks of history, found art in its purest form. Inside them live a million long-lost stories.

(Photo by Junkyard Correspondent Sam Davis)

No. 154: ‘He was born in Pennsylvania…’

“His wife’s name is ol’ ” — but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

GMC trucks, like their nearly identical cousins at Chevrolet, rolled out a radically different machine in the spring of 1955. Gone were the billowy fenders and tiny windshields, the narrow cab and just as narrow wheelbase that had defined GMC trucks since 1947.

In their stead, GMC introduced the 150, the “Blue Chip” line. The name was apt. This truck had a wrap-around windshield, a truck industry first. Deluxe cabs offered the same option for the rear window, too. The result: Sitting up high, bumping down a country road or city street, the driver had a better view of everything – an automotive trait that for years has helped fuel the phenomenal sale of SUVs.

Even more important: For the first time in the history of GM, this truck had a V-8 under that heavy sheet of steel. It came from another cousin, Pontiac, and featured a 287-cubic-inch engine producing 155 horses. (Cousin Chevy dropped a 283 in its line of trucks. That power plant needs no further explanation.) Heavier trucks had even more powerful engines.

Other improvements: a 12-volt system was an option. They beat the hell out of the six-volt electricals that had preceded them. The discerning motorist could order a fleetside machine with fiberglass side panels – a hat-tip, perhaps, to another GM product fast capturing the nation’s fancy, the Corvette. The Blue Chip line also had some interior options; all you had to do was pay more. It is ever thus…

The Blue Chip trucks did it all from 1955 through 1961. They were big, and tough, and more business-like than their more frivolous cousins over at Chevy. The serious guy (and, yes, gal), chose GMC when it was time to get the job done.

Clearly, this old truck got a lot of jobs done before succumbing to rust and age and someone with a wrench. Based on some scant visual clues, it appears to be a ’55 or ’56.

The Blue Chip did achieve a small degree of fame in music, which brings us back to the top of this report. The lately and dearly departed Jerry Jeff Walker rarely held a concert without performing “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.” The protagonist — born in Oklahoma, not Pennsylvania — drove a ’57 GMC pickup truck, “with a gun rack and ‘Goat Ropers Need Love Too’ bumper sticker.”

Oh, and this: his wife’s name is ol’ Betty Lou Thelma Liz.

Somewhere between Bradford and Kane, Pa., 830 miles northeast of Atlanta (Photos by State Parks and Junkyard Correspondent Marva Brackett Godin.)

No. 153: Pump Like An Egyptian

Pause for a moment, fellow traveler, to give a hat-tip to Ctesibius. Or should that be a nemes* tip? Ctesibius was an inventor in Egypt during the second century BCE. (That was the Ptolemaic Dynasty, of course.) He’s credited with creating the first force pump, a machine to move water. Without Ctesibius, our nation’s fire houses would be full of buckets, not trucks.

Well, buck(et) that.

What Ctesibius created, others improved. Over the passage of centuries a fire-fighting machine evolved. Early models were on skids; the people fighting fires dragged their machine to wherever they were needed. Most of them were called “hand tubs” because firefighters had to form a bucket brigade to fill the engine, whose pump then shot water at flames.

As cities grew larger, so did the fire engines. Wheels replaced skids – and, eventually, horses replaced the men who had pushed/pulled fire engines to wherever they were needed.

The horses eventually got a break. The first modern engine, mounted on a truck body, debuted in Springfield, Mass., in 1905. By the 1920s, fire engines – fire trucks – were ubiquitous. So was their signature color: In an era when just about everything with wheels was painted black, the fire engines were red. And so they are, even now.

The paint on this old machine has faded, and small wonder: It was built in 1946. It’s a Ford, powered by a flathead 6. How long did it serve? How many homes did it save? How many horses? I bet Ctesibius would want to know.

Shoshone, Idaho, 2,060 miles northwest of Atlanta. (Photos by Senior Junkyard Correspondent Harold “Tex” Colson)

* A pharaonic fedora, sort of

No. 152: Oozin’ and Cruisin’ in My 88

Perhaps you can hear the song through the dusty old windows:

“You women have heard of jalopies/
You heard the noise they make/
Let me introduce you to my Rocket ’88…

Oldsmobile introduced the Rocket 88 in 1949. It fit neatly between two brands already on the roadways, the Olds 78 and 98. The Rocket also introduced a new engine, a V8 producing 135 horses. In the past, Olds had relied on straight 6 and 8 engines. The V8 effectively booted both those aside.

With its lightweight Futuramic – a real term, spelled out in chrome – body, the new 88 could scat. In its first year of production, the 88 won six of nine late-model division NASCAR races; the next year, after other auto builders got over their amazement and hustled to catch up with Olds, the car still managed to snag the checkered flag at 10 of 19 races. Clearly, the Rocket was aptly named. It raced to the top of the must-have list for would-be hot-rodders.

The car also became a hit on the airwaves with the 1951 release of “Rocket 88” by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats – who were, in fact, Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm. Some music historians consider it the first rock ‘n roll song. They may be on to something; rock ‘n roll wasn’t afraid of double-entendre lyrics. Consider these lines:

Step in my rocket and don’t be late/
We’re pullin’ out about a half past eight/
Goin’ on the corner and havin’ some fun/
Takin’ my rocket on a long, hot run/
Ooh, goin’ out, oozin’ and cruisin’ and havin’ fun…

Did this old ’50 Rocket 88 ooze and cruise? Oh, I hope so. These days, it shares space with other forgotten road warriors in a silent edifice in Scottsbluff, Neb., 1,390 miles northwest of Atlanta

(Photos by Senior Junkyard Correspondent Harold “Tex” Colson)

No. 151: Stodgy Dodge

How many seasons has it rested here, the prairie wind sharp and whistling because nothing stands in its way except the battered sides of this old Dodge pickup? When did its owner finally walk away without a final glance? What did it haul? Where did it go? What human activities took place in its 6.5-foot bed?

Oh, if rust could talk. It might tell you who shaved inches off windshield posts to create a lowered stance – perhaps long before this was an accepted practice for hot-rodded trucks. But this 1946 Dodge truck keeps its secrets. After all, rust is silent.

A little history on the Dodge truck: The Dodge brothers, John and Horace, struck out on their own after working for Oldsmobile and Ford. Their first car debuted in 1914. The public liked it; before long, ponderous Dodge sedans were routine sights on the nation’s few roads. A world war came along not long after, and the brothers built their first truck, a panel van. It relied on 35 hp to bounce over the muddied, body-filled plains of France.  In 1929, with the nation flat on its ass in a depression, Dodge introduced its first pickup. Under its hood was a flathead 6 – two cylinders more than the giant of that era, the Ford Model A. Dodge would go on to use that engine, with various modifications, until 1960.

In 1939, Dodge rolled out a pickup that looked a lot like this one. Its distinguishing feature was bug-eyed headlights; the truck looked perpetually surprised, as if stunned to meet you on the roadway. This design would remain until 1948, several years after Chevy and Ford made style changes to reflect shifting tastes in trucks.

Stodgy? Perhaps. Dodge held on to design and engineering elements longer than its competitors, and that may be the reason why you see a lot more Chevys and Fords from that era. But there is no denying that this machine has a particular grace – even now, stopping the prairie winds that bowl over Crawford, Neb., 1,420 miles northwest of Atlanta. (Photos by Senior Junkyard Correspondent Harold “Tex” Colson)

No. 150: Intentionally International Tough

International trucks. The words conjure images of large, no-nonsense machines operated by large, no-nonsense guys – the sort of hauler you’d see at the dump, the warehouse, the docks. And those images were accurate: The International was …

…well, built to work. It was what the plumber drove; his might have a utility body that carried miles of piping and valves whose uses were a mystery. Or maybe the job superintendent used it to check on different sites. The guy delivering big car parts tossed them in its wooden bed.

This is a 1954 R110. It debuted the previous year – and, unsurprisingly, was overshadowed by its big-boy competitors. Like those other truck builders, the R110 relied on six inline cylinders, three speeds and two strong arms. It also featured something the Ford F100s and Chevy 3100s did not: a simplified grill with two massive horizontal slots, like those on a Coke machine. You could drop a manhole cover between them, like a massively oversized coin.

Tough, yes, but even the best machines slow down, then stop, then begin to become part of the landscape. That’s what’s happening in this expanse of weeds and trees near Howell, Utah, 1,920 miles northwest of Atlanta. (Photos by Senior Junkyard Correspondent Harold “Tex” Colson)

No. 149: Bonded, Not Bondo’d

They just never stop working. A truck built nearly seven decades ago may have started life carrying produce to the market, cinder blocks to the job, hay to the cattle. But time slows even the best machines. And so this 1951 Chevy 3100 Thriftmaster has taken on an easier life: as a billboard to a bail-bonding company.

For the uninitiated, a bail-bonding company puts up money to spring people from jail. The inmate or his (really, the people in jail are overwhelmingly male) family put up collateral to a bondsman (again, almost always men) to post the jailbird’s bail. If the inmate fails to show up in court, the bail bondsman collects the collateral that the no-good bum’s family put up to secure his release. It’s a tough business.

As noted before, the Thriftmaster line of trucks debuted in 1947 — a design so different from its predecessor that the trucks were known by the acronym AD, short for “advanced design.” Chevy built the truck until early 1955. The 3100 was so well-known, so well-built, that it got a chapter in a book titled “Things That Last.” And last they do.

Or, at least, they linger.

This old truck appears as solid as the day some lucky buyer shook the salesman’s (men again!) hand and drove this thing home. If it has any Bondo, I don’t see it.

New Braunfels, Texas, 966 miles southwest of Atlanta. (Photos by Senior Junkyard Correspondent Harold “Tex” Colson)

No. 148: Ho-Ho Hauler

A few years ago I volunteered my truck to pick up discarded Christmas trees and take them to a chipper. It was a Cub Scout fund-raiser. I was the Cubmaster. I had to lead by example.

And so, on a chilled Saturday morning just after New Year’s Day, I jumped in my truck’s cold cab. I gave the machine a little gas, murmured the Common Prayer of Heaps – “Dear Lord, let my heap start this day” – and turned the key. Six cylinders popped up and down in rapid succession. My prayer was answered. With a rattle, the truck came alive.

The day before, in a moment of inspiration, I had tied a $2 thrift-store wreath to its grill. It fit nicely across the truck’s signature feature, the “bull nose” mound of chrome and steel in the center of the truck’s immense grill. It sat atop a massive chrome bumper. The wreath in place, I stepped back to admire the silver bumper, the green wreath, the faded red fenders. Pretty festive, I thought.

Others thought so too. As I rumbled through the neighborhood, a forest of old trees stacked in the bed, people begged me to stop so they could take a photo. “You look just like a Christmas card!” one neighbor exclaimed.

She was right. Since that time, I’ve kept an eye out for Christmas cards that feature a faded heap like mine. They are almost as ubiquitous as Santa himself.

For the record, that old heap is a 1954 Chevrolet 3100 Thriftmaster half-ton. In 1947, Chevy produced the first of a line of trucks that were so well-built that some remain in daily use. With only a few style changes, the Thriftmaster dominated construction sites, farms, hardware-store parking lots, lumber camps and other places needing mechanized might. At least one truck was used in a watermelon theft, but that is another story. Chevy discontinued the line in early 1955.

So, dear reader, this is my card to you. Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Joyous Kwanza! Have a fabulous Festivus! May all your solstices be peaceful!

And may this old truck keep generating smiles.

M-m-m-my Miata

Oldcarguy had a familiar gleam in his eye that day last summer when he returned from Scout camp with the Baby Boy. His crush was petite, curvy, shiny, sporty — a jet-black 1999 Mazda Miata. One of the other Scout dads was selling it. He had a family of young boys who still wanted to go everyplace with their father. We, on the other hand, had a couple of teens with their own drivers’ licenses. We also had a backyard full of vehicles: two antique pickups, a ’60s convertible, a disassembled Jeep or two, and two everyday-driver sedans.

But we actually NEED this car, opined oldcarguy. He did have a point. My 2008 Honda Fit had been pledged to No. 1 Son, though it was technically still mine until said son met certain academic goals. Still, our oldest boy often drove it to school and his job. While I work from home most days, I do occasionally have to make an appearance in the office, pick up groceries, attend yoga class, go to the dentist …

Let me say right here that I am not really a car person. Until I married oldcarguy (at age 39), I’d only owned three cars. In my LIFE. All were dependable, practical, even boring — none of which describes the Miata. But I believe one of the secrets of keeping a marriage lively is for each spouse to maintain individual friends, interests and pursuits. Another is not to sweat the small stuff. So the Miata was mine. Well, sort of.

I joke to my friends that it’s a “ridiculous car” for me to drive, and call it the MidlifeCrisisMobile. It’s loud, showy, uncomfortable, and barely accommodates a load of groceries. I struggle to close the balky top. But I have to admit it’s kinda cute.

The other day, I drove it to the high school to pick up Baby Boy for a doctor’s appointment. He folded his 6’2″ frame into the passenger seat and said, “Mom, let’s take the top down.” The sun was beating down, I’d forgotten my sunglasses, and up to that point had been enjoying a rare good hair day. But I thought, what the heck. Chances to bond with my sons are precious few these days. I unlatched the top.

For the next 20 minutes or so, we saw what the Miata was made for. She took the curves beautifully. I showed my son that his fuddy-duddy mom was pretty handy with a stick shift. He grinned. My hair was a mess, my eyes watering from the wind. I stuck a CD into the fabulously retro player and turned it up. It was Prince — most appropriate for a car built in 1999.

I thought about where I was in that year: living in a Philadelphia rowhouse a few blocks from the Rocky Steps, working nights at the Inquirer, a hopeful newlywed at 40. Could I have imagined, then, driving this car, having this boy, living this life? From the CD player, Prince sang: “I don’t care where we go, I don’t care what we do. I don’t care, pretty baby, just take me with you.”

Yes, I thought, this is exactly what I imagined.

Sometime after we returned home, the Baby Boy struck up a conversation with his dad. “I think,” he said, “Mom really likes the Miata.

Agrarian Edition No. 11: A Tough MF

The evidence is right there – there, where the soil is slowly swallowing a flat tire. This machine hasn’t moved in a long time.

But when it did, this Massey Ferguson 175 was a workhorse – short on glamor, long on guts. MF rolled out the 175 in 1964; for 11 years, it was the manufacturer’s standard for light- to medium-use tractors. It also was the result of years of mergers – of an Ontario, Canada, company founded in 1847, that successively merged with other manufacturers. And, with each merger, came a newer, more powerful tractor.

(Memama bought a used MF, a TE-20, from a dealer in Fuquay-Varina, N.C. It was gray with a steel seat and steering wheel the diameter of a manhole. It pulled stumps and plows and cars. It carried two little boys, one on each fender, their mama keeping a worried watch.)

But even the most-reliable tractor eventually slows, then stops. This one came to a rest outside a convenience store that begs customers not to wear Halloween masks when entering the premises.

See the sign: 190 miles southwest of Atlanta

The Jeep That Haunts Me


I own a 1948 Jeep – well, technically, I own two. One should, sometime in the future, be back on the road; the other is the carcass that will render parts to make the first CJ2A Jeep roadworthy.

A nation separated them. One was a Florida bog-runner, shoved in a barn and forgotten for years. The other worked for years as a parade entry for a VFW hall in Wisconsin. I retrieved the Florida Jeep on a UHaul flatbed – a great road trip for myself and older son. A taciturn guy with a big mustache delivered the other from Wisconsin to my door. “Long drive,” he said.

I credit my younger son for the Jeep – er, Jeeps. We were returning from a baseball game a couple of years ago when he spied a restored CJ2A outside a hardware store. “Wouldn’t it be cool to get one to restore?” he asked. I nearly ran off the road.

When I was his age, about 14 or so, I craved an old Jeep. Ever since my friend up the road had showed me his daddy’s old flat-fendered machine, I had wanted one. It was more go-cart than car – a tiny thing with a short wheelbase, a C-cab perched like a half-built outhouse over two bucket seats. It rattled. It rumbled. It caught my heart. I begged dad to buy one we could take apart in the barn. The old man was too cheap. I realized that getting a Jeep, like signing a Major League contract, wasn’t in the works.

And then, long decades later, my baby boy repeated what his dad had said all those years ago.

The chassis to the driver Jeep is now in my garage. The body — it’s called a “tub” — is sitting on two sawhorses in the back yard beyond the garage where my wife cannot see it. The engine was yanked, put back. It has new shocks. We have to rebuild the brakes. I want to switch the electrical system from 6 volts to 12. I am daunted by all that needs to be done. Some days, I want to advertise the old metal and cut my losses: Two Jeeps, cheap.



Then I think of my boy, and the boy my father refused.