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. 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.

No. 147: Hauler Of All

Someone got it this far. Then, nature did what it always does: Its green tendrils reached out. With leaf and limb, it drew the machine close.

Peeking from all this foliage is a first-edition Dodge D100 pickup. The D100 marked a styling departure from the mid-‘50s Job Rated machines – wider, not as tall, a better ride. It came in two styles: the fleetside beds, called Sweptline, and the stepside, aka Utiline. Under the hood was a 318, the smallest V8 in the Chrysler line, or the 225 hemi, a nearly indestructible 6-cylinder power plant.

The D100 was a Dodge mainstay from 1961 through 1993. This machine appears to be a ’64, though it’s hard to say. It has the remains of the hemi under its rusted hood.

These trucks did it all — hauled groceries, firewood, feed, dirt, construction materials, furniture, you name it. At least one took hormonally driven boys to Myrtle Beach. It carried a guy and his date to the prom.

No. 146: Abandoned at the River

The river runs west, then north for a ways, past Stockton. It flows across land flat as a pool table, with mountains in the distance. On clear days, those peaks appear a lot closer than they are. Natives know this.

What else they know: The land is filled with old heaps. Did the Okies discard them? Probably, yes, some. Others arrived later. Cars and trucks with bashed-in headlights turn blind eyes to the highways that took them to where they now rest and rust. The wind whistles through their shattered glass. Lizards doze in their shadows.

Old River, Calif., 2,420 miles west of Atlanta.

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

No. 145: Dodge Goes to War

It’s well known that America was hardly ready for a global conflict when one crash-landed on its lap on Dec. 7, 1941. Our nation had to gear up, and fast, for a war that would spread across oceans and continents. That included building trucks.

Dodge responded with the WC, a series of half- and three-quarter-ton trucks that saw service in every theater of World War II. Through August 1945, Dodge built more than 250,000 of the olive-drab haulers.

Then, that war ended, Dodge retooled again and created an even better machine. In 1951, it rolled out the M37. It was based closely on its World War II predecessor. Powered by an inline 6 engine that produced less than 80 horsepower, the trucks were our military’s wheels of choice.

Dodge produced the M37 through 1968. Not long after, the government began auctioning the retired vehicles – WCs and M37s — to fire departments, lumber companies and other businesses that needed mechanized oomph. Some are still running. But not these two. What conflicts did they see?

Mattawan, Mich., 750 miles north of Atlanta.
(Photos by Roving Junkyard Correspondent Marva Brackett Godin)

No. 144: The Loadmaster

It was running when I parked it, No. 144: The Loadmaster.

This old hoss carried melons from the farms of south Georgia to the freight yards of Atlanta. It trundled bundles of bright leaf to warehouses in Greenville and Rocky Mount. It carried pumpkins from central Michigan to trucking terminals in Kalamazoo. It took hardhatted men into the heart of the Iron Range.

The Chevrolet Loadmaster was ubiquitous. The heavy-duty big brother of the Thriftmaster, the machine debuted in 1947. Chevy produced this 1.5-ton truck with only limited changes until early 1955.

Based on a few design clues, this Loadmaster was built between 1947-1950. There’s no telling how many years it ran, or what it carried, or where it went. It’s safe to say that it worked, and worked hard, until it came to a rest in a thicket of hardwoods 30 miles east of Lake Michigan.

Mattawan, Mich., 750 miles north of Atlanta.

(Photos by Roving Junkyard Correspondent Marva Brackett Godin)