More Than Machines

by Simon Gonzalez
December 2017

Rob Dillow and Mary Margaret McEachern lovingly speak of their girls. They can tell you all about their personalities and their quirks. They'll affectionately point out their foibles, and they're quick to lavish praise.

The oldest is nicknamed Diva. She's "very sassy looking and fun ... a real attention grabber." The middle two -- Cheeks and Skirts -- are a little on the heavy side and "kind of lumber and bumble along." Boodles, the youngest, is the consummate beach gal.

If Cheeks, Skirts, Boodles and the Diva take pleasure in or offense to any of the remarks, they don't show it. Perhaps that's because, while they can be temperamental, antique automobiles tend to be stoic.

When Dillow and McEachern talk about their "girls," they are referring to their collection of classic cars. The married couple proudly displays them in the garage and driveway of their home off Airlie Road: a 1915 Model T Speedster (the Diva because she runs when she wants), a 1941 Chevrolet (Cheeks because the front fenders resemble big chipmunk cheeks), a '51 Chevy (Skirts because of the fender skirts), and a '59 Metropolitan (Boodles just because it fits).

Welcome to the world of classic car collecting, where the automobiles are not just machines, but beloved friends, companions, and even children with their own names.

"I bought my '67 Austin-Healey about five and a half years ago," Bruce Allcorn says. "I hate to admit this, but for the first two months I'd just go out in my garage and sit there and look at it. I kept telling myself, I can't believe I bought this thing."

There are at least a few hundred antique automobile aficionados in the area, based on the membership rolls of the Cape Fear chapter of the Antique Auto Club of America (AACA), the British Motor Club of the Cape Fear (BMCCF) and the Sun Coast Cruisers.

They own cars that are more than 100 years old, and ones made as recently as 1992. (An antique is commonly defined as anything that's at least 25 years old.) They drive mainstream marques like Ford, Chevy and Buick, and exotics and rarities like Duesenbergs, Packards, Marmons and Hupmobiles. They are people who appreciate the history and the heritage of the automobile in American culture.

"We're basically custodians," says Ashby Armistead, president of the Cape Fear AACA. "We want to preserve a piece of history that may put a smile on somebody's face, and hope that whoever ends up with it after you will also preserve it and take care of it."

They take their classic cars to major shows, like the AACA's spring event at Independence Mall that attracts as many as 175-200 cars, the Brit's annual get-together that's been held at the Wrightsville Beach park the past few years, the Sun Coast Cruisers' Bash at the Beach, and Rims on the River in downtown Wilmington. There are lots of smaller shows: Leland Under the Lights, River Bluffs Car Show and Gathering, Riverfest Car Display, Wheels of Landfall. Cars and Coffees allow for informal meetups at different locations throughout the year.

The shows are equal parts exhibition and fellowship. They are a way to see and be seen, to show off your motor and vie for awards while admiring what others have. And they are a way for like-minded people to get together and share their passion for the hobby.

"Camaraderie. Is that a good word?" says Rob Deanes, a University of North Carolina Wilmington professor who owns classic original Triumphs and races a heavily modified TR4. "That's a lot of it. We all have an interest in it."

Collectors get into the hobby for various reasons. They gravitate toward historic cars, muscle cars, foreign cars, rare cars, or cars they grew up with. Some prefer a specific marque, like Armistead, who only has Buicks.

"There are a lot of Ford and Chevy guys," he says. "I have a friend that all he cares about are Pontiacs. There's the Corvette guys, the Mustang guys, the Mopar guys. And there's a few of us oddballs that love Buicks. They've always been well-engineered cars, kind of a mix of practicality with a little bit of plushness."

The common denominator is a love of older cars.

"I think there's an underlying appreciation of a time gone by," says John Andrews, who owns a '66 Mustang convertible he's had for more than 30 years. "For a lot of people, these hold a special memory. Nothing can take the place it has in their heart."

Some are in it for the awards. They own rare and expensive "trailer queens," cars that meet stringent requirements for being as close as possible to original condition. These are the automobiles that only see the light of day in Concoursd'Elegance, competitions for absolutely pristine cars, or in the biggest local shows. They often are investments, and miles on the odometer mean dollars off the value.

"All they're going to do is take it around to the big shows and win awards, but they don't dare drive them," McEachern says. "One nick in the paint can be thousands and thousands of dollars to fix."

Tim Ward knows those cars exist -- "They only have 5 miles on 'em, and that's from rollin' 'em on and off the trailer," he laughs -- but he can't think of any in the Sun Coast Cruisers. Some members own older cars but Ward, the vice president, says the club mostly caters to owners of American muscle cars from the '60s and '70s. Or autos modified to be muscle cars, like Ward's '52 Ford pickup with the 351 Windsor engine.

"Most of our guys drive their vehicles to shows," he says. "Our guys roll in ours."

That's a common attitude. Even though they have some age, these cars were made to be driven, not just looked at.

"We love to get together and take a drive and eat barbecue somewhere out in the country, just get out and drive the cars," Armistead says. "Because that's really where the fun is. Shows are nice, trophies are nice, but taking the car out and driving it and appreciating what it was at the time is really what it's about."

Tanner Benton owns a 1926 Ford Model T he restored himself. The car is pristine and frequently wins awards. But it's not a trailer queen.

"I drive it at least once a week, mostly Sundays to church," he says. "All the old ladies love it. I personally would rather drive the cars around than go to a car show and win a trophy. I like to talk to older people and draw in that knowledge that's going to pass away. I love the conversations that these cars bring."

Benton is a member of the local chapter of the Horseless Carriage Club of America, which is restricted to cars built before 1927. The group has three tours each year, covering a couple of hundred miles in a weekend and about 500 miles during the weeklong summer event. Cars that old have horsepower numbers roughly equivalent to the year they were made so it's a slow parade, but fellow motorists don't seem to mind.

"You get waves, horns blowing, thumbs up, I've even got a couple of peace signs," Benton says. "You don't see these cars on the road anymore. The generations that knew about them, who drove them, they've all passed away. The younger generation, they couldn't care less. The car only goes 40 miles an hour? That's no fun. But I love them. It's nice to go slow because you see so much more, and you get to enjoy it more. Everybody goes fast nowadays and you miss out on so much. That's why it causes so much attention. They stand out. Cars don't look like this anymore."

Other collectors meet up to drive their antiques. Cruising the Loop at Wrightsville Beach on a sunny weekend afternoon is a popular pastime. The BMCCF regularly heads out of town.

"Several of us will get out and go to Shallotte or somewhere, just get them out and drive them," Allcorn says. "It's fun to do that. At our age, we don't know what else we'd be doing. My cars have kept me from a lot of bad TV."

While most collectors like to get behind the wheel, few use them as daily drivers. Even the best maintained car is a dinosaur by today's standards.

"You have to think ahead because they don't stop as fast as modern cars, and they don't accelerate as fast," Dillow says. "The two Chevys have about 80-85 horsepower. And they are over 3,000 pounds. Their suspensions are not like modern suspensions. They tend to kind of lumber down the road. If you hit a bump they go up and down big time. And the steering isn't as tight."

The older the car, the more exotic the driving experience. The Model T has three pedals on the floor, but none of them make it go faster.

"You've got your brake, a reverse pedal and a clutch," Benton says. "It's not a stick shift, and it's not an automatic. It has a high and low transmission. You push the clutch down and it goes forward like a lawnmower, basically. You go halfway on the clutch on the way out and it's neutral. All the way off is high range, and you're cruising about 40 mph. Just give it fuel. It's like cruise control."

There are two levers on the steering column. One is a hand throttle, the other controls the spark.

"They are just unique," Benton says. "There's no texting and driving in these cars. You are literally using all four of your limbs."

Also unique is the way they start, a complicated process involving a manual choke, spark and a hand crank.

"At car shows, kids and parents love to see it being started by hand," Benton says. "So I try my best to always show them that."

The hand crank speaks to a bygone era. While the vast majority of antiques don't go that far back, there is a large degree of nostalgia involved in the hobby. The car evokes a powerful memory. It could be childhood, or of a simpler time.

Andrews' '66 Mustang convertible takes him back to his youth.

"I got it in high school in 1983," says Andrews, who owns South Beach Grill in Wrightsville Beach. "I saw an ad for it and I always thought they looked stylish. I worked washing dishes all summer. They wanted $425. I got them down to $400 and drove it home."

It sounds like a bargain for a Mustang convertible, even for one that was 16 years old at the time. That's because it needed work -- a lot of work.

"It was in such bad shape, my dad wouldn't even let me park it in the driveway," he says. "It took me several years to get it to pass inspection. I knew it would be a project and I wanted to learn. The technology was so rudimentary, it wasn't hard for me to learn to work on the engine."

Mickey Finn wanted a Triumph TR3 because his father owned one.

"I have such fond memories of my father driving his TR3," he says. "I used to ride in it a lot with him. When my sister got her license -- and she's five years younger than I am -- he would let her drive it and he never would let me drive it. So I had to get one of my own."

Benton is 24, the youngest member of the Cape Fear AACA, but he gravitates to older cars because the engines resemble those in the tractors he worked on with his grandpa on the family's dairy farm.

"Grandpa was a backyard mechanic," he says. "Originally I started with antique mowers, restoring those myself. I'd take them to the frame and build them back up. Now I've gotten to the cars. I love old cars. Anything 1930s and older."

Lisa Schnitzler learned to drive in a '69 Buick Skylark, so that's what she bought as her first car when she was in high school in New Jersey. When the transmission failed while she was in college, she found another Skylark, a '68 convertible she purchased for $1,200. It wasn't a hardtop and it wasn't the right year, but she soon fell in love with the car.

"I had this all through the '80s," says Schnitzler, an art teacher at Williston Middle School. "I drove it to the Jersey Shore. That's what we did in New Jersey. You'd listen to Springsteen, and you'd go to the Shore. I went through everything with that car. I could go off by myself in it, listen to music. I just loved it. It was very much a sanctuary, that car."

She still has it, keeping it long enough for it to become an antique.

"I would never get rid of it," she says. "I'm kind of weird in that I become emotionally attached to them. I'm not selling this car."

That doesn't mean she won't add to her collection. She recently bought a '69 Corvette Stingray.

"I'm not a foreign car person," she says. "I am an American muscle car girl. That's it. I think this is the era when we really kicked it out of the park. I mean, look at it. It's amazing. It looks like you're driving a shark."

That's a common experience among collectors. They love the car or cars they have, but they are always on the lookout for something different. Dillow and McEachern are selling Cheeks and Skirts to make room for a 1954 MG TF, a beautiful car with flowing lines.

Armistead can relate. He became an accidental antique auto owner simply because he held on to his first car, a '72 Buick LeSabre.

"That's the car that started it for me," he says. "It was my grandparents' car. They passed and I kind of inherited it as my first car. I'm going, "Oh my goodness. Look at this thing. It's a land yacht.' But it was free. And it ended up being a great car. I could fit five or six friends in it in high school. I still have it, still drive it occasionally, and it's now becoming a classic so to speak, or at least an antique. It's funny, as time passes, what people have a little nostalgia for."

But he always keeps an eye out for other Buicks. He added a '68 Skylark and a '37 Roadmaster, which looks like something out of a gangster movie with its black paint, big fenders and running boards.

"I've always liked the '30s cars, that era, because of the form of the fenders and the design," he says. "They were as much art as anything back then. I've always had an affinity for the '37, '38 Buicks, the style, the shape. They were just big and, in my mind, beautiful cars. I'd been looking for one for a few years."

Part of the fun of collecting is learning the provenance of the car. Armistead knows his Roadmaster was shipped to France, where it had custom bodywork by Frenay, a Paris coachbuilder, commissioned by a French film director. The car was hidden in Norway during World War II, and came home when it was shipped back to the United States in the '80s.

Eric Robinson, events director of the BMCCF, also knows the history of his '71 Triumph Stag.

"The Stag is rare," he says. "It was a visionary of its time -- beautiful, Italian designed, top speed of 120. It's also on the list of the 50 worst cars ever built."

The Stag indeed appears on Time magazine's list of the 50 worst cars of all time. Robinson says disputes between the unions and the government and company led to poor quality control. Overheating was a common problem, caused by casting sand left inside the engine.

Robinson got one of the good ones. It has 74,000 relatively trouble-free miles on the original engine and transmission. But if it did require frequent repairs, that would be OK too. That's part of the experience of owning British cars, which are notorious for spending a lot of time in the shop.

That's the reputation, anyway. Whether true or not, it's something BMCCF members embrace with good humor.

"Most of us lucked into having a British car," says John Moore, who owns MGs. "I didn't say good luck or bad luck."

Allcorn currently has a '62 and a '67 Austin Healy and a '72 Jag. He used to own two Jags.

"I have a friend who used to kid me," he says. "He said the reason you have two of them is so you have something to drive while the other one is in the garage."

The good news is they are easy to work on for a shade-tree mechanic.

"People laugh about those engines being a tractor engine, but that's where they originated," Moore says. "These cars are dreadfully simple. Everything is easy to fix. Modern cars are full of computers. No homebody like us can work on them. On these things, if you can't fix it, you can figure out how to fix it. It's very basic."

You can't walk into the local auto parts store and ask for a carburetor for a 1937 Buick. But parts are surprisingly easy to find. A cottage industry has sprung up around the hobby. Just about anything is available on the Internet, and big national and regional car shows become swap meets.

That's a good thing. Because no matter the reliability of the car when new, when something mechanical gets to be at least 25 years old, it will break at some point.

"They do require work," Schnitzler says. "They require time and patience. But you're going to spend your time on something. Get off the Internet and work on a car. That's what I say. Do something with your hands. Go build something, restore it. It can get expensive. But I don't do jewelry, I'm not obsessed with shoes. I like these. This is the bling that I like."

 


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