31 July 2012

One for Every Seat

Those who collect the so-called “uncollectible” occupy a special place in the hobby.

 

As shocking as it might sound, even the Pontiac Aztek has fans. Indeed, the thousand-plus members at AztekFanClub.com support an active forum and have even held several national rallies. While GM’s infamous heir to the Edsel’s ugly reputation may take “there’s a backside for every seat” to an extreme, let’s not confuse that favorite adage of used car salesmen with “there’s a sucker born every minute.” Because when it comes to collector cars—especially when it comes to collector cars—there’s no such thing as a bad choice.

Well, sort of.

“It’s a Kotex box on wheels,” says David King, describing his white 1964 Studebaker Commander two-door sedan at a recent car show near his home in Milford, Michigan. “It’s not a big attention-getter, but it’s a car people smile at.”

Yes, a smile is a good way to hide befuddlement. If a red Ferrari 250 GTO is the sexiest thing on four wheels, this is its foil. The reality is that a car this nondescript could have sold 10 times the 4,374 that Studebaker built and still be forgettable. To heap on further insult, King’s Studebaker was built two years before the venerable automaker called it quits and shuttered its Hamilton, Ontario, factory, so the car is as devoid of historical significance as it is aesthetic charm.

Now before we go any further, let’s understand two things. The first is that this is a guy who obviously knows his car is not an A-list collectible. The second is that he does not care. This is key understanding the appeal of the unappealing, the lure of a marque’s unloved illegitimate children, why even astute car collectors develop soft spots for fringe models.

You Can’t Choose Family
David King’s story is common among the guys who get lumped into the “Other” category at automotive events: they didn’t choose their cars as much as their cars chose them. King learned to drive in his, after acquiring it from his grandmother, who had purchased it new. His 1976 high school parking permit is still stuck to the windshield, just as the car has stuck with him. And while the 51-year-old engineer continues to restore a 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham he proudly describes as a “’50s Duesenberg,” he likes bringing the Studebaker to shows.

Yes, otherwise sane and successful car guys with reasonably good taste get involved with these types of cars all the time, for the most primal reasons. “It’s what the family drove,” says Jack Miller, organizer of the Orphan Car Show, a celebration of cast-off automotive brands that’s made him an expert on the subject of automotive obscurity.

Held since 1997, the show draws plenty of attention to the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum, where the 72-year-old Miller is curator. He offers himself as evidence of the sanctity of family ties; he grew up in his father’s Hudson dealership, which the museum now preserves. Today Miller is one of the foremost Hudson aficionados and historians extant.

Among the other cars celebrated at his Michigan museum is the Chevrolet Corvair, which was built at the nearby Willow Run factory from 1960 to 1969. “the people who are really into the Corvair are people whose parents had one, or a friend in college had one,” says Cal Clark Jr, founder of Clark’s Corvair Parts in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.

Clark, 64, has been in the parts business since 1973 and knows just about everything there is to know about the Corvair. The rear-engine Corvair was spurned by Chevy guys even before Ralph Nader’s famous impugnment. Clark is quick to point out that most people don’t understand the true story behind Chevy’s unique economy car—that it met its demise due more to the advent of the muscle car than the rollover accusations in Unsafe At Any Speed. By the time Nader’s book became a sensation, Clark says, there was already little support for the Corvair at dealerships, because it had so little in common with other Chevrolets. “The parts men and the repair guys did not like the car,” he says, a fact that led directly to his establishing Clark’s to cater to those who did.

Out of Control
Of course, not everyone inherits his or her peculiar automotive passion through paternity. But to hear others tell it, there’s still not a lot of choice involved. Sometimes the things you fall in love with are just random.

“I had several flash moments as a kid in the late 1970s,” says 43-year-old Art Mason, who grew up down the street from the famed Holbert Porsche dealership in Warrington, Pennsylvania. Mason describes riding his bike past the lot and seeing a long line of Porsche 924s. “It hit me, an 11-year-old kid, the right way,” he says.

Mason didn’t really understand then—and doesn’t care now—that Porschephiles derided the 924 as impure, what with its water-cooled engine installed in the wrong end of the car. He laughs at his recollection today, with the adult understanding that the impressive line of machinery probably indicated slow sales.

After owning a series of collector cars, including a “proper” air-cooled, rear-engined 911, he now owns two examples of Porsche’s first front-engine sports car. One of his 924s routinely wins preservation class awards at Porsche Club of America events.

Tom Upton, a 56-year-old collector from Ann Arbor, Michigan, tells a similar story about how he fell in love with his silver 1965 Rambler Marlin, a car that’s muscular, but no muscle car. “I was 10 years old when this car came out and I don’t think I’ve seen 10 of them since,” he says. “I saw one going down the road and the style just stuck in my mind. It reminded me of something out of the Jetsons.”

Humor at Your Expense
Mason, he of the pair of 924s, tells a story about a car show patron who ambled by his car and exclaimed, “Wow, look at that! I can’t believe someone bothered to save one of those.” thanks to their period color schemes, his own wife chides him that his brown 924 looks like excrement, while his green one more closely resembles vomit. An active PCA member, Mason says, “Everyone has a story about how they had one that was no good.”

Reputation goes a long way in the collector car community, and once something gets stuck in the public consciousness, it’s hard to dislodge. Clark says that solutions to the Corvair’s two biggest mechanical gremlins were developed decades ago, yet people are still talking about how the cars toss fan belts and leak oil.

On the other hand, sometimes a car’s reputation is deserved. Tony DeRemigio is a 47-year-old mechanic at Algar Ferrari in the Philadelphia area and the owner of a 1985 Maserati Biturbo. He remembers when the Biturbo was new and developed its reputation for shoddy electricals.

“When you would come in for an oil change, it would be new oil, a filter and a new fuse box,” he says with a laugh. “Hey, it kept everybody employed. And if the boss was mad at you, you got sent to work on a Biturbo.”

the only fix for an electrical system that was prone to shorting out was to essentially re-engineer the fuse box, something DeRemigio has done to plenty of cars, including his own. DeRemigio acquired the car 10 years ago when a customer abandoned it at the dealership in lieu of paying for a costly repair, and he has been working on it off and on ever since. It’s here where he identifies the real problem with his labor of love: there’s no payoff.

“It’s a shame people don’t collect them,” he says, but admits that even if he finishes rebuilding his Biturbo and fixing everything that was wrong with it, including those problems that came new from the factory, “It’s still not worth anything.”

Worthlessness has its advantages, however, in that these sorts of cars are never particularly expensive to acquire. The flipside is that most are only good for parts, though that does make used parts simple enough to get your hands on. But new parts can be more challenging to find: Just ask Miller how much he paid for four Hudson hubcaps ($1,400), or try to find a new old stock Marlin emblem for less than the several hundred dollars Upton spent.

The Whole Story
It is often said that when searching out a car, one should only consider a “no stories” example. Yet in the context that these cars present, the stories are among their most interesting aspects. Now each of the collectors we talked to had many positive things to say about their respective cars: how they were intrigued by the technology, by the history or by the personalities behind the shiny sheet metal. All of them stressed how much they enjoyed driving their cars, and what good, roadworthy vehicles they are—just as it should be. After all, isn’t this what draws us to the hobby to begin with?

Yet, when you go out and acquire a popular car like a Jaguar XKE or a Mercedes Gullwing, you buy a certain degree of respectability, too. A Ferrari can serve as an invitation to a pretty neat club, while owning a Bricklin just makes you a bit of a weirdo. Or, as Upton says, “an independent thinker.”

Unwanted or unsung, regardless of how we describe their cars, our community is far richer because of these collectors, the ones who are not afraid to let their freak flags fly, enduring the jokes and the laggard prices and the unpredictability of owning a car that at best makes people point and say, “What is that?”

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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Winter 2011 issue of Hagerty magazine

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