The Psychology of Collecting ‘The Thunderbolt’

Love at first sight is a fact of life and it happens all the time — especially with cars

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” may be the most memorable line in Mario Puzo’s monumental novel, The Godfather, but it isn’t the one that changed my life. When exiled Michael Corleone first sees his future wife, Apollonia, in the Sicillian hills it is love at first sight. One of his shepherd bodyguards recognizes the symptom and says: “You got hit by the thunderbolt, eh?”

Just as there can be love at first sight with a man or woman, the same is true with a car, though one clinical psychologist commented that she’d be very rich if she understood how love at first sight works. A retired psychiatrist friend was in the same quandary, suggesting that beauty, energy, sexual attraction and more are part of the equation that triggers what we call love at first sight, although it is different for every individual. We can only surmise, then, that when a person is instantaneously smitten by a car, a combination of personal preference, his or her own interpretation of beauty and the “vibe” a car exudes all play a part.

Book Learning
When I was 17, I was looking through one of my father’s sports car books from the 1950s and stopped dead when I saw a picture of a black MGA. But this one was different: It was a coupé with a bubble top and it blew me away. I didn’t even know if they had been imported to the United States, but I had to have one, a feat I achieved a month before my 18th birthday with a rough ‘59. The gray 1962 coupé currently in my garage has been with me 38 years, and I’ve had a couple of others, including a rare Twin Cam version. I’ve also been the MGA coupé resource for the North American MGA Register (NAMGAR) for many years, and a coupé has been involved in so many great memories, including dates, high school graduation, road trips and the making of lifelong friends. In fact, I can’t imagine being without an example of the car that changed the way I look at all things with wheels and motors.

As much as I’d like to think I’m unique, I know that many others have been struck by the automotive thunderbolt. Here are two more stories about how the cars people fell for changed their lives.

Gremlins Everywhere
Auto body and paint man Brian Moyer knows exactly when he first glimpsed an AMC Gremlin: on a television commercial during a Bill Cosby special that aired right around the April 1, 1970, model launch. “I was intrigued from the moment I saw one,” he says. “Here was a small car, and it was neat.” About two years later his boss’ daughter bought one, and after riding in it he wanted one, a feeling that was cemented when he realized that not only was it small, “they put a V-8 in it.”

More intrigued than ever, he soon had a job in the dealership’s bodyshop, where he saw even more Gremlins. He also began buying used Gremlin parts as they were offered to him. Finally, repeated trouble with his Chevelle accelerated Moyer’s path to Gremlin ownership. “I got my first Gremlin in 1975 or 1976. It was a 1971 sun package car with a fold-back sunroof.” It wasn’t long before he bought his first new car, a bright orange XPackage 1977 model. Moyer admits, “I made the mistake of selling it, but now I have one just like it.”

These days his life pretty much revolves around AMC’s “economy” car, whether it is restoring, showing, trading parts, chasing cars or helping other owners. “Gremlins changed my world quite a bit,” he says. In fact, Moyer currently owns 15 Gremlins, including three prototypes and a right-hand-drive Australian-market one-off badged as a “Rambler Gremlin.” And as long as rare and interesting Gremlins keep on finding him, his interest and his collection will continue to grow.

The Bond of a Lifetime
“I still remember my reaction when I was 11 years old and first saw a Lotus Esprit,” says airline pilot Art Mason. Having seen The Spy Who Loved Me, he already thought they were really cool, but he hadn’t seen one in real life.

“My older brother came home and said, ‘There’s a Lotus Esprit up the street!’ and I said ‘No. First of all, it’s an Esprit, and second, there isn’t one up the street.’ But there it was, a white Series I, just like the Bond car, sitting on a side street not even a mile from my house. It was parked between a silver Plymouth Volaré and a Ford Country Squire and it looked like someone had painted in a white wedge.”

Two things stuck out to young Mason — “how low it was and the crappy build quality.” Despite the cheap-looking switches and shoddy interior, Mason says just seeing the white Lotus was a pivotal moment in his life, and he credits that day as having shaped his interest in cars. After 35 years and six Esprits, he still has one — a 1979 Series II in John Player (black and gold) colors. He recently sold a white Series I like the one that changed his life, and it’s hard to imagine him ever without one.

Not everyone who loves old and interesting cars has had a “thunderbolt moment,” just as many people never experience love at first sight. But those of us who feel as if we’ve been knocked for a loop when we first see that special car know now that our lives changed forever because of that alluring shape made of steel, aluminum or fiberglass. And if you lift our garage doors, odds are you’ll see at least one example of the car that rocked our world.

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