When you’re 15, what’s it like to covet a 1948 Oldsmobile?
My nephew Lucas just turned 15 and is effectively the middle child of four boys, the two eldest being fraternal twins. For the most part, his brothers are into the usual boy things: sports, video games, their iPhones. Lucas is different. He likes things that are old and mechanical and provide portals into bygone eras. At various phases, he’s been obsessed by early computers, old telephones, phonographs, vintage Disney tchotchkes, slide projectors, film projectors, cans of 8- and 16-millimeter film, box cameras, and typewriters. He combs estate sales near his home in suburban Detroit and crawls through antique shops and eBay, guided by a discerning eye and a tight, $20-a-week-allowance budget (his mom won’t let him get a job until he picks up his grades). He has never feared adults and is not afraid to pepper them with questions.
Sometime in 2019, Lucas became absorbed by the tale of Preston Tucker and the Tucker Torpedo. Soon he could quote chassis numbers by memory. That’s when the texts started rolling in. I’m the one person in his life who is also into old cars, and so, though I don’t get back to Detroit as often as I should and I am hardly a model uncle, Lucas and I have become text buddies.
He started sending me pictures of cool cars he found on the internet. There was the Tucker concept some guy built out of a ’71 Buick Riviera, and an idea for a 21st-century DeLorean. He sent me his own pencil drawings of cars and pictures of a little plastic model he made of a Tucker on a 3-D printer. Then he discovered Facebook Marketplace.
When you’re Lucas’s age, $5000 might as well be $5 million, so he immediately gravitated toward the bottom end. My text inbox started filling up with ads for rusty heaps from all over Michigan. There was the ’59 Ford with weeds growing through it and seats reupholstered with advertising banners for Winston cigarettes. There was a 1940 Chevy whose cylinder head had somehow been “stolen.” A listing for a saggy ’78 Cadillac Eldorado was accompanied by the query, “Is this a good deal?” Actually, it wasn’t a bad deal, but I had to explain that a 43-year-old Eldo priced at $3800 would need work.
I tried to tutor him on how to spot rust in these ads and how to judge condition by looking at the engine pics. He got better at unearthing the gems, sending me a listing for a lovingly preserved 1948 Oldsmobile for $13,000 that I might have been all over were my garage not already stuffed. For cars that we agreed were finds, he pretended to be serious in order to hit up the sellers for more photos. If you’re one of them, I’m sorry, but hey, a kid who is into cars!
I sent him YouTube links to old GM instructional films that explain how transmissions and differentials work. We debated which had the better fins: the 1959, ’60, or ’61 Cadillacs. Days would pass with no texts, and then suddenly I would get: “I really love the 1958 Edsel Villager!” He relayed how his mom has decreed that, when he’s 16, he drive a car with modern safety equipment like seatbelts and airbags. After doing some Googling, Lucas figured that the oldest ride he can get for now is a 1974 Oldsmobile Toronado, the first production car with airbags as an option. His mom figures it differently.
I don’t have any children by choice, and I don’t pretend to understand them. But I know what it’s like to be a kid who stands apart from his generation. When I was Lucas’s age, I devoted most of my free hours (and many that weren’t) to building car models and radio-controlled planes. I didn’t listen to the popular music, I didn’t watch the popular shows, and I also didn’t get particularly good grades. Nobody in my house or my class cared about the stuff I liked, so I sought out adults who did.
A couple months ago, Lucas texted: “It hit me really hard today that it’s going to be about 8 years before I can get an old car.” My heart melted because I so know that feeling, that longing to be an adult when you’re trapped in the lovely, safe, tree-lined suburbs of middle-class normality where moms rule and kids don’t get to roll in 1948 Oldsmobiles. Well, if he’s still keen by then, I’ll be waiting.