Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Vintage Car Heaven

Growing up in the rust belt of the Great Lakes, the dream for any fan of Detroit metal was to acquire a hot-rod from Arizona. That was the ideal. As we slogged through another sloppy Chicago winter, our door locks freezing and road salt covering our rust-pocked cars in a chalky coating, we imagined the dry sunny desert climes, a perfect environment to preserve vintage automobiles. Arizona is where cars go to retire, if they're lucky.


There is something nostalgic and cinematic about a cruise in a classic car. My husband drives a 1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, a deep blue convertible that causes complete strangers to shriek with delight as we roll past, its 8 cylinders rumbling like a favorite song. People want to chat with you when you're in a vintage automobile. They want to reminisce about one they had that was just like it and share funny anecdotes.

Because I'm enchanted with the old school style and technology, I've been a fan of air-cooled Volkswagens my entire life. However, by the time I got my drivers license old VWs were already becoming very scarce in Illinois. I traveled as far as St. Louis to find a yellow 1973 Superbeetle in fair shape and drove it throughout college. It made it as far as Arizona on our move here 20 years ago and then promptly fell apart from excessive rust. The engine rails actually rotted clear through and every time I turned a corner the motor swung from side to side. Arizona mechanics were dumbfounded by such rust. They'd never seen anything like it! The undercarriage of the car, at one time as solid as a turtle belly, now looked like it had been attacked by an extremely cranky wolverine. Rest in peace and rust in pieces dear old Beetle. The car was sold to a junkyard in Cottonwood and the still-running engine quickly sold. I like to imagine it still powers Beetle scooting around somewhere in the Verde Valley.

Arizona's climate is excellent for preservation, though our windshield wipers always wear out faster from sun than rain. While the strong sun can be harsh to paint and rubber, the arid landscape is perfect to keep vehicles rust-free and on the road (sometimes for much longer than originally intended!) Pulling up at any red light you may be surprised by the assortment of historic machines stopped alongside you-- 1950s trucks, 1960s roadsters, 1970s muscle cars--ranging from completely original to heavily customized and all points in between. Some have even been retooled to run on alternative fuels or electricity.

A bounty of car clubs cover every region of the state. Auto shows fill the calendar each year ranging from the  local "cruiser" club weekly meeting at the drive-in diner to seasonal fund-raising street shows to more specialized groups. 

The Phoenix-based "Arizona Bus Club", comprised mainly of "Type 2" Volkswagens (better known as vans, buses, kombis, split windows, bay windows, Westies, campers) is a national powerhouse of air-cooled enthusiasm. They've hosted a "Jamboree" camp-out at Jerome's Gold King Mine every September since 1991, spending the year leading up to the event restoring some fantastic Type 2 to raffle. 

Though my Beetle died of Illinois rust, my enthusiasm for vintage Volkswagens remained very much alive and later was rewarded with another yellow VW to love, a Karmann Ghia that we've owned since 1998. We are original founding members of the "Ghostwagens" car club, based in Clarkdale/Jerome. The gang occasionally gathers up for a breakfast cruise, bocce ball and croquet in the park, a visit to the local state parks and national monuments, the Jerome Jamboree and summer floats at the Verde River. There are many group-friendly activities for car clubs to enjoy in Arizona no matter the season.

The Copperstate 1000 is an annual road rally benefiting the Phoenix Art Museum. Each springtime a parade of amazing pre-1973 automobiles tour a different 1000 miles of Arizona landscape, ranging from low deserts to high alpine. What a sight it is when these sports, racing, classic and grand touring automobiles happen to gather en masse and pass through your neighborhood. When we lived in Jerome, the Copperstate 1000 included this stretch of Historic 89A on their route that April. One afternoon as we painted our front porch we began noticing a ridiculous number of fantastic vintage cars snaking up the hill, some roadsters piloted by drivers in old-fashioned goggles with their scarves blowing in the wind. We were so dumbstruck we had to stop our chores to watch the hundreds of foreign and domestic beauties cruise past.

The famous Barrett Jackson auction is perhaps one of Arizona's biggest claims to classic car fame. Each year this giant event in Scottsdale, draws a population of handsomely preserved machines to the auction block, some very eccentric and highly collectible. Displayed in colossal circus tents, the vast collection of automobiles are presented museum-style, for admiration and perusal by thousands of attendees.

Route 66 is a mecca for car clubs from all over the U.S., staging rallies on the Mother Road, cruising the historic highway. Arizona features the most abundant surviving contiguous stretches of this legendary pavement. Overseas visitors have come to expect sight of antique American cars along Route 66 and they are seldom disappointed. Many properties make sure to have a photogenic machine or two on hand for photo ops.
Though restored, glossed-up, candy-colored automobiles are certainly dreamy, I have a soft spot also for the sun-baked relics, each wearing their own uniquely faded patina, dings, idiosyncrasies. These cars have what you might call "character." Such beasts can be spotted randomly in the wild, parked on side streets, working on ranches, camping in the forest, patiently waiting at trailheads or ready to fill with groceries at shopping centers.

When I visit other parts of the country I am always surprised and disappointed the lack of vintage metal cruising the roads. Certainly, there are plenty of precious beauties kept stored in garages nationwide, pulled out for festivals and the occasional picnic. Here in Arizona folks utilize these museum pieces as their daily drivers! The weather is perfect year-round for a classic car cruise.

You may see us in one of our old cars at the next intersection. Be sure to wave and give us a thumbs- up!


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