Cars as Self-expression

American Driver

My new Chevy 4×4 crew-cab pickup came in that ubiquitous GM blond/tan/silver color that seems to be first choice with about half the automotive universe. I had to do something that would clearly identify it as my pickup among two dozen others in any northern Michigan parking lot, so I caucused with David Draper at Time Machines Unlimited and came up with a scheme. I’m very fond of the electric blue paint that adorns some WRX Subarus, so we did a broad Subaru-blue stripe that runs from the hood, over the roof, and down the tailgate. While we were at it, we added a set of stainless-steel marine bed rails and iced the cake with a Borla cat-back exhaust system that even sounds like a very powerful motorboat. I just love the damned thing.

I see cars as a means of self-expression-canvases for the eighth-grade automotive fantasies that never went away. My second car was a pale green 1949 Ford two-door sedan. I immediately had it decked and nosed, and I frenched the license plate. I drove it for almost two years, and it looked cool, but it wasn’t a very good car-the front end was a source of endless trouble-and I was delighted to trade it in on a brand-new 1953 MG TD. The MG was run in every time trial, hill-climb, gymkhana, ice race, and SCCA-sanctioned road race I could get to. A head-on collision in an ice race did a fair bit of damage to the front end, which allowed me to personalize the car a bit during the process of renewal. We repainted it icebox white with a red checkerboard grille. We installed Hellings air cleaners and a polished aluminum valve cover and side plate and had the hood louvered. The exhaust pipe was a 1.75-inch copper tube. A pair of Brooklands windscreens were installed behind the folding windshield to complete the pur sang effect.

I have a brand-new pair of Brooklands screens in my office right now, waiting for a car worthy of their installation.

My next MG was a 1955 TF 1500, which I drove to California from Michigan on my honeymoon. I raced it in an SCCA national event at the Sacramento fairgrounds, rolled it, and did about $30,000 worth of damage to the left side of my face. (I’m spending almost that much on a dental restoration right now, which is only the latest chapter in that saga.) It was automotive self-expression of the most vivid kind imaginable.

When I was working at Road & Track magazine in the late ’50s, some money began to burn a hole in my pocket, and I bought a very smart little Triumph TR3A at the 1958 New York auto show. It was all black-black body, black hard top, black upholstery-and I drove it home to Manhattan Beach, California. I encountered a sandstorm in New Mexico and Arizona, and the paint was blasted from all the forward-facing surfaces-not to mention similar damage to the chrome and glass bits. After breathing sand all day, I stopped in Flagstaff to spend the night. I went to a restaurant, drank two dry Rob Roys before ordering my dinner, and awoke face down on the bed in my motel room, fully dressed. The bed was still made, the door to my room was standing open, the sandblasted TR3A was outside the door with its engine running and its lights on. With hungover consciousness came inspiration. Before repainting the Triumph, we stripped off all emblems and nomenclature. We replaced the stamped OE grille with a very handsome one built up from chromed tubes and added a couple of artful accessories. The effect was to make the car even blacker than before, and I believe to this day that it was the handsomest TR3 in Southern California.

Since then, I’ve done a full-sized Chevy van-back when vans were the thing to do-a Chevelle SS396, a Chevy Blazer, two Chevy Suburbans, a V-8 Chevy Nova, a Ford F-150, a GMC Suburban, a Jaguar Mark 9, a Jeep CJ7, a Lincoln Mark VII, a Mercedes-Benz 300D Turbo wagon, a Plymouth Boss Wagon, a Porsche 968 cabrio, a Toyota Land Cruiser, and a Volvo Boss Wagon. Sometimes the job amounted to little more than a set of aftermarket wheels, but sometimes it became a full makeover. The ex-Fangio 1939 Chevy Gran Premio del Norte car was without question the biggest job we ever undertook.

This urge of mine to customize cars, trucks, and SUVs is one of several behaviors that my wife is unable to understand, but I know that at least 40 percent of the men who read this will recognize and appreciate my symptoms.

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