Roads not taken

May 11, 2002

A NEOPHYTE at the Carlisle auto show in Pennsylvania is astonished to find entire fairgrounds that are: full of happy people, empty of any irony, and offering up fantasies that can tug at you every which way and then some.

Who knew that a 1969 Dodge Charger could look so good? Who knew there was that Dukes of Hazzard spot somewhere deep within us all? What would life be like with a 1955 Ford Victoria? Particularly if it was two-toned: white on top and purple on the bottom?

What would the neighbors think if we drove home in a 1939 Lincoln? Or a 1950 Studebaker pickup? Or a 1957 Plymouth - with fins up to here and push-button transmission?

FOR THE RECORD - Because of an editing error, an editorial in Saturday's Sun referred to V-6 engines in old Mustangs. The original Mustangs had either straight-six or V-8 engines. The V-6 was introduced in a few cars in 1977, and made standard in 1983. The Sun regrets the error.

Hundreds of old cars are for sale at Carlisle, and, broadly speaking, there are two kinds of sellers. Most leap out of their lawn chairs, politely acknowledge your admiring comments, and then abruptly point out everything that's wrong with the merchandise you're thinking of buying from them. Only a few take the more expected tack, like the man selling a blistered green 1967 Mustang for $3,400. "I can't tell you much about this car," he said, "because I bought it an hour ago; that's what I do. I buy and sell cars. This is a good car."

Mustangs are a big item at Carlisle, all over the place in all sorts of conditions - V-8s and V-6s, hardtops and convertibles, driveables and towables. Really, they're the ultimate muscle car. They were introduced six months after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and just when the first baby boomers were graduating from high school. A lot of men who appeared to be 56 were looking at Mustangs.

But maybe that's not our fantasy. Maybe we're young and we're drooling over the bench front seat in, say, a 1961 Chevrolet Impala. (Now who would have thought that?) Maybe we're old and we're remembering that 1932 Dodge in its heyday. Maybe we're pulled toward a coppery gold 1963 Studebaker Avanti, a car that Sean Connery in his James Bond days might have stepped out of. The Avanti was way ahead of its time; no surprise that Studebaker went out of business.

Or maybe we see ourselves in a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air with a bubble-top roof, which comes in two shades of blue and looks like a flying saucer and - astonishingly - turns out to have spent most of its life in Roswell, N.M.

A 1962 Thunderbird, from the era after it was a sporty car, is a steal at $4,000 - especially with a back seat that's big enough to hold a small political convention in. The best deals would be Cadillacs from the early 1980s because they're stuck in car-time limbo. Come back in 15 years.

The bad news from Carlisle is that the car show only takes place twice a year, in April and October - but a measure of relief is available in a special import show next week. Purists disdain the stands selling non-car items, but what if you really do need a trombone, and only have $40?

One 16-year-old patron took it all in and said she wished there was a way she could have whatever car happened to match her mood of the moment. A giant white Havana-style '56 Cadillac, or a fire-engine red '66 Chevy Nova; a Truman-esque '51 Plymouth, or an electric-blue '61 Plymouth Fury.

A hillside in Pennsylvania full of cars and buyers and sellers, none of them overburdened by attitude or detachment, has a curious effect on the first-timer. It's such a happy place, for one thing, and so full of dreams - dreams embodied in cars, dreams that may or may not ever work out, but that's OK. A car, especially an old car, especially an old American car, is a sort of intersection of the imaginative and the real. Gleaming or rusty, it takes us to another place. We want to go, and the car says, Get in.

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