There are some vintage cars that just scream Baltimore

September 28, 2002|By JACQUES KELLY

I've collected a gargage full of observations about the cars driven in our city. At the outset, let me say that I've not been behind the wheel of a car since 1967. I got my license in Glen Burnie that spring and pretty much hung up the keys shortly thereafter.

I am no automobile expert, but I do have eyes and get around our city a fair amount. I often play a game, spotting vehicles that I consider perfect Baltimore cars.

In my judgment, these babies are old, have been run hard and show no signs of quitting. They are, in fact, a metaphor for the city itself. If they carry a special antique license plate, I disqualify them from consideration. Restored cars, and those granted an elite status by the state, are something else.

One of my favorites is a 1972 Dodge Dart Swinger (I could have the date wrong, but I think I'm right) that often sits on 27th Street and greets me when I alight from an MTA bus. By the way, Baltimore also travels on an ancient bus fleet. The same is true of our taxi cabs. In other cities, a cab has five years, and it must be sold. Baltimore grants its cabs 10 years of service before they must be melted down. In fact, many of Baltimore's cabs have been jettisoned by other owners and then, once repainted, go into revenue service on our streets.

The Dodge Dart Swinger, with a peeling vinyl top, is much like a car my father once drove. The preferred colors for these long-lived birds is a Nomad Gold, a tone only the Richard Nixon years could call its own. Look around, you'll see plenty of them and their cousins heading across Northern Parkway.

Baltimore loves its big and bad Crown Victorias, battle wagon Buicks and Oldsmobiles and aircraft carrier Lincolns. But, if you look, you'll see Ford Fairlanes, Pontiac Tempests, Catalinas and Grand Prixs. I still spot the occasional Sport Fury and the intrepid Hornet. Oh boy, do we cherish our Chevy Novas and Camaros from the 1970s - and boxy Toyota Corollas. My day is made if I spot a Plymouth Duster on 25th Street. A great Baltimore aged vehicle does not require a classic status in the automobile books or fan magazines.

It must have a certain look conferred by the thrift and tenaciousness that are Baltimore characteristics. The car must also be a workhorse, a beast of burden, unpretentious, its color faded by our July and August heat spells.

Its driver must be dubious of new styles and totally unconcerned with status symbols. This kind of owner must view the vehicle as merely a means of getting from point A to point B, nothing else.

I often think of a white Catalina that saw years of service in my neighborhood. Its engine had a tendency to roar when breaking loose from its Guilford Avenue parking berth. My brother and sisters dubbed it the White Tornado, our own pet name for this faithful conveyance.

One day, it turned up missing - and, in the fate of Baltimore, stolen. But not for long. Its engine died about 12 blocks from home at a Mount Royal Avenue filling station. The observant mechanic there recognized it, called the owner and handed it back the same day. It ran for years more. Case closed.

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