A Rusty Old American Dream

“Well I don’t look all that ragged for all the time it’s been…”

I spend a lot of time looking back. I’d like to say I can’t help it, but I definitely can — I just don’t want to. I am a willing victim of nostalgia. Much like some people may use a good movie or drugs, Dipping my feet into the murky waters of my memory replaces the rigidity of reality with something sweetly malleable. Today, like many days I’m piddlin’ around the streets and avenues of NYC with era-specific tunes to match the memories I hope to step into. The truth is, more times than not, our memories of the past are shaded. Certain splinters of these memories are gone and we fill the gaps with what we felt at the time and rarely what actually was, leaving memory a well-meaning, but an ultimately untrustworthy companion.

One of the oldest of these spectral companions is my Dad letting me “help” in rebuilding his 1959 MGA while listening to the raspy 8-track-retelling of Beatles tunes. Much like the Tar Pits of southern California, there was always some dinosaur firmly planted in our oil-stained garage. While other kids of the nineties may have dreamed of postery sports cars of the period, my dreams were filled with gassy, oil-burning enemies of anything loosely resembling a practical machine of locomotion.


My Dad must have seen my sixteenth-birthday wish coming for years. As a man who is both deeply familiar with the reality of driving and maintaining a 50-year-old automobile and doing his best to keep his dumb, sixteen-year-old son (as well as other innocent road goers) alive, in an act of love and boring adult responsibility, he issued the worst news imaginable to a sixteen-year-old dummy — “You’ll be sharing your mom’s 4Runner.” Well, I made short work of that poor truck by ending prom night with my buddies, our dates, and I sitting on the side of the road staring at the tangled remains of the truck formerly known as “my mom’s 4Runner.”

The hunt was officially on. In Alabama, circa 2006, the best way to find something cool and old was to hit every gas station within a 20-mile radius and get every issue of ​Auto Trader ​you could get your hands on. After what must have been a small fortune spent on those papery treasure chests, I spotted the one — like, THE one. I showed it to my Dad, who struggled to hide his excitement and I worked that crack in his parental armor until it crumbled into the single most hopeful utterance ever spoken, “Well, let’s go take a look.”

The possibility of what could happen had me fidgeting the entire 112-mile drive from Birmingham to Opelika. We exited the highway and followed a series of pasture-lined back roads with continuously declining pavement until finally reaching the short stretch of “private” road that would eventually abandon asphalt completely. My Dad’s 4Runner (what can I say the Corn family is loyal) wasn’t even in park before I was out of the car and walking too fast to “play it cool” like I was coached by my pops — “Never be too eager, take your time, and look at everything for what it is, not what you want it to be.”Without consideration I shook off that advice, and got to the car, eyes as big as searchlights. I ran my hands up and down the curvy, Detroit steel of the late-fifties bodywork.

The multiple layers of paint that had been applied by a whole host of different owners were effectually unending and shone like a new dime to my eyes. I saw perfection in two-tone “azure blue” accented with a slash of corrugated gold. The matching interior deepened the blue in a nearly overwhelming, but never quite achieved obnoxious. The length of the four-door sedan dripped with stripes of chrome and gold trim anywhere the manufactures could possibly fit it. The old man, who I planned to relieve of his duty of ownership gave me the key and directed me to “cut it on.” I did as I was instructed. Following the short whir of its nearly 50-year old starter, the old dog allowed her 332 cubic-inch heart to fire in a glorious blast. As the old car started to drink her fuel and appease her temperaments, the aftermarket lake pipes delivered the best noise ever heard by human ears.

We poked and prodded at the old bird to our heart’s content. My heart went from full to the point of bursting, to empty and dried when the old man asked, “Well, you boys want it?” My Dad replied “We’ll think about it. Thanks.”

The jittery car ride the first time around was now a somber and aggravated 2 hours of logic and reason. My pops told me all the reasons he could see this car being troublesome, all backed with experience and knowledge, but I wouldn’t hear it — I loved it. It was the only thing I had ever wanted in my long, 16 years of wisdom and experience. A week of pleading and reassurance from my side finally concluded with an envelope of $8,000 and a stern “This is the one car we are buying for you. If you want it to be this one, understand that it will break down. It will cost more money. It will be tough, but I will let you make that call.” Before he could hardly finish, I called my pal Chris and told him we are going to get the coolest car on earth.

As we pulled back into Birmingham after two hours of driving in the Alabama summer with no AC in a fifty-year-old car, the brakes failed. Running all drum brakes in that heat, they overheated themselves and completely failed. I had to take every red light and stop sign laying on the horn and downshifting to the low gear of the three-speed, auto-glide transmission. Day one of owning my dream car, and it sat lifeless in our driveway with shot brakes.

In the years to come, I would have to replace the gas tank, all four dry-rotted tires, trim and bodywork, transmission parts, glasswork, suspension, and lastly a full engine rebuild after cracking a piston by over-revving the motor at my high school pep rally.

I finally sold the car for $2,000 less than I bought it for, making it my first and most profound financial mistake of my life… But — and I want to be very clear here — I had to look through old records, and really rack my brain to create this list of vintage-car induced headaches and recollections of failures. There is a part of my ownership of this car that nothing could make hazy or unclear. Memories that no amount of time passed could require me to consult an old box of files to conjure. Memories that remain so clear, so untarnished, and so deeply precious, that they, in fact, drove the failures, and worries, and the money lost, and an incalculable number of frustrating Friday nights, spent locked in a parking lot due to some unknown gremlin keeping my dream car from running, into that dusty filing cabinet to begin with.

The list of memories is long. The value retained by these memories could make an Arab prince blush. I remember the sound of that first crank at the old man’s house. I remember listening to Derick and the Dominoes and Louis Armstrong on the radio with Chris on our way home. I remember how strongly I, or anyone else inside, smelled like gasoline after a drive. I remember the first time I burned my leg on the side pipes that ran directly under the doors and thinking, “How stupid is that design? Ah, who cares? They look so cool.” I remember all my buddies piling up in both bench seats and driving around town, blaring Parliament, and hoping people would see us and notice how cool we ​thought, ​we looked.

I remember the Sunday afternoons working with my Dad in the garage and realizing how lucky I am to actually be friends with my Dad. We shared interests and passions, and that we would choose to spend our time like this even if the car didn’t demand it. I remember feeling truly proud to drive something that required so much time and work to maintain. I remember carrying a towel in the back seat to wipe up the ass sweat after my buddies and I would sit, fully outstretched across the trunk, hanging out in various parking lots on hot summer nights. I remember every route home from school I would take to avoid the steepest hills, depending on where my gas gauge was sitting. I remember the wave I’d give when old dudes would drive by and smile to see a young dude pushing a sled they knew so well.

I remember the confidence it gave me to talk to a girl who intimidated the hell outta me. A girl who was a year older than me, who was super smart, super cool, and a serious babe. A girl who would — after sharing the same burn scar from those side pipes on our first date, sharing the same smell of gas, and sharing ten years of dating — would end up marrying me. I remember my first car; the 1958 Ford Fairlane, Galaxie 500 in two-tone blue with the corrugated gold flash. I remember it all — or at least enough to not only dip my toes in that ol’pool of nostalgia but from time to time, when the conditions are just right, enough to submerge me completely in those murky, intentionally unfiltered waters.

“I’ve been good to all who’ve owned me, so have no fear. Come on boy put your money down and get me out of here.” – David Wilcox