Many thanks to Michael Lamm for permission to post these excerpts.
Hemmings Blog has been posting installments of Michael Lamm’s Auto Biography. His fascinating account of his fixation with the automobile took Michael from Texas, to Portland, to New York and eventually to California. Few examples from the automotive spectrum of the day escaped his gravitational field.
This post features an excerpt, photo, and a link to the full stories found on Hemmings Blog. You’re going to want to collect the entire set.
I questioned at the beginning of this little diatribe whether car collecting is even a hobby anymore. For some, I suppose it is, but it’s gotten all mixed up with big business. In my opinion, today’s automotive scene is much more commerce than pastime, more corporate than grassroots. I’m not sure that’s all bad, but it certainly is different from the innocent days of my youth, when the discards of the 1930s became the prides and joys of kids like Martin Swig and me. We just wanted to rescue mongrels from the back rows of used-car lots and make them more like they’d been in their glory days.
But here’s a short list of the major scene shifts (as I see them) between the hallowed “good-old days” of my innocent youth and now. I don’t mean this list as an accusation, and I don’t mean to tick anyone off, but I think it’s something that needs to be said. So here’s what I see as different between then and now:
- •Today, auctions dominate the hobby.
- •Today, we have auto magazines whose principal advertisers are auction companies and car dealers.
- •Today, some restoration shops restore cars to prepare them for auction.
- •Today, what would have been considered cosmetic over-restoration 20 years ago has become the norm. I say “cosmetic,” because the same often doesn’t apply to mechanical restoration.
- •Today, auto museums and other non-profits buy, sell and broker deals on collector cars of all types, from hot rods to classics, race cars and exotics.
And as a sort of summing up, I can remember a day when most of the ads in Hemmings Motor News were put there by private individuals. Today, most of the ads are placed by dealers and auction companies. I’m not saying that’s the fault of Hemmings; it’s simply where the ads are coming from. It’s a reflection of how the hobby now works.
After he’d gotten the car to start and run nicely, it was time to go through the interior, which looked and smelled like five years of bad mildew. In the process of cleaning and drying out the interior, we removed the seats. There was all sorts of junk under both, but beneath the passenger’s seat, I came across a small, blue packet that looked like Equal sweetener except there was no printing on it. I showed it to Rob, and he said, “Dad, don’t you know what that is?” “Equal sweetener?” I asked. “No,” he said, “That’s a packet of coke,” meaning cocaine. It finally dawned on me why the previous owner had accepted so little for the car and why he’d wanted the money in such a hurry.
With the Honda S600, when stoplights turned green, I’d push the accelerator first, rev the engine to 2,500 RPM, slip the clutch for a couple of seconds, and then, finally, the car moved out. I don’t like doing business that way. It really bothers me to slip a clutch.
And due to the engine’s weak torque and high rev-ability, the S600′s final drive ratio was 6.42:1. That meant that driving on the freeway in high (fourth) gear, the engine was turning 1,000 RPM for every 10 MPH of speed. In other words, at 70 MPH, the tach stood at 7,000 RPM. The engine was already screaming. It sounded like a soprano banshee sustaining high C. I like engines with a tenor or bass voice, not running down the highway singing eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! And that was the main reason I couldn’t cotton to the S600.
One Sunday about a week after New Year’s, I happened to be driving Jo’s station wagon through a neighborhood near our house in Stockton, and there in a driveway stood a pristine, butternut-yellow 1967 Camaro convertible. It didn’t have a for-sale sign on it, but I thought, “What the heck, I’ll ask the owner if he wants to sell it.” I stopped at the house, knocked on the front door, and someone inside yelled,”Come in!” I walked in and found two couples seated at a table in the living room, playing poker.
I introduced myself and asked, “Who owns that Camaro in the driveway?” One of the men said he did. “Do you want to sell it?” The owner told me he’d been thinking about trading it in on a newer car, so yes, it was up for sale.
“How much’ll you give me?” he asked. I ran some quick numbers through my mind and blurted out, “$2,500.” “Okay,” he said, “The car’s yours. I’ll pay off GMAC.” And that’s how I came to be the owner of a two-year-old, 38,000-mile Camaro convertible.
“So take it for a ride,” smiled the salesman, and he handed Mom the keys.
“Are you coming with us?” she asked him. No, he said, he had other things to do. Besides, he’d rather we evaluate the car for ourselves. He didn’t want to interfere. My mother said, “Good.”
So in we hopped, my mom driving, and headed out into the countryside, to Adams Gardens Road – a long, straight stretch with citrus groves and towering palms on either side. Everything was going swimmingly until, all of a sudden, the engine quit. Just stopped dead. No coughing, no sputtering…it just conked out as though some invisible hand had reached in and turned off the key.
My mother pulled over and checked the fuel gauge. Empty. Bone dry. No gas. “That jerk of a salesman didn’t put any gas in this car,” she said. We were five miles from nowhere. My mother, who was usually sweetness personified, was not pleased. She needed to get back the office and start seeing patients. We spotted a farmhouse nearby and assumed they’d have a phone.
Mom got out of the car and slammed the door. “Piece of junk,” she muttered. We walked to the farmhouse and phoned her office nurse to come pick us up. Needless to say, my mother bought another Hudson in 1953, and the Studebaker slipped through my fingers.
If I had the luxury of opening a private, very personal auto museum that contained the 80-odd cars I’ve owned over the past 52 years (and some were very odd indeed), I’d arrange them in descending order of favoritism. I’d park my favorite cars next to the entrance. Then would come those that I liked less and less and less than my favorites. Finally, way at the back of the building, tucked in just behind the Honda S600 roadster, would be my least favorite car, the 1972 Alfa Romeo Montreal I owned in 2007-2008.
Awful Romeo, I called it. Some cars, like puppies, want to do the right thing: They’re friendly, frisky and tail-waggingly anxious to please. To me, the Montreal was more like an intemperate ferret: aggressive, aggravating, high-strung, complicated and hard to live with.
What I tried to do with SIA was this: I wanted to give readers the panorama of American automotive history from the 1920s through the 1960s by documenting it a bit at a time. I intentionally stayed away from the heavy classics – the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg syndrome – first, because those cars had already been written to death and, second, because they really didn’t have much lasting impact on the auto industry (Packard excepted). I wanted to talk about the mass-produced, more common cars and how they and their creators – the designers, engineers, marketers, etc. – shaped history. And I tried hard not to steer SIA into the ruts of a formula.
Then, too, I’ve always been interested in automotive styling, and I tried to emphasize the importance of design along with its relationship to other industry disciplines: sales, manufacturing and American culture in general. Plus I’ve long held a soft spot for offbeat cars: the oddball one-offs; those designed and built by a single individual; cars that flew or swam or embodied far-out concepts, like safety or the diamond wheel pattern.
I figured what interested me would interest SIA‘s readers. In my peregrinations to Detroit – and I went there three or four times a year to do research – I stumbled onto all sorts of topics that I not only found fascinating but that ended up being much more than footnotes to automotive history. For example, I’d heard of Briggs and Murray, the bodymaking firms, because Ford collectors always talk about them in regard to Model A’s. But I never knew until I did a little digging how hugely important Briggs, Murray and even Budd had been to Detroit manufacturers throughout the 1930s and 1940s. And how little recognition they’d gotten.