03 December, 2010

Just Enough to Elicit Pure "American Graffiti"

Last week a family friend of mine passed away from complications of cancer. His name was Larry Lamb, and with his passing his family didn't just lose a fantastically loved husband, father and grandfather, but the world lost a true car guy. He was of a thinning herd of the original hot rodders who chopped top, low slung machines prowled the streets during warm summer nights. And with Larry's passing, I think a little of everyone who has ever appreciated a hand crafted automobile dies a little. Believe me when I say, too, that this isn't just about losing a man who liked cars. I've known him for years, and my parents knew him longer. He was a hard worker and a great father. His love of his family was exemplified just a fortnight before he passed away when his family and he took a series of stirring professional portraits. Still afflicted by his cancer, Larry's face was truly free of pain or exhaustion as he posed with his wife, children and grandchildren. At the visitation his wife told us that having those pictures taken was one of the best decisions of their lives.

As I knew him, Larry lived in a very small town a few miles from mine. Ever a tinkerer, he had been working on cars since he was young. He'd done everything from classic Bel Airs to station wagons. A man of my own heart, he had a few cars stored in his small garage/barn that were always next on his list of projects. In his main shop, though, were his favorite cars. One was a 1959 Mercury and the other was an early '40s Ford. The Mercury had been gorgeously customized, not so much that you lose the essence of the car, but just enough to elicit pure American Graffiti. Intricately tuned, a Mercury Rocket engine sat beneath the meticulously polished flowing hood.

The Ford looked like a cross between a classic '60s hot rod and a purpose-built speedster. Larry had found it rotting away in a farm field before hoisting it onto a flatbed, bringing to that shop, straightening everything out on it and making it come alive again. It was in this car that he made treks to the Bonneville Salt Flats---some of the better moments of his and his wife's time together. During one moment of conversation between my father, him and me, he had his Ford up on the hydraulic lift and was pulling pieces of salt from underneath the running boards, handing it to me as if it were a trophy he'd won.

Every time we would go talk to him out in his shop, Oldies would be playing softly on the radio, the tunes that so regularly echo in our Garage wafting around the black and white pictures that adorned his walls of people, places and cars he's encountered. Tin signs commemorate his road trips with friends and clubs across the United States, and his pegboards and tools cover most of another wall. His shop was definitely a shop rather than the type of garage we have. It had little extraneous storage and was all about function. He kept it fairly clean, but he couldn't win the battle against overcrowding, whether it be from parts or tools (he had plenty of both).

Something I can't get out of my mind, though, is the fact that Larry's breed of hot rodder and car guy is slowly drifting away, getting smaller and smaller each year. Nowhere is this illustrated more than at the Goodguys show (the one to which we took the '61). Every year since the first year I've gone I notice fewer and fewer younger builders and roughly the same group of traditional builders. Disconcertingly the latter's numbers have been decreasing slowly, and the rate of newcomers is very slow. I take pride in the fact that I'm carrying on this tradition, this livelihood, and it saddens me to think that someday that mentality and type of person will no longer be around.

This isn't to say that car customization is disappearing completely. As any art form it's just changing. The tuner revolution in the last couple of decades is changing the face of car guys, but without the classics that made the original '50s and '60s revolutions so unique, I think the cornerstone of hot rodding is lost. That's partially why the pre-'60s hot rods interest me so much more than the late '60s and '70s; just like with our '61 Corvette, there were relatively few made. Those that had them loved them, and those that remain are treasured. When you reach the muscle car era, they were easily making 10,000 or 20,000 cars a year, and those numbers increased as you transition out of the 1960s and into the 1970s. Yes, I like Barracudas and Chargers and Camaros, but do they really impress me like a well-done '47 Mercury or a hand-tailored '40 Ford? Absolutely not. I can appreciate the work put into it (that's something that car guys will say transcends years, makes or models), but the car itself just doesn't do it for me.

But I digress. I cannot put down the art as it changes form into today's world of customizing, but I can certainly lament losing the very foundations of every car maker's hobbies, professions or lives. Someday I won't be one of the youngest people at a car show to appreciate old cars, I'll be one of the oldest. And what's weirder is that someday the "classic" cars sitting at the fairgrounds or driving in parades may be the very cars driving on our roads today. Do they have the same magic or charisma as the heavy-grilled Pontiacs and Chryslers? Not a tenth. But someday they'll be considered old and people may change their fenders and engines, paint them expressively and call them their 'hot rods.' I received an eerie preview of this at a recent 'car show' that came to my town. With an entry fee, nearly anyone could enter a car. What struck me out of the several hundred cars there was that the oldest one was a late '60s make. Everything else were '70s, '80s and even some '90s cars. I couldn't believe it. Yes there were some well-done Mustangs and Firebirds, but I was extremely disappointed in both the turnout and the ensuing atmosphere. If that's the future of hot rodding, it only motivates me more to take care of the '61 and complete the Maxwell. If I don't, Lord knows who will (or, more likely will never).

Larry's visitation earlier this week was well attended by many people, some of whom wore hot rod club shirts or racing attire. Photo albums sat on the dark stained wood tables showing him tinkering with his automobiles over the years in happier---and healthier---days. Most poignantly, though, were that his Ford and Mercury sat just outside of the funeral home door underneath the metal awning and out of the rain. The cold wind blew some of the falling drops onto their bumpers, seemingly throwing tears about where you'd expect them to be if cars had faces. I imagine---tears or not---that they, too, were mourning the loss of their best friend and caretaker, the man who had given both of them life. I imagine he'll miss them as well, especially since cars like that have an uncanny ability to give their owners such satisfaction and happiness. Any car guy will agree with that. More importantly, though, everyone who knew Larry Lamb would agree that he was dearly loved and truly will be missed.

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