OWLS HEAD — On a brilliantly beautiful summer Saturday I can’t help but ponder our long-lasting love affair with the automobile. Seated next to almost 2,000 bidders and viewers at the 33rd Annual Owls Head Transportation Museum Auto Auction, it is impossible not to notice the passion and the unadulterated enthusiasm displayed on the faces of the crowd.
In the midst of our languishing economy, on a day with numerous other recreational opportunities, why would so many of us choose to come to this stellar museum to witness the buying and selling of mere metal objects that move us from one place to another?
Why would buyers fly their personal jets to this quaint seaside town, as well as phone in to the auction from Europe plus travel from most every Eastern Seaboard state to look at an eclectic collection of automobiles and trucks that their owners don’t want anymore?
Why would one person pay $18,000 for a 1977 VW Beetle that originally sold for less than $3,000, while another buyer could get a handsome 1983 Mercedes 380 SL convertible for only $12,000 — and each buyer would be thrilled?
The passion for each of these unique automobiles is palatable. Walk by the neat rows of polished paint and beaming owners are all too happy to share every minute detail about their beloved cars. While talking to some sellers, it was clear they were distressed about their decision to part with their obsession; sometimes their voices even cracked, revealing the level of love for what many would consider a simple inanimate object.
But these cars, our cars, and the cars of most enthusiast drivers, represent far more than erstwhile transportation. These objects of metal, plastic, glass and rubber represent cherished memories of trips long ago taken. These cars are in the photos of our first prom, the first date between husband and wife, the first car ever driven with our new license, or the first car that some lusted for after a night on the town — these vehicles represent part of our lives in some form or another, memories that we carry seemingly forever.
How else can you explain why a 1969 Chevelle SS396 or a 1949 Ford pickup or a 1970 Porsche all evoke the same kind of enthusiasm — but from different admirers? Each of these vehicles took us to someplace special, and for many buyers at the auction, they want to return to that place once again.
Two days after this year’s auction, I spoke with Charlie Chiachiaro, auctioneer exclusive for the Owls Head museum’s major fund-raiser as well as the executive director of one of America’s finest transportation museums.
I asked Charlie why so many people would visit the Owls Head Auto Auction this year, while the economy appears to be far worse than the high-strung days of the dot.com era when everybody had to have a collector car, a hot-rod, or an expensive memory piece.
He told me that one-third of the bidders are brand new to the Owls Head Auction this year, a stunning revelation and a credit to the efforts put into this event by the museum’s volunteers. Charlie also said that the passion for these rare pieces of all automotive eras has never waned. The prices have certainly changed, as Charlie sees American car lovers experiencing the same phenomenon as the rest of us — “a return to typical Yankee values of doing more with less, buying more with less.”
“Basic values are returning,” said Chiachiaro. “We are seeing a large correction in the values of items, from housing to collector cars to stocks. These adjustments match the admiration for simpler things in our lives”.
Those attending the auction give the same impressions. Buyers are lying on the ground examining the undercarriage of the Cord Speedster waiting in line, while numerous spectators point at cars and tell stories of back-when. Ask the father who raises his young son’s arm with the winning bid why they came and bonded, or the petite girl who dons period dress to show off the styles of the era’s represented by stellar automotive pieces.
Query the gentleman who bought a $38,000 1969 Mercury Cougar on his very first trip to Maine — and obviously his first trip to Owls Head — about what pulls at his heartstrings.
Ask the woman in Texas who recently bought the last Dodge Viper that came down the assembly line — her 40th Viper — and you’ll get another dose of the contagious passion that automotive buffs drink in whenever they are near their beloved hobby.
The venerable automobile changed America and changed our way of life more dramatically than any other invention of the last 200 years. Sure, there have been life-saving medical breakthroughs, the invention of man-made flight, and the expansion of electronic media and the capabilities of computers is a story still being told, but how much passion is involved with any of these innovations? Are there 100 songs about Dell computers or Delta airplanes like there are Chevrolets? Is there a music group creating a whole movement, a culture about Pepcid like the Beach Boys did with cars, surfer girls, and California?
For over 100 years, cars have been able to take us places that we have never been to — physically, mentally and sometimes spiritually. Travel the famous Jeep trails out west, haul a boat or camper to your favorite place, or race across the Bonneville Salt Flats at over 150 mph; nothing else can deliver the same kinds of thrills or enjoyment as our cars and trucks.
The cars in our future will look decidedly different — or will they? Every era has distinctive designs that capture our fancy, yet the functionality of the car demands that it retain many of the virtues that have been refined through 107 years of mass production. Electric cars will be a part of the future, with performance too, and their shape will help define their part in history just like tailfins mark the 1950s.
It is so because our passion for cars is now in our DNA, in our very fabric. Not for everyone certainly, but the sensory delight of a great-sounding V-8 engine, the visual pleasure of a beautiful body, or the comfort of an exciting interior will continue to ignite our senses for decades to come.
We don’t love our toasters. We do love our cars. The difference is on display every day we drive. And thanks to the enthusiastic staff and the people who visit the Owls Head Transportation Museum, our passion will live on for a long time to come.
Next week: Infiniti G37x Coupe
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