Car Culture

What good is a farm without a classic car hiding in one of the outbuildings?

We’re blessed to have just such a vehicle: a 1975 Fiat 124 Spider. My father bought it from the original owner (a close family friend), around 1980. My siblings and I had a blast riding around in it, crammed in the tiny back seat, on gloriously sunny Pacific Northwest summer afternoons. It’s amazing the three of us actually fit in there. I still remember things like stopping and getting a bag of cherries from a roadside stand, then eating them and tossing the pits as we cruised on rural roads.

Once I got my license, and learned to operate the manual transmission, getting to drive it myself was a very special treat. It was the ultimate “date night” car.

As my folks began downsizing and preparing for retirement, in the late 1990s, Dad finally started thinking about parting with the Fiat. I managed to get it from him, and arranged to have it shipped to the Los Angeles area (where I was finishing grad school), toward the end of 2000.

For years, I simply enjoyed driving it and keeping it in good running shape. I did hire a neighbor, who was laid off from his job in a body shop, to fix all the little dents and do the prep work for a basic paint job. I then took it to Maaco for a simple respray. Otherwise, I didn’t do much restoration work. As the years went by, there was so much to be done (seats were trashed, the dash was badly cracked, carpets were worn out, paint from the simple re-spray was getting chipped, etc.), I felt too overwhelmed to start on anything in particular.

That changed a few years ago. Just for fun, I took the Fiat to a car show I was planning to attend as just a spectator. It was kind of embarrassing, parking it alongside all the perfectly restored vehicles. But then I started looking around, and was heartened by the number of other “cool but rough around the edges” cars. In the wake of that show, I decided to begin chipping away at making my Fiat more presentable.

Among other things, I’ve:

  • Had all the seats reupholstered;
  • Replaced the dash, all the dash wood paneling, the dead clock, and added chrome bezels to all the gauges;
  • Replaced all the carpets, repainted the center console, and repainted most of the interior panels;
  • Replaced both mirrors;
  • Repainted the steel wheels; and
  • Replaced the front and rear stainless steel bumper bars, and repainted all the black rubber bumper inserts.

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The Spider is now to the point where it draws a fair amount of attention wherever it goes. Even at the grocery store, it’s not uncommon for strangers to call out “Nice car!”

The only problem is that, with every improvement I make, the remaining faults seem to stand out all the more! I now see how easy it is to dump way more money into a restoration project than a car is worth.

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The biggest thing I’m holding off on is a new paint job. It looks good now from about ten feet away; much closer than that, and all the chips and dings become apparent. Getting it done right will cost a small fortune, and once it’s done … I know I’ll be paranoid about picking up even the smallest scratch. I’ll be afraid to drive the car. And when I am driving it, I’ll be too worried to enjoy the drive.

All that said, despite the scruffy paint, I’m now getting a bigger kick out of car shows than ever. What’s struck me most about these shows, however, is the contrast with what I experienced in California — and what that says about regional differences in car culture.

In Los Angeles, there were certainly plenty of American muscle cars at every general-interest show, but there were always a great many imports as well. And there were so many enthusiasts devoted to particular types of imports, it wasn’t unusual to have a large car show exclusively for (say) French / Italian makes.

By contrast, at a big show I went to over the weekend here in Michigan, among the 113 total entries there were (drum roll, please) … five-and-a-half imports:

  • A 1967 Ferrari Dino
  • My 1975 Fiat 124 Spider
  • A 1974 MGB GT (hardtop, hatchback)
  • Two VW Beetles; and
  • A 1973 De Tomaso Pantera, an Italian car built with Ford components (thus the “half”)

The 1967 VW Beetle won Best Import, and definitely deserved it. It was beautiful, and flawless down to the last detail. Unsurprisingly, it was sporting a California black front plate.

Tonight, at an even bigger show (122 vehicles, at the Jackson County fairgrounds), there were — believe it or not — even fewer imports. And, most remarkably, my Fiat was the oldest of the three. The other two were a 1984 Jaguar sedan, and a 1994 Honda Del Sol. Both were pretty typical daily drivers. Had there been formal judging, in specific categories, my car actually would’ve had a strong claim for being the best import. Yes, it would’ve been largely by default; until I get the car repainted, it won’t be a contender against any real competition. (This show had an informal “everybody just cast a vote for whichever car you like best” kind of judging, which is fun as well.)

I’m not complaining about the few imports at these shows — just pointing out that these regional differences in car culture are really interesting to observe. And it’s actually a blast being part of a small fraternity at these gatherings. While everyone else at the weekend show was talking “Mopar” this, and “Edelbrock” that, the MGB owner and I were discussing the challenges of finding good, reasonably-priced, wheels and tires that even fit our cars!

I especially appreciated that Mr. MGB seemed to be taking the same attitude toward his GT as I am toward my Fiat: wanting to make it look nicer, and to perform better, but without dumping so much money into it that we’re afraid to take the car out on the road.

Because what fun is a classic car if you can’t relax and enjoy driving it? There is no joy quite like that of steering a vintage Italian convertible along meandering country roads, soaking in the late-afternoon sunshine, and admiring the emerging fall colors.

Here’s hoping that the cold weather holds off for many more weeks!

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