Monday, August 23, 2010

COLUMN: Zephyr

Lots of occasions pass me by in life wherein I think, "Well, if nothing else, this'll make for a good newspaper column." But it's rare luck indeed to encounter one of those perfect-storm moments where you KNOW you're sitting on a column-worthy goldmine. That's exactly what I thought last week when I received my first ever kidnap threat.

"Dear Shane," read the e-mail. "I have been following your world for quite some time now and I do think you are due for a mental recess. I am going to make you an offer you can't refuse, or suffer the consequences. I belong to MVR. We can take you on a long ride. I'm hoping you'll opt for the Zephyr. Are you intrigued? Of course you are. You will be surrounded Saturday, July 24. Details forthcoming. -CJB"

I spent the next hour at work totally sluffing off, I mean, CAREFULLY AND ANALYTICALLY PONDERING THIS IMPORTANT COMMUNIQUE. An offer I can't refuse? Suffer the consequences? Who is this CJB? And what exactly is "MVR"? Maliciously Violent Redheads? Mostly Vocal Rabbits? Mothers of Various Rodents? Wait a second -- a few weeks ago I took some unfair potshots at the overweight clientele of a Hannibal buffet restaurant. Maybe this was the Missourian Voices of the Rotund here to seek retribution.

I wrote back a one-word e-mail reply with the only thing going through my head: "Dear CJB, Gulp. -Shane," and then took a different route home from work that night.

It turns out I didn't have to be quite so scared. As the Saturday approached, a second e-mail showed up and everything was made clear. It turned out I got the Redhead part right, but she was neither malicious nor violent. "CJB" was, in fact, avid Argus reader and exemplary Quad Citizen Constance Bell. She and her husband Franklin are well-known in the area and active members of the MVR: The Mississippi Valley Region Antique Automobile Club of America.

Every month, members of the MVR get together and, weather willing, show off their rides. This month's outing was a leisurely caravan up Route 84 to the Mississippi Palisades State Park, and they wanted me to be their guest. And hey, who am I to say no to a friendly kidnapping? I was all for it.

Mostly, I was all for it because I've never understood the lure of the antique automobile. I know there's a whole lot of you folks out there who are proudly restoring some rustbucket out in your garage right now, so please don't be offended when I ask you all: WHY?

You can't go ten minutes these days without seeing some ad showcasing a team of scientists putting a new-fangled auto through wind tunnels and safety tests to prove it's The Ultimate Driving Machine Built Ram Tough To Move The Human Spirit And Grab Life By The Horns. Every new model of car claims to be the best model of car ever built, yet a huge number of people seem deeply concerned with preserving these old and thusly (if the ads are to be believed) inferior cars.

And from what I gather, the fewer miles you have on these classic cars, the better. So to recap: it's a hobby where you take old cars and spend countless hours getting them into pristine driving condition, yet you don't ever really want to drive them for fear of tacking on needless mileage. This seems like a LOT of work to preserve something that rarely sees the outside of your garage.

So yes, I was excited to go on the MVR-AACA's July drive, because I wanted to understand the lure. And I think maybe now I do.

We met in the corner of the Southpark Mall parking lot. Scores of classic cars had made their rare break for daylight, and it really was pretty impressive. There was a gorgeous Studebaker, a really sharp Triumph convertible, and even a car that Johnny Depp once rode in during the filming of "Public Enemies." And then there was our ride -- the Bell's fully restored 1937 Lincoln-Zephyr sedan.

And I've got to tell you, as cars that pre-date my parents go, this thing is a beauty. It wasn't made for aerodynamics or safety or fuel efficiency. It was made to be driven, and driven in luxury. The Bells have done a whale of a job on the remodel, even finding a company that still makes the mohair cloth upholstery. This car should serve one purpose and one purpose only: to allow ZZ Top and their team of supermodels to kidnap you and teach you the ways of love and rock-&-roll.

And there's some serious life left in the old girl, even if there was no radio or air conditioner ("Air conditioner?" Franklin said. "It's got 4 of them! Just take it over 40 mph and roll any of them down.") As we tore down the highway, I was amazed at the speed and smoothness, and the Bells were the most gracious hosts imaginable.

As we pulled into the Palisades, our caravan was faced with a wicked uphill drive to the lookout bluffs.

"The engine works too hard when you go this slow," explained Franklin as he downshifted into first gear.

"Then go faster!" said Constance playfully. "We've got twelve cylinders. Might as well use all of 'em."

High atop the bluffs of the Palisades State Park is a viewing platform that offers one of the most breathtaking scenes of the Mississippi you'll ever find. I almost got to see it, too, before our day suddenly turned into a weird re-run of "Lassie," complete with age-appropriate cars.

"The... dam... is... breaking...!" said the breathless woman running up to us.

Reports had come in that a dam along the Plum River was failing and we had precious time to get south of it if we didn't want to be stranded in a flood plain. I know very little about classic cars, but I do know that they're not exactly known for their flotation capabilities, and as much as I enjoyed my time with the Bells, I didn't fancy starting life anew with them in Savannah for the foreseeable future. Besides, you haven't seen anything until you've told a hundred antique car buffs that a flood's en route. Before that poor woman had caught her breath, everyone was in their cars hightailing it for high ground. As we drove south down Highway 84, the water was already encroaching the road. An hour later, 84 was flooded out, but we beat it. Score one for the mighty Lincoln-Zephyr.

We ended up at a country restaurant, eating a wicked buffet and talking shop. By the time we left, I felt like I understood the classic car enthusiast. It's not about wasting your time on a hunk of metal. It's about preserving the past, admiring the craftsmanship of the old days, and getting together with similar-minded people for fun and a shared passion -- some of which may have just rubbed off on me.

Thanks, Bell family, for a great day of education, fun, and hey, even a little danger. Who else wants to kidnap me?

No comments: