He was cantankerous, angry, old and white. Did I mention cantankerous ? As a gay man I instinctively defaulted to “heteronormal male mode” but the lingering fear that he’d suss out my orientation added to my tension. He was selling a ‘39 Plymouth street rod and I’d been sent by an independent company to inspect the car on behalf of an absentee buyer. I greeted him, shook his hand. He was brusque, dismissive. I tried to thaw the ice with “I’m not here to assign a value to your car, or interject any personal opinions, I just follow a prewritten checklist and take pictures.” Polar bears and penguins.
The seller’s house sat on a couple acres, he me led back to steel building housing half a dozen street rods of varying ice cream colors. Evidently he’d been very busy back in the ‘90’s. Street rods do not reflect my personal taste in cars. I’d rather his ‘39 Plymouth business coupe was factory spec with a flathead six. But this guy kept his cars well, he cared for them, they clearly brought him pleasure.
The paint was lustrous, pale daffodil yellow. No orange peel, one fisheye on top of the front driver’s side fender. Brightwork had all been deleted in the Plymouth’s streetrodification; save for the square art deco headlamp bezels. They showed some pitting. “Any fiberglass ?” “Nope, all steel.” “What’s she got for a drivetrain ?” “350 Chevy, Turbo 350 tranny.” “Can’t go wrong with that, solid.”
He’d built the car himself as a practical, streetable machine. It had air conditioning, power steering and independent front suspension from a ‘70’s GM A Body. Everything had been fitted with care, nothing sloppy, no rough edges. The build was sanitary. We had to take the car out of the shop to photograph it. The 350 lit first turn and burbled a healthy burble. After shoehorning himself in the seller wheeled the plymouth into the light. In strong sun the good panel fit stood out. I found myself warming to the car.
It takes a while to snap the 125 photos the inspection required. I had no choice but to attempt small talk with the seller, a man I imagined would order me off his property or worse if he knew I was a card carrying, California fairy. “The pinstriping on the grille looks good”, “Guy did it all freehand, he’s dead now, no one does it like that no more”. With that, his brow slackened, like an empty sail, his malice retreated. “Check out the dome light, it’s original” he said. The dome light was fantastic, a glass art deco confection. “I almost put in an aftermarket dome light, but decided to keep the original”, “I’m glad you did, I think it adds interest to interior.”
A test drive is part of the inspection process. By this point the old codger was eating out of my hand. I rode shotgun. We burbled onto a two lane country road and picked up speed. The transmission shifted with authority, but wasn’t jarring and the car displayed a surprising feel of structural integrity. “It rides damn good, I think I used Monte Carlo front suspension, can’t rightly remember, it’s GM anyway.” It did ride good, spring rates and shocks all seemed to work in harmony. He slowed the Plymouth to a stop. “I’m probably not supposed to do this in front of an inspector.” He planted his left boot on the brake and rolled into the loud pedal with his right. Brrrrrrooommmumbleumble went the exhaust, clouds of pungent tire smoke and the Plymouth bounded forward. I was grinning like a Cheshire cat, so was the seller. When we got back to his place I shook his hand and said “The guy’s a fool if he doesn’t spring for your car, thanks for taking the time to let me inspect it.”
My phone rang a couple days later, it was the fellow selling the Plymouth. “Son of a bitch backed out for a POS fiberglass Deuce roadster, but I want you to know that I don’t think it’s a reflection on you.” “Your car was sanitary, he should’ve taken it, I’m sorry it didn’t work out.” “God damn tire kickers anyhow.” “I hear you there, Man.” I rang off.
I couldn’t believe the crusty old sod went out of his way to absolve me of any responsibility for the sale falling through. I was touched. But, it goes to show that if you overlook differences in taste and focus on the positive aspects of a car, enthusiasts can find common ground. That’s the foundation of my automotive philosophy. It has stood me in good stead, widened the breadth of cars that bring me pleasure, led me on fantastic adventures and connected me with some of the finest people you could ever hope to meet. Now, keep calm and motor on.