Car Crazy

One local writer drives down memory lane in more than 100 old cars that came and went easily, and the one that he just couldn’t part with.

The author’s 1955 Ford Sunliner, photographed in Montrose in 1980

Back in the glory days when Oxford American magazine was at home in Oxford, Mississippi, and Marc Smirnoff was editor and publisher, and John Grisham put up money to keep the presses rolling, I was offered a spot in its pages. 

Marc called me at my Over the Transom Bookstore and asked me was it true what writer Tom Franklin had told him, that I’d owned more than 100 cars. “Tommy never lies,” I said. “How’s that even possible?” Marc wanted to know. “It’s a long story,” I said. “I’ll give you $600 to write it for my readers,” he said. “Okay,” I said. Marc gave me a word count and a deadline.

I was a bookseller in those days, running a small business and not much focused on my writing skills. The magazine piece wasn’t going well. Even though I had taken a degree in
creative writing, had sold some journalism pieces to a newspaper and a couple of magazines, I couldn’t get the article right. 

I called Marc and quit the assignment. When he asked why, I told him I just couldn’t get the writing to crank up and go down the road. He laughed and let me off the hook.

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Twenty-five years later, a certain 1998 Subaru Outback wagon I loved wants me to try again. Curious, it’s this car and not one of the many others I lost my heart to. Like a ’64 Studebaker Avanti, or a ’67 Austin Healey 3000 MKIII, or a ’62 Jaguar Mark II sedan. Why not my ’62 Corvette, or my ’67 Volvo 122-S, or my little dog Bobby’s second favorite, a ’98 Toyota T-100 extended cab pickup from which he took a flying leap to attack a herd of black angus cows. No, none of those pretty cars. But for the love of this Subaru, I must now tell of my near life-long curious addiction to switching automobiles every three or four months, and how the Subaru broke me of the habit.

Let it be said early on that I have only ever in my life had two new vehicles. I did not love either of them. Both were first-of-their-types, and that’s how they caught my eye, then successfully tempted my hand. First came a shiny black ’01 Chevrolet Avalanche pickup that actually caused me some literary grief in the town of Oxford — a story I’ll never put on paper, but which made me like the truck even less. 

Second came an ’07 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, a Coca-Cola-red four-door that had the writerly distinction to take me to my first paid book talk. I drove it from Fairhope to St. Louis where I addressed 500 veterinarians, dog trainers, groomers and breeders at the annual Purina Canine Wellness Conference. I read from and talked about my book, Cormac, the Tale of a Dog Gone Missing. A PR person from Purina met me just before the event and asked if she could get a copy of my speech for their files. 

“I don’t have a speech,” I said. 

“A copy of your notes, then, will have to do.” 

“I don’t have notes,” I said. 

“Well, what’re we paying you for?” she asked. 

“So I can make a payment on my new Jeep,” I said. Apart from my attempt at some comic relief, I must’ve said what she wanted to hear. I got paid, and my Golden Retriever Cormac got a year’s supply of their top-brand dog food, which helped to ease the pain of the drubbing I took on the sale of the Jeep a few months later. I swore I’d never again buy a new car, and I have kept my word. And I’ll try to keep my promise. Even if they finally make a movie of my first novel and I get really rich. I’ll just get another ’67 Volvo P-1800 sports car, fully restored. Or maybe a ’64 Plymouth Sport Fury with a 383 Magnum V-8 and a Hurst 4-speed floor shifter.

I was 16 and had no money at all when I bought my first car. But I had a new job and my boss man, Ravis, at Ayer’s Mutual Gas Station in Millport, loaned me $50 to buy the faded black ’47 Ford four-door sedan from a farmer’s field beside Russell’s Skating Rink. “I’ll hook my tractor to it and drag it up by the road,” he said, “but you gotta get the damn thing out of here before sunset.” 

Uncle Glenn dragged the car and me at the end of a 20-foot chain behind his Dodge van to the gas station. With help from Duck Griffin, the mechanic, we had the flathead six cranking and going before the weekend. For my very first solo outing in a car, I drove the Ford to Columbus, Mississippi, to the Chuck Wagon Drive-Thru for a hamburger and milk shake. I was having so much fun driving, when the headlights shorted out on the way home, I just kept motoring by the light of the full moon all the way home. When a car approached from either up-ahead or in my rearview mirror, I pulled over, let ‘em pass then hit the road again. 

On the next weekend, a man stopped at the gas station for a fill-up, noticed my Ford and asked me who owned it. “I do,” I said, nozzling the high-test into his tank. “Does she run good?” “Yes, sir, even without headlights under a full-moon sky.” He offered me $500, and I took it. My addiction was born. Before the year was out, I’d owned a ’56 Chevy two-door, six-cylinder automatic; a souped-up ’50 Chevy with a small block V-8; and a straight shift ’53 Ford two-door hardtop that I drove into a tree going too fast into a curve on a dirt road home. 

My senior year, I spent all my savings on a beige, two-year-old, plain-Jane Chevrolet, three-on-the-tree with no radio. I installed an 8-track tape player and some loose-mount box speakers on the rear window shelf and drove it to Tuscaloosa for my first year of college.

I didn’t have a car in the Navy stationed aboard the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier until my discharge was looming in June of 1972, and I bought a rusted-out ’64 Austin Healey Bug-Eye Sprite. I shipped my seabag home, traded the ‘Healey for a Honda 305 Scrambler motorcycle, and rode it non-stop except for gas all the way from my homeport in Rhode Island to Alabama. Back in college, driving a ’68 Fiat 850 Spider convertible sports car, it went well with my six-night-a-week gig as lead singer in a honky-tonk folk rock band. 

We got a small recording contract that took the band to Michigan. Within two months, in 1974, I called home from Grand Rapids and asked the girl I’d been dating before the band went off up North if she’d marry me. She said, “Sure, why not?” I quit the band and drove my ’65 Austin Healey 3000 straight to Tuscaloosa. If she’d known of my car crazy addiction, she might have said no. She saw dozens of cars come and go. She saw me spending late nights in the driveway with spotlights, turning wrenches on engines and transmissions, cobbling at upholstery and bodywork.

Finally, a degree in English/creative writing, and a run of ‘60s Volvos — 122-S sedans and wagons and three P1800 sports cars. When the marriage ended in divorce after eight years, I had my own car business — S.E. Brewer, Inc., The Motoring Store. I bought and sold mostly British marques, MG, Triumph, Jag and ‘Healey. My daily driver was more practical, a 1968 Volvo 145 station wagon.

Left The boys in the band, and Sonny in a cowboy hat, covering up his 1965 Austin Healey 3000 MKIII, photographed in 1974. Right The 1962 JAGUAR MK II, photographed in Daphne in 1979.

Four years later, into another marriage while editor of the city magazine, Mobile Bay Monthly, and still the cars were flowing like antifreeze from a busted radiator hose. But, it was never about the money. Often as not, I only broke even or lost money. But always, always, I loved finding a desirable automobile to buy I’d never yet owned. Like the mystery car under a nice khaki cotton cover in a carport in our neighborhood. I watched it for weeks. I thought it might be an MG Magnette. I could only see the tires and the curving lump that was the body. 

It never moved. It was never uncovered.
I wanted it. 

So, I stopped one day and walked to the door. My knock was answered by a lady who said her husband was sick of the car because it had some electrical short he’d spent hundreds of dollars on, but no one could diagnose. “What kind of car is it?” “A Jaguar is all I know,” she said. “I know it’s white with four doors.” I asked her to tell her husband I’d pay him $1,500 for it sight-unseen, as-is, where-is, with all faults. I gave her my card. 

He called me within the hour and accepted my offer. When I took off the cover, I was looking at one of the prettiest automobiles I’d ever seen. A ’62 Jaguar Mark II four-door sedan with a burled Belgian Walnut dash and red leather upholstery. Its condition was all original and superb, just short of museum quality. And I followed the wrecker hypnotized by the sight of the princess Jag rolling toward my driveway. 

When my pal, Don, came to check out the electrical short, he immediately saw the problem with the firewall fuse panel, fixed it in twenty minutes, and charged me $50. I drove the car around town giddy as a child on a first bike ride without training wheels. 

I was followed home. 

The extra tall man stepped out of his Cadillac and said he wanted to buy my car. I told him it’s not for sale. He offered me three times what I’d paid. Okay, that sale was about the money. I shamelessly said, “Sold.” He drove it home and came back the next day for his Caddy.

Fast forward past lots of other cars (including the only one ever given me for free, a 1996 Ford Bronco in nice original condition from my writer pal Rick Bragg), past a bookstore and four published novels, past half a dozen literary anthologies, and a turn as editor-in-chief at MacAdam-Cage Publishing, and come to a pause on this 1998 Subaru Legacy Outback Limited wagon. It looked shiny as new when I followed it home in 2016. Turns out after almost 20 years it still only had 60,000 miles on it. 

“My mother recently passed away, and I got her pet car,” the woman said. “She hardly ever drove it. It’s not for sale, if that’s why you’re here.” I asked her would she let me be first to know if she changed her mind at any time in the future. When she asked for my phone number before I could offer my card, I knew the car would someday be mine. I’d been around this block before. 

My history with Subarus went back to 1984, and I’d had six or seven since, even though they had a reputation for blowing head gaskets. In fact, I bought a Subaru sedan knowing its head gasket was toast and fixed it up for my teenage daughter. Then, just eight years ago, I rebuilt a blown Subaru GT 5-speed in my garage over the course of a winter as a way to get out of my head and into my hands for a break from a book I was writing. 

Every time I watched a movie that featured some professor or writer in a Subaru wagon — a frequent director’s choice — it made me like the cars even more. Gone were my days in British roadsters with wire-spoke wheels and a throaty tone from the exhaust. Some old Subaru wagon would be the perfect complement to my writerly tweed jacket and wire rim glasses, my white whiskers, and balding head.

Two years passed before the woman called and said she’d decided to sell the Subaru. Of course, I still wanted the car, and maybe even more than ever. I made a fair offer that even her brother approved. Somehow, I believed the Legacy Outback wagon would help soothe my recently-divorced mind, maybe smooth some of my wrinkles and help me reconnect with the muse. 

Bobby, my Holstein-patterned, black-and-white terrier, loved the Outback more than I did, I think. Maybe because I put down the rear seats and set up a domain back there for Bobby to master, with a sheepskin draped over a military-style footlocker for his high-riding comfort and out-the-window viewing pleasure, a water bowl, his chew toys. I did not, however, affix a decal to the rear window to say how much I heart my Teddy Roosevelt terrier. Though I did love to hear, “You and that little dog of yours look made for that old car.”

Three years, and I did not think about selling my Subaru wagon. I don’t know what came over me at the wheel of that one car when so many others had lost their place in my driveway. And, when finally, a day came that I turned over my beloved Outback car over to my son, Bobby grieved. I consoled him with lots of walks and dried strips of chicken breast.

After another trouble-free 20,000 miles, yep, the head gasket blew. It happened way out in Boulder, Colorado, and the repair estimate exceeded the car’s value by double the figure. But I couldn’t bring myself to sell it for the $400 salvage value offered by the garage. Neither my little dog Bobby nor I could bear to think of some wrecking yard stripping and harvesting the usable parts, then crushing the Subaru. How could we allow someone to render the Subie into a cube of mashed metal?

No, sir! Not as long as there’s a truck driver willing to load it up on a flatbed trailer and bring her home to Papa.

“You’re gonna do what? Why the hell would you spend $1,000 to haul a 25-year-old broken down station wagon to Alabama?” My buddy wanted to know the sense of saving the car, even though he’d helped me turn some wrenches on the Subaru.

I took out my iPhone and showed him the photo my son sent to me taken during his first week in Colorado. There was just the edge of the Subaru photo-bombing a nice shot of mountains and a lake. “The car’s hardly in the picture,” he said.

The Subaru in question, a 1998 Legacy Outback Limited wagon.

Isabelle Glacier Lake at dawn. A boy and his bike, solo hiking, hatch open on a vintage Outback where the sleeping bag is still unrolled in the back. I grew misty-eyed, drawn deeply into this image. It was way more than a photograph, it was a poem, a gift for unwrapping. 

I was not about to wad up the mood and drop it in a wastebasket. I’d rather send cold cash through the shredder, as some sentimental old men are likely to do when it comes to matters of the heart. Anyway, I don’t like money. Which is why I’ve never had much, as the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow said. But, like him, I’ve always had enough. 

What can I say? I just like the car. That’s really the only justification I can offer for having it shipped back to Alabama. Well, I suppose there’s the odd chance of a good movie script about some car-crazy aging writer and his little dog Bobby, who love to tool around a picturesque Down South bayside town in an old Subaru wagon, savoring the miles he’s got left. What’s more, I think Marc was right. It’ll make a good story.

Sonny Brewer is the author of the novel, “The Poet of Tolstoy Park.” 

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