The classics are classics for a reason. Tom Wolfe wrote one of the greatest reflections on American muscle of all time, The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. It’s a reflection on the colors of a distinctly American sport, and on one of the sport’s primary idols, Junior Johnson. It opens with the following:
Ten o’clock Sunday morning in the hills of North Carolina. Cars, miles of cars, in every direction, millions of cars, pastel cars, aqua green, aqua blue, aqua beige, aqua buff, aqua dawn, aqua dusk, aqua aqua, aqua Malacca, Malacca lacquer, Cloud lavender, Assassin pink, Rake-a-cheek raspberry. Nude Strand coral, Honest Thrill orange, and Baby Fawn Lust cream-colored cars are all going to the stock-car races…
This is no stock car race, though, and it isn’t North Carolina, but Wolfe nailed it. I’m at the Sawyer Motors Car Show, and I’m not much of a gearhead, even though I’m flanked by a few friends who are. They have a factoid for every auto we mill past (we’re milling because the streets are absolutely jam-packed with people), dropping terms like fuel injected and pressure per cubic centimeter. I don’t really care about that – I’m here for big engines and colors.
The GTO has a pretty substantial presence at the show. As it should. The GTO is a bad, handsome old thing that looks particularly fly in Swamp Thing-green. Frankly, at a show like this, you fall in love every two minutes with something new and more beautiful than before. The Chevy Nova is the apple of my eye, a bay-blue car from the ’60s and the everlasting king of my Hot Wheel collection. There’s that GTO, “The Judge,” with its golden piping on its olive coat – something you’d drive, maybe, if you were a tough as nails ’70s detective or a crime fighter (non-gearhead car factoid: the GTO is the modern Green Hornet’s car ). There are pink and blue Impalas left and right – it’s weird to imagine that that old thing, that rounded, brace-faced old monster, once rolled all over America.
Unearthly El Caminos, shimmering in the 90-plus heat of Partition Street.
Blood Orange Challengers, looking like they’ve bursted out of a time machine to spend some time being admired by their 21st century fans.
A passerby, while we’re standing in front of an Estate Wagon – a rambling old wood paneled, blood-colored tank with three, maybe three and a half rows of seats and an old timey cherry transistor radio hanging in the back for good measure – asks the question “Why don’t they make them like this anymore? Who said that you can’t make cars like this anymore?”
Good question. Upsetting, too, when you think about it. In the modern era of safety regulations and paddle shifters and miles per gallon, American cars seem to have lost their identity. Even our rehashes of classic cars seem a little fey and contrived, designed with only winks to their forebears. The modern Challenger has the elongated hood and beady eyes of its dad, and it even has those chunky, angry bars black bars that mean that you mean business climbing the hood, but the magic isn’t there. Sure, when tuned up the modern Challenger is a 400 mph beast, but it’s not the strutty, King Kong thunderer that every kid dreamed about owning in 1972. Similarly, the GTO got a rehash in the mid-2000s. Like the Challenger of today, it was mean, tight, and hissing fast… but just look at it. A rounded, bucky piece of whatever. An expensive tuner sedan, with not even a wink to it’s not so proud poppa. The Impala, too, is related to the classic Impala in nothing but name. Why can’t we have cars that inspire anymore? Why are we relegated to imaginationless boogy-mobiles, to vans and sedans?
So, Saugerties, for a day, is glowing in nude coral, aqua dusk, and assassin pink. The last American heroes gathered together on Partition, Main, and Market – the cars themselves, the inspiration of millions, gathered here, like retired, legendary baseball players. We can’t see them move, and even though we wish we could, it’s an honor just to see them stand, engine blocks naked, hoods popped, owners smiling proud and poised.