When classics were classics

Al Ames

Along with the Good Guys Classic Car Show and Saugerties’ own Sawyer Motors Car Show, the Mills Mansion Antique Auto Show is one of the premiere area antique auto events. Hundreds of cars parked up and down the grounds of Staatsburgh’s Mills Mansion, adorned with a sea of trees with turning leaves and overlooking the serene Hudson River and the Esopus Meadows lighthouse.

Almost all local car clubs were in attendance last weekend, including the Saugerties Antique Auto Club. The local club’s display was meager in comparison to that of the other clubs, some with cars lined side by side for what looked like half a football field. Though the Sawyer contingent only had three cars in tow, club president Richard Flaherty and member Al Ames wore their member jackets with pride.

According to Flaherty, the Saugerties Antique Auto Club is one of the oldest clubs in the area. “The club was established in 1957, when classic cars were really classic.” He said. He estimated the club had about 25 members, give or take.

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“I’ve been a member since the mid to late eighties,” he said. “I’ve been into classic cars since I was in college in the 1970s.” His first classic car was a ’57 Thunderbird hardtop.

Flaherty brought his beige 1978 Chrysler New Yorker Brougham to the show, a vehicle that was a relic from an age when titanic sedans roamed the highways and when concerns about gas mileage were minimal. It wasn’t infeasible at the time to pilot a 19-foot car that wrestled eight miles out of every gallon of gasoline. The Brougham was the Versailles of classic cars, its back seat a cream- colored upholstered couch.

“It’s the most comfortable car to ride in. Driving it to a car show is great. It’s like driving in your living room…It’s got the original paint, original interior, original engine. The only thing that isn’t original is the battery.”

Al Ames said that he had been “tinkering on cars for most of my life…I’ve been doing car restorations for 15 years, since about my retirement. I did cars for other people, too. I was in the service as an engine mechanic, and when I came out I was an auto mechanic. That was in the sixties. About 1979 I really started getting into cars.”

Ames, accompanied by his wife Karen and his granddaughter Ariel, are spending the afternoon in his auto-show offering, a powder-blue two-door, 1956 Ford Fairlane. Buying the Fairlane was not the realiization of some high-school dream, a car that Ames had a crush on for years. His wife just thought it was cute.

“We were driving and my wife yelled, Ooh! That’s a pretty car!” recalled Ames. “I had just missed a couple of really, really good deals, so I turned around and said, I’m buyin’ it no matter what. It was a mess. Someone re-did it before. Real amateur work, backyard stuff. Had to fix it up. But the car is almost all original. The interior is original and the motor is original.”

Surveying the crowd of classic cars, often tricked out in garish colors drawn out to the nines, Ames expresses worry about the trajectory that modern car design is taking. “I don’t really know what people like these days,” he said, shaking his head. “Some people like Mustangs and Corvettes, but I like the ’55, ’56 Chevys and Fords. I love those cars. To me, they were class. These days, you look at one car and you look at another, and to me they all look the same. When I pull up to a stoplight and my wife looks over and says, What kind of car is that?, I say, I don’t know!”

Flaherty agrees that the cars that are being made today are very similar in style, with a lot fewer colors than in the fifties and sixties. “The vehicles that we own, in that era when the automobile industry was designing cars, you saw a car coming down the street and you know what kind it was right away. Nowadays you see a car coming down the street you have no idea because they all look so alike,” he said. “These cars are identifiable. They all have their own style and their own shape. There’s not much differentiation or separation between one brand and another.”

That sounds a little extreme. But the Saugerties Antique Auto Club members are correct. It’s not just the muscle cars — the Sting Rays, the Chargers, the Camaros — that turn heads at auto shows. The pedestrian offerings of the past get looks, too. The designs of cars like boxy Datsuns and bubbly Bel-Airs, space-age style Pacers and peppy Novas, par-for-the-course commuter affairs from a different era, seem timeless and explosively imaginative. They make really neat Hot Wheels, too.

In 40 years, will moms and dads take their kids to take a look at classic pieces of Americana like the 2003 Ford Focus and the 2010 Chevy Malibu? The chances probably are pretty slim.

The men and women of the Saugerties Antique Auto Club are preserving proof that it’s the amount of imagination and inspiration that a particular auto’s parents pour into it that make a classic, even if good mileage and loads of electronic features aren’t to be sneezed at.

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