What is it about vintage cars that we can’t let go? We scour junkyards. We burnish the metal with our bare hands as lovingly as we would polish a fertility goddess for luck.
Observe…a Mid-Century moment of Zen in the form of a 1957 Chevy Bel-Air Townsman. A gas guzzler before we had a phrase for it. Futuristic, yet simultaneously maternal. Like driving a sofa. When City Hall planned the post-war Valley street grid it had the Townsman in mind. Fins and chrome and low rise development as far as the eye can see. As she made a left on Sepulveda seventy years of suburban landscape condensed to a single frame and very briefly fell into a rare decadal alignment.
I drive a Toyota hybrid, a nearly silent machine of flawless efficiency and lightweight, plyable materials, perfectly suited to its time and purpose. The day the battery system ceases to work it will get compacted and placed on a barge to China and I won’t miss it. There’s no chance I’ll be looking for a used one in 2050 to occupy me in retirement.
And then there’s this…nest of 1970s Pontiacs stashed in Granada Hills. A fire swept through in 2018, scorching the cars beyond restoration, yet the carci remain like a murder of crows, waiting to be summoned to life by Stephen King or a landscape installation by Christo or a post-America where nomadic clans roam the Hobbesian landscape chaining the bodies of their defeated enemies to the hood like a 12-point buck. The owner isn’t calling the scrapyard. Why would he? Form, not function, is the obsession.
Looking down from Google Earth one finds hoarder yards with fifty cars stashed behind the fence, the remnant of a custom car culture of which the Valley was once the apotheosis: George Barris, Don Beebe and The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby. The cars won’t be moved until the owner dies and his quarreling heirs build an ADU. Unless…
In 2016 a man in Illinois named Chris Carter saw this picture on Facebook and recognized the van from its appearance in the 1979 drive-in classic Van Nuys Blvd., a film released a year before he was born. For a year he sleuthed online, crowdsourcing its location.
“I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. To see that van abandoned with a tree on it, and to know its former glory, how nice that it looked, how it was in a movie … I knew I had to do something.”
Since 1992 it had been parked by an access road on a bluff outside Lancaster. Carter drove to California with a flatbed trailer, hooked it up, returned to his body shop in Illinois, lovingly restored it, then drove it back to California for a celebratory cruise down Van Nuys Blvd., only to be charged with auto theft.
The “owner” of the Wild Cherry van, a woman named Laura Godin, had once cruised, traveled, camped and lived in the van as a young bride in the early 80s. Though she not registered it in nearly three decades and abandoned it on rural property she rarely visited, and had no plans to restore it, she couldn’t let it go, either.
What followed is what happens when the restoration impulse and the hoarder impulse lay irreconcilable claims to the same assemblage of metal.
Carter could have created a replica from parts of other 1975 Chevy Vans, but didn’t. Like Indiana Jones, he had to find the relic and bring it to the museum. Twice.
There was a time when we built muscle cars in Van Nuys at one end of the boulevard, sold them at the other end, and in between had an unregulated cruising culture. Now we have road diets and traffic calming measures and preposterously long red lights designed to make driving so unpalatable we will sell our cars and ride trolley lines that won’t be built for five years.
We won’t recreate Valley 1.0 but we can cling to the artifacts of memory.