Nowhere in the Vatican’s recently proffered Ten Commandments for Drivers do the words “Thou shalt not covet the cars of days gone by” appear. Apparently wistful sentimentality is not one of the emotions that causes the sort of “primitive behavior” — i.e., road rage — that the pontiff so delicately denounced. Therefore, the thousands of Vermonters who restore, wax, pamper and dream about old cars can rest easy as they continue to indulge their passion without pissing off the pope.
“Americans are in love with their cars, no doubt about it,” says Don Bourdon, 59, of Woodstock, an avid collector and builder of Stanley Steamers. What better way to profess a fascination with the automobile than to devote countless hours and dollars to the poor hulks that have been abandoned in the breakdown lane of history’s highway?
Vermont has at least 37 antique car clubs scattered all over the state. They include the Classic Cruzers (Swanton), the Poor Man’s Car Club (Chester), and the Rutland Area Vehicle Enthusiasts, or RAVE. Not afraid of a little esoterica, Vermonters also embrace the Twin-State Chapter of the Early Ford V-8 Club, the Vermont Independent Corvair Enthusiasts, or VICE, the Vermont Street Rodders (Colchester), and the Burlington-based Ferraristi Vermont (ownership of a Ferrari not required). All this info and more is offered by http://www.hemmings.com, the website of the venerable Hemmings Motor News. The monthly magazine, which bills itself as the “World’s Largest Collector Car Marketplace,” is headquartered in Bennington.
Mark Bennett of Warren is president of the Green Mountain Region of the Automobile Club of America. He knows firsthand about the magical triumvirate of “antique,” “cars” and “Vermont.” His club, which has about 30 members, hosted the Vermont Tour, which took place on June 2-7. With the backing of the national organization, the Green Mountain group attracted 130 cars and 250 people. Some of the tourists trailered their precious cargo for thousands of miles — from as far as Wyoming and Oklahoma — so they could trade stories with like-minded souls on Vermont’s sparsely traveled two-laners.
What is it about polished and preened jalopies that drives people to distraction? “I have my theories, which may or may not be right,” answers Bennett, 59, who owns a 1960 Ford Thunderbird and a 1980 Porsche 911 Carrera. “There’s a certain creativity in older cars that causes excitement. They were designed by people, not computers, so they have a soul. The designers labored over them, starting with paper, then going to clay models. People are attracted to that, and it’s certainly true for me.”
The other force driving antique automobile enthusiasts is memory. Older cars (25 years is the threshold for an “antique”) are powerful visual reminders of who we used to be and how we used to live. “People are interested in the cars they grew up with,” Bennett says.
To the many baby boomers who are collectors, that means the cars of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. For antique-auto apologists, cars with garish fins, whitewall tires and chubby fenders are as much technological way-stations as they are symbols of youth, innocence and vitality. To other, less romantic witnesses, the cars of yesteryear merely seem dangerous, noxious and inefficient.
So, have cars actually improved over time? “As far as being interesting and exciting,” Bennett confides, “no.” Those are strong words from the owner of a new car dealership — which he is. Mechanically speaking, however, he acknowledges that today’s cars are safer, more reliable, more efficient and better performing than their ancestors. A love for antique cars, then, is ultimately a choice of form over function, a surrender to that urge much maligned by enthusiasts of modern technology: nostalgia.
Don Bourdon doesn’t claim to be immune to nostalgia. But his affection for the Stanley Steamer is rooted in a rare case of stewardship. Bourdon’s father Paul, along with a friend, purchased a 1912 Stanley in 1930 for $20. A few months later, Paul offered to trade his friend’s share for a one-tube radio and a handblock plane. Guess who got the better deal? Bourdon worked on the car over the years and drove it to New York City for the 1939 World’s Fair. He made it back to Woodstock (260 miles) in one day, over a circuitous, unpaved route, and got hooked on the near-extinct external-combustion vehicle.
Don and his late brother Curtis were raised in Steamers; though the last ones were produced in 1924, they were the cars of his youth. For 22 years, Don and Curtis ran tours in a 12-passenger Stanley Mountain Wagon out of the Woodstock Inn. Now Don has eight Stanleys, dating from 1905 to 1916. He doesn’t just collect and drive them; he builds custom Stanley boilers (where the steam is made), restores decrepit models to perfection, and fashions whole cars from the ground up, wood frame and all.
Sitting in the cool shade of the enclosed porch of the home he shares with his wife Nancy, looking toward a pond and the lush mountain across the valley, Bourdon says collectors fall into two main camps: those who show their cars and those who drive them. The Bourdons are drivers, who are also called “tourists” with no pejorative connotation. They derive pleasure from operating and driving their cars, and have gone to great lengths to do so.
To explain the fascination, Nancy paints a vivid picture of the couple’s trip through Grand Teton National Park in a 1911 Stanley Touring Car: “Here you are in this car, the top is down, you sit way up high, and you just take it all in — the smells, the sights; you see the sky, you see the mountains,” she reminisces. “When you’re in a modern car, it’s hot, you’ve got the windows up, the air conditioning on, and the view is so limited.”
Before the Bourdons conquered the West, they took the Stanley to Maine and Newfoundland on their honeymoon. And before that, Don shipped a car to Ireland and England and drove it around for three weeks, becoming a member of the Steam Car Club of Great Britain. “I love that we have met people from all around the world,” Nancy says. “And I think it’s a great way to see the U.S. of A.”
No doubt. But Stanley Steamers aren’t for the average motorist. Want to slip on the driving gloves, air up the pneumatics and feel the wind in your hair atop a Stanley? It’ll cost you at least $60,000 to pick one up, if you can sneak past the knights that guard the 400 or so remaining vehicles. Don Bourdon was lucky to have a head start, since the cars were practically members of his family.
If the aspiring “tourist” can clear the hurdle of acquisition, he will find himself facing another one: engineering. The Stanley is no turnkey affair. “If you’re interested in running one, you have to know a lot about the vehicle,” Bourdon cautions. “You have to be patient and have a good sense of humor.” Patience, indeed: The car takes about 30 minutes to work up a head of steam before embarking.
Then there’s the skill of actually driving while watching the gauges and manipulating the many pumps, levers and knobs that control water flow, steam pressure, burner fuel and engine oil. Not that it’s difficult — just a bit complicated. Bourdon likens the difference between a Stanley and a gas car to that between a sailboat and a motorboat. “Sailing on a lake or an ocean requires a great deal of interaction between the sailor and the craft,” he says. “The success of the sailing has a lot to do with the sailor.”
The Stanley, with its brass-era “brightwork” gleaming in the June sun, its tufted leather seats evoking the phrase “horseless carriage,” and its fragile windscreen like rectilinear granny glasses, fulfills the antique fantasy. It’s both Byzantine and beautiful; simple — with only 37 moving parts — yet eccentric. And it tells the central tale of automotive design: Evolve or die.
When the automobile was invented in the late 1800s, steam power was a proven, 100-year-old technology. It worked for what was then called the “standard pleasure car.” But steam gave way to a more user-friendly concoction — the internal-combustion, gas-powered engine.
How long its era will last is the subject of much speculation. Meanwhile, antique car collectors will soldier on, reminding passersby what driving was like before everyone got in such a big rush. “In 1910,” Bourdon points out, “you couldn’t find a road that you could drive 45 miles per hour on.”
Cars: We love 'em. U.S. drivers burn about 60 million gallons of gasoline per day. Almost everything about our lifestyle incorporates the automobile, from housing developments to drive-thru burger joints.
But Americans are starting to realize their vehicular days are numbered. Reports suggest we've already reached "peak oil." The last few weeks have brought another flurry of record-high gas prices. And transportation emissions continue to contribute to global warming.
Vermont is ahead of the peak-oil curve, but only sort of. In 2000, the state had more than 14,000 miles of roads, and about half a million registered cars and trucks. Legislators spend roughly twice as much on new highway construction as they do on public transportation. There are still about 600 gas stations statewide, and the average Vermonter works 20 miles from home. So what's with the car obsession? Must be a love-hate thing.
What's it like to live and drive during the last gasp of the gas-guzzler era? Through the Fourth of July, Seven Days is spotlighting car subcultures. Because chances are, they'll be up in smoke before you can say, "Road trip!"
The original print version of this article was headlined "Time Machines"