Learning how to drive a stick at 10 years old on a 1955 military jeep was an invigorating challenge — a staple memory of my childhood. Much of those memories still hold true to my adult life. Then and now, every Fourth of July, we get out the red jeep, which is now green but the name goes unchanged, and we drive to Aberdeen Lake to watch the fireworks with the top off and no doors or seat belts. We take it for a spin to get ice cream, this time with our Boykin spaniel on our laps rather than a German shepherd in the back.
My parents are recreational antique car owners, and I’m a recreational antique car freeloader. Owning an antique car is one thing, but owning and driving that antique car nearly every day of the week — without air conditioning — is another.
If you’re an early riser, you’re probably used to seeing a pair of vintage VW bugs parked outside Java Bean. Their owners, Bob Carhuff of Aberdeen and John Gagan of Southern Pines, call themselves “wanna-be hippies,” as they are actually military men who met in Japan in the ’50s. Both owned VWs in the past, and that’s their favorite part about their bugs — the nostalgia. Favorite memory? None that you could print, they say. “It’s fun but you miss all the modern amenities. It’s sort of like riding a motorcycle,” says Gagan. “It gets bumpy after a while.” Gagan never puts his top up on his blue convertible, so if it’s raining, you won’t see him driving around, but Carhuff drives his almost every day. He’s put 22,000 miles on it since he got it three years ago. Gagan’s ’72 bug has never been restored, Bob’s ’63 has.
In Cameron, Calvin Cornelius owns a handful of antique cars, but his 6-cylinder ’66 GMC Handi-Bus is his favorite everyday car. “It drives good and it’s good on gas,” he says with a straight face. “People are always tootin’ their horns — beep, beep! — and kids are crazy about it.” That’s really the response of nearly every antique car owner; they enjoy the attention their cars get. But Calvin’s Handi-Bus is truly unique, and anyone can see why it draws a lot of attention. On top of being red, it has graffiti painted all over it. “It was first green,” says Cornelius, as he begins the story of his Handi-Bus’ evolution. When New York-based artist David Ellis began an artistic collective called “the barnstormers” in his hometown of Cameron, the group of New York-and Tokyo-based artists found unlikely friendship with the locals, who gave permission to the artists to paint graffiti-style art on old tobacco barns. Cornelius was one of these unlikely friendships that formed. “Earl was letting them paint his barn and I was teasin’ him, ‘Reckon they’ll paint my van?’ And so I dropped it off and came back to pick it up.” Each image on the van has a meaning, including the tiger painted on the front, which was Cornelius’ high school mascot in Carthage.
Also in Cameron, Bill Thomason owns a rare two-tone Regal Orchid/Misty Orchid ’56 Dodge Custom Royal. The model, La Femme, French for “the woman,” was only on the market for two years as it was an attempt to gain a foothold in the women’s automobile market. The option to bump the hardtop Lancer to a La Femme model was $143. On the back of the front seats, a tailored compartment holds a rain coat, rain cap and umbrella, which of course coordinate with the interior. The year prior even came with a purse outfitted with a face-powder compact, lipstick case, cigarette case, comb and other feminine accessories. Thomason opens up the umbrella, which is in perfect condition, as he tells me he’s got everything — the IBM card, original umbrella, rain coat and rain cap, and that he’s never trailered it and has gone to antique car shows and parades for nearly 30 years. “I just like the rarity of it,” Thomason says. And rare it is — Dodge dropped the 1957 La Femme and did not revisit the concept. Research suggests that less than 2,500 were made over the two-year period.
Twenty-one-year-old Hazen Warlick of Whispering Pines has a story much like mine. He has inherited his mother’s ’77 teal Bronco, “Sheila,” and nearly every memory of his childhood connects to it. “I remember getting dropped off at preschool in it. I went kicking and screaming. We lived in Nantucket Island until I was 6, and the island is only 7 miles wide and 14 miles long, so it only has 76,000 miles on it.” It’s been through the snowy winters of Nantucket, and Warlick says he’s never taken off the top, but says it’s his next step. He’d like to get a roll bar put in and install a soft top. One man waited all night for him to get off work from the Sunrise Theater and offered to buy his Bronco, “but I won’t sell it,” says Warlick. “It just has so many memories — my only memories of Nantucket. I remember listening to Neil Young while driving down the cobblestone main street. There’s holes in the speakers and I’d put my fingers in the holes and my dad would say, ‘What are you doing?!’” Soon Warlick will be off to UNC Charlotte, and he’ll have to leave Sheila behind, but he’ll be back for her.
Barry Bennett of Southern Pines drives a Chesapeake Blue 1961 Ford Falcon. Tink is its name, dubbed by the previous owner, who said that’s the sound it makes when it’s cooling off, an original 6-cylinder with a modern five speed. Bennett’s favorite thing about it: He loves the attention it gets. Second favorite thing, “It’s just fun to drive — it’s simple.” He’s owned three or four Falcons before, but he joined the Falcon club in Charlotte even before he owned one. This man clearly has a thing for Falcons.
Milton Pilson of Vass drives a 1962 VW Karmann Ghia to his business, Nature’s Own and 195, several times a week. He parks it out back — the beautiful lavender antique car on display like a work of art. The original owner paid $1,800 for it, plus $50 for the whitewall tires. She was a spy for the U.S. and after she died, she left her car to her best friend, who kept it in a garage until Pilson bought it about ten years ago. He put a new top on it and painted it the original color, which is his favorite part about the car. He keeps his driving cap nearby to shade the sun while he cruises back and forth from Vass to Southern Pines.
In Carthage, Amy Allen cruises around in her automotive“dream come true,” a teal and white 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air. She’s been fascinated with classic cars since childhood. “They’re just such beautiful pieces of metal sculpture. I’ve always felt like they’re rolling works of art,” she says with a grin. With her heart set on buying a classic VW, Allen went to a classic car dealership in Lillington about a year ago. “It was such an impulse buy,” she says. “I turned the corner and she just screamed to me — it’s such a girl car, isn’t it?” Indeed it is; her aunt even says it’s like riding in a jewel box. Allen’s put 5,000 miles on it in the past year. “It doesn’t matter who it is — young, old. People are drawn to it.” Her favorite memory might be when she rode to the top of Morrow Mountain in it. “It’s almost like driving a covered wagon, it’s exhausting,” but don’t take that as a complaint. “When I drive it, I just smile.” You could say Allen’s got a thing for antiques — she plays bass in a band called Cabin Fever, where they practice in her boyfriend’s 100-year-old log cabin, and among her collection of bass guitars, she owns a ’75 Fender jazz bass.
I’m thinkin’ I might need to go to Lillington myself, buy me a pretty antique car and start a band with my boyfriend. But for now, I’ll just keep my eyes peeled for the vintage beauties around town, a much cheaper option for me. PS