LINDSBORG – On Saturday, August 7, Swensson Park will become a shady, grassy cushion for scores of shiny vehicles, most of them automobiles, many in better shape than when they were fresh on a showroom floor decades ago. The 21st annual Smoky Valley Classic Car Show is a memory magnet for the older folks, a learning experience for the curious, a time for stories of a time passed.
The people these days who take the most of this show are a lot like the cars they come to admire – rebuilt, with new shocks, struts, carburetors, upholstery, transmissions, even electronics. In the crowd are a lot of new knees and hips, some shoulders, pacemakers and valve jobs, among other restorations. Here is a comingling of flesh and machinery from a time when vehicles were steel and their paint, renewed by masters with the touch of a surgeon, holds that magnificent sheen particular only to a body of steel.
The writer Paul Theroux said once that Fogeydom is the last bastion of the bore, and reminiscence is its anthem. As he noted, it’s futile to want the old days back, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the lessons of the past we can visit. A car show provides the ride.
A few of the vehicles are from a time when the best highways in Kansas and most of America were paved and two-lane. They were narrow in their early years, a bit wider than one of Lindsborg’s paved alleys. The need for wider roads provoked an interest in wider cars and more of them, which led to a demand for bigger roads without roller coaster humps, highways that didn’t wind about. And this brought the Interstate system in1956, a plan for a national highway network of unbroken, sustained travel. America was put in the driver’s seat of a nation on wheels. Twenty years later, 41,000 miles of Interstate ribbon had become great roadways, adding countless new lanes and another 7,000 miles.
Some vintage models at the Smoky Valley show were among the first to roll their tires along the superhighways that inspired a lot of delicious vehicles, fun and in color: ‘50s Fords and Chevys, their T-Birds and ‘Vettes, the radical fins of Chryslers and Plymouths, the two-tones, white over turquoise, pink over black, white over screaming yellow, solid lavender or lavender over black, combinations that only the gods of metallic pastels could imagine. Here and there in the show, a dignified ‘32 Ford coupe, the stately ‘63 Lincoln Continental (suicide doors, convertible), old Cadillacs, new and old Mercedes, Falcons, Corvairs, a Valiant and the first Mustang (‘64½). A ‘65 StingRay and a younger cousin, the ‘66 Malibu Super Sport; Over there, a ‘69 deVille convertible…a ‘41 Willys…and the illustrious ‘57 Chevy. A Gremlin waits by a tree, sulking. The Studebaker and the Nash are proud but lonely.
The Park throbs with the lavish music of unadorned times, the special luster of doo-wop and Motown. For the experienced at this event, the music is an anthem, the off-ramp to Fogeydom and reminiscence.
Who remembers the time when the new models came out in September? In the towns with many dealers, September was when it took forever for a youngster to walk home from school, in and out of the showrooms, bug-eyed at the sharp lines and sweeping curves of new cars with even more chrome.
As we pile up the years we cling to old remembered forms, old definitions, old comforts and coziness, the ideas of self-sufficiency. We like to prefer the punch of a Hurst floor shifter to punching icons on a dashboard screen. We are told that the old cars are dinosaurs, a climate threat, and that we should replace them with electric vehicles and the unknown risks of making and using their huge lithium batteries.
When the show cars were fresh, it was a roomier and simpler America. For many of today’s older model Americans, the newer overcrowded, noisier, more hectic, intensely urbanized and polarized world today seems hostile, even hallucinatory. The show cars speak of an America less complicated, of people who were easy going, less apt to squint at strangers, not so ready to take offense or to shout and blame.
If only we could step beyond a car show, get behind that old wheel again for another driving lesson. It might reveal that, yes, it’s fogeyish to long for that simpler and smaller world of the past, but we might ask for the past’s better manners, those traditional modes of politeness, the grace notes that make living in a busy, jostling world more bearable and more promising.