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Spare Parts: Mine for a little while

By Ernie Copper


“I’m just the caretaker of it for now,” we say with feigned humility. This is an oft-repeated remark relating to vintage vehicles of all kinds. By we, I mean me and maybe you, too. The impact of this statement as it applies to vintage machines came into focus for me recently while walking my dog Samson. We tend to walk the same route, more or less, and that leads to a certain familiarity with our surroundings.

One day a few years ago, those surroundings included an open garage door, which provided a faint glimpse of an early ’70s Pontiac Firebird. This faint glimpse was obstructed by various yard implements including the requisite snow blower and lawn mower, along with a stack of boxes and Rubbermaid tubs. When I saw the car sitting there, neglected and forlorn, I wondered what its story was. It had obviously been there a long time and no longer held the position of esteem it once had. Life’s ordinary activities had squeezed out the ambition or ability of its owner to put it front and center in his or her life.

A few years later the familiar surroundings changed; the Firebird had broken its shackles and emerged from the garage, coming to rest in the driveway just outside the bay where it once sat. Something big was happening in this car’s life. Had its owner died? Did someone return from military service, ready to tackle an overdue restoration? What was up?

My curiosity was piqued enough to stroll a little closer on the next night’s walk. That recon revealed the car appeared to be an original condition, factory 4-speed Firebird of ’73 vintage. Here is where a more noble person would say they just want to be the caretaker of this fine piece of history. I could say that, but it’d be bullshit. I wanted to possess this car—to an irrational degree. I drove past it daily for the next week or two. It hadn’t moved and I took that as a sign that this car was about to have a new owner. Maybe if I was lucky, it would be me… even though I currently need a ’73 Firebird like I need a hole in my head.

The day came when I scribbled a note to the owner and left it on the car’s frosty windshield. The note worked like spinner bait and the owner called me in just few days. He was indeed going to sell the car and just hadn’t gotten around to putting the sign on it yet. He wasn’t any better at selling it than he was at restoring it, I thought. Was I interested, he asked? Hell yeah, but not at his price. We couldn’t get together on a price and it’s still sitting there.

Before his call, I could anticipate the feel of my hand wrapped around the ’Bird’s cue ball shift knob. Afterward, all I could feel was disappointment, in part because the all-original car was being neglected, but mostly because I wasn’t going to own it. Caretaking be damned; I wanted to leave my mark on the car’s history.

As a long-time student of “the hunt,” I get it when they say the thrill is in the hunt. I’m so successful in my study of the hunt of elusive vehicles that more than one wayward bike has been dropped off for free. It’s like I’m the cat lady, except with bikes. Many of the bikes I’ve owned are better off for having had me as an owner, but I’m better off for having owned all of them. It’s satisfying and if history gets preserved in the process that’s wonderful. But it’s really an ego trip.

It doesn’t have to be ownership of the biggest, baddest or rarest of machines. It’s an economy of scale. For some it may be an old step-through like they first rode in the ’60s; for others it’s a Vincent Black Shadow or a Brough Superior. It can escalate to entire collections of machines. Ownership has its privileges. But the wave doesn’t last forever. Sooner or later the machine will change hands again for one reason or another and the cycle recycles. When the fog lifts, you may even wonder why you needed it so badly in the first place. That’s when you say things like, “I’m just happy I could be the caretaker of it for a while.”

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