few weeks ago, while on a walk with my daughter in my neighborhood, I caught a glimpse of a rounded metal roof peeking out from behind a fence. I stood up tall to look over and saw a ’56 Chevy 2-door post.

Half-consumed by blackberry bushes, it sat with its ’70s-era white-letter radials sunk into the dirt, its headliner draping down over its seats, and its front bumper tossed on the ground, upside-down in the weeds. Its original paint was burned from rust after years in the elements.

I immediately found myself planning out a project. I visualized working over all its issues and putting together all the right parts for a gasser build. The rest of my week was haunted by solid-cam chatter, bouncy straight axles and 4-speed gear whine.

The waypoint

Car guys tend to think of cars in our neighborhoods as waypoints on a map. When we’re giving somebody directions, it’s not “turn right at 35th,” it’s “turn right at the house with the faded blue ’67 Chevelle.” We can’t help it.

We know where all the cool cars sit out in the open and we know where they’re hidden. We remember where we’ve seen chrome peeking out from garages, or unmistakable shapes under tarps in backyards. And we’re always on the lookout for more.

Of course, there’s a good reason these cars are burned in our memories: Most of us have tried and failed to buy this stuff in the past.

Typically, our requests are met with cold rejection from owners. Sometimes a huge asking price is thrown down. Other times the cars simply aren’t for sale. Regardless, the mantra usually is, “I’m going to build it someday.”

Since “someday” is closer to never than tomorrow, the cars become part of the landscape, and part of a car guy’s mental map as projects we wished we could have made reality. Those vexing no-sell owners get labeled as crazy or eccentric — or at the very least out of touch with reality — and we go back to our home garages, usually where a complete car and at least one other project we’d never sell live in various states of completion.

Rust is king

All this stuff has been car-guy standard for as long as I can remember. But with the recent popularity behind barn finds, such as the Shelby profiled on p. 60 of this issue, it’s clear that old cars left to die a waiting death are now becoming more mainstream cool.

Add to that booming cable-television car-show popularity and its winning formula, where cars are found and rebuilt in record time for profit — all without the builders even getting their hands dirty. The result is growing interest in the old-car world from the outside, and an explanation for the new security fence — and razor wire — surrounding the yard where I saw that old ’56. It screams “don’t ask” so the owner doesn’t have to sit guard in that chair all day.

And while you might be quick to judge the owner of a car like that neglected Chevy for just letting it sit rather than cashing out in the midst of a strong market, you also can’t blame him for wanting to hang on to it.

See, if I owned that ’56, it would get rust repairs, a tunnel-ram small-block, and maybe even a 4-speed and straight axle. But all that stuff takes time, money and skill. The reality of it is that I’ve already got a car I’m unwilling to sell — my ’66 Caprice — that takes up my working space and time. So the ’56 would probably sit for who knows how long as I built a grand plan for it — and who’s to say that’s not exactly what was happening here?

Dreams and realities don’t often cross, but if you’ve always wanted a shoebox Chevy hot rod and you’ve got a rusty one out back, you’ve also got a legit reason to dream about it. The appeal behind a car like this is not so much about the car itself, but instead about the possibility of what the car can be. There’s value in that for an owner, leading the market by just enough to keep him from selling. If he gets to it someday, that’s great. If not, at least he had the chance.

As cool as this old ’56 is, my gasser Chevy dream isn’t going to be a reality this time. But it’s okay — I’ll remember where it is. And hey, there’s a ’66 Impala SS convertible project that’s been sitting at my dad’s place for 20 years. I’ll build it someday.

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