While I've never been to a 24-hour race, the Speed Channel coverage of the 2005 Barrett-Jackson auction came close. Although my duties in the broadcast booth were spread over four days, that's a lot of hours to put in watching the world's shiniest used car lot in action.
Bob Varsha and Brock Yates, my boothmates, were as delightful as ever to work with, and the three blockmeisters, Alain de Cadenet, Mike Joy and Rick Debruhl, found something engaging about each car to discuss-no mean feat when you get a run of what seemed like 30 B-body Chrysler muscle cars in a row.
During the past few years, Barrett-Jackson has become the acknowledged market leader in peddling "resto-rods," loosely defined as vintage cars restored with modern modifications. Of course, to an old car purist it just seems wrong to take, say, a 1955 Chevrolet two-door post and slam a fuel-injected 350/350 and a four-speed automatic into it. After all, isn't part of the thrill of owning these old cars getting a chance to discover or reacquaint yourself with their unique (okay, often horrible) driving characteristics?
But somewhere after the 12th hour of our marathon broadcast, I got resto-rod religion when Lot 440, a 1956 Mercury Montclair two-door coupe, crossed the block.
THE HELMET WITH WINGS
I was raised by my grandparents, Tom and Dorel McDowell. The family home was in San Francisco, and Grandpa Tom had a small gentleman's farm in Novato, then a backwater bit of '50s suburbia about 30 miles from the city.
Gramps was a Ford man in general, and a Mercury man in particular. I don't remember too much about the blue 1949 Mercury coupe he had before the Montclair, but I clearly remember when he proudly brought home the new Saffron Yellow and Tuxedo Black coupe in 1956.
To a five-year-old, it was a wonderful and mysterious car. The back seat was my domain, and this luxury car was full of wondrous things. There were ashtrays on each side, perfect for stuffing chewed gum into. A center armrest folded down between the seats, just right for providing separation from pesky younger siblings. And best of all, the lowered armrest revealed a courtesy light in the middle of the back seat, embossed with an exotic representation of Mercury's head, wearing a helmet with wings on it. I remember pestering Gramps to get me a cool hat like that.
While Lot 440 looked just like Gramps' Montclair, under the skin it was thoroughly modern. The seller described it as "a frame-up restoration keeping the original appearance and interior stock. Beautiful factory replacement interior and headliner and original yellow and black colors in base coat/clear coat. Late-model, fuel injected Ford five-liter, 302-ci engine with AOD four-speed automatic, power steering, cruise control, 9-inch Ford differential, 3.73 ratio, front disc brakes, air conditioning. Factory radio with reworked clock and triple gauges. A real show stopper!"
And suddenly I understood. The best of both worlds, vintage appearance and modern convenience, was rolling across the block before my eyes. Unlike many resto-rods, outfitted with garish wheels, pimp-my-ride multi-colored paint jobs and modernized interiors, this Montclair looked dead stock. In my mind, I saw myself reliving the San Fran-to-Disneyland vacations in the Montclair, but this time with windows up and a/c on, rather than laying on my back with my feet sticking out the window as I did 50 years ago. I imagined being surrounded by sound pumping from a hidden CD player through Bose speakers, rather than a tinny one-speaker AM-radio system. And I'd top it all off by teaching my 13-year-old daughter the words to "A Pink Panama and a Purple Hat Band" as they poured out of a built-in MP3 player. This was the Montclair Gramps would have today: all of the style from the golden era of Mercury, with all of the modern conveniences (mod-cons) of the 21st century.
If I had been a registered bidder rather than a television commentator, I would have been in the thick of the bidding. Part of the magic of an auction is when you find things you simply hadn't thought about owning that strike a deep and resonant chord in your car-guy gut, and you become aware of a huge and instant need to buy something you've never examined or even thought about bidding on.
Helplessly, I watched the car sell to someone else for $34,020, commission included.
MY TURN IS COMING
Yes, I still want a Daytona. And an SZ, a decent 3.8 Series I E-type roadster, a good SWB 911 and about 20 other sports cars from that formative era. But the only car that will connect me with Gramps is that yellow and black Mercury.
So I ask the new owner, when you're ready to move on to something else, contact me at email@example.com. Or if someone out there has an identical car, I'd like to know about it. I've been offered Mercurys in a variety of other color combinations, but they just won't do. It has to be black and yellow, it has to be a Montclair, and it has be a mod-con resto-rod. I think Gramps would approve of my choice, and I'm sure every SCMer who grew up around his parents' cars understands why.