The Old Man’s Car


It was hardly more than a flash of red steel parked on the street in front of a shop that restores antique cars, but it was enough. I recognized the bug-eye headlamps and black convertible top immediately. A ghost from my youth had stalked me to this small town in Central Florida. I was with two friends coming back from a long business trip, so I just made a note of the restoration shop’s name, and knew I would be back.

When I did come back, the shop owner knew there was no hope for me. I wasn’t there to buy a car; I had come to reclaim a memory.

When I was a sophomore in college, I had seen a sports car advertised in the paper: a ten-year-old Triumph Spitfire. It was rusty and a previous owner had it painted purple. But it was a Spitfire, a little British two-seater with curvy fenders, wire wheels and a throaty exhaust. When the student who owned it showed it to me, I knew more about than she did – I had been obsessing over sports cars in general and British cars in particular in a way that may be unique to nerdy boys of a certain age. My imagination had filled Triumphs, MGs, and Jaguars with dreams and fantasies of long back-road adventures, rally races, and the simple joy of design quirks imported from the other side of the Atlantic. Long before I was licensed to drive, I had memorized articles from magazines like MotorTrend and Car & Driver, and even wrote to automaker British Leyland for specification sheets.

I had to loan the $700 to buy it, but I was determined. I had that Spitfire for most of my college years, only selling it when the rust and repairs were more than I could afford. Thirty years later, here I was standing next to a sibling of that Spitfire. This one was red with a lot less rust and a substantially higher price tag, but when I sat inside it the smells were eerily similar, and so was the growl coming out of the exhaust pipes.

On a brief test drive, during which he discovered what the lack of four-wheel power disc brakes meant, my son pronounced it a “screaming metal death trap.” My wife was a pillar of patience and good humor as I folded down the top, zipped up my jacket, and asked her to honk if she saw any parts fly off. Grinning like a fiend I roared onto Highway 27, the smell of high octane and old canvas in the air.

If you are approaching Oldmandom – or know someone who is – I can tell you that even if you haven’t thought about those old dreams in decades, you’ll remember them easily enough. All it takes is a slight twist of fate, like a turn through a small town, and a flash of something red on the periphery.

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