As all my friends and many Island mechanics know, I find cars a necessary evil. I have never paid more than $3,000 for a car. Why would I, feeling about them as I do? When I was told I was a natural for the Cash for Clunkers program, I explained that it would do me absolutely no good. Even if I had received $4,500 for my 1988 Chevrolet Corsica (my 1991 Toyota Camry probably would not have qualified) — and could have bought one computerized, up-to-date automobile — I would have had no idea how to drive it. And I would have felt distinctly uncomfortable showing off on Vineyard roads in something sporty. That’s just not my style. West Tisbury Police Sgt. Skipper Manter knows just who it is when he sees me on the road in my dust-blue polka-dotted (much of the paint has blistered off due to old age) car. He waves sympathetically, thereby reminding me that West Tisbury, in the off-season, at least, still remains a down-home place.
But my aversion to cars notwithstanding, when I received an invitation to visit the Motor City, I thought I should accept. I had never visited Detroit and, surely, it is a city much in the news these days.
And so I have just returned from a delightful visit – taking spins in just my kind of cars: a 1967 Chevrolet Malibu, a 1914 Model-T and 1929 Model-A.
I stayed in the recently refurbished Westin Book Cadillac Hotel which, when it was built in 1924 was the tallest hotel in the world. It was outside it that I was introduced to the bright red 1967 Chevrolet Malibu, in which I was to be touring Motor City. I could, instead, have elected to ride in a gleaming white 1961 Thunderbird convertible, or a 1959 Pontiac convertible with elegantly striped leather seats. But the Malibu was my kind of car. It seemed to be popular with old-time Detroiters. too, for whenever we turned a corner, people waved and shouted, “nice car.”
As we drove down Woodward avenue, Detroit’s Main street, so to speak, Paul Williams, the retired General Motors employee who owned the Malibu, told me all about pin-striping on cars. He said he had been a pin-striper back in 1957 when it was just beginning as a way of giving a new look to an old automobile. He said you needed either a camel or a squirrel hair brush to do it.
As nearly as I could make out, as he pointed to the pin-striped cars we passed, there were teeny-tiny lines decorating them. But I was told you might pin stripe a lion or a tiger or just swirls or flames on the doors of your truck or the rumble seat — if it was an old car.
I guess pin-striping wasn’t a trend in the Northeastt. I don’t believe I ever had a pin-striped car in my collection which, has included 1960s Buicks and Fords and a 1988 Plymouth Horizon.
Once I had elected to ride in the vintage red Malibu, we set off to the “factory studio” where the Discovery Channel program, MG: Motor City, the new version of Monster Garage, was being filmed. I was told MG: Motor City was going to take car lovers’ breath away. In it, “gearheads” are given cars like Model-Ts to transform into racetrack dragsters in five days or less.
It was all above my head, but I did learn from Paul, in addition to his information about pin-striping, that he could do air-brushing to decorate a car. I guess that means that he could take away my Corsica’s polka dots and in their stead create a picture of South Beach dunes or the Gay Head Cliffs, either of which, of course, would spiff up my car quite nicely.
After the Motor City Garage site, we drove to an old building on Piquette street, built in red-brick New England style in 1904 to be the Ford Motor Company’s factory. There I learned that 15 million Model-Ts were made and 150,000 of them are still on the road, a figure I found amazing. I saw a Model-T fire truck of 1921, an elegant 1915 Ford Model-T Canadian touring car and a showroom full of others. I heard about Detroit’s annual Woodland avenue Dream Cruise where as many as 10,000 cars and trucks — old, young, classic, collectible — drive down the avenue to cheering crowds of as many as half a million. It was held Aug. 13.
I thought to myself that it was too bad I lacked the courage (and expertise) to drive as far as Detroit in my polka-dotted Corsica. Although it needs to be three years older (25) to qualify as a “classic,” it and I would have made an impressive item on the avenue, all the same. That would surely have been the case if I had gotten it therewith enough time to have had the Gay Head Cliffs air-brushed on one side and South Beach on the other. Although I’m too late for this year, maybe in 2010 I’ll be able to find a Michigan-bound driver so I can enter my polka-dotted car in the Dream Cruise.
In any case, now I feel quite proud of the automobiles I drive. (I keep two because one is always in need of repair.) Even if either one had been eligible for Clunkers for Cash, I would certainly not have considered dumping them now that I have visited Detroit. On Martha’s Vineyard, my Chevy and my Toyota may be received with shaking heads at Nelson J. De Bettencourt and Sons Garage in Oak Bluffs and deep sighs at Mid-Island Repair in West Tisbury, but in Motor City, they would be honored as “almost classics.”
Phyllis Meras is a contributing editor of the Vineyard Gazette.