Culture - SA's Classic-Car Cults are Driven by Dreams and Memories

In the simplest terms, restoring an old car … is about fulfillment,” writes Tom Brownell in his book How to Restore Your Collector Car. “Maybe it’s fulfillment of a dream, finally possessing that sports car … that was out of reach when it was new. Maybe it’s a fulfillment of a creative urge, to take something derelict and
“I have to look and see if I can work with anything. I’ll turn that junk into treasure.”

discarded and transform it into the jewel it once was. Or maybe the fulfillment comes from recapturing a slice of the past, giving memories a tangible see and touch expression.”

Neal Johnston, 65, walks out of his garage. His white beard and moustache reveal his age, but something in his eyes communicates vibrance. Johnston, president of the San Antonio Classic Thunderbird Club, was born in Florida, grew up in Virginia, and moved to Texas in 1972. After he retired from a career as an industrial psychologist, he needed a hobby to keep himself busy at his North-eastside home. His father-in-law, who still lives in Fairfax, Virginia, owned an antique-car museum, but while Johnston appreciated classic automobiles, he had never tinkered with them consistently. Still, he remembered his high-school days, when the Ford Thunderbird “was the hottest car on the street,” and thought about what it might feel like after all these years to sit behind the wheel of his dream car. “Everybody’s got a little old car from their youth that they always wanted but never could get,” Johnston said. “What drives a lot of us old-car people is that we can reach back and think, ‘I’ve always wanted one of those cars.’ Now, because we are older and have a little more money, we can get them.” Buying the car, however, is only the first step. In 1997, Johnston began constructing the “biggest garage `I` could build without getting ridiculous” behind his home. His first project was a 1957 Thunderbird. He stripped it to its core components and rebuilt it from the ground up. “I enjoy bringing stuff back to life that is almost gone,” Johnston says, admiring the cherry finish and sleek lines on the Thunderbird he calls “Little Red.” Sitting in his well-kept garage, he talks about his next project, a rusted-out 1956 Ford Sedan Delivery — sort of a cross between an old station wagon and a hearse — that had been rotting in a barn.
“A friend of mine called me up and said he found a 1956 Ford Delivery, which are very hard to get a hold of,” Johnston said. “I asked him, ‘Well, what kind of shape is it in?’ He said, ‘It’s in lousy shape but you can get it cheap.’” Johnston began to research parts suppliers and, most importantly, how the parts operate. “If you want to drive them, you’re gonna need to know how to fix them because the guy down at the corner, he doesn’t know,” Johnston said. “He not only doesn’t know, he’s probably never seen one.”

Erv Billman, 76, rises with the sun, although his day does not truly begin until around 11 a.m. when he drives 24 miles into Wilson County where his “hobby shop” awaits, surrounded by spacious fields and dusty country roads. Like an author escaping the everyday commotion to write his masterpiece in a Rocky Mountain cabin, Billman, a retired Vietnam War veteran, finds sanctuary in his place out of time. An old rotary phone, his only link to the outside world, is hidden in a back room away from his workshops — his wife made him connect it in case of an emergency. “You can pay attention here to the birds flying around and see if they come into the bird houses,” says Billman, a member of the Early Ford V8 Club of San Antonio. “There’s always deer and fawns coming here, so it’s peaceful.” Once a beekeeper, Billman used what his friends now refer to as the “Auto Ranch” as a honey-processing plant for 15 years before Africanized bees and mites forced him to stop production. Now, the buildings serve as a refuge for the 13 classic vehicles he has restored since 1982 and his current makeovers. “I like to see `the cars` put together,” Billman says. “I like to put them back into the car population again and keep them out of the junkyard. It’s sad to see a car rust away.” As he lifts the manual garage doors one by one, Billman points out each car and names the make, model, and year. The second car he ever owned, a 1941 Ford Coupe Sedan that he purchased in college for $495, is parked among his later-model renovations, including his latest effort, a 1965 Mustang Fastback. Other projects on the back burner, most of them with tarps covering their faded paint and hollowed interiors, sit toward the back, waiting their turn. At 76, Billman is realistic. He knows he will not be able to get to all of them. “I do most of this stuff for myself,” Billman says. “I really don’t like to sell them, but I’ll probably have to sooner or later. I just don’t want to see one of them go to someone that is going to sell it for parts or make it into a hot rod.”

J.J. Sanchez has been devoted to cars ever since his stepfather bought him his first ride, a 1979 Cougar, at the age of 15. “Man, that thing was fast,” says Sanchez, a detail-shop employee at Nissan Hyundai. “I had a heavy foot and I blew the engine out.” Since then, Sanchez, 33, says he has learned how to slow down and never take for granted the most important things in his life: family, cars, and freedom. Last year, Sanchez and his stepsons started Familia Customs Car and Truck Club, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for local children’s charities by organizing car shows. Covered in tattoos he received in a federal penitentiary while serving 10 years for drug possession, Sanchez projects a sense of danger. Any sense of threat, however, passes once he starts talking about his work and his five kids and wife, his stories punctuated with infectious laughter. “My wife gets mad because I’m always looking at other cars when I’m driving,” Sanchez says. “She’s like, ‘Stop looking around and keep your eyes on the road.’ But I have to look and see if I can work with anything. If I can, I’ll go and get it. I’ll turn that junk into treasure.” The first vehicle Sanchez restored was his grandfather’s 1955 Chevy Bel Air. “He had `the Chevy` as bad as it could be so we had to redo everything,” recalls Sanchez. “I saw that the truck had potential so we started from top to bottom. Now, it’s nonstop every day.” Although some car enthusiasts might consider Sanchez’s work to be customizing rather than restoring, Sanchez could care less how anyone defines his craft. If Xzibit can do it for MTV, he can do it for San Antonio’s kids. “Look at these,” Sanchez says, handing over pictures of a 1965 Ford Mustang he and his family recently finished restoring. “We threw a Saleen engine in that one.”

“That’s the prettiest car I ever owned,” says Clint Lindsey, 83, looking at a black-and-white photograph of a 1940 Lincoln Continental, which he sold for $595 in 1954. “I could probably sell that one today for $75,000.” Lindsey’s garage — where he currently is restoring a 1961 Nash Metropolitan and a 1966 Mustang GT350 — is a place he can reminisce. Photos cover one wall, most of them of him and the cars he has owned, dating back to the early ’40s. “My daddy had a garage when I was little so I grew up with cars all my life,” says Lindsey. “That’s where it pretty much started — at that garage.” In 1962, he opened his own business, Lindsey’s Carcraft Body Shop, at Alamo and 8th, which operated until 1997. Lindsey, who says he has restored more than 50 cars, continues to point out photographs on his wall, explaining each in vivid detail. It’s as if a wormhole has opened and he can reach out to feel the smooth vinyl upholstery of each interior. “This is my own little world,” he says. “It’s my hangout.” Checking his watch, Lindsey realizes it’s time for him to go back inside the house. His wife Wilma suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and cannot be left alone for more than a few minutes at a time. Walking away from his workshop, Lindsey turns to one final photograph of an attractive young man and woman standing beside a car. “That’s her,” he says. “That’s my wife, in her better days, and that’s the car I used to pick her up in when we would go on dates.”
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