by Louis Bignami

The lithe, tanned blond in tennis whites hopped into a new white Corvette and kissed the graying, rotund driver. Even as a teenager in 1953, I knew he was not her father. It had to be the car. So, consumed by teenage lust, I saved for a 'Vette or, after a buddy pointed out the advantages of back seats, a Bel Air convertible. School, marriage, work and responsibility intervened. I lost my urge for topless cars, married a brunette, and settled into a "sedan" lifestyle.

Then, last year on a business trip in Orlando, I rented a coral and gray 1957 Chevy Bel Air convertible. Girls waved and whistled. Strangers accosted me in parking lots with tales of "their" Bel Air. Driving, even on business, became fun. Suddenly, I was the center of attention again. It was not the driver, for I had grayed and grown rotund. It had to be the car that drew admiring looks at every stop.

The first few times other drivers held their thumbs up as they passed I rather suspected a regional version of the traditional Italian palm to biceps gesture. I must confess that I babied my Bel Air, even though driving at the speed limit seemed rather odd. That's the starting point on California freeways, but the classic old girl deserved the best. I had not checked oil with every fill up for a long time either. Each night I lovingly put the old girl's top up; then carefully lowered it in the morning. That special "old car" feeling had started.

I had not enjoyed so much approval since I ran for High School office on a "less homework" platform. Parking attendants at the hotel insisted that I park in "celebrity slots" at the entrance where all who passed would stop and admire my classic wheels. Saturday night, I joined a group of professors from local colleges in the lounge. The main topic of conversation was "that great Chevy outside." When I ever so casually mentioned it was mine to drive, and offered a ride, rarely have five adults over fifty moved so fast to gather jackets for a "cruise."

We got more attention than kids with new sports cars. Later that evening, when I pulled into a 1940's drive in for nostalgic shakes and malts, the owner refused my payment for a chocolate malt. He said, "Fifteen cars came in to see your convertible. Business was never better" When we left he was considering a rental of his own.

The reactions of other drivers in Orlando reinforced my lust for my own classic. One rather conservative looking fellow in a Continental offered to trade vehicles "even up." When I declined he suggested he would "sweeten the deal with the kids in the back seat."

Later that day, as I waited in the slow lane for the light to change a fellow in a new Camaro leaned across his wife and rolled down the window.

"My folks had a car light that before I was born." he said.

"They still look great."

The light changed. Then, as we waited, at the next light.

"I might have been conceived in the back seat."

General laughter as he turned left, and I almost hit the bus at the stop across the intersection.

Some days the attention was a bit odd. When I returned from a fishing break at the lake in DisneyWorld, I found a white haired stranger polishing the fender of my Bel Air.

"Son," he said, "You should never park a car like this under a tree. The sap spots the finish. You should buff off the dew marks too."

He went on to tell me his name, Frank, and that his first new car was an identical model that he used to drive home his first son from the hospital. He kept the car long enough so the same son totaled it on prom night in 1975. When you're fat and fifty "son" certainly sounds good. So I risked a loss of status and mentioned that the car was a rental from National.

"Son", he snapped, "When do you take this baby back?"

"I catch an early flight out. About six tommorow morning, I suppose." The next morning I got to Orlando Airport at five thirty. Frank, my new friend, had been waiting for a half an hour. As I left I heard him ask if he could keep the car out for a week. I found out later that he had waxed and polished it "for fun."

Such strange behavior should be no surprise. It's testimony for American's love for their vehicles. As Bob Knapp, who owns a fine auto museum near San Diego noted, "I guess I have a particular fondness for the cars I lusted after when I was young."

So I flew back across the country marshaling arguments I could use to convince my wife we really "needed" a classic Chevy like Harrison Ford's 1955 from AMERICAN GRAFFITI or James Taylor's in TWO-LANE BLACKTOP. Never, on a business trip, had I had so much fun just driving around.

So much fun, in fact, that my wife insisted we try a similar convertible on an assignment in Los Angeles and San Diego. I suspect she wondered a bit about my stories. We quickly named our bright orange Bel Air convertible, "Mandarin." While it was not quite as well-detailed as my Orlando vehicle it certainly drew as much attention. When I drove into the lot at the Rose Bar and Grill, a 1940's cafe in Pasadena that may serve the largest chicken salads in America, the car jockeys almost came to blows to see who would park the car.

When we dropped by the Rose Bowl, I'd last visited as a student in 1959, and a bus load of Japanese tourists must have shot twenty rolls of Fujichrome of our vehicle. My wife noted, "Now I know how celebrities feel. Buy a car like this and you are an instant star!"

Such a remark particularly suits Los Angeles where, more than any other city save possibly Detroit, cars, not cloths, make the man or woman. That's no surprise if you consider the hours locals spend either tailgating at kamakazi speeds or grid locked on the drunken spaghetti tangle of local freeways. Drivers of an amazing variety of cars waved or honked their approval during the four days spent sunburning our noses with the top down.

Every stop drew a crowd. When we pulled off the Coast Highway in Malibu to review a bed and breakfast inn for an article the owner rushed out and exclaimed, "My God, that's the exact car my first boyfriend had." Then, after a embarrassed laugh and a pause, "He was a creep, but the car was a dream."

When I drove into our favorite aunt's driveway in Escondido, the woman across the street offered to pay me if I would let her sit in the car. When took her photograph in the driver's seat she got tears in her eyes at the memory of her first car "fire engine red with black leather upholstery."

Even blase' film crews lust for old cars. We stayed at a historic B&B in the Eastlake District of Los Angeles near Dodger Stadium where a great many movies are filmed. When I passed a film crew everything stopped. Crew, director and cast all came inspect the car. One of the police there from crowd control offered "$3, 000 cash." When he found out it was a rental he thought a bit and noted, "I think I'll rent one, leave the kids home and take my wife to the drive-in next week."

In Malibu, I barely parked in front of the B&B we came to review when the owner came firing out the door. "What a great car, " she said, "My first boy friend had one." Then with after a pause, she continued, "He was a creep, but the car was wonderful.

I did discover you need to allow extra time when you drive a classic conversation car. When I parked at the historic Del Coronado across the bay from San Diego for a memorable Sunday brunch, it took twenty minutes to escape the crowd that gathered to admire our car. A brand new convertible in the next parking slot got little attention. A surprising number of those who commented had owned either owned, or lusted after, Bel Airs. All remembered them fondly.

Also see Classic Cars for Travelers