Editorial

By Steve Thornton

November 11, 2016

The Outsider

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My father spent the last years of his life rebuilding cars—specifically, and only, Ford Model A’s. After he retired, he spent some years reshaping the house he and my mother lived in, to her ongoing joy. When that was done, he fell upon an avocation that would, eventually, though not literally, consume him. I don’t think he encountered any object in his life that inspired as much dedication and focus as did the Model A. He would pore over parts catalogues at six in the morning, he joined a Model A owners’ club, drove the first of his finished cars as often as he could, and made friends nearly exclusively among other owners. Although he didn’t live to see the completion by my brother of his second car, he inspired and even directed its remaking (it was much more than a restoration) and that one and the car he finished himself are both still beautiful, and mobile. Old Henry would be pleased.

He could have rebuilt a ’66 Mustang or a ’70 Charger, something with at least noticeable acceleration, but performance, beyond the ability to start and move and then stop on command, was unimportant to him—or perhaps it was, but it was the performance he remembered that mattered, not the all-out go of a muscle car but the unambitious, rattling forward suggestion of a 1930 Ford, because that was what he had driven in his youth.

There wasn’t really anything special about the Model A, other than its popularity. It was a car built to sell during the Depression, so in some ways it resembles the Russian-made Ural, a motorcycle that was built cheaply from gravel and old nails, or whatever it is they used when it came out, so that people could afford it and could afford the gravel to fix it with. In his later years he clearly loved the look of the car, but it was really the way it had looked to his 20-year-old self that mattered, as is the way a BSA Lightning or a Honda CB350 looked to some of us back in the day that counts for us. I’m saying nothing new in stating that it was an attempt to relive his youth, or that aspect of it that nostalgia tricked him into thinking was worth getting back to. Odd, though, that my brother, who couldn’t possibly remember riding in the car when he was one or two years old and couldn’t be nostalgically inspired by it, appears to love the two Model A’s in his garage as much as my dad did. Something other than recapturing his youth took over my brother and keeps him going in the matter of those Model A Fords.

I use the word “love” with discretion, for it could be actual love that a person feels toward this kind of thing—for many of us, a totem representing what the mind tells us was a better time. I don’t think it’s possible for a human to truly love a modern Bonneville or Wide Glide, because they are of the present, but the power of memory mingled with the steel reality of a ’66 Bonneville or a ’57 Hydra-Glide could create, in those of us who remember such things, an emotional attachment that would be hard to distinguish from love.

There is much to be said for buying a new motorcycle. Reliability, performance, and safety will be considerably superior to what you’d get in a ’54 Zündapp, and many would find that comfort and looks (depending on the model, of course) are improved, too. But we don’t buy motorcycles for reliability or those other qualities; we buy them for the way we expect to feel when we own them, and that’s true whether you’re buying a new Zero for getting to work on or an ’85 GSX-R for winning a VRRA race with. If you’re over 40, you’ve undoubtedly felt the pull of nostalgia, a force that will likely, as it probably did with my dad, grow ever stronger. It may come to it that the desire to realize that nostalgic need will prove stronger than the desire for the qualities of a modern motorcycle, in which case, an old basket case could be a good deal for you.

This causes me to wonder what will become of the current generation of young buyers in 40 years. I can’t see them spending dreamy garage evenings rewinding the electric motor’s coils or reinstalling the firmware of a 2018 motorcycle when they’re 60 years old. Modern motorcycles are such wonders of technology that tinkering, even on old motorcycles, is becoming a thing of a past that might become unavailable to future owners. This fascination with rebuilding old motorcycles might just fade away as motorcycles become solid-state, throwaway appliances.

None of this explains my brother’s fascination with a car he did not grow up with, so there may be more to the desire to own an old motorcycle than nostalgic yearning. I’ve seen men and women who are hardly old enough to be called by those terms riding 40-year-old motorcycles that they have restored, and not because they were cheap. But if I were to search for an old motorcycle in need of restoration, I’d be looking for a ’57 Panhead, the Hydra-Glide of my youth, and I can tell you that never in all the years since those days (roughly 1968 to 1970) have I felt the singular attachment to a motorcycle that I felt for that Harley. Just about drove me crazy—and that, in my perhaps unfortunate reality, is a sure sign of true love.