Exploring New Hampshire's Classic Car Culture
There's no question that we love our cars.
Car sales are rebounding, Detroit is on the rise and the Big Three Automakers are cranking out new models, but for many car lovers, the golden age of the American automobile never left. It just needed a fresh coat of paint, maybe a little chrome, a set of four-barrel carburetors and a Muncie rock crusher 4-speed.
There's no question that we love our cars. A study by the non-partisan New America Foundation finds that we spend more on personal transportation than we do on either taxes or insurance, and we do so with a lot less complaining. Maybe it's because pumping money into our automobiles isn't like giving it to some faceless institution, it's like taking care of a member of the family.
We identify ourselves by the cars we drive, use them as personal statements of status or even ideology.
So what does that say about Randy Haubrich, whose favorite cars have been wrecks from the 1930s, found in the woods or old barns and then lovingly restored by him?
"I like things that are way before my time," says Haubrich, who grew up in Claremont and has spent most of his life within 30 miles of his present home in Grafton.
It's a passion that started in 1959. He was 13 when he spotted a rusted 1929 Model A body in a pine grove and hauled it out. You could buy a Model A frame for a couple of bucks back then, he says, and he ruined a couple of them trying to construct his first street rod, but when he finally had it all put together he was hooked.
He went on to rebuild a 1934 Dodge Coupe that he bought for $15. He sold it for $60, which was a wash when he factored in his labor. He trained in body work after completing high school, and still remembers his instructor saying he'd never be a body man, never be more than a helper. "That'll put some drive into you," says Haubrich.
And if his instructor's words ever nagged him, that ended when, after years of collision repair, he set up shop and took on his first serious assignment restoring a vintage car. Lyle Patterson, who managed the priceless auto collection of local gun magnate William Ruger, dropped off a $2 million 1929 Stutz Victoria and said, "Do whatever it takes. I don't care how much money or how much time," recalls Haubrich. "He was letting me do my finest work with no limits and that took some getting used to. I never did get used to it," he adds.
But he was doing what he loves and more opportunities came his way, pricey Bugattis and plenty of more common hot rods and antique cars. And his success financed his own restoration projects, always returning to the golden era he loves, the 1930s.
Today, his favorite car dwells like a beloved old dog in his garage. It's a tattered-looking black '31 Ford Roadster with a '49 Cadillac engine. It had a rough life after it was built by a group of friends back in 1951, towed to Florida on a honeymoon and then left to rot. By the time he bought it the engine was seized and the transmission was junk, but he cherished it for its heart and soul, leaving all that tarnished charm intact but putting it back into perfect working order.
And it runs like a top. "We head up to Burlington in it every year," he says. "One time towing a camper, going 80-plus miles an hour."
Another "pet" car in his inventory is a '53 Studebaker with a LaSalle transmission and a 1960 stock Cadillac engine. Haubrich put a high-gear Ford rear end on it, fit it with four slender frontrunner dragster tires and streamlined the body. He recently drove it on the land speed venue at Maine's Loring Air Force Base and was clocked at 142 miles per hour.
So what's the appeal of restoring old cars?
"I love the stripped down fire-breathing ingenuity it takes to build them," he says. "And it's a little on the outlaw side. Cars nowadays, I don't know how to fix them if something breaks down. In the age I grew up in, the people I knew, you worked on your own cars. Kept 'em going."
Haubrich isn't the only local guy who has made a national reputation working on automotive design in the rural hills of the Sunapee region.
Dale Flewelling of Newport's Art Attack Signs divides his time between doing signs and faux painting for local businesses, air brushing the occasional flaming skull onto a motorcycle tank and then producing mind-bending graphics over every square inch of some cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Video WebExtra: Dale Flewelling demonstrates his art)
Take the award-winning design he was contracted to paint on one Chrysler 300 C SRT8 that features famous Mafia dons on one side panel and equally notorious rap artists on the other. They accent the car's 24-inch wheels studded with Swarovski crystals and a full-custom Louis Vuitton interior. The car can be yours for fifty grand – a bargain compared to the tricked out Ford F650 truck he ensconced with majestic purple fire-breathing dragons that was priced at $549,000.
But Flewelling finds peace from such high-pressure demands by following his first love: pinstriping. His ability with a brush and paint is a gift that he first realized when he saw the striping on a truck his father brought home. At that moment, something clicked. He found some paint and a brush and started doodling on a window in the barn "where I could wipe it off and start over," he says. Soon he was pinstriping his bike and the lawn mower. A high school art instructor encouraged him, allowing friends to bring in motorcycle tanks and snowmobile hoods so he could decorate them.
He got plenty of attention for his innate talent and even passed up a full scholarship to an art institute in Houston. "Because I didn't want to learn art history," he says. "This is what I wanted to learn."
When working with a simple brush and a can of enamel, his uncanny ability not only allows him to freehand the most elaborate swirls and curves, but his muscle memory can duplicate the same design, precisely in reverse, on the opposite side of the car or tank. The skill has kept him busy: along with hundreds of cars and bikes, he's pinstriped 194 Peterbilt trucks for Vermont's Jewell Transport.
His airbrush skills are similarly instinctive. He's completely self-taught, though he has been picking up some technique from other artists over the Internet, some based as far away as the UK and Australia. "Those guys' work is just mind boggling. When they post things it makes you want to just come back here, lock the door and start painting. It really fuels the energy," says Flewelling.
One artist, closer to home, who influenced him is Mike Lavallee, who appears on TLC's "Overhauling." Lavallee is famous for creating the "true fire" effect that uses multiple layers of translucent paint to paint a flame that looks hot enough to burn your hand when you touch it. Lavallee is originally from Merrimack, though he now operates his Killer Paint business in Washington state.
When it comes to creative lust for cars, artists like Haubrich and Flewelling are really just the sparkling tip of the iceberg. The clan of the car is perhaps America's oldest and most successful subculture and members unite whenever they can to haul out their lead sleds, rat rods, low riders, performance machines, muscle cars and works in progress.
The vehicles to be found at the many car rallies or cruise nights across the state are like so many giant metal snowflakes, each one unique and a crystallization of the owner's vision of the perfect car.
On most Monday nights from mid-May to early September the parking lot behind the Sugar River Bank in Newport is like a scene out of "American Graffiti." Loudspeakers pipe '50s doo wop as vintage cars rumble into neat rows. The upper lot fills with cars parked to watch. A few spectators pull out lawn chairs and find a spot of shade. Down below, some visitors wander about, but it seems like most everyone studying a paint job, a special chop or an interesting engine modification has their own custom car parked nearby.
This is the gathering of the Car Nutz club of Newport and everyone talks car.
A big guy in a black T-shirt stands beside his boxy, low-slung hot rod with orange racing stripes. "It's got a 1930 Tudor TCI chassis – aftermarket, a '62 327 motor, that's the first year of the 327s. Offenhauser cross ram, two four barrels, they are 450 Carters, and a Muncie rock crusher four-speed with a Ford 9-inch with 370 posi gears in it. I get about 17 to 18 miles per gallon depending on how hard I push my right foot."
The big guy is Paul Colburn, a municipal manager for the town of Walpole in his regular life, but here he's just another car nut. He says he averages about two car shows a week in season. He's been following this passion since he was a kid and bought a '54 Chevy for 15 bucks. "It was pretty tough, but it drove," he recalls. "It was a 6-volt system. I drove home on a 12-volt battery and blew the headlights out the first block. Every car is a learning experience."
What's he learned from this one?
"Another dimension of having fun," he says, a huge smile spanning his face.
The sweet-voiced ghost of Bobby Helms sings "You Are My Special Angel" as Car Nutz President Wayne Boardman talks about the club that he and buddy Merle Sargent started back in 2007. Sargent has since passed on to that great car club in the sky, but his legacy lives on in the mission of the program, which is basically to have some fun and help support great local causes like David's House (a home-away-from-home for families of kids receiving care at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon).
"We also donate to the local food pantry. We want to help out the town," says Boardman. "We just did a cruise in at the Ruger Museum. Raised $3,100 in one day. We usually give David's House between $3,000 and $4,000. This year I think it will be closer to $8,000."
They sometimes work with other car clubs on their fundraisers. "It doesn't matter," he says. "We're all one when we get together."
The cruise night is four years old and attendance is up to 60 cars some weeks and growing steadily. "Interest is wicked increasing," says Boardman.
Suddenly a friend approaches, saying, "You ever see a supercharger set up like that green Hudson's got on it? Go and look at it. It's blowing from the bottom."
"They are rare," Boardman concedes.
He walks past an old Pontiac with chipped paint on display, the owner standing proudly nearby. "That looks like a real work in progress," someone quips.
"No, he'll never fix it," says Boardman. "Drive it just like that. It's no rust bucket, just the paint job looks terrible."
And there are plenty of shiny new Mustangs and Camaros to gawk at if that's your pleasure. One owner guns his engine and it revs like sudden thunder then settles into a deep, loud metallic purr.
Rick Mastin of nearby Sunapee likes to take his 1953 custom Chevy truck to cruise nights. Today he brings along a special treat as well, his buddy of 35 years Steven Tyler – "American Idol" judge and lead singer for a little rock band called Aerosmith that got its start in neighboring Sunapee. Tyler also happens to love vintage cars and he strolls around taking it all in. A crowd quickly forms around the star who finds himself posing for photos more often than talking car talk, but he's consistently good natured about it.
Mastin lingers nearby to help keep things moving, but he, too, is there to enjoy the show.
He latches on to one that catches his eye.
"This is an example of an old lead sled," he says. "They've been fading out and now they're fading back in – the classic old hot rod. I've built two Porsches and some fast foreign cars, but this is the kind of stuff somebody hand massaged. They bought parts out of old junkyards. They didn't flip through a magazine and have it shipped UPS to them, know what I mean?"
Mastin notes that while some people do spend fortunes on cars, that's not what shows like this are about. "That Lincoln in the middle – it's a 15-hundred dollar car, but it's got a little sign on it about how it was the last of the big Lincolns. That's his thing. He goes home with it, talks about it. Usually he's here sitting in front of it with his wife and he's really proud of it. I think it's cool that somebody loves something that much."
He stops by one red car that looks like abstract art with curves and nodes and not a single angle in the design. It's a 1949 Chevy coupe. "That's the Toyota Camry of its day," says Rick. "It's the car that Fred drove back and forth to work. Somebody grabbed it and put Laker pipes on and found those hub caps and suddenly its a hot rod."
Meanwhile, Tyler has been chatting with Rodney Wimmet who owns a garage in Lebanon and has brought down a powder blue truck of uncertain pedigree.
"What is this?" asks Tyler, propping a sandled foot up on the running boards.
Wimmet launches into his spiel, "This half is a '30 Nash and the front half is a '31 Hudson that a friend dragged out of the woods. We wound up cutting everything off except the cowl and the doors and married the two together." He strokes an odd lump in the metal panel. "The body lines aren't quite right since we have to match the Hudson door with the Nash tailpiece. I built the engine and the frame is a '48 Chevy half ton pickup truck that my cousin gave me. There's bits and pieces of 42 different cars in there."
Wimmet notes that it's hard to find technical data for cars from the '30s and '40s, but he managed to build the whole thing for about 16 hundred dollars. "I added a supercharger and a little bit of paint and now it's maybe got $2,000 in it. My interest is to show people that you can do this on the cheap."
Tyler is suddenly swamped by a gaggle of young girls and their mom. "Who's got the camera? Cameraaa!" he cries as he's led away.
Jeff Waldron from Jacksonville, Vt., has a sense of humor that's embedded in his car, a 1934 Chevy coupe that looks like it self-assembled in some magic junkyard. A tombstone is spray-paint stencilled on an inside door panel reading "R. I. P. – Rust in Peace." A cupholder made of a tin can and duct tape is screwed to a plywood cover over the transmission. "It's got a lot of oddball parts," admits Waldron.
Meanwhile the crowds have thinned just a bit around Steven Tyler and he's kneeling next to a young man in a wheelchair and his pretty girlfriend. The conversation lasts so long that when a woman pushes by with a walker, Tyler says, "Darlin' could I use that for a second?" He perches on the built-in seat and pulls out his cell phone to make a call while still chatting with the young man. The woman takes it all in stride and begins giving Tyler a gentle shoulder massage.
Later the young man, Dave Doremus, is back by his own ride, an '84 Monte Carlo low-rider with hydraulic pumps to make it hop.
(Video WebExtra: Video of the car in action)
Quizzed about the conversation with Tyler, he explains.
"I just asked him a personal question I guess no one had asked him," he says. "He sang this beautiful song when he appeared on TV with Chris Botti. It's called 'Smile,' and it's not on any of his albums. I just asked him what he was thinking about when he sang it. Turns out it was during a very hard time in his life, his wife had left him and his band was on him. I told him I'd had times like that and the song hits home for me as well. We were both getting choked up about it."
(Video WebExtra: Video of Steven Tyler calling his manager)
So why was Tyler making that phone call? Doremus explains, "He asked us if we'd like to hang out in Boston on Thursday. He says he's playing a show at the Garden. Then he calls his manager and says, 'I need your help. I don't have any passes and I need a pass for Dave and his girlfriend.' Not a problem, Steven. 'Make sure he can go anywhere. He's in a wheelchair.' Not a problem, Steven. And then he looks me in the eye, 'Make sure he can get on stage.' And I'm like 'Aw, no.' Not a problem, Steven."
Tyler and Mastin eventually drive off and the crowd returns to its normal buzz as if nothing had happened.
The sun has begun to set and a raffle begins over the PA system. Car lovers of every class and age continue to talk in their special language, exchanging details about their cars that are actually bits of their lives.
And Wayne Boardman's words hang in the clean Newport air: "We're all one when we get together." NH
Web Extra: More photos from the Newport cruise night
Web Extra: More photos of Newbury pinstriper Dale Flewelling