Serious Civil War reenactors have a term for folks who don’t measure up to those activists’ high standards for authenticity. They call them “farbs”, as in “far be it from me to criticize another enactor but if they want to be authentic they should be wearing hand stitched woolen underwear that hasn’t been changed or washed for two months, not BVDs”. Every hobby has its one-uppers. One of the things that I like about car culture is that it’s a mosaic of subcultures. Diversity can be a good thing and I’m a big tent car enthusiast. You may be a trackday fiend who would never slam a lowrider or restore a Messerchmitt microcar, but you can appreciate the folks who would and you can find common ground with them in your shared love of things automotive. Still, none of us like folks who put on airs. Every hobby, though, has its snobs.
We all love our cars and can bore even other car guys with minutia about our favorite marques and models, but at a car show with prewar Packards, don’t you think that it’s a bit pretentious to put “historical’ license plates on a Chrysler K-car?
Every June, the Veteran Car Club of America, the Packard Motor Car Foundation and the Motor City Packards car club sponsor the Cars ‘R’ Stars car show at the Packard Proving Grounds north of Detroit. The theme for this year’s show was “the classic beauty of wood in auto styling”. There was a nice variety of marques represented in addition to the expected Packards, including woodies built by Buick, Ford, Chrysler and Chevrolet.
Someone in the organizing committee must have a sense of humor because in addition to all the maple, ash and basswood carpentry and marquetry present, parked right near impressive classic Chrysler Town & Country and very rare Ford Sportsman woody convertibles, were a couple of mid 1980s Chrysler LeBaron Town & Country convertibles replete with wood grain vinyl and fake wood body cladding. Far be it from me to criticize another car buff, but while I agree that with a total of only 1,105 LeBaron T&C convertibles made from 1983 to 1986 the car is collectible, parking a not-so-well-disguised K-car near all those genuinely classic wood trimmed and bodied cars seemed, well, out of place. It was more of a symbol of Detroit’s decline over the past 3 decades, how it traded on former glories and ersatz luxuries, fake wood, coach lights and opera windows, than of how the beauty of wood is used in automotive styling. In those real woodies, wood is used as an integral part of the design and sometimes even the structure of the cars’ bodies. The LeBaron is not a bad looking car, but its “wood” is clearly an afterthought. It has more in common with plastic clad Pontiacs than with maple framed Mercurys.
I’m a kibbitzer, so when I went to take a photo of one of the K-car “woodies”, I joked to the owner that I was surprised that they didn’t make him park at the end, like the members of the Yellow Mustang Registry accept owners of tangerine orange Mustangs into their club but make them park at the end of the row at car shows and meets. I must need work on my comedic delivery because the guy took offense and got indignant. He said that the show organizers told him to park there and that I was “prejudiced”.
Okay, I’m not without my biases. Still, considering that at that car show there were a couple of real 1940-42 Lincoln Continentals, a Continental Mark II, about a half dozen real Oldsmobile 442s, and many other genuinely rare and collectible cars (including quite possibly a car body or two that was actually made by Ray Dietrich’s LeBaron) the K-cars looked out of place. For sure they were in show condition, no doubt the apple of their owners’ eyes, but their placement was quite possibly a joke by the show organizers that this LeBaron T&C owner didn’t get.
That sentiment of mine was reinforced when I stepped to the rear of the car and saw that it was wearing “historical” license plates. Talk about pretension and putting on airs! I don’t think that I saw a single other car at that show that had modern day historical plates. There were plenty of cars at the show with vintage license plates, since Michigan now allows owners of old cars to register them with old plates to complete the vintage look. There were also a few cars wearing vintage “historic vehicle”, either period correct or indicating that they’ve been in the hobby for many decades. Though many, perhaps most, of the cars at the Cars ‘R’ Stars show were indeed historic, it was only the one K-car owner that felt he had to prove that his car was significant enough to be recognized so by today’s bureaucrats in Lansing. The other LeBaron owner apparently didn’t find the same need for validation.
Vintage car buffs spare no detail. Z/28 restorers are careful not to extend racing stripes beyond the rear spoiler. Mustang owners make sure that the right grease pencil markings from the factory are under their hoods. No historical plates on this Town & Country but it appears that this owner, like the other LeBaron enthusiast, made sure that the trunk weatherstripping was also exactly as it left the factory.
I’m not an automotive snob. I don’t even like it when jerks who need to be validated with their Lambos and Porsches rightly get called douchebags. Like I said before, the LeBaron Town & Country convertible is at least arguably collectible. As an automotive history buff that has gone out of my way to take photos of a cherry ’91 New Yorker Fifth Avenue to commemorate the final revision of the platform that not only saved Chrysler but spawned almost infinite iterations like these LeBarons and the Caravan/Voyager minivans, I can say that the car is worthy of historic note. It clearly has a community of serious enthusiasts if there were barely more than a thousand made and two of them show up at a single car show. I’m sure that this K-car owner treasures his car as much as the folks who own those Lincolns. A show dedicated to “the classic beauty of wood in auto styling” doesn’t necessarily have to be restricted the beauty of real wood. Still, I would have been more comfortable if either the show organizers had set aside an area separate from the real woodies for K-car LeBarons, Ford Country Squires, “woody” AMC pacers, Family Trucksters and other examples of vinyl applique automotive art.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, which features 3D graphics and outstanding writers to give a realistic perspective on cars and car culture.