1961 Metropolitan
1961 Metropolitan. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Jil McIntosh

Photo Gallery: Autofest 2007

Oshawa, Ontario – Back in 1900, a show in New York’s Madison Square Gardens gave the public a look at the year’s brand-new vehicles – and a few that were considered old enough that they were a curiosity worthy of a display of their own.

The fact is we’re fascinated by cars from the past. And fortunately, there are plenty of people who own them and are more than happy to bring them out for display.

I attended several cruise nights and car shows this year, including Autofest, now in its 14th year in Oshawa, Ontario, where these shots were taken. Some 1,100 vehicles showed up for the two-day show, which is already in the planning stages for 2008 (get future updates at the Autofest Oshawa website).

You’ll want to know the terminology – and the first thing you’ll notice that very few are “carved in stone”. About the only thing that everyone agrees on is the break during World War 2, when North American manufacturers ceased car production, and built tanks, guns, airplanes and other essentials. So a civilian vehicle 1942 and older is “pre-war”; 1946 and newer, it’s “post-war”.

1974 AMC Gremlin
1974 AMC Gremlin. Click image to enlarge

Beyond that, you’re on your own. “Antique” is a general term that even insurance companies and provincial licensing bureaus can’t agree on, although most use a cut-off of either 25 or 30 years of age. A “restored” vehicle is usually put back to the way it looked when it was new, while a “modified” vehicle has been substantially changed. Even those are subject to interpretation: I’ve seen old cars with new engines called “restored” by their owners, because the body looks the same. And equally, some stick to the letter of the law, to the point that they’ll call an otherwise stock-looking vehicle “modified” because it received a new paint job back in 1962, or a couple of the heater hoses had to be replaced in 1979.

“Hot rod” and “street rod” are pretty much interchangeable – an older car with a newer engine, unless you get into the argument over whether it has to be a 1948 or older to qualify. If it follows the popular new trend of being left rough and rusty, it’s a “rat rod” – but only if the owner says so, since some don’t like the term. Should it be an older, original vehicle that was found stored away for decades, and just driven without any restoration, it’s dubbed “barn-fresh”. “Muscle car” was an industry term, to denote a car with a relatively large body and even larger engine; the size and handling meant they weren’t “sports cars”, itself a term that can’t be defined to everyone’s satisfaction. And some call their vehicles “collectible”, which is fine, except that some people collect string and pocket lint, too.

1952 Cadillac Coupe de Ville
1952 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Click image to enlarge

Perhaps the most overused, misused and generally pointless term is “classic”; I used to think it was used for everything that was no longer on the showroom floor, until someone thought up “future classic” so that nothing escapes. Chevrolet and Thunderbird fans use “classic” to denote 1955-56-57 models, while the Classic Car Club of America reserves the title for a very limited number of models, none of them newer than 1948; the club got so tired of the word being bandied about that it trademarked the term “Full Classic” for its choices. Still, I think the ultimate definition came from a wag who said that if it’s got “Classic” written on the body in chrome – then it ain’t.

So now that we know (to a certain extent) what to call them, let’s walk the aisles. Car shows range from “open to everyone”, to restricted by year, by make, by country of origin, or to what’s been done to them by their owners.

1963 Rambler station wagon
1963 Rambler station wagon. Click image to enlarge

Most antique cars in North America are domestic, since they were the majority of cars originally sold here, but imports also enjoy a loyal following. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of old cars is in the sheer number of companies that once turned them out. The term “Big Three” for GM, Ford and Chrysler wasn’t to differentiate them from foreign manufacturers, but from other domestics; at one time, they shared the North American marketplace with hundreds of companies. Some were major automakers in their own right, such as Studebaker, Willys, Hudson and Nash; others took luxury and performance to new heights, such as Duesenberg, Marmon, Stutz and Cord. If Cadillac, Lincoln or Imperial weren’t fancy enough, you could opt for one of the “Three P” cars – Pierce-Arrow, Packard and Peerless, which were considered a step up from the Big Three’s luxury brands.

Alongside the big players, especially in the first decades of the 20th century, there were hundreds of smaller companies, some of which turned out only a handful of vehicles: more established names like Winton, McIntyre, Thomas and Chalmers, and those that were but a blip on the screen, such as Pan and Maytag (yes, the washing machine people). If you didn’t want gasoline, you could opt for an electric car, such as Detroit or Columbia, or a steam-powered Stanley or White.

1959 Edsel
1959 Edsel. Click image to enlarge

Even the Big Three had nameplates now relegated to history: GM’s LaSalle and Oakland (which became Pontiac), Ford’s Edsel and Chrysler’s DeSoto. And because duty tariffs made it difficult for American automakers to simply ship across the border, there were models sold only in Canada. Mostly they were U.S. cars with trim differences, but many are virtually unknown to American collectors: vehicles like Ford’s Monarch and Meteor lines, Pontiac’s Beaumont, Acadian, Laurentian and Parisienne models, and a line of Dodge trucks known as Fargo.

As you walk among the cars at the show, pay special attention to how they’ve changed. People often tap the sturdy fenders of my antique car and say, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.” Well, that’s not a bad thing. Along with thirsty engines that spewed untreated exhaust (and frequently overheated), older cars ran on bias-ply tires, stopped via four drum brakes fed by a single-chamber master cylinder (most muscle cars were woefully underbraked for their engine’s power), had steering that was either too heavy without power steering, or far too light with it,

1929 Cadillac Dual-Cowl Phaeton
1929 Cadillac Dual-Cowl Phaeton. Click image to enlarge

and had dashboards crammed with sharp knobs and levers that caused serious injury when those heavy car bodies and frames refused to crumple, and passed crash energy along to the occupants.

Certainly, cars have improved immensely, both in safety and reliability. But there’s romance to the automobile, and whether you own an old one or just like to look at them, you can’t deny their appeal. So grab your camera, buy your ticket, and let’s go look at the cars. Who knows – one of these days, you just might find one of these lovely old-timers parked in your own garage, waiting for you to take them to a show.

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