What do old guys talk about when they get together for coffee? Do they argue about politics, reminisce about the beautiful young women they once dated, brag about their business coups back in the 1980s or complain about the afflictions of old age? Nope — in my experience, they talk about the cool cars they once owned and stupidly sold or presciently kept.
And so it was one morning last week when I got together with John Francis and Robert Shonkweiler at The Exchange. We’re Colorado natives of a certain age and car guys from early adolescence to this day. In these plague-ridden, politically polarized times, it was comforting to spend some time with peers and know that politics would never be discussed.
John Francis and I grew up in Colorado Springs in the 1950s. He’s a couple of years my senior, and by the time I got my driver’s license in 1956 he was already a cool car guy. The Shonk was a few years younger and grew up in Boulder, which as far as we were concerned might as well have been on the dark side of the moon.
Car culture in 1950s Colorado Springs was compellingly attractive to a certain subset of kids. Some were mechanically adept, able to rebuild 1930s-era cars and transform them into works of art that made their grease-smeared owners paradigms of teen masculinity. Others were like me — awkward and mechanically inept, but longing for a cool ride that might get them noticed by scornful girls. And lots of guys weren’t very interested in fixing up old cars but loved speed.
My first car was a 1931 Ford Model A Roadster. It cost $150 in 1956, money saved from my paper route. I delivered The Gazette and The Denver Post in the early ’50s (I may be the only 1954 Gazette employee still working in the newspaper business!). After futile efforts to hot-rod the Model A, I sold it and owned three cool cars in the next 35 years — an MGA, a 1969 428 SCJ Mercury Cyclone and a 1976 Cadillac convertible. Since the 1980s, it’s been a procession of drearily practical SUVs, culminating (if that’s the word) in the 2002 Nissan Xterra that I bought in 2001 and still own, 190,000 miles later.
After 30-plus years in the wilderness, I’m back home. The not-so-new ride: a pristine merlot-red 2004 Ford Thunderbird. It’s affordable top-down geezer paradise. I drove to The Exchange to show to Robert and John, but some things never change from high school. Sixty-four years later, I’m still the least cool guy.
Robert drives a red 2004 car as well — but his is an X50 450 horsepower Porsche Cabriolet. Not only that, his shoulda/coulda tale of the car that got away is the best ever.
“My girlfriend Harriett had a 1961 300SL Mercedes Convertible,” Robert recalled. “We used to take it skiing — it wasn’t very practical. I wanted her to sell it to me, but we broke up and she eventually traded it for a Jeep.”
Bad decision, Harriett and Robert! Today, perfect ’61 300SL convertibles are in the “ two-comma-price world of blue-chip exotics,” as one industry reporter put it.
But leave it to John Francis to have the coolest ride and the best story. In 1954, the 16-year-old Francis bought a 1934 Ford Roadster for $45. He still has it, now beautifully restored with its original V-8. It’s no museum piece — he drove it to The Exchange.
Yet there was a dark side to those halcyon hot-rodding days of the 1950s. Car culture was attractive to violent, deeply troubled guys who would befriend you and then steal stuff from your garage, your home or your person. You couldn’t go to the cops — they’d kill you, or so we thought.
“Remember Bad Brad and Conrad?” I asked Francis. “I was so scared of them.”
“So was I,” said John, “but you couldn’t show fear. But the worst was Bill Carey.”
We traded stories about our encounters, but they didn’t end happily. Bad Brad and Conrad died in the Buena Vista Reformatory from drinking mimeographing fluid, while Bill Carey was killed in a drug deal. But John and I survived and thrived, while Robert was safe in Boulder. Of course — no tough guys there, just harmless liberals!