A modernist look at and appreciation for all things vintage

Rarely has it been written about, nor well known. But a New York City street rat with the surname Haynes, while in his early 20s, decided to buy a block of a kind of two-stroke engine known as a hot rod. Haynes kept it, despite an intermittent noise alert his mechanic had installed. It was a 40 cylinder hot rod, the automaker decided, one that had never been modified. They sent him on his way. But one night, it got clogged with mud, an alert sounded, and he and his mechanic frantically hauled it to the shop of the company’s formidable engineer, Henry Ford II. The company decided it could not accept the car; the horsepower was inordinately low, its valves too loose to open smoothly, and it lacked fuel injection, a standard feature at the time. Haynes refused to return the car. It went on to become something quite different. He did the modifications himself, modding every mechanism of the car. He kept the car until 1960, after which time his hot rod dealers, Frank and Fred Jorgensen, took over. By then, the Model A was nearing its fourth generation. But the self-removal was a precedent, one that would be followed on countless other hot rods.

Once established on the market, the idea of modifying a car just so it wasn’t on the shelf seemed unthinkable, to say the least. But years later, as enamored of the upholstery as I am, my wife Janet and I are torn over how to style our vehicles today. This is a tricky line to cross, because style is a simple, personal matter, and one that is usually without cross-marketing considerations. But I’ve got to fight the urge to give up my 1951 Volvo 628 Twinrose. Her impeccable new leather interior, all mahogany-finished, is part of the fun I’ve always loved about this car. How much do I love her? To begin with, I bought her at the age of 27, when I was barely scraping together enough money to buy my first real car, a 1973 Ford 350 pickup. This may seem an old car, but to me it is a timeless classic of postwar German design that still retains a lovingly nurtured delight. But the hood is rough-hewn. Even her new muffler has worn out. Every part of the car, including the dashboard and the paint, are stained. And the interior feels retro even as the decade grows dusty. But I’d like to take advantage of new clean materials and fresh colors.

I can’t say for sure what direction we’ll ultimately go. But if you’re looking for a retro base for your retro style, my advice is don’t even think about General Motors. For now, I’m going to give up on the hot rod, as old and achy as it may be. At its best, a retro car is built on good old-fashioned engineering. You have to think about little more than fuel economy, engine control and, at the very least, how well your car will hold up on a lonely and rough back road. But by far the most important consideration is how your life will look when the young car begins to go dead. And that’s a question we as a society tend to leave out. As Henry Ford pointed out when referring to his Model A: “A fine car can’t be built for less than you have in your pocket.”


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