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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

April 02, 1999

When the history of the United States in the 20th century is finally written, it will need a section dedicated to our collective devotion to the automobile. For lack of a more suitable title, I suggest that this section be referred to as "American Automania." We Americans are obviously enamored by anything and everything that is related to four-wheeled self-propulsion and this includes all its peripherals.

And at least one of the chapters in this section of our auto history should be titled "Automemorabilia." It would be centered around all the hobby or nostalgic items that aren't directly involved with our beloved cars and trucks, but wouldn't exist were it not for our venerated rolling stock.

This national proclivity towards auto-related items is exemplified by the many items offered for sale at the multitude of enthusiast-oriented gatherings that spring up around the country like toadstools after a rain storm. I attended one recently and was overwhelmed by the depth of our devotion.

I went with co-in-laws who were ostensibly there to sell their '87 Buick Grand National turbo coupe (it was inevitable that the vehicular genetic programming of our two families would result in a marriage) but in truth, they were really there to look at and talk about cars. The result of their rambling through the multi-thousand car get-together was that they are now seriously considering purchase of a restored and quite drivable '38 Buick Special four-door sedan, complete with dual side-mounts (Educational Note: spare tires mounted in the both front fenders), mohair upholstery and period road maps in the inside door pockets. It would necessitate an expansion of their already-packed garage but that's of secondary importance.

The vintage Buick held a much-coveted indoor display area (most of the rods and custom cars had to be content with the grass and asphalt of the county fairgrounds where the event took place) along side other "chosen" vehicles and commercial displays. These displays vividly point up our collective love of anything even remotely related to our automotive past.

Close by the elderly Buick was a booth devoted to reproductions of posters announcing upcoming drag race meets that happened decades ago. Standing by them in earnest discussion were several gray-haired and aging enthusiasts who were dressed in the white tee-shirts, Levis, white sox and penny-loafers that was the obligatory uniform of their youth.

At the end of the great hall was a large section devoted to merchandise that chronicled that bygone culinary institution, the drive-in restaurant. Replicas of the once-common table-side juke box selection terminals were offered for sale (playing teen-aged melodies of the '50s and '60s) as were inedible plastic copies of Cokes, hamburgers and french fries on door-mount trays. Also offered were wall clocks that contained advertisement for "Mom's Cafe," "Joe's Garage" and other non-existent businesses, suitable for mounting in the family "rumpus room," another expression of a bygone era. Even full-sized malt shop counters and single-post stools were available, but buyers were warned that they have to supply their own roller skating waitresses.

Fiberglass, non-working replicas of period gas pumps that were either faithfully reproduced or modified to be free-standing display cases for other collectible automobilia caught my eye. Among these were countless geegaws centering around Betty Boop and Marilyn Monroe which were sometimes combined metamorphically into a single image. One Boop item that especially appealed to me was a full-sized cardboard portrayal of Betty Garbed in classic drive-in waitress regalia, complete with roller skates and accompanied by her little dog Bimbo. One of these two-dimensional works of art now occupies a place of honor in my office.

My daughter Darcy is now 39 years old and when she was just a toddler, I took a snapshot of her seated in a generic kiddie's pedal car. I knew that these toys are currently a hot item for collectors to unearth and restore, so I was therefore astonished to find a booth that contained at least a dozen of these same minuscule machines painted up as Yellow Cabs, police cars, fire chief's car and a couple of other service vehicles. It took me a moment to realize that they were all fiberglass replicas (much like the many near-perfect A.C. Cobra roadster kit cars at the show) that could be purchased completely finished or to be finished at home. I'm still tempted to buy one to build for my toddler granddaughters.

Auto insignia wrist watches, auto theme tee-shirts, bracelets and ear rings that are in the form of auto logos, original and replica auto magazines and brochures, and several dozen other auto-motif articles were packed into booths in the two display buildings or tucked away around the fair grounds. There was something for everybody and besides the Betty Boop cut-out, I found the Sunbeam Alpine lapel pin I'd been searching for, for many years. The vendor told me that it wasn't popular and that the one I bought was her last and had been in her stock for several years.

After I bought it, I understood why it hadn't gained popularity with Sunbeam fans. The Asian-produced pin proclaims in capital letters that the wearer is the proud owner of a "SUMREAM."