The As­phalt Jun­gle

An en­counter with an old-school car guy re­in­forces why driv­ing is spe­cial.

Automobile - - Contents - By Arthur St. An­toine

I WAS DRIV­ING along the Sun­set Strip in West Hol­ly­wood when the re­al­iza­tion zapped me like a bee sting: I need a ham­burger. For­tu­nately, I was a mere block away from one of my faves: Car­ney’s, a diner built in 1975 out of two an­cient Union Pa­cific train cars. I parked and walked up the ramp then down the long aisle to the open kitchen.

“Do you have any­thing ke­to­genic?” I asked. The cook stared. “Just kid­ding. Dou­ble cheese­burger, chili fries, choco­late shake.” I took a seat by a win­dow look­ing out on the Sun­set traf­fic.

“That your truck I saw pull in?” An older gen­tle­man, I’d guess in his 80s, was sit­ting at the next ta­ble, also wait­ing for his or­der.

“Yes, but … it’s not re­ally mine. I’m just test-driv­ing it for the week.” “They let peo­ple test-drive cars for a whole week now?”

“Ac­tu­ally it’s part of my job,” I replied. “I re­view cars for a liv­ing.”

“Now that’s a job I’d like to have! Mind if I join you?”

“Sure,” I said. The old man stood up and took a seat at my ta­ble.

“I’m Earl,” he said, ex­tend­ing his hand. “I’ve loved cars since FDR was run­nin’ this loony bin. That pickup looks pretty fancy.”

“It is,” I nod­ded. “It’s a Ford Rap­tor, a per­for­mance truck with a twin­turbo V-6 mak­ing 450 horse­power.”

Earl whis­tled. “That’s nutty! My ’82 Corvette only had 180!” He chuck­led, nar­rowed his eyes. “So, what’s some­thing like that cost?”

“This one, with a lot of op­tions on it, goes for just more than $68,000.” Earl slumped back as his mouth fell open. “In 1970 I bought a house in Echo Park for $45,000. Still live there. I can walk to Dodger Sta­dium.”

By now Earl and I were tuck­ing into our triple-by­pass feasts. “So, what does a car lover like you drive?” I asked.

Earl smiled. “Show you af­ter lunch.” He munched on a french fry. “I stopped buy­ing new cars in the late ’80s. No per­son­al­ity. Junk I don’t need. The other week I dropped into a Cadil­lac shop to look around. Guy told me, ‘This one’s got voice-ac­ti­vated nav­i­ga­tion.’ Whaddo I need that for? I know L.A. bet­ter than Rand McNally.”

We fin­ished our burg­ers and headed to the park­ing lot, where I opened the Rap­tor’s door and told Earl to climb in. Care­fully, he stepped up into the Su­perCrew cab and eased into the seat, scan­ning the cock­pit. “Where’s the key?”

“Push that but­ton to the right of the wheel.” Earl put his foot on the brake and pressed the starter, and the mon­ster V-6 whumped to life. He gave the throt­tle a few stabs. “She’s smooth!” he said with a grin. Then he shut off the en­gine and climbed out. “All those blink­ing lights … I should be in a plan­e­tar­ium. What’s that red stripe on top of the steer­ing wheel?” “Tells you when the wheels are straight.” Earl shot me a look. “You know how I know when my wheels are straight? When I’m not turn­ing.” He started walk­ing away and mo­tioned for me to fol­low.

I saw it be­fore we got there. In the far-right cor­ner of the lot, safely away from other cars, sat a clas­sic Oldsmo­bile in blue. “Wow, beau­ti­ful Toron­ado,” I said.

“She’s a ’69,” Earl said. “Rocket 455 V-8, three­speed Turbo-Hy­dra­matic, only 82,000 miles. Picked her up for $14,000 in Phoenix 10 years ago. Drive her a cou­ple times a week.” Earl opened the door and waved me over. He pointed to the fa­mous ver­ti­cal-scrolling speedome­ter. “See there … now that’s a gauge a man can ac­tu­ally read.”

I stood back and looked over the body­work de­signer David North penned a half-cen­tury ago, rak­ish even to­day. “Fab­u­lous,” I said.

Earl pat­ted the hood. “And the first Amer­i­can front-driver since Cord!”

“Have you al­ways bought Amer­i­can?” “Al­ways,” Earl said. “My very first car was a 1940 Dodge Coupe. Had a bunch of stuff since— cou­ple Corvettes, Mus­tang Mach 1, ’86 Cadil­lac DeVille. I prac­ticed law for 48 years, but when I re­tired, I got the Toro. My wife passed away soon af­ter. These days, I like to drive Sun­set, look at all the peo­ple. Usu­ally I eat at Can­ter’s Deli or Bar­ney’s; some­times I come here.”

We chat­ted a while longer, then we shook hands and Earl climbed into the Olds, the big V-8 light­ing off with a deep rum­ble. He started to pull away, then stopped and rolled down the win­dow. “I know these days it’s all com­put­ers and giz­mos,” he said, point­ing to the Rap­tor. “But I like my cars the way I like my food.” He smiled. “Sim­ple and de­li­cious.” AM

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