The American dream, revisited

Published 9:28 pm Saturday, May 21, 2011

I wrote last week about cars and the American dream, and I got a lot of good feedback from folks — admittedly, mostly men — who agreed with me that the American love affair with the automobile is the embodiment of that dream.

There’s just something about being behind the wheel exploring the nation’s highways and byways that speaks of the freedom we enjoy here in this great country. And the evolving design of American cars through the years speaks volumes about everything from the rising price of gasoline to the shrinking size of the American family.

Today’s cars are sleeker, smaller and more efficient than their forebears, reflecting the nation’s necessary fixation on economy in the face of $4-per-gallon gas and the growing percentage of the population that spends the vast majority of time tooling around on city streets, rather than cruising country roads and interstate highways.

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But it was not always so.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when automobiles the size of ocean liners carried families of six to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Niagara Falls and other exotic vacation destinations. There was a time when speedometers went up to 160 mph, and great finned beasts of steel hurtled along the asphalt ribbons behind throaty, gas-guzzling V-8 engines with enough power to launch a Saturn-V rocket.

Some folks, like me, look back on those days with fond memories of family camping trips, double dates and even the occasional speeding ticket. Others have actually kept the dream alive, rebuilding and restoring those old automobiles to the former glory as showpieces.

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with some of those people and the vehicles they love, and each time I’m reminded of just how American — and male — I am.

Saturday’s Shake, Rattle and Roll event in downtown Suffolk, for instance, showcased some of the hottest restored and reconditioned muscle cars, dragsters and street rods of the golden age of the American automobile.

Gleaming paint jobs and sparkling chrome lined both sides of a two-block section of North Main Street, and there was something to catch the eye of everyone who attended, whether they had an affinity for Chevys or Fords, sporty little two-seaters or four-door monsters that seemed to stretch the length of a city block. There was even an old Ford van with a racing engine that could drown out the sound of jets practicing their takeoffs and landings at Oceana Naval Air Station.

A recent interview with Suffolk resident Dwight Schaubach for the summer edition of Suffolk Living magazine gave me an opportunity to explore the collection that has resulted from one man’s obsession with America’s automotive art.

Schaubach has a stable of old immaculately restored Buicks, Cadillacs, Duesenbergs and even a Mack pickup truck at his home in the Hobson area, and the chance to get up close and personal with those vehicles in his garages was something of a dream come true for me.

If you share my interest in the cars of Detroit’s glory days, you’re in for a treat during the next couple of weeks, as we plan to run a collection of photos from the Shake, Rattle and Roll event in coming editions of the newspaper, and as we prepare to put the new edition of Suffolk Living on the newsstands at the beginning of June.

Maybe we can’t all live the dream inspired by those beautiful old cars, but judging from the crowd on North Main Street on Saturday, that doesn’t mean we’ve let that dream go.