For the love of cars

She was shiny and sleek, sheltered from the light rain that fell Saturday on the overhang at the entrance to the Houma-Terrebonne Civic Center, and in her time she was one of the most sought-after cars in the world.

The Deusenberg automobile was driven and owned by royalty from Europe as well as Hollywood; cinema greats like Clark Gable and Jimmy Cagney owned Deusenberg’s, as did the Chicago gangster Al Capone.

So on Saturday there she was, a red 1932 model with two separate windshields, one in front and one in back, the pride and joy of collector James Bartlett of Texas, who brought her all the way from Texas so that people could take a gander at her.

James was eager when asked to share what he could about the amazing example of automotive ingenuity, even helping a few kids here and there onto the seats.

“They built 480 of these brand new,” said James, figuring that brand new in 1932 the auto sold for about $17,000. Today it’s worth a whole lot more.

“It was owned by a wealthy widow in New York City,” James continued. “She was the widow of the chairman of the first company to sell automobile insurance in the U.S. It would have been shipped to Europe for touring in the summer season.”

The wealthy widow was one of the one-percenters of her time, having owned four Deusenbergs at one time, according to the account James gave.

At the Antique Automobile Club of America’s meet-up, held Saturday at the Houma-Terrebonne Civic Center, there were all kinds of cars, ranging from super-value antiques like the Deusenberg to more contemporary models, including the muscle cars that have come back into such popularity today.

Fred Duplechin, the local AACA member who helped put the meet together, says old cars appeal to several different types of people. Some collect or maintain the car that was the dream of their early years, only attainable or affordable at this point in their lives. For others it’s reliving a special time by owning or restoring the car that represents the first one they ever drove, or that perhaps belonged to a relative.

A Model T, a couple of Avantis – the convertible version which is very rare – some very handsome WWII-era Cadillacs and a 1961 hearse custom-built on an Oldsmobile base were among the cars people got to touch, ogle and even smell.

There were 1960s era Cadillacs with graceful tail fins, and several classic Corvettes, of course.

They were anything but the kind of cars we drive today – collectors call their nearly uniform styles and shapes “colored jellybeans” and I can’t disagree with them.

One of my greatest personal accomplishments, in my own mind, was learning how to identify cars by make and model when I was nine or ten years old. My university was the stretch of pavement between 73rd and 82nd streets in Jackson Heights, Queens, not too far from what is now Citifield.

I took the bus to St. Joan of Arc Elementary School during the week. But in nice weather I got to walk the distance from home to church in order to serve Sunday mass as an altar boy, leaving extra early so that I could dawdle. If I wasn’t sure what year a car was, I could always know by checking the tail light for the numbers. I don’t know if that works today. But it should because it’s much harder to tell one year from another anymore.

While walking the parking lot at the Civic Center I saw several gems. One reminded me of the Plymouth my Uncle Frank used to drive. Another was the model of Olds Cutlass like one my mom used to have. The 1963 Grand Prix was a ringer for the one my Uncle Mike drove, in which I took my first “formal” driving lesson at around the age of 14 or so. I nearly put my Uncle Mike through the windshield with my first application of its power brakes.

The visit did not last long as the rain began to fall harder. But for a few minutes I was transported, back to the time when some of these cars were parked on the sidewalk during my walking of the altar boy route. I could nearly smell the exhaust of the passing busses and the aroma of the few flowers that dared push themselves through soil to meet the cityscape.

The car show had done, for me, precisely what it was supposed to have done. And I was grateful. •