I saw a 1958 Chevy Cameo last weekend. For those who don’t know your classic vehicles (like me), a 1958 Cameo looks like that picture on the left. Old trucks don’t normally get me excited, but this one had exactly 1.3 miles on its odometer. Fifty-five years old, and not even two miles of use.
I saw five hundred other classic cars that weekend, as well: a 1928 Durant with wooden-spoked wheels; a rusted ’47 Dodge with a grill like a semi truck; entire lineups of pickups from back when the frames were made with real iron and the thought of a government bailout would have made the Big Three laugh.
This was the Lambrecht Auction. I was in Pierce, Nebraska, and the owners of the old Lambrecht dealership were auctioning off all the vehicles they had stored for decades. Mr. Lambrecht never sold a trade-in while he ran his business. Instead, they wound up in his field or his garage. The ones in the field aged like you would expect a car to age when left in the open for fifty-plus years: busted windows, rusted-out floors, ripped upholstery. One truck even had a tree growing through its bumper.
Those in the garage fared better—some still had the original seat covers. And the Cameo was not the only vehicle with a single-digit mileage. Those odometers caught the media’s eye, and The New York Times, USA Today, NPR, and a host of other news organizations ran stories about the auction and built it into a once-in-a-lifetime event.
As a result, Pierce, a farming town with a population under two thousand, exploded. More than twenty-thousand people came to see Lambrecht’s vehicles, and they came from Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, Florida, California—even a few from Sweden and Australia. Hotels booked full months ago; everyone with a field or a big enough yard sold parking spots; food vendors and radio stations and even the History Channel showed up. Rumors claimed that Jay Leno had scoped out the auction ahead of time, and that seventeen Lear Jets had landed in Omaha just for the event. Someone swore he saw the Williams sisters. Throughout the weekend, traffic clogged the two-lane country road that ran past the auction field.
Let me clarify—I did not go there to bid. A relative disinterest in classic cars, combined with a not-so-relatively small bank account threw that out the window. A hundred and forty thousand for the Cameo was a bit out of my price range.
I went to help Heather Curtis, a photographer I met while hitchhiking. We sold photos on canvas and handed out thirty-five hundred postcards to car enthusiasts from around the world. And while I was there, I discovered yet another subculture in this world that keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Everyone has seen a classic car show or a few proud owners cruising through town, but I had never really known the extent of the old car community. These people can glance at a vehicle and tell you the year, what’s special about that particular year’s model, and how much the car should go for at auction. They know how to pull dents out of frames and restore rusted floorboards. They know where to find classic paint and fabric. Some of their cars are hobbies; others are investments. Buy an old Dodge Dart, do some restoration work, and sell it for three thousand more a year later.
Some of these people chase auctions across the country.
“What do you think for this weekend, honey?”
“Oh, I don’t know. We could go to Barrett-Jackson’s auction?”
“I’m not really feeling it.”
“Let’s just find a few local ones, then. Should we take the Chevelle or the Model A?”
That’s not exactly true. If you’re going to Barrett-Jackson, which lasts eight days and draws a crowd ten times bigger than the Lambrecht auction, you’d have made your plans long ago.
Last weekend, a handful of these people paid hundreds of dollars for old yardsticks from the Lambrecht dealership. Yes, five hundred dollars for one wooden yardstick. You couldn’t even use some of them, thanks to warping. Others in the antique car community own thousands of old license plates, and since the first digits used to correspond to county, they play the market for local plates. If it starts with 40, it’s an old Pierce plate.
This community fascinated me. It didn’t hook me—I doubt I will ever own a vehicle older than I am—but I like knowing that I could plunge into this culture and not touch bottom. Bill Watterson, even though, as far as I know, he never owned an antique car, said it best:
All photos by Heather Curtis. Used with permission.