Last weekend I took a trip about 40 miles north of Chicago, into the town of Zion, Il. Zion is a small town located on the shores of lake Michigan and nestled up to the Illinois border with Wisconsin. It’s not all that far from Chicago’s city limits, but the surroundings, and the scenery on the drive up, make it seem like a world away. I was making the to visit Zion’s Nostalgia days car show, but with a refreshing cool breeze coming off the lake, it was just as much an opportunity to escape the suffocating heat in the city that weekend. This was an event that is decidedly outside of my comfort zone. A hopeless city boy myself, born and raised in Chicago, it wasn’t the small town setting that caused me to feel out of place. My disjointed feeling came from, ironically, the cars themselves. As someone who loves cars, I appreciate all types and eras, but my knowledge is far from encyclopedic. Especially when it comes to old American cars of the 1950’s, 1960’s or earlier, I admittedly know relatively little. The world of referencing engines by cubic inches of displacement, a fondness for chrome, or *gasp* carburetors, is all completely foreign to me. I come from the world of cars from the 80’s and 90’s, and this show where “they don’t make them like they used to” is the overriding sentiment, stands in stark contrast. I wanted a chance to get out and see something I don’t usually see, and maybe learn a thing or two about this world of old American iron. While you still aren’t likely to see me in an old Chevelle talking about a new Edelbrock carb and manifold for my 427, I did see some pretty amazing cars that even I appreciated. Here’s a few that caught my eye.
I have made the assertion that some cars stand out because they are incredibly clean, rare or well built, but others stand out because they project a certain attitude or character. The first generation Corvette below is one of those high character cars. It has the outward appearance of something that was found sitting in a farm field, half covered in dirt, topped with straw, maybe a mouse or two nesting inside it. You’d be forgiven if you thought the owner simply dusted it off, and by some measure of good luck, was able to get it started on site and drive it to the show the same morning. That, however, is not the case. According to the owner, this is the look you get when you “just drive it for the last 38 years”. What you see in this faded, cracking paint, caked with road grime, is simply an old Corvette that has lived a full life. It is Keith Richards in automotive form, a hard fast life, full of adventure, it wears it’s weathered aging facade as a badge of honor. The owner of this Vette was equally full of personality, an outgoing and gregarious gentleman who was happy to share stories about the car; both it’s mechanical underpinnings, as well as an adventure or two had in it. As he explained the drivetrain details, I must have developed a glazed over ‘deer in headlights’ look, because more than once he stopped to ask me “you know what that is?” while going over certain features. Like I said, not my comfort zone. When I confessed I didn’t know what it was, a fresh deluge of terminology and components I had no familiarity with sprang forth. I was thoroughly lost, but the gist of it was that he made some key drive train modifications that gave the old C1 some better reliability and a bit more quickness. After enjoying a couple of stories, including how the old ignition in his car would make his neighbor’s TV flicker when the car was running (bunny ear antenna, tube screen days, you kids wouldn’t understand), I left with a smile on my face but not much more educated in this world I’m afraid.
I have a pretty strong dislike for SUV’s and crossovers that in more recent times is growing toward an outright hatred. Hatred, because they seem to be on a course to phase out standard cars in this country in the near future. I mention this, because the car pictured below represents what could have been. To me, a station wagon is every bit as capable as most SUV’s from a utility standpoint, and probably better to drive from a performance stand point. The Chevelle wagon below, could have been…no, should have been, the genesis of America’s favorite utility vehicle and family hauler. I mean, look at it, it’s majestic! I defy you to find an SUV that strikes a more bold silhouette, a more assertive stance than this Chevelle. This giant slab of silver painted steel, sits like the monolith from 2001 Space Odyssey laid flat with some wheels slapped on it. It is glorious. The red interior pops, and the amount of space within would rival even 7 passenger SUV’s of today. I see this wonderful machine and think of what could have been. Seriously people, start buying wagons and stop trying to “see over traffic” in boring SUV’s! Nobody ever snapped necks by pulling up in a Chevy Traverse, but in this big, bad ass slab of steel, everyone will be craning necks to see.
Another Corvette got my attention, this time a C3 from 1975. I had a chance to chat with the owner of this beautiful golden hued convertible, who drives and enjoys the car frequently. That beautiful golden paint is predominantly original, save for some resprayed bumpers and a couple of touched up spots, quite impressive given how good it looks over 40 years later. The owner of this Corvette opted to have a completely modernized drivetrain swapped into his car, dropping in a ZZ6 small block crate engine, turn-key swap that generates over 400 horsepower. The result is a C3 that runs better, faster and more reliably than any of that vintage ever did from the factory. The impetus was the constant litany of repairs and trouble the old running gear gave him. The unfortunate reality of the time period, it was choked by new emission standards and haphazard/lazy engineering that hallmarked the complacent domestic makes of the day. He decided to tap HP Performance in Mundelein, IL to make the change happen, and after several months he now has something he can truly enjoy. I personally think this is the perfect formula, the C3 Corvette still stands as the most beautifully styled generation in my opinion, but never had the performance chops to compliment it’s looks. Now this happy owner can enjoy a nice drive with a smile on his face, instead of a nervous anticipation of “what might go wrong today”.
The rat rod sect of cars is something that has always intrigued me. The wild looks, the ingenuity of some of the builds, and the always eye catching aesthetic never ceases to amaze me. One in particular at the show, especially amazed. This car looks as though it rose from a pile of scrap metal and car parts organically, springing to life and taking shape as something car-like. You peek into the interior and see that the base of the car seat is literally the only thing between you and the asphalt. The steering wheel a less than ergonomic toothed gear, a brake pedal takes shape from a heavy duty link chain, all of it covered in raw rust or well worn paint. This car feels alive, not something someone would actually drive, but perhaps a sentient machine that drives itself. It is easily one of the most impressive rat rods I think I’ve ever seen.
After walking the half mile long stretch of Sheridan road that hosted the show in downtown Zion, I couldn’t help but take away a couple thoughts from the event. The cars on display were almost entirely U.S. made examples, that spanned many decades of this country’s history. You could see in front of your eyes, the vast changes that took place in vehicle design and styling. Beauty is subjective, but when they say they don’t make them like they used to, it is objectively true, they really don’t. I like my modern cars, I find many of them to be beautiful even, but without question I can appreciate the styling and history of these older machines. These after all, laid the ground work, in many instances they catapulted automotive history forward into some incredible achievements today. It was like walking a physical timeline of American history. It instills in you a sense of pride for the country we call home. It struck me as well, the crowd enjoying the show, like the cars on display, was incredibly varied with the common bond of being American. Seeing the incredibly diverse mix of people in the crowd, enjoying the sights of all these different machines; reminds me that for the most part, we all love this place, for better or for worse. The cars mirror the country in a way. Some things in the past, didn’t work so well, we found ways to do them better. Other things in the past have a certain charm and beauty, that we seem to have lost or forgotten along the way, but we can still look back on fondly. What I saw last Saturday, was America. I saw a crowd widely varied in ethnicity and skin tone, overheard several languages spoken other than English, and saw these different groups of people sharing stories, sharing a laugh, and sharing a love for these cars. This country, however imperfectly, like the cars on display that weekend, bring together this wild, wonderful mix of humanity in a way that I don’t believe happens anywhere else in the world. However troubled and ugly the political discourse becomes in much of the media or social media, I like to cling to this snapshot of what I saw, and hope that the truth that I see, is the one we all realize. A beautiful summer day, cool lake breeze carrying the smell of charred meats, and a mix of doo wop music, 80’s glam rock, and spanish hip hop carrying over a classic small town America main street; the country we call home is a magical and confusing place that we should all appreciate, even if we don’t always fully understand it.
-photos and writing: Robert Sixto