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Two men inspect under the hood of a dark teal classic car, parked on a green lawn with other old vehicles.

Photo by Chandler Zausner

  • A Classic Car Journey into Memory and Machinery
    Voices and Restorations from the Rhinebeck Antique Car Show & Swap Meet

    Shortly after sunrise, on a day in early May, a never-ending line of vehicles snake their way up a pastoral hill to take their place, fender to fender, with other moving works of art. The men unpack their coolers and lawn chairs and towel the dust of the road from their creations. Most sit alone but are open and eager to share their process and their motivations.

    The annual Rhinebeck Antique Car Show & Swap Meet is an unapologetically gendered celebration of craftsmanship and memory. Men of a certain age lounge in folding chairs gazing at the culmination of their American Dream, a car that symbolizes their patriotic pioneering spirit and the freedom of the open road. Gray-haired and goateed, they sport vintage car memorabilia and T-shirts that they’ve owned since they were young. It’s the first weekend of the show season, and more than 1,000 vintage and classic cars, hot rods, and custom pickups rally to this Hudson Valley, New York, small-town venue to showcase the latest restorations that have kept them off the road and in the garage during a snowy Northeastern winter. These men might be the last generation who tinker with vintage vehicles as an expression of family heritage and American car culture.

    For over fifty years, volunteers from six local car clubs have kept this event going. More than 10,000 spectators each day come to gawk at the amazing lineup, while restorers stand by to chat or visit with swap-meet vendors in search of automobilia. Some plan to visit the Car Corral, where hundreds of vehicles are up for auction, to bid on their own American Dream. The judged competition on the field is fierce, whether among customized hot rods or antique Model A’s, but most car collectors are happy to park alongside their fellow enthusiasts to flex their prized possession and discuss the progress they’ve made over the long winter months.

    Whether antique, vintage, or classic, the mythology of American car culture represents the freedom of the open road, the thrill of ownership, and a sense of homegrown pride that, for many, embodies the American spirit.

    Video by Chandler Zausner

    As president of the Mid-Hudson Valley Antique Automobile Club of America, Herb Lorenz has led the Rhinebeck car show for fourteen years. He even creates the yearly show poster. Lorenz enjoys the power of his candy-apple red ’68 Chevelle and touring in his Model A.

    “When [these collectors] went to college, they always loved that car but couldn’t afford it,” he explained. “They had bills and responsibilities, so later on, now they are comfortable, they have the income, they go and get that car of their dreams.”

    Car culture fuels a passion for the dream deferred that these customizers and restorers pursue as they craft vehicles of the past to recapture their memories of youth and wonder.

    A special feature of the show is a cavalcade of collectibles to engage passersby. Paul Tacy, who owns Packard Approved Vintage Preservation, was invited to bring a very special car to this show, a 1930 one-of-one Packard 745C, with only 24,000 original miles, in ideal museum-quality condition. Spectators are fortunate to experience Tacy’s penlight tour of the clever and modern innovations, from the Bijur lubrication system to the fitted cosmetics cabinet.

    “It’s tough to find people who understand the early combustion motors,” Tacy worries. “It’s definitely a lost art.”

    He points to a second Packard, also lovingly restored: “My father’s 1932 900, that little gray car right there, was his college car.” The embodiment of his family heritage and love of the Packard brand, these vehicles are emblematic of Tacy’s deep admiration for the craftsmanship and enduring design of this historic manufactory.

    A man sits on the side step of a black antique car.
    “My grandfather started out with Packard in the early 1900s,” says Paul Tacy, sitting next to his 1930 745C Packard. “Dad got us into cars as youngsters, especially barn finds. All we do and plan to do is work on Packards.”
    Photo by Chandler Zausner
    A man sits next to a green, wood-paneled station wagon, topped with luggage on the roof rack, with a poster for National Lampoon’s Vacation hanging on the wall behind it.
    “I’m just a car enthusiast,” says Joe Caldwell, with his “Truckster” movie car. “Always had muscle cars, but remembered all the TV movies that I loved in the ’70s and ’80s. I had a pretty rough childhood. luckily I was steered toward cars. It kept me off the street and steered my life in a different direction than where it was going.”
    Photo by Chandler Zausner

    Joe Caldwell has a nostalgia for more contemporary cars and has National Lampoon’s Vacation “Truckster” replica to display. He is quick to point out that, although he owns sixteen movie cars, he is not “in business.” A lover of the escapist comedy adventure movies of the ’70s and ’80s, after retiring from the police department, he began to collect iconic cars of the era. Caldwell survived a rough childhood with the support of some local car guys who “took me off the street and introduced me to the car world.”

    In 1983, when he was twelve, his father passed. Two months later, family friends insisted he come along to see National Lampoon’s Vacation when it was first released and, “it was the first time I had smiled since [my father] died.” That experience awakened a love of iconic movie cars that he now shares with an enthusiastic fanbase seeking to relive their own youth by touching a relic of their childhood.

    As a staple of this show, swap-meet dealers are key to finding the elusive part that is essential to each successful restoration. Daryll Stoval rests in the shadow of his trailer, gathering his energy for the next seeker. Fifty years of swap meets have taught him to expect a certain random pattern to sale days, and he remains confident.

    “It’s hard to tell,” he muses. “Stuff you think was going to sell doesn’t sell, and stuff you didn’t think would sell did sell. You never know. You never know what they’re looking for.”

    Although it’s hard to predict what shoppers want, Stoval has the depth of stock and knowledge to persevere. “If you bring a big variety, you might get lucky and sell something.”

    A 1938 new-old-stock grille, which has never been installed, holds pride of place in his booth, but his selection is wide. The day before, he had four big sales in ten minutes and considers the haul worth the effort. He enjoys seeing the same buyers every year and hopes to move some of the “heavier stuff” before the show closes.

    Among collectors, barn finds—forgotten vehicles neglected in outbuildings—are legendary. Les Thorly found his 1939 Chevy Super Sport wagon forty years ago, “down the road in a barn, pretty much rotted.” He spent weeks searching the fields for the missing door but soon embraced the challenge of replicating the missing woodwork on this classic early “Woodie,” rebuilding the body over five or six years and recreating the companion trailer to match. The vehicle was first purchased to transport pickers to local apple orchards. Diana, Thorly’s wife, calls it “the original SUV.”

    A woman and man pose arm in arm next to an old wood-paneled car.
    Les and Diana Thorly show off their 1939 Chevy wagon: “I brought it home forty years ago, found it down the road in a barn,” Les says. “It was all there except one door. I enjoyed doing the woodwork—took me about five or six years. It’s lucky I found it when I did because the barn was falling down.”
    Photo by Chandler Zausner
    A man poses next to a turquoise antique car with its hood popped up.
    Arthur Coleman speaks of his 1931 Model A Ford: “I bought the car in ’68. About ten years ago, I got it out and started working on it. Before I was ten years old, my father got me into it. When my father got out of the service, he picked up a couple of Model A’s and made them into one. I was about five years old.”
    Photo by Chandler Zausner

    Like many of the classic restorers, Arthur Coleman’s father taught him at an early age how economical it could be to rebuild the basic Fords. “There are still so many that it’s profitable to make replacement parts,” Coleman says, pointing out a double row of early Fords. He bought his 1931 Model A Ford Cabriolet in 1968, collecting parts in his basement and garage until ten years ago, when he finally put it together to confidently confront the interstate.

    The lasting heritage of car culture comes alive in one family collaboration. Bryan Blas and his sister, Joellen, “rhymes with watermelon,” are a picture-perfect period recreation to match their 1939 Buick Coupe.

    Joellen tells us, “My brother saw the ’39 in a movie, High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart, and he fell in love with it.”

    Bryan adds, “I was twelve years old, and all the police cars [in the film] were ’39 Buicks.”

    He continues to include his younger sister in his adventures as they dress the part of Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino in the film with appropriate period clothing and props. They are history enthusiasts. Bryan shares, “I love this car so much that I started studying the year 1939 and found out how fascinating that one year was.” Surrounded by memorabilia, they relate stories about revolutionary transmission innovations, Roosevelt-era politics, and the 1939 World’s Fair.

    “People’s attitude back then was so positive, in spite of the fact that they had just gone through a depression, and all they needed was some encouragement,” he continues. The siblings are among the classic-car enthusiasts who value the past enough to preserve the vehicles that are emblematic of the lost optimism they crave.

    A man and woman in 1930s period dress pose with a black antique car.
    Bryan and Joellen Blas dress the part with his 1939 Buick 1967 Rambler Rebel. “When I got out of the army, I saw one for $800 and I grabbed it,” Bryan says. “I fixed it up. I’ve had this car for thirty-five years. I love this car so much, and I fell in love with the era.” Joellen adds, “He asked me if I wanted to go with him, and I asked my mother for this dress. It was very contagious.”
    Photo by Chandler Zausner
    A man poses next to a short maroon car.
    Danny Johnson presents his 1935 Ford Humpback sedan: “It’s a show car built by Hollywood Hotrods. I made it run and drive. It’s called a taildragger, one of the first customs—elegant and low to the ground.
    Photo by Chandler Zausner

    It’s also possible to enjoy vintage customs from a purely aesthetic viewpoint. Danny Johnson’s “taildragger” began as a Hollywood Hot Rod show car. Hot Wheels inspired his love of customs— “just playing with toys, you know I’m a big kid.” Johnson enjoys the attention he gets driving his “rolling art” to shows from Texas to Florida and back to New York.

    Across the field, John Tonilino’s emerald and chrome 1952 Peterbilt truck was discovered as just the cab in a neighbor’s field, propped up on barrels. He spent his weekends on the road searching for spare parts and hand-built what he couldn’t find. He reflects, “I’ve been messing around with cars all my life, probably started when I was five years old.” Tonilino insists his sons are too busy to bother with old cars, in a way that suggests he wishes they weren’t.

    Another 1950s truck enthusiast, Danny Capuamo says that the finish on his 1950 Chevy pickup is not a paint job. “Everybody who owned this truck painted it, so I just started scraping.” He insists that his truck is an outside vehicle, only in the garage when he’s working on it. His father was in construction and drove this make and model truck when Capuamo was a small boy, and that memory is his attraction.

    “Muscle cars”—mid-’60s to early ’70s performance machines marketed to young drivers—are the childhood dream most popular on the field. Walt Horton always wanted a ’65 Pontiac GTO. “I just fell in love with it,” he says. “I finally found one in Texas, restored it in Florida, and just got it back here on Friday.” His first car was a 1949 Packard—“not exactly stylish.”

    Dom Dimetro has owned “plenty of muscle cars.” His 1970 z28 Camaro first came into his possession when he was in high school, forty-five years ago, with its factory orange paint and just 47,000 original miles. He insists that the car belongs to his son now, but it still lives in his garage because the “only time he gets to take it out is if I’m with him. I get worried.”

    A man poses next to a green antique car.
    “I’ve had trucks since 1976,” says John Tonilino, standing next to his 1952 Peterbilt. “I planned this for a lot of years. Building hot rods, paint, body parts—I spend a lot of time on the road looking for parts. You don’t see something like these every day. That’s why I built it.”
    Photo by Chandler Zausner
    A man poses next to an old truck with layers of blue, white, and red paint scraped away, plus brown rusty spots.
    “My father used to dabble, and he had one of these,” Danny Capuamo says, pointing to his 1950 Chevy pickup. “He was in construction, and that’s what he had. When COVID hit, this is what I did.”
    Photo by Chandler Zausner
    A man poses next to a bright red classic car with the hood and trunk popped open.
    Walt Horton shows off his 1965 Pontiac GTO. “My whole life, I worked around cars. As a young person, you could tinker around cars, change a motor, change a transmission. Now you have to be a computer technician.”
    Photo by Chandler Zausner
    Two men and a young girl pose in front of a classic car.
    Dominic and Dom Dimetro share custody of a 1970 Camaro. “I’ve had plenty of muscle cars,” Dom says. “I’ve had this car for forty-five years. I got all the stuff to make it back to original, but my son and I like it as it is.”
    Photo by Chandler Zausner
    Two men pose in front of a classic red car with the hood popped.
    “Dad did most of the mechanical work, and I did all the body work, the paint work,” says Mark Leonard, posing with his father, Ralph, and their 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1. “I’ve been doing it since I was fifteen.”
    Photo by Chandler Zausner

    Another father-son team, Ralph and Mark Leonard spent twenty years restoring the body and engine of their 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1. It sat primed in the garage for another ten years, until a niece’s bridal ride inspired the final cherry-red paint job. “He’s ninety-one, still doing body work his whole life,” Mark says. “It’s fun to drive. We get a lot of compliments. I’d never get rid of it.” Every weekend there is a car show, father and son go together.

    Further down the aisle, one customizer takes the Swinging Sixties spirit to the next level. Jim Prousalls’s ’67 Chevelle, with its big-block engine, custom flames, and personalized HOTWEEL1 license plate, draws the crowd. Although the entire car is a framework-up customization, Prousalls is most proud of his bodypainting skills and handmade interior.

    “I practiced,” he says with pride. “I like to work with my hands. Total restoration done by myself. It was trial and error. I didn’t want what everybody else had.”

    He points out the performance-enhancing nitrous oxide tanks in the trunk but confesses to trying the two 150-horsepower injectors only once. The reckless speed of a boosted muscle car is now tempered by an older man’s caution, but the thrilling potential remains. This is Prousalls’s third 1967 Chevelle, a classic muscle car from the year he was born.

    Many participants at the Rhinebeck Antique Car Show & Swap Meet have given themselves permission to be creative and open to artistic inspiration. Working to restore or customize their rides gives these men a sense of pride and a validation of the enterprising virtues of the American twentieth century. The power of a drag race and the thrill of a fast engine evoke a rush of adrenaline. The primal urge of the hunter is expressed by the search for hard-to-find components. The ingenuity needed to craft custom parts, dirty work, and the imagery of flames are also tied to the symbology of hard work done with style. For some older road warriors, the competition on the field takes the place of the high speed of the road.

    Men who find comfort and belonging at car shows worry that as mechanical knowledge is lost, opportunities for self-expression dwindle. As these practitioners age, car shows as a way of life and a vehicle for memory, artistic expression, and pride of creation are becoming endangered cultural practices. These aging enthusiasts worry that American car culture is an endangered heritage practice of materiality that, for them, unites memory and machinery. By perfecting a craft and working with their hands, these generations of men continue to explore childhood experiences and their own individuality.

    A man stands next to a classic car painted red with yellow flames.
    “I always wanted to learn how to paint,” says Jim Prousalls with 1967 Chevelle Super Sport. “The flames are definitely unique. I’ve been doing this since I was eighteen, nineteen years old. This is my third Chevelle—I really like the style. It’s the year I was born.”
    Photo by Chandler Zausner

    Chandler Zausner is a former multimedia intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage who holds a master’s of visual anthropology from the University of Southern California. As a cultural anthropologist and story collector, he explores emerging and marginalized cultures and spaces of cultural intersection.

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