Virginia loves its classic cars. Every year, there are dozens of events scheduled around the state to celebrate everything from the Model-T to muscle cars.
A Virginia author says automobiles are key to our past, and he’s written a book that details the history of Detroit, the Commonwealth and a 1957 Chevy wagon owned by more than a dozen Virginians.
During his years as a reporter for the Virginian Pilot, Earl Swift had an idea.
“I, like many people, drove a succession of beaters through college and in my 20’s, and often find myself wondering whether these complete rust buckets had ever been decent, worthy pieces of machinery and when they were, who drove them. And that kind of thinking eventually led me to think it might be a cool story to find one car and trace it back through everybody who’s owned it, and tell a bigger story around that otherwise unrelated fraternity of people.”
And he knew that love of cars was one of the few things Americans had in common.
“I mean we’re the most automotive people on the planet. The automotive experience is one of the few things that bind an otherwise disparate population.”
So he set out to find a single vehicle through which to tell the story of automobiles and Virginia after the Second World War. Working through the classified ads of his newspaper, he found a ’57 Chevy.
“If you look at the entire history of the automobile from its very first wheezy, spindly incarnation in 1893 or so to now, the ’57 model year falls right at the half way point.”
And it’s a flashy - some might say sexy car.
“It’s got as much chrome as West Africa strapped to the front of it, and it’s got all these weird nods to military aviation, which really kind of takes you back to its jet age origins. It’s got mock machine guns slotted into its hood, it’s got those enormous fins that evoke the tail of a cold war fighter, an instrument array that evokes a fighter planes cockpit.”
But Earl Swift wasn’t sure he could find the car’s many owners. He sent the vehicle identification number to the Department of Motor Vehicles to see if that agency could help.
“And a couple of days later I got a manila envelope in the mail, and there were two title transfers in it, which DMV in typical DMV fashion had redacted of any useful information whatsoever -- names, addresses, everything removed from the people involved in these sales, except that I found that when I held the paper up to the fluorescent lights in my office at the right angle, the cheap marker that they used became transluscent.”
Using the two names he could see, Swift began seven months of detective work. He found a dozen former owners who became the subject of several newspaper stories, but the narrative lacked a central, compelling character for a book. Years later, after speaking to a journalism class at Old Dominion University, Swift was approached by a student who said his father now owned the Chevy. The man’s name was Tommy Arney, and Swift had actually met him.
“I met him in 1993 when he owned a gogo bar in Norfolk and was engaged in a wrestling match with the Alcoholic Beverage Control board over an arcane regulation that said he could not serve hard liquor in the presence of a woman’s exposed midriff or buttocks.”
Arney won that suit and Swift’s admiration.
”He is what my dad would call a rough customer. He’s a two time felon, a fifth grade dropout, and when the story opens he owns a classic car lot - some people would call it a junkyard - on the North Carolina line. Tommy is undereducated by traditional standards, but an incredibly smart man.”
And an incredibly good character to help tell the story of Swift’s Chevy. The book - Auto Biography - is now out in paperback. Swift is a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and thanks to Tommy Arney’s meticulous restoration, the car is still on Virginia’s roads.