Maybe collecting old car parts is a generational thing

But scanning tables of junk in search of a gem can pay off for hobbyists — more than justifying the investment of time

A Story Worth Telling

“The thrill is in the chase.”

— Popular old saying

Old car hobbyists can be an easily entertained bunch. Three-hour drives to a swap meet with nothing in mind to buy, just to look. Then coming home with a collection of rusty and dusty car parts unrecognizable to most people. All in a day’s fun.

“So, what did you score at the Conroe meet,” a friend asked last weekend. “Set of ’57 Ford hubcaps for myself and a ’52 Packard hood ornament for my friend, T-Mac,” I replied.

“Hubcaps,” my befuddled friend responded with a questioning look. “And, a hood ornament? What’s a hood ornament?” Worthy of mention is that said friend was maybe half my age, and let’s just say that old car parts is not one of his conversational strong suits. I sighed and responded, “You’re kidding, right?”

Maybe it’s a generational thing if you didn’t grow up knowing that early automobiles had radiator caps with a built-in thermometer mounted on top of the radiator where the driver could keep any eye on it to provide a ball-park idea as to when the car was about to overheat. That was an era when the radiator had nothing to do with the hood that opened to either side of the radiator rather than covering it.

It was also an era when “dash boards” contained little more than a speedometer crude by today’s standards and an on-and-off ignition switch — before there was a need for the term “instrument panel.”

Through the 20s and 30s, radiator cap thermometers became works of art that were focal points of the car’s styling.

Some were large and ornate often with wings or birds, and they were all either chrome or brass, back when cars were still real metal.

As cars became more modernized into the 40s and 50s, gauges moved inside the car and hoods grew to cover the radiator, but the artistic forms remained as adornments on the leading edge of the hood thus becoming “hood ornaments.” Designs grew to include elegant graceful birds, animals, even aerodynamic concepts mimicking airplanes, rocket ships and long sweeping spears with fins as reflections of the jet age.

While Cadillacs are T-Mac’s first choice in collector cars with a ’56 limo, ’67 convertible and a ’59 two-door hardtop in his garage, he’s fond of a hood ornament from any make, as long it’s “cool looking.”

Walking the swap meet in the spirit of the chase, scanning tables of junk in hopes of spotting a gem to justify the long drive, I saw the prize.

Lying among rusty parts and old tools languished the graceful form of a long-necked swan, curved neck and head down with long, backward flowing wings. With dulled chrome supporting a degree of surface rust, I had no idea what make or model of automobile it once adorned. However, while lingering in condition, it was still elegant in form.

A cell phone photo dispatched to T-Mac garnered a response within minutes. “How much,” he queried? “It’s a ‘52-year-only Packard.”

Packard was an American luxury automobile marque produced in the United States from 1899 to 1956. They bought the failing Studebaker company in 1953 and the final Packards were actually Packard badged 1958 Studebakers. The last Studebaker rolled off the assembly line in 1967.

I told him I didn’t know about a price, but I would find out.

Rule number one at swap meets: If you find something you like, either buy it or map the exact location of the vendor. Swap meets are like huge outdoor flea markets, just all cars and parts. Returning to the scene of something like a tired looking, faded chrome swan hiding in a box of car parts can be a challenge.

Once I was successful in locating the vendor again, negotiations were on. The thrill is in the chase, but half the fun is bargaining over prices. Deal done, the Packard swan was acquired, and the rusty old bird was headed toward a new home.

Thrilled with the find, T-Mac renewed his standing invitation for me to see his collection. When I do make the trip to the Longview area to see it, I’m thinking I’ll invite my young friend who didn’t know what a hood ornament was. And just maybe, we’ll make the trip in a car with hub caps ... before he asks me what a hub cap is.

—Leon Aldridge can be contacted at leonaldridge@gmail.com. Other Aldridge columns appear on his blog site at leonaldridge.com

But scanning tables of junk in search of a gem can pay off for hobbyists — more than justifying the investment of time

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