2 September 2010

Havana on the Pacific

The clock has stopped in Portland, Ore., where 40- and 50-year-old cars still serve as daily drivers.

There’s a wonderfully profound billboard outside a little church in McGill, Nevada, that’s enough to make you want to hear the preacher on Sunday. It says, “Nothing is eternal, save the present.”

A car guy or gal looking around Portland, Oregon, might have the same idea. This compact leafy city with its moderate, practically English climate seems to have thrown away the calendar. Among the brightly colored Czech-built streetcars and arrogant cyclists, hundreds of 40- to 50-year-old cars jostle with newer, anonymous tin. If it runs, it’s a daily driver. The situation is not unlike Havana, Cuba, where, for entirely different reasons (a 50-year blockade), old cars simply aren’t allowed to die.

Portland offers an added bonus to lovers of old cars: This greenest of green cities has no emission test for cars built before 1975. That pretty much guarantees their survival in a town that does not salt the roads and seldom sees temperatures above 90 degrees or below freezing for more than a week each year. As a result, cars do not rust – unless they are predisposed to that weakness, like Fiats, Alfa Romeos and Renaults – and they can be maintained almost indefinitely.

Until 1990, Oregon had a rolling 25-year emissions requirement. Halting that at 1974 models consigned battered newer cars to the scrap heap when they failed emissions tests. It also boosted the values of older cars, which are exempt and simpler to maintain.

Guy Recordon’s daily driver is a 1956 Pontiac Chieftain nine-passenger wagon. He found it on eBay in Ventura, California, seven years ago, a oneowner car he was able to buy for $2,500. It’s a basic 316ci V-8, 3-speed wagon with no power steering or power brakes, but rust free, with 107k miles on it.

“It had never been messed with; all I did was replace the headliner and carpet,” he says. Basic economics and the city’s quirky sense of style make old cars a sensible alternative, especially for younger owners, according to Recordon, the owner of Guy’s Upholstery.

“It’s a hipster thing,” he says outside his shop on what has become trendy NE Alberta Street. “Lots of kids in their late 20s can’t afford a Toyota Prius, but they can buy a good 1960s Dodge Dart or a Mercury Comet for $900 and no DEQ test. They’re more fun to drive than a modern car and there’s quite a subculture.”

Recordon also has an explanation for the survival of compact domestics and the equally old imports that also line the city’s side streets. If you’re handy with tools, you can revive and maintain a 1960s Toyota Corona, Datsun 510, Volkswagen Beetle, original Mini, Austin America or Morris Minor.

“A lot of old people bought their last cars in the 1960s or ’70s and the cars ended up sitting in the garage. Then the old folks die and the family sells the car. Quite often these were second cars that didn’t get much use. As an example, there are a lot of low-mileage Dodge Darts around; you just can’t kill that slant-six,” he says.

Sports cars like 1960s and ’70s MGBs and Midgets, Triumph Spitfires and Fiat 124 Spiders have graduated from being street-parked daily drivers to being garaged and restored or merely parted out. They tend to be in either much better or worse condition than their fixed-roof siblings, mostly due to the replacement cost of soft tops effectively totaling a run-down car. But while they may be rusty, they are usually repairable.

Part of the reason for the eclectic mix of cars in Portland is its history as a port of entry for imports. Japanese Toyota and Nissan and Korean Kia and Hyundai models still come to the United States through the huge lots along the Willamette River, where they generally only stay for 24 hours before being loaded on trains.

In years past, Portland was the distribution center for British Leyland cars, recalls Monte Shelton, who has been a car dealer in the city since the late 1950s and was a British Leyland, Jaguar and Rolls-Royce dealer for more than 25 years.

“We brought Triumphs and MGs into Portland and Jaguars came up from San Francisco. British motorcycles used to be distributed from the warehouse across the street from my store,” he recalls. “Austins and Rovers and Triumphs would come here and be sent to dealers in Boise, Spokane and Medford. Portland’s always been a hotbed for sports cars.”

Apart from the moderate climate, which has ensured the survival of so many older cars, there’s also been the issue of intermittent parts and service for some of the obscure makes. Orphan cars that broke down early were likely to be pushed to the back of the owner’s garage, in the hope a solution would miraculously arise. Anybody who could repair such cars had a cadre of loyal owners who would often sell their cars if their mechanic died or retired.

When expert British car mechanic Harold Dick died this year, Susan Hebert reluctantly decided it was time to sell the 1967 Sunbeam Minx that she’d owned for 30 years.

Dick’s death also means the 1952 AC Buckland Tourer (one of 20), which had been at his shop off and on since the 1960s, will likely find a new home, along with a 1934 Standard Nine sedan and 1930 MG M-Type Midget roadster in the showroom.

The Renault business in Portland took a fearful hit a few years ago when longtime mechanic Larry Lockwood died. The expert was passionate about keeping Renaults going when nobody else could, and his garage yielded at least one dusty A310 Alpine after his death. I recall him bemoaning the Renault spares situation when I had him find parts for my unrusty 1979 Le Car. “The trouble is, wrecking yards don’t even keep these,” he complained. “They come in, and it’s straight to the crusher.”

Karen Karlsson’s gray 1964 Renault Caravelle has been a familiar sight in the northwest part of the city since 1978, when her parents drove it out from Ohio for her. Her Uncle Skip had bought it new in Paris and sent it back home.

Portland’s British car owners are luckier, with a number of reliable shops (which is ironic, considering that the cars aren’t). The late Stan Huntley’s FASPEC parts store looked after British sports car drivers for more than 20 years. He had a nose for finding obscure cars – or sometimes they found him – and once turned up an immaculate 21,000-mile 1951 Humber Hawk. It ran like a clock and he parked it proudly outside his business, where a truck driver misjudged the corner and took off the left front fender. Try finding one of those.

If there’s one car that symbolizes Portland’s affection and respect for old cars, it is a 1938 Buick Special, parked on a tree-lined street in the bucolic suburb of Sellwood. From the moss and leaves underneath it, the four-door sedan clearly hasn’t run in years, yet it’s completely unmolested. Its historic plates, which never expire, mean that it won’t be towed or ticketed. In front of its owners’ Victorian house, it seems almost a shrine to a more gracious age.
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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Fall 2010 issue of Hagerty magazine.

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