Jeff Helenbrook considered restoring his Pierce-Arrow sedan, but he decided the torn upholstery patched with tape is part of the charm – along with rusted holders for flower vases by the windows and the little backseat clock with the hands stuck at 24 minutes after 1.
“It’s kind of shabby, but this is original from 1936,” he said of the car built at the long-defunct Elmwood Avenue factory in Buffalo. “It’s been said if you have enough money, anybody can restore a car, but you can’t go back to the original. They’re only original once.”
Helenbrook drove from Alexander with his son to park his Pierce-Arrow, which weighs about 6,000 pounds and can cruise comfortably at 65 miles an hour, and join the display along with 420 other relics for the Antique Automobile Club of America’s “National Eastern Spring Meet,” hosted by the Lake Erie Region for the first time in a decade.
Cars gleamed with polished chrome, buffed steel and sparkly paint, warming in the Saturday afternoon sun at parking lots on the University at Buffalo’s North Campus. It was one of a series of events that included contests for how intact a car’s original equipment was and a presentation about the 1908 Great Race from New York to Paris, won by George Schuster of Buffalo in an American Thomas Flyer.
People drove from as far away as Wisconsin and Virginia to show off cars, as old as a single-cylinder, 1904 Oldsmobile and as young as a 1987 Buick Regal. They booked up the rooms at the Buffalo Marriott Niagara for the weekend and stopped in at the Buffalo Transportation Pierce-Arrow Museum. A crew filming a pilot for new Discovery Channel TV show about appraising cars even made an appearance, said Tim Cryan, president of the local division of the AACA.
A highlight for him was the blue 1914 Detroit Electric, powered by battery.
“It’s silent. Everyone’s talking hybrid now,” he said. “A hundred years ago they had a hybrid in the Electric.”
John and Mary Kay Birtch of South Wales were surprised by the reception their 1953 DeSoto Firedome got from fellow car aficionados. The black car, with a front grill that looked like a toothy chrome smile, was the same kind used in the 1950s-based “Happy Days” TV show. Lots of people stopped to talk and tell them it was the kind their fathers drove.
Birtch had a more basic goal when he discovered his prize while shopping for an old car he could afford. “I just thought it would be fun to cruise around in,” he said.
The colors in the car show’s palette ranged from the subdued forest green of a stolid 1931 Model A Ford to a rounded, cartoony 1955 Customline Ford in brilliant turquoise and a sharp-edged midnight blue Jetson-like 1963 Oldsmobile Starfire with white leather seats slightly cracked with age.
“You float down the highway,” said its owner, Dave Decker of South Buffalo, pointing out the foot button by the brake pedal that could adjust the radio dial. “It’s like sitting in the living room in the recliner and driving it.”
For Decker and his brother, one of the best sights of the day was a 1950s-era Chevy truck, Australian built and one of the first made to looked like a car.
“That’s something you’ll never, ever see,” said Mike Decker.
Old car collecting is their hobby of choice because they love the unique designs. Modern cars aren’t as distinctive, they said.
“You can’t tell a Honda from a Chevy,” said Dave Decker, whose brother turned to the Starfire, with a round red light set like a star in the center of squared red taillights.
“This is art,” said Mike Decker. “It’s a sculpture, man.”
Dave Birchmire drove up from Pennsville, N.J., in a golden 1985 Corvette that accelerates to 100 mph with ease. It has cost him a few speeding tickets, but not too many.
“I’m an old man,” he smiled, thinking of police who have not ticketed him. “They give me a break.”