They were the first generation to come of age with their own cars, and now they want them back.
Across the country, middle-aged men are going to extraordinary lengths to locate the actual vehicles they drove decades ago. They are trolling online car classifieds, cold-calling junkyards and hiring lost-car detectives to help. When they get desperate, they're begging friends in law enforcement to run serial numbers and even sending instant messages to strangers who live near the last known person to own the car.
Dee Cole, 54, is preparing to call an ex-girlfriend he hasn't spoken to since he broke up with her decades ago, to ask if she has photos showing the license plate of his old 1966 Dodge Coronet 500. Joseph Bruno, 52, frequently roams around the San Francisco neighborhood where the last known owner of his dad's old Dodge Dart lived -- in 1972.
Standing in his garage outside Chicago recently, Alan Thompson looks at photos of his customized 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air hanging on the wall. He then counts more than a dozen car-show trophies the Bel Air won, displayed on shelves. The only thing missing is the car, which Thompson sold in 1965.
"I'm glad I have some memories, but I still wish I had the car," says the 66-year-old retired engineer. "I'd do anything to have it back."
To help the lovesick former owners, a number of lost-car discussion boards, Web sites and trackers have opened for business. For about $440 an hour, Simon Kidston, a former classic-car-auction president in Geneva, is helping clients scour the globe to track down everything from 1960s Ferraris to rare 1930s Bentleys. The Lost Car Registry in Clawson, Mich., a 5-year-old Web site devoted to "finding the ones that got away," has more than 700 postings for lost cars.
Still, the odds of finding one car among the more than 244 million vehicles currently registered are slim. Cars from decades ago weren't as durable and technologically advanced as current models, making them likely to have been scrapped. Privacy laws governing motor-vehicle records have made tracking old cars extremely difficult. Keith Ingersoll, the founder of the Lost Car Registry, says he's aware of only five reunions for users of his site so far.
"It's like trying to find a needle in the haystack," he says.
A guy thing
Most of the men pining for their old cars were among the more than 102 million war babies and baby boomers born in the U.S. between 1936 and 1964. In the 1960s, auto makers took advantage of rising incomes among middle-class families and the shift to the suburbs to sell more niche cars. They began building models aimed at young people: pony cars like the Ford Mustang and muscle cars like the Pontiac GTO.
"They were the first generation to grow up with cars that actually symbolized your age and your lifestyle," says David Gartman, a professor of sociology at the University of South Alabama. "That made for a very special attachment that we probably won't find in other generations."
Marketing researchers have found that all people tend to form preferences for things like music and clothing during late adolescence and early adulthood, and carry these tastes with them throughout their lives. But when it comes to cars, the tendency has been found to be statistically significant only in men, says Robert Schindler, a marketing professor at New Jersey's Rutgers School of Business, Camden.
They show "what we call the raging-hormone phenomenon," says Morris Holbrook, a professor of marketing at Columbia Business School. "Young adult boys are kind of all hyped up with all kinds of sexual energy, and they have to have a place to put it."
Jeffrey Weaver bought his first car in 1965, a 1966 candy-apple red Ford Mustang GT K-code fastback. He replaced it in 1968 with a bigger Pontiac GTO after getting married. But as the years passed, he found himself reminiscing about his Mustang. Six years ago, newly retired, the 62-year-old in California, Pa., decided to find his car. He contacted Mustang clubs and motor-vehicle departments and placed ads in local papers and car magazines and on Web sites.
After four years, he gave up and bought a similar model for $43,000. He sold it for the same amount within a year. "It was a beautiful Mustang, but it didn't feel like it was the one," he says. Weaver is still looking for his original car.
"I tell him he's trying to find his youth again," says his wife, Loures Weaver.
Starting a search
To find the 1954 Ford F100 pickup he had restored with his dad in high school, Ben Thomas III started in 1997 with the man to whom his father sold the truck 10 years earlier. With the help of the white pages and the Georgia division of motor vehicles, he found the next two owners, but couldn't go any further.
In 2004, the 41-year-old quality control technician in Rockingham, N.C., learned a friend was working for a government agency and asked her to run the vehicle identification number. She obliged, asking him not to tell anyone -- it was illegal for her to give out personal information -- and gave him the name and address of the last registered owner, a man in Ludowici, Ga. This man's phone number was unlisted, so Thomas decided to track down Ludowici residents online and send them instant messages asking if they knew the owner or the truck. The first person he tried did. Thomas finally found and bought the truck for $5,500 -- despite the fact that the seller, 47-year-old Rodney Jacobs, had just bought it weeks before.
"I really had wanted the truck, but his story just hit my heart pretty hard," Jacobs says.
The Internet has made searching somewhat easier. Some of the most effective sites are focused on specific models, like 428CobraJet.org, dedicated to 1968 to 1970 Ford Mustangs with the 428 Cobra Jet engine option. Many of these sites keep registries of past and present owners, searchable by VIN, and have "lost and found" discussion boards.
However, sites for vehicle-history reports, like Carfax.com, generally don't have data for cars built before 1981, when the government standardized the VIN system. The federal Driver's Privacy Protection Act of 1994 made it illegal for state motor-vehicle departments to give out personal information except in certain situations, "mere curiosity about a car not among them," says Chris Hoofnagle, a consumer-privacy law expert at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.
Pining for the past
Unable to find any of the original paperwork for the 1966 Dodge Coronet 500 he had in high school, Seattle stay-at-home dad Dee Cole has focused most of his four-year search efforts on trying to determine its VIN. He checked his high-school yearbooks for pictures that might show the car's license plate. Recently he searched through photo albums at his mother's house "under the pretense of family history," but found only a picture of a side profile of the car.
Next, he will check with the national office of his parents' old insurance company to see whether they have the Coronet's VIN. If all else fails, he plans to track down his ex-girlfriend.
"I'm beginning to think my karma for leaving the girl is never finding the car," he says.
Bill Sherk, 65, found his old 1940 Mercury on Jan. 2, 1994, after six years of wandering through car shows, placing newspaper ads and tracing the car's path owner by owner. As the newspaper columnist and retired high school history teacher in Leamington, Ontario, stood alone with the rusty convertible in the current owner's garage for more than an hour, the memories came flooding back.
He saw a fleck of white paint left from when he decorated the running boards and a dozen other parts he had put on the car. He recalled sitting atop the front seat with the top down shortly after he bought the car in the summer of 1959, his hands on the windshield and his feet steering the car. He remembered when the hood flew off while he was driving on the highway and when he set his girlfriend's front lawn on fire by revving the engine instead of honking the horn. The words from an old Jimmie Rodgers's song, "someday the man I used to be will come along and call on me," played through his head.
"I was, I felt, 17 again," Sherk says.