Yes, the road.

Yes, the road.
Eagle Nest, New Mexico. “People like to drive because driving is actually and symbolically an almost perfect mechanism for escape…there is probably no human being who does not have troubles, real or imagined, from which he at times feels the need to flee.” George R. Stewart.


My photo
Brooklin, Maine, United States
We own a 1975 GMC Sierra Grande 15 in Maine and a 1986 Chevrolet Custom Deluxe 10 in West Texas. Also a pair of 1997 Volvo 850 wagons. Average age in the fleet is 28 years--we're recycling. I've published 3 novels: THE LAW OF DREAMS (2006), THE O'BRIENS (2012), and CARRY ME (2016). Also 2 short story collections: NIGHT DRIVING(1987) and TRAVELLING LIGHT (2013). More of my literary life is at I was a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study for 2012-13. I'm an adjunct professor at Colorado College and in the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte. In 2015-16 I was a Fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The Autoliterate office is in Car Talk Plaza in Harvard Square, 2 floors above Dewey Cheatem & Howe. SUBSCRIBE TO THE AUTOLITERATE DAILY EMAIL by hitting the button to the right.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Custom Deluxe Redux

Hector Sanchez painted the Custom Deluxe on Friday and did what looks like an awfully good job, according to David Sudderth and Rocky Rojo, our men on the ground in Marfa.  David took these photos, and I spot his 1976 Scottsdale parked across the street. Ricky is doing a transmission overhaul and is babysitting the truck, which we plan to use it next winter as our West Texas transportation.
             I love recycling old trucks--this is a 1986---which is extremely possible in W Texas, where old originals are dusty, but rarely rusty. Thanks to Hector for an excellent job.
            During the period the truck was in HS's shop, wildfires were raging all across far-West Texas, and HS was doing duty as a volunteer fireman. The Rockhouse fire just missed Marfa and provided a few very tense days. Other parts of Presidio County burned and many people lost homes in Fort Davis in the largest wildfire in Texas history.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Owl's Head: Galaxies, Corvairs, and Country Squires

I entered my second-ever car show yesterday. The first was in Ventura, Calif. some years back when I had the 1969 Brookwood wagon, and everyone else had rat rods and lo-riders.  Yesterday we 3 drove down to Rockland ME in the 1976 Sierra Grande 15, to a pre-1990 Chevy & Ford meet at the Owl's Head Transportation Museum.  The truck is of course a GMC, not a Chevy, but I figured they would let me in, and they did.
           The Museum is a gem. They have a Smithsonian-calibre collection of cars, trucks, tractors and planes. Everything is very well displayed, the staff and volunteers are knowledgeable and friendly: it's a serious museum that's a very fun place to spend a couple of hours. One of the things you learn--or are reminded of--is our era's capacity to drive full-speed ahead on technological change, once we take a couple of millenia or so to get the basic platforms and concepts down. I was looking at the reconstruction of a  Bleriot X1 airplane from 1909, which is fabric and rubber and varnished wood, bicycle wheels, and what could be the engine out of my lawn mower, plus a lot of daring, hope, and glue. It looks like a big bug. Staring at it, I found myself thinking that, yikes, 40 years after this machine flutterd briefly across the sky, at a couple hundred feet of altitude, men were zooming around in Sabre jets. And twenty years after that they were docking vehicles in space, and landing on the moon.
         The show was open  to everyone. I expected more exhibitors to turn up but the weather was daunting, the way it's been all spring: foggy, with a  8 knots of SE wind blowing more and more cool grey stuff off the ocean. Still, we parked beside a nice little 1961 Corvair wagon.

...and there were some more interesting cars and trucks in the show.
             But I have to say, I long ago tired of looking at the 1955-57 Chevrolet cars, especially the over-restored ones, which I find about as exhilirating as a brand new Hyundai; i.e., not very. And I'm kind of bored with the whole "nostalgia-1950s" trap which a lot of old-car culture seems to be stuck in. Let's move on. I never want to hear "At the Hop" again, please.
          I guess my favorite era for cars is the early Sixties. I was six years old in 1960. My assigned place in the family car was directly behind my father, and when I wasn't looking out my window, I was watching his hands steering the car, and trying to figure out how he did it. I developed an obsession with steering wheels. My father's hands on the wheel...that, clearly, was where the power was, and that's where I wanted my hands to be: the confident captain in control of the ship.  Maybe that period of early-middle-boyhood is always going to be a car guys' favorite era; the one that really settles in deep.  Boys/fathers/cars: it's a complicated relationship and I've explored it a little in a essay called Love Cars. And I'd like to post some contributions from other writers on that subject.
           When I left home in 1973, in a Ford Pinto from a drive-away agency, heading for Alberta and a job on a cattle ranch, the last thing my father said as I was going out the door was, "Don't drive at night. That's when all the nuts are out on the road."
           Of course I had to title my first book Night Driving.
             I was lucky: American cars of my early middle-boyhood, 1960-63, had recovered their cool from the cranky excess of the late 1950s. They were smooth, modern fliers, not chrome-laden gunships. So one of the beauties of the Owls Head show for me was this sleek 1961 Ford Galaxie Starliner.

My other favorite at the show wasn't even in the show: it was this 1968 Country Squire wagon, which belong to the Owl's Head Museum, and which has never been used for anything but picking up pilots who land on the museum's airstrip in private planes, then ferrying them to the exhibits. Hence the orange checkered flag and the rooftop light. It has less than THREE THOUSAND miles on the clock and is lovingly maintained by volunteers in unrestored, original condition. It has the 390 engine. Seatbelts are still covered in plastic from the factory. I've always had a thing for station wagons, and this is about as good as it gets. I love good vinyl interiors ("investment-grade vinyl", a friend calls it) and resent that it has been displaced in car-world, first by yukky velour, then by low-quality leather from a zillion Chinese cows.
          When I bought the only new car in my life, my 1997 Volvo 850 wagon, was really tipped me over was a) finding a station wagon with a 5-speed manual transmission and 2)vinyl seats--not velour, or leather --which is something I've never seen an another 850 of that era.

BB and HBB came along on the 90-minute drive down to Rockland and Owl's Head, which made the whole day a fun adventure. The fact that BB is willing to tolerate this car/truck thing and even, sort of, enjoy it, says a lot about the renaissance woman she is. She would really rather be looking at art, or making art, (late afternoon we went to the opening of  Cig Harvey's photography show at the Dowling Walsh gallery in Rockland) but BB is always willing to consider the aesthetics of Fords and Chevys; and to lust for faux-woodgrain station wagons; and to co-pilot elderly pickup trucks down the coast of Maine in chill May fog.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

More from Marfa

Hector Sanchez is making progress on the 1986 Custom Deluxe. He sent these photographs today from his shop in Marfa, Texas where the truck is being repainted.  Hector is a very thorough guy and one of those people who seem to have a gift for doing what they do--it's not just a job, it's a calling. I look forward to seeing the cars and trucks coming out of Hector's shop in the future. I think he's got some big ideas. Meanwhile, the old Chevy is looking pretty darn good.

I like originals: so, steel wheels, and stock hubcaps.

Between it's schoolbus-yellow factory fleet color, and the aged primer gray it wore when we bought it, the truck was white. White makes sense for Texas sun and heat. So white it is, again.

 You can see a trace of the schoolbus yellow here.

 Painted the bumper silver/aluminum. which is sort of the vernacular for these bumpers. I like everything plain-jane stock. Never liked chrome anything.
 The old steel wheels, repainted.

Exactly right. I love the great plain-jane sleeper cars, classic example being a stripped-down '61 Biscayne with small hubcaps and a 409 tucked under the hood? I could buy 65 old West Texas trucks for the asking prices I've seen on those.

Well our Chevy truck is a sleeper that really is asleep, with a 305 under there. I actually think the 305 is an underrated engine: steady, reliable, and less thirsty than a 350. It's not very glamorous, though.

Friday, May 27, 2011

1969 Brookwood Found!

STOP PRESS! I have just learned that my late, beloved 1969 Chevrolet Brookwood station wagon, which I had to sell  when I left California ten years ago, is again for sale! In Ventura!  And it looks to be in wonderful shape! I shall have to consider what to do here. It may mean a cross-country trip. Or perhaps one of my California friends will buy it--to keep it in the family, so to speak. Chris Baker, are you listening? Great car for hauling canvasses. Not nimble, but an amazingly smooth ride on the freeway. It's like driving your living room into L.A. When I used to go in for lunch meetings at West Side restaurants I couldn't otherwise afford,  the valet-parking guys, bored with Benzes, loved my car. 
           I loved it. When I bought it from the original owner, a little old lady (truly) who was moving into a nursing home (!) it had 22k. Now it's up to 90k. It has a 350 motor, the best, most reliable, and cheapest to maintain of all V8's. It does use a lot of gas, which isn't cheap these days, but the purchase price is 1/4 the price of a new KIA so the numbers work. And this is real recycling. Driving a 42 year old car is far easier on the environment than ordering a new Prius! 

These pictures taken on the sad day I sold her.

And these are from the website where she's for sale, still wearing the same license plates.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Alberta Road

                                                                                                                      photo JW Burleson ©2011
Bill Burleson took this photograph of my sister MB at the wheel of their 1958 Chevrolet 1/2 ton in the Kananaskis Valley, Alberta, circa 1978. Looks like late September. Hey, Ian Tyson did say, "Think I'll go out to Alberta/ Weather's good there in the fall." Here's Neil Young doing Ian's song, Four Strong Winds.

Streets of Austin

Our man in Austin, Bill Geisler caught this Task Force Series truck on a perambulation through his neighborhood. It looks like a work-in-progress, though I think the paint is just about where it should be. Perhaps it could be clear-coated to preserve that weathered patina. I like the sun-flayed, textured look of paint that's spent some years in the sun. Nothing wrong with a little surface rust, either. I don't know the T-F series well, but this is a late-1955 to 1959 Chevrolet or GMC, with what looks like an eight-foot stepside bed. Tires and wheels are a bit mismatched, even size-wise, but maybe that's the next upgrade in-progress.

And here's another Austin series from Bill. The quad headlights mean this is a 1958 or 59. The fleetside bed was new in '58. I'm sounding a little truck-geeky, but what the heck. You can learn a lot more about these machines here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Trucking With Basha

Basha Burwell is co-owner of a 1986 Chevrolet Custom Deluxe 10 pickup. It looks good on her. She is also a professional art director and photo stylist. Last winter she produced and directed a wonderful kids' clothing shoot in West Texas, featuring CM's very handsome 1950 Ford F-2. I think of the F-2 as a great truck; she saw it as a great prop. Maybe we were both right. Basha worked with Austin-based photographer  Ryan Goodrich and stylist Brienne Neumann.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Any Old Day in Mar Vista

These photos from our man on the west side of Los Angeles, Craig Manning. Taking the canine for a morning constitutional in Mar Vista turned up these 3.
I've had my eye on this 1954-56 Dodge over the years. It lives around the corner from Craig & Becky. The C-series "Job Rated" Dodge trucks were new in 1954. It was standard for boxes and running boards to be painted black, but you could pay extra to have them painted the same color as the cab--see the truck at  There was an okay piece on these trucks in the March 2011 issue of Hemmings Classic Car. The old-car magazines are finally paying a bit of attention to trucks, also to original and unrestored vehicles, which is refreshing. 
Here's a Ford F-1 from Mar Vista. These were unreconstructed drives-like-a-truck trucks: it was the subsequent generation of Ford pickups that were a bit more modern and easier to handle. But these sure are handsome. I had the chance to drive CM's F-2, big brother of this truck, around Marfa this winter. More on that wonderful machine later.  By the way, there's a nice looking F-1 for sale at//

See what walking the dog in L.A. turns up?  This is an English c.1958 Ford Escort Estate. A bunch were exported to the States and Canada. This little car seem to be talking a very different, more modest language than cars--even small  imports--speak now. Something pleasing in the simplicity of the design, isn't there? It is itself: it's a car, not a cartoon, or a superhero fantasy rendered in sheet metal. Women especially seem to love love love English cars of this era. People say they're cute. Well, they are, but it's not noxious cuteness. The specs say this particular Escort Estate will go 0-60mph in a not-quite-breathless 32 seconds, which would make for a scary launch onto, say, the 10 freeway. Okay, not a freeway car.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

NPR likes trucks.

Here's a link  to a piece in the New York Times last week about our friend Tom Michael, founder and manager of Marfa's small but scrappy National Public Radio station, KRTS.  Somehow the article does not mention that--as if singlehandedly sustaining NPR in Far West Texas isn't enough-- Tom is also, with his wife Katherine Shaughnessy, owner and manager of this large-but-scrappy F-250.  The truck has had issues, but is settling down to dependability, with some attention from Ricky Rojo. That lemon/lime paint, which is original, has acquired a gorgeous, sun-faded W. Texas patina.
Check out KRTS "Radio for a Wide Range" on this link.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Hector Sanchez and the Work-in-Progress

Hector Sanchez is a very talented guy who owns a small bodyshop and garage in Marfa, Texas. (I don't think there's a sign, but the shop's located just behind Mando's). Right now Hector is repainting our 1986 Custom Deluxe. When we bought the truck last winter, it wore an aged coat of primer. Underneath that it was schoolbus yellow: the truck had belonged to the local gas company fleet for most of its life. Hector is sanding everything down, and the truck will be repainted. White. Ricky Rojo will be overhauling the transmission, and we're looking forward to using the Custom Deluxe next winter in West Texas. No more rental cars!