Old Cars, Photography

Getting close to classic cars

Color. Reflection. Shadow. Tone. Line. Angle. After four annual visits to the Mecum Spring Classic muscle-car auction, I am beginning to get a good feel for these photographic elements when I move in close to the cars. I’ve had some good luck in past years, but this year I feel like I relied less on luck and more on application of things I’ve learned. Some of that learning came from having shot hundreds of cars now, and some of it came from absorbing other photographers’ work that I admired.

I loved how the light oozed across the hood of this 1972 Dodge Charger. This car was outside in a thin white tent, which acted as a giant diffuser.

1972 Dodge Charger c

Every year, I take this shot of a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda. I never get tired of it. Growing experience meant that I moved in and got this shot the first time, rather than needing to take it six or seven times until it felt right, as in past years.

1970 Plymouth Barracuda

Ditto this shot of a 1969 Dodge Charger. There’s always at least one Charger in this room with the skylights that splash so interestingly across that wide C pillar.

1969 Dodge Daytona

I like this composition, although my irrational love of the 1967 Chevrolet may be impairing my judgment.

1967 Chevrolet Impala SS

These headlights from a 1963 Buick Riviera are my favorite shot of the day.

1963 Buick Riviera

I shot this1956 Cadillac Series 62 and 1956 GMC 100 for their candy colors and almost parallel lines. I think I shot this a dozen times trying to get the lines to be perfectly parallel, thank you OCD.

1956 Cadillac Series 62 and 1956 GMC 100

For all the intentional shooting I did this day, this shot turned out well by accident. It wasn’t until I looked at it later that I noticed how well the building’s exposed trusswork framed this 1935 Ford. Bonus: Find the napping car owner.

1935 Ford

I also love to find classic cars on the street.
Check out the ones I photographed last year

Old Cars, Photography

Cars I’d only ever seen in pictures, which I now present to you…in pictures

When I was a car-crazy boy, I spent a large amount of my allowance on car magazines and books. My favorite book was the Encyclopedia of American Cars, an exhaustive look at virtually every automobile ever made on these shores. My copy was from the 1980s, but the publisher updated it periodically through the early 2000s. That same publisher issues six issues of Collectible Automobile magazine annually, and I’ve subscribed for nearly 20 years. I’m still car crazy! Then as now, I drool over photos of cars I can only dream of owning, and pore over their histories and manufacturing statistics.

And so every May when I go to the Mecum Spring Classic, a large classic-car auction held at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis, I hope to see some of the most exotic, rare, and unusual cars that I have only ever seen in photographs. Each year, I mark a few more cars off my list. Here are the cars I got to see in person for the first time at this year’s auction.

Stutz cars were made right here in Indianapolis, so you’d think I would have seen one by now. But this 1926 Stutz Model 695 was my first.

1926 Stutz Model 695

I’ve always really liked the 1949-1951 Fords. They’re pretty common and I’ve certainly seen plenty of them – but never a Crestliner coupe with its distinctive two-tone paint scheme. This Crestliner is from 1951.

1951 Ford Crestliner

Buick introduced its Skylark in 1953 to commemorate the company’s 50th anniversary. During my 1970s kidhood, Skylarks were compact cars near the entry-level end of the Buick hierarchy. But the first Skylarks were premium automobiles that stickered north of $5,000, which is equivalent to about $43,000 today.

1953 Buick Skylark

Ford flirted with see-through roofs in 1954, producing such a car in both the Ford and Mercury lines. Both cars shared the same green acrylic roof panel. This is the Mercury version, which was called the Sun Valley.

1954 Mercury Sun Valley

Ford produced the Continental Mark II in 1956 as its own make – in other words, it wasn’t a Lincoln Continental, it was just a Continental. And it was ex-pen-sive at more than $10,000 – that’s more than $84,000 today. Unbelievably, Ford took a loss on each one! They sold fewer than 3,000 Mark IIs before pulling the plug in 1957, so it’s no wonder I’d never encountered one before.

1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II

The 1956 Packard Carribean couldn’t breathe the Mark II’s air, but it was still a plenty exclusive and expensive car. Fewer than 1,000 Carribeans were built in each of the model’s four years.

1956 Packard Carribean

I didn’t know that the Carribean’s seat cushions could be flipped. One side was cloth and the other leather.

1956 Packard Carribean

It may be hard to believe today, but all trucks came with “stepside” beds before 1955, when Chevrolet introduced its straight-sided Cameo Carrier. (This one’s from 1957.) Obviously, the look caught on.

1957 Chevrolet Cameo

When American Motors introduced the Rambler Marlin in 1965, it was trying for a sporty midsize car, something for the guy who really wanted a Mustang but needed a usable rear seat. Few liked the styling, however. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney drove one when he was in high school – no doubt because his father was running American Motors at the time.

1965 Rambler Marlin

Malcolm Bricklin may be best remembered for being the first to import Subarus into the United States, but he also produced a sports car of sorts in the 1970s. The Bricklin SV-1 had powered gullwing doors and a slew of safety equipment that made the car very heavy, and therefore quite slow.

1975 Bricklin SV1

John DeLorean also used gullwing doors in his sports car, the DMC-12, but you had to push them open yourself. It’s funny – I’d always looked forward to encountering my first DeLorean, but I was simply underwhelmed by this one. I think its 1980s styling, so daring in its day, seems mighty tame today.

1983 DeLorean DMC-12

Next time: My favorite photos from this year’s auction.

This was my fourth year at the auction.
See photos from the other years here, here, and here

Old Cars, Photography

Elements of classic cars

My love of old cars is certainly enough to drive me to the Mecum Spring Classic auction every year, but I also go because it gives me a chance to practice my photography. You can walk right up to the cars, close enough to touch them – though out of respect for the owners, I keep my hands to myself. But to the extent a car has personal space, I definitely invade it looking for details I can use to compose interesting photographs. Not only has this practice improved my photography, but it has also helped me enjoy these classic cars in new ways. Of such photos I took this year, I like these the most.

A 1935 Chrysler Airflow kept me busy composing and capturing for quite some time. I liked this photo the best. I think it captures key elements of the car’s style.

1935 Chrysler Airflow f

I like the way the light plays off the hood and grille of this 1939 Ford Deluxe.

1939 Ford Deluxe c

I wish I could remember what kind of car that is reflecting in the paint of this 1947 Cadillac.

1947 Cadillac d

I can easily make out the Pontiac GTO and a Chevrolet Corvette reflecting in this 1950 Ford Custom.

1950 Ford Custom coupe b

This is my favorite photograph from the auction. I love how the clouds reflect in the domed hood of this 1951 Chevrolet Deluxe, and I think the black paint flaking off the Chevrolet script adds character. This photo looks better larger.

1951 Chevrolet Deluxe c

Normally I try to keep people out of my car shots, but I couldn’t resist including this owner polishing the hood of his 1958 Edsel Citation convertible.

1958 Edsel Citation convertible b

In days gone by, auto manufacturers badged their cars proudly and prominently, as on this 1959 Chevrolet Impala.

1959 Chevrolet Impala 2-door hardtop c

Cars seemed to have more fine styling details in the old days, too. The 1963 Ford Galaxie XL had one of these spears atop each front fender. They served no purpose other than to look good.

1963 Ford Galaxie XL b

For years, tail lights were a key styling cue of Chevrolet’s large cars. Low-line cars had two separate lights per side, and high-line cars had three. In 1963, the Impala was the top-of-the-line large Chevrolet; here are its three tail lights.

1963 Chevrolet Impala b

The Mecum Spring Classic is always packed to the gills with potent Chevelles. I’m partial to the body style from 1970, but I liked the angle I got across the engine bay of this 1969 Chevelle SS.

1969 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396 b

Finally, I love the way the skylight played across the sail panel of this 1969 Dodge Charger R/T.

1969 Dodge Charger RT b

I spent six and a half hours at the auction this year, walking and crouching all the way. My legs were sore for four days!

Do you think you know your cars? Then play the game of identifying them only by details like these! Check it out.

Old Cars, Photography

Living vicariously through wealthy car collectors

If I could I’d own a house with a twelve-car garage, each bay filled with a classic automobile. I’d drive around all the time in my various cars – posh prewar grand tourers, spry little sports cars, tall-finned and chrome-laden coupes, at least one ginormous 1960s cruisemobile, and a couple old pickup trucks for good measure. The house could be two drafty rooms for all I’d care; I’d go there only to sleep.

Of course, that would take wealth of the sort I have no desire to try to earn.

But I can dream, and I can live vicariously through people who do have that kind of wealth. That’s why I make time every year to visit the Mecum Spring Classic, a huge classic-car auction held each May here in Indianapolis. They auction off hundreds of classic cars, mostly muscle cars from the 1960s and 1970s. They have an overwhelming number of Camaros, Mustangs, Corvettes, Challengers, Chargers, and Barracudas. When faced with too much of any good thing, you tend to take it for granted, and that’s certainly the case for me at the Mecum Spring Classic. So I spend my time looking for the unusual – prewar cars, offbeat cars, luxury cars, average family cars. There weren’t as many of these this year as there were when I visited in 2009 and 2010, but I still found enough to satisfy me. Here, then, are my favorites from this year’s auction.

The older I get, the more I’m charmed by the Model A. This coupe is from 1930.

1930 Ford Model A coupe a

I had only ever seen the Chrysler Airflow in photographs, so I was thrilled to come upon this 1935 sedan. This car’s styling was radical in its day, so much so that Chrysler’s more conventionally styled cars sold far better. But the Airflow influenced automotive design for years to come.

1935 Chrysler Airflow a

This 1941 Buick Super business coupe is my favorite car from the auction. It is such an attractive design. I wanted to get inside and drive it away! Business coupes were aimed at people who traveled for work, such as salesmen. They usually lacked a back seat so the traveler could carry more gear.

1941 Buick Super business coupe a

Another car I’d only ever seen in photographs is the Kaiser Manhattan, so I was excited to find this one from 1954 waiting for its new owner to take it away. This is a remarkably tall car, and while it’s not especially large it somehow gives off an air of being massive.

1954 Kaiser Manhattan a

I fell hard for this 1957 Buick Super convertible. Unfortunately, I came across it after the batteries in my two good cameras had both died – I took almost 1,000 photos at the auction this year. So I whipped out my cell phone for this shot. It couldn’t handle all the light coming through that window, but at least you can still make out the rich blue on this great automobile.

1957 Buick Super convertible a

Because I’m from South Bend, you know I have to like this 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk. The seller invited me to open the doors and even sit in the driver’s seat – he must have thought I was a buyer. Sorry to delude him!

1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk a

Chevrolet looms large at the Mecum Spring Classic, and you’ll find lots of Impalas, Bel Airs, and Biscaynes from the 1950s and 1960s. Pontiac made a line of cars with the same body style and sold plenty of them, but they just don’t turn up very often at the Mecum Spring Classic. That’s why I enjoyed this 1961 Pontiac Ventura so much.

1961 Pontiac Ventura (2) f

That doesn’t mean I don’t dig the corresponding Chevys. I think Chevrolet had some of the best automotive styling ever from 1965 to 1968, and this 1965 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport is a leader in that pack.

1965 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport a

In the 1960s, the big three went through a phase of producing quirky utility vehicles, mostly vans but occasionally pickups, where driver and passenger sat over the front wheels and astride the engine. This 1966 Dodge A100 pickup is a prime example.

1966 Dodge A100 pickup a

Finally, I’d heard about the DeTomaso Pantera but had never seen one. I came upon two, both from 1972. This one is the better looking of them.

1972 DeTomaso Pantera (2) a

If you’d like to see all the photos I took, including those from 2009 and 2010, check out my set on Flickr. It’ll keep you busy for a while – it contains more than 800 photos.

As much as I love seeing these cars, I go to the auction every year for another reason, too. I’ll share that reason with you in my next post.

I’ve only ever owned average cars, but I do have stories, such as about the Renault that was so slow it couldn’t get out of its own way. Read the story.

Camera Reviews

Argus A-Four

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Argus A-FourLet’s get the details out of the way first, because few are to be found anyway. The Argus A-Four (or, as the camera proudly declares across its face, argus a-four) was produced from 1953 to 1956. It takes good old 35 mm film. Its plastic and aluminum body holds a coated f/3.5 Argus Cintar lens stoppable to f/22. Its three-leaf Gauthier shutter fires only at 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, and 1/200 sec. You have to manually cock the shutter before you can take a photograph. In the photo at left, the shutter is cocked – see the little metal arm sticking out on top of the lens barrel? You set aperture, shutter speed, and distance; pull that lever over to cock the shutter; and then press the black button. Click!

I had an A-Four in my first camera collection and liked it. I shot a couple rolls with it, and even developed one roll myself and made contact prints (with the help of an experienced friend). It was the first camera I owned that let me set aperture, shutter speed, and focus, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was fortunate any of those photos turned out. (You can see some of them here, here, and here.) But I loved it. While I had maybe a dozen cameras when I bought that A-Four, I didn’t really think of myself as a collector. Shooting that first roll with the A-Four changed that. I was hooked.

So I was glad to come across this A-Four for ten bucks on eBay.

Argus A-Four

It came with a leather carrying case. The bottom flap had broken off – just like the one on my first A-Four, making me think it was a common flaw in the case’s design. It also came with a flashgun and one Sylvania P25 blue-dot bulb. (Sylvania’s slogan: “Blue dots for sure shots.”) The flashgun is powered by two C batteries.

Argus A-Four Argus A-Four

The camera, however, is all mechanical. Before it arrived, I found some Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros black-and-white film on clearance for a couple bucks a roll, so I bought several, thinking they’d be just right for my vintage Argus. I had downloaded an A-Four manual from butkus.org and it included a page showing how to set aperture and shutter speed for common films of the day. It’s really very clever – for most color films you lined up the shutter and aperture to yellow dots on the lens barrel, and for most black and white films you lined them up to red dots. The idea was that if you used the dots you would get properly exposed shots under most conditions. All you had to do shot to shot was guess the focus, from 3.5 feet to infinity. I wasn’t sure the dots would work with the Neopan 100 Acros – I didn’t know how fast those 1950s films (such as Tri-X, Plus X, and Kodachrome) were in comparison. So I shot using the Sunny 16 rule. And let me tell you, I had a great time.

I started in my neighbor’s front yard. He and his wife are master hosta growers. They are heavily involved with the Indianapolis Hosta Society and routinely travel to shows and conferences about this herbaceous perennial. His lush yard is well known in hosta-loving circles. Every summer I’ve lived here, tour buses pull up in front of his house on one or two Saturdays and people get out and wander around his yard. Check it out.


I got in close to this big boy. My neighbor has little metal signs next to each hosta proclaiming its variety, but it’s all Greek to me.


I also tried an available light shot in my living room, six feet from the picture window on a sunny day, with the camera wide open at the slowest shutter speed. I cropped the photo because I bungled the framing. These are peonies from the bushes in my front yard. The shot could be crisper, but then again I was holding the camera in my hands.


I also took the A-Four to the Mecum Spring Classic car auction. I was quite a sight with the A-Four and two point-and-shoot digital cameras in my hands. I am simply delighted by this photo of a 1967 Ford LTD headlight.

67 Ford LTD

I am almost as chuffed about this shot of a 1968 Dodge Coronet R/T taillight. I got it in color with my Canon PowerShot S80, too, but the camera did all the work. With the A-Four, I had to at least stop down to f/11 (as the sun had gone behind a cloud) and guess the distance to the subject. It makes me feel like a real photographer, by golly.

68 Dodge Coronet R/T

Finally, here’s a photo of a 1968 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396. I’ve always loved this body style. I like this photo best at its largest size because it shows what this lens and this film can do together. Not bad for a ten dollar camera.

1968 Chevy Chevelle SS

Do you like old cameras? Then check out my entire collection.

Old Cars

My favorite cars from the auction

These are the cars I liked best at the Mecum Spring Classic car auction, in no particular order.

I’m not sure what struck me about this 1970 Pontiac Catalina. Maybe it’s my irrational love of station wagons. Maybe it’s that this one wears its black paint so well. Maybe it’s the “400” badge on the fender – a grocery getter that screams.

70 Pontiac Catalina

Almost every car at the auction had been painstakingly restored; most probably looked better than they did the day they rolled out of the factory. This 1964 Pontiac Catalina Safari wagon was probably the best restoration I saw all day. I’ve never been a big fan of this generation of GM wagons because of the ramrod-straight roofline and the dorky, perfectly rectangular windows on the rear doors. But I felt old-wagon lust building in me as I lingered over this old girl, looking at her every perfect detail.

64 Pontiac Catalina Safari

Now this, my friends, is a limousine. Those ridiculous mile-long Lincolns that ferry teenagers to proms today are an insult to the entire genre. Everything about this 1947 Cadillac oozes class and style, at least in the vernacular of its day.

47 Cadillac limo

My dad owned a 1966 Galaxie 500 two-door hardtop, and I’m still drawn to them whenever I see them. This Galaxie 500 XL convertible was the line’s high-water mark in terms of trim and power.

66 Ford Galaxie 500 XL

I have loved the step-down Hudsons ever since I saw my first one as a boy. With most cars, I generally favor the two-door over the four-door versions, but with these Hudsons it’s the opposite. I think the big four-door step-down sedans look downright mean, like something a gangster would drive to a massacre. I was so captured by those looks that, in my teenage years when I dabbled with writing some fiction, I wrote a story where my protagonist drove a 1950 Hornet. Even though this 1949 Commodore has only two doors, I count it as a favorite of the day simply because I’ve seen so few Hudsons of this era in the past 20 years.

49 Hudson Commodore

Finally, check out this 1949 Oldsmobile. I’ve always enjoyed GM’s fastback styling from this era, but I’d only ever seen them in photographs before. I was thrilled to see one up close.

49 Olds

I think getting close to these cars is what I like best about the Mecum Spring Classic. I’ve been to any number of automotive museums, and the cars are always behind chains so you can’t get in close. I loved leaning in a little to look over the interiors and taking my camera to within a few inches of a fender or a hood ornament to get a tight shot. But I never touched the cars; I respected the owners’ investments. A few chowderheads leaned on the cars as they looked, or worse, climbed in and sat down. Can you believe their nerve?

If you haven’t had enough of old cars yet, check out this 1966 Plymouth VIP I encountered a few years ago.