It's Not Just an Old Car, It's a Trip Back in Time


photo by Charoenkwan Blacharski

The city of South Bend, Indiana always makes me think of Fozzie Bear. While a few of the residents there may actually resemble the furry muppet, the real reason for that thought is that South Bend is the historic home of Studebaker automobiles, and every Muppets fan remembers the iconic ’51 Bullet-Nose Studebaker Fozzie drove in The Muppet Movie.

The city may not be the cultural capital of the world, or even of the Midwest. It’s not on the A-list of tourist destinations unless you’re a Notre Dame football fan. The local food scene is more Applebees and TGI Fridays than it is celebrity chef, and the nearest regional curiosity is in Amish country in nearby LaGrange County, where they don’t drive Studebakers, or any type of car at all.

For Studebaker fans however, South Bend is a pilgrimage that must be made at least once, to this town where you might still see a vintage Studebaker in the local Applebees parking lot, and probably driven by someone who has owned it ever since they drove it off the showroom in 1962. The Studebaker National Museum shouldn’t be missed, and every five years, the Studebaker Drivers Club holds their international meet in South Bend and you can see some of the best and most pristine examples of Studebaker luxury throughout the streets of downtown.

The automobile was often seen in 1960s television, most notably on the Mister Ed show, on which Wilbur, the owner of Ed the talking horse, drove a Studebaker Lark. The car has entered the mainstream of Americana to such a degree that musicians are fond of mentioning the brand in their song lyrics. Billy Joel mentions Studebaker in “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and other bands that gave the car a nod include Frank Zappa and the Mothers, Primus, and the Steve Miller Band.

The joys of owning an old car

Looking at the old cars is a delight in itself, but visiting an antique show is an experience that takes you back in time, when you tinkered under the hood, smelled of motor oil, and cruised around town to see and be seen. Nobody walks away from a car show without being reminded of their own first car, the family car of their childhood, and the car they always wanted and may still someday buy one day if everything goes the right way.

When you visit a vintage auto show, you get to talk to avid collectors and learn the costs of restoring and maintaining a vintage vehicle. Best of all, you get to witness the beauty of the restoration, touch it, and bring back the memories of driving in a vintage car as a kid or even imagine yourself driving gracefully in a restored car one day.

Vintage car collecting requires a big time commitment to lovingly restore a car back to its original luster. Experts recommend taking your time with projects. A paint job requires finding the perfect color paint and not just taking whatever is on the shelf. If you have a vintage car with a lot of rust, you may even need to create a piece from scratch with a metal bender, but with the right attention and equipment, you can bring your beauty back to showroom style.  

Vintage and classic car shows often set a nostalgic mood and is the reason so many owners got into collecting. Whether it was to honor a parent, or to embrace their own pasts, owners can offer fascinating stories about their collections. 

Take me back in time

Although South Bend has more than its share of vintage cars roaming the streets, chances are you won’t have to go far to enjoy a good car show. But if you’re in the mood for a serious trip, cruise on over to Detroit for the Woodward Dream Cruise probably one of the biggest gatherings in the world for car enthusiasts with more than 40,000 cars on display, held on the third Saturday in August. The event is more than just a look-and-see – with nearly a million visitors showing up, there are always plenty of great events surrounding the show.

One of the most competitive car shows is the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in Pebble Beach, California. Also held in August, this show is very discerning, and you will be able to see some of the greatest one-of-a-kind classics in automotive history.

Want some real fun? After you’ve seen the shows, peeked inside the windows and under the hoods of those vintage wonders, and partaken in numerous boozy discussions of your first car as a teenager, go out and buy one. Restore it, tinker with it, and drive it down the street – and watch the heads turn as you drive by.

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