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The allure of chrome and fins

Sep 18, 2013 - By Chris Peck, Associated Editor

I still have a soft spot for my 1963 Travelall -- at 5 mpg

If you like old cars, there is only one place on Earth you want to be next week.

Pierce, Neb.

That's when the 500 old Chevys collected by Ray Lambrecht will be auctioned off.

Lambrecht was a Chevrolet dealer in Pierce for 50 years -- from 1946 to 1996.

Unlike most car dealers, Lambrecht just held onto any new cars that didn't sell right away.

He parked the unsold, new cars in his field. And in a warehouse. And anywhere else he could on his land. All 500 of them over 50 years.

He parked a 1958 Chevy Cameo pickup -- with 1.3 miles on the odometer.

And a '78 Corvette - with 4 miles.

And the list goes on and on.

Bushes and roots grew up in between some of the cars. Thieves got 100 radiators and some chrome bumpers.

But for the most part the collection is still there, a white buffalo event of undriven old cars with the plastic still on the seats.

In a few days, thousands of people will descend on Pierce, a town of 1,700 about two hours from Omaha, to bid on one of the most incredible collections of old cars ever seen in this country.

Reading about the old cars in Pierce took me back to childhood in Riverton.

As a kid, I fell hard for cars. Touring the dealerships when the new models were released became a family ritual for my dad and me.

We went to the car lots -- Chopping Chevrolet, Rabeler Motors, Norris Ford, Flint Motors -- to see the new rigs every fall.

My dad had the bug, too.

He dragged a Model T Ford out of a field in 1956 and got it running for Riverton's 50th anniversary celebration.

That car still sits in my brother Steven's garage.

The first car my dad bought me was a 1960 Studebaker Lark. He paid $200 for it. The front leather seats folded all the way -- an impressive accessory for a high school kid.

When I went off to college, it was in Grandma's Plymouth Valiant -- the one that had the pushbuttons to shift the transmission.

Later, I bought a brand new 1969 Road Runner from Flint Motors. That's one I wish I still owned.

In the hippie years, I parked the Road Runner and bought a 1963 International Travelall from Owens Auto Sales on West Main.

Much as I'd like to, I will never forget the Travelall.

It was black and orange -- some kind of state vehicle. The heater didn't work, and it got 5 miles to the gallon.

But every college kid wanted an old truck back then, and I drove the thing clear across the country with my girlfriend -- an adventure to be treasured.

Owens always had a few old rigs with enticing possibilities on the lot.

And they still do.

Just weeks ago I stopped on West Main and looked at the unrestored '57 Chevy on the Owens lot.

I was tempted.

"Yeah we've been in business about 60 years,'' Lilly Owens told me on the phone a few days ago when I called about the car.

"And we still get people from all over the country who come by to look at our old cars and buy them.''

Cars, parts, Owens sells bits of nostalgia to anybody and everybody.

Just last week, Lilly said a guy from back East stopped in to buy some antique Wyoming license plates off of an old car.

"He was an artist, and he said he liked the bucking bronc,'' she recalled.

Lilly and her husband, Robert, now gone, accidentally got into the old car business.

Back in 1960 Robert was teaching Lilly how to drive. She was a bit slow to catch on.

"I was pulling out onto the highway and there was a dump truck coming. My husband said to speed up and turn, but I couldn't do it.

"The truck hit us and put a big dent in our '42 Chevy,'' she recalled.

"We didn't have insurance back in those days, so my husband decided he needed to do the body work himself.

"And that got us started.''

Today, Curtis Owen still dabbles in old cars. His mom says he's mostly a Chevy guy.

It's a bug that runs in the family -- and touches a certain age of men all over America who grew up in the era of big fins and chrome.

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Riverton native Chris Peck retired recently as editor of the Memphis (Tenn.) Commercial-Appeal. He lives in Memphis.

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