Auto Biography: A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream
By Earl Swift
As this book’s subtitle reminds us, it has been 57 years since the ’57 Chevy rolled off General Motors assembly lines and onto the roads and into the hearts of America and its motoring public.
Earl Swift wrote about those roads four years ago in his book The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.
Now Swift is back, this time with Auto Biography, a book that traces the history and especially the ownership history, of one 1957 Chevrolet station wagon, the Baltimore-built VB57B239191.
The idea for such a project was spawned in 2004 when Swift was writing for one of the daily newspapers that serves the area in and around Norfolk, Virginia (since then he’s become a residential fellow of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities at the University of Virginia).
Swift got to wondering what had happened to the various cars he’d owned through the years, and he thought there might be a nice feature story “built around a single old car and the otherwise unrelated people who had shared it.”
He turned to the “antiques and classics” columns of his newspaper’s classified advertising section and started making calls. Many current owners didn’t even remember from whom they’d bought their cars. One was an original owner. A 1965 Plymouth Satellite looked promising for a while, as did a 1965 Ford Galaxie.
The owner of a 1970 Oldsmobile Cutlass knew a lot about his car’s history, but the car had had only four owners and Swift sought a car that had changed hands a little more frequently to fill out a good story.
“Well,” the owner told Swift, “I do have another car that might interest you.”
That car was a 1957 Chevrolet station wagon.
Turns out the car was ideal for the way it fit into automotive history, but there also was a real story involved in its car’s succession of 14 owners.
If you were to draw an automotive timeline beginning with the first wheezy buggies and ending with the 2014 model year, you’d find the ’57 Chevy near the midpoint not only in time, but in technology.”
— Earl Swift
[/pullquote]“This was a distant ancestor of the modern car, from another age altogether,” Swift writes. “In 1957, much of the country relied on telephone party lines. The polio vaccine was just two years old, the transistor radio three. The first commercial computers, slow and stupid next to the weakest modern PCs, cost millions of today’s dollars and occupied entire rooms. And the only way to Europe for most travelers was aboard a ship. The fastest, the SS United States, flagship of the U.S. merchant fleet, took four days to travel from New York to Southampton, England.
“How primitive was the Chevy? Here’s how: It had as much in common with the first spindly, tiller-steered horseless carriages as it has with the computer-controlled autos of today. If you were to draw an automotive timeline beginning with the first wheezy buggies and ending with the 2014 model year, you’d find the ’57 Chevy near the midpoint not only in time, but in technology.”
As far as the ’57 Chevy’s iconic state, Swift notes, “A machine that’s endured to this point is usually, though not always, considered a classic, rather than just an old car — a classic being a paragon of styling and/or engineering that both captures the era in which it was constructed and transcends the public’s fickle tastes to achieve a kind of timelessness.”
He adds that the car “was a throwback to an America that had been a world leader in quality goods. An America that kept its promises, in which hard work and diligence paid off. That was as solid and dependable and honest as the heavy-gauge steel that girded the Chevy’s flanks.”
Remarkably, Swift was able to identify all 14 of the car’s owners, but the bulk of the book focuses on one of them, a rough-and-tumble character who, while trying to restore what basically was a rusted hulk of a station wagon, also was in the process of trying to defend himself against charges from various local government officials as well as a federal indictment regarding bank loan fraud.
Swift skillfully interplays Tommy Arney’s travails with the struggles experienced by anyone doing the full restoration of rusty classic. Both experiences may seem like serving prison sentences. Eventually, however, the cell door swings open and there’s a road ahead, awaiting you.