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Riding classic-car wave
Baby boomers' vehicles from youth drive hobby's rise

By Bill McCleery
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In 1965, Richard Yocum began a love affair with a silver-blue Ford Fairlane GT.

They've had their ups and downs. Yocum left the car in the garage at his home just west of Greenfield for decades while raising a family.

But passion prevailed.

When the kids left home, Yocum joined thousands of other baby boomer car buffs across Indiana by following his heart and opening his wallet for the sake of an old car. He got it a paint job, fixed its engine and installed high-tech performance parts.

It's all part of a trip into the past for Yocum.

"I'm 61," he said. "But turn that number around, and I'm 16. And when I get in that car, I know I'm 16."

Nationwide, Yocum's demographic group is driving a growing classic-car hobby.

"The boomers are totally in control of the market today," said Richard Lentinello, editor in chief of Hemmings Motor News, a national publisher of automotive books and magazines.

"There is more interest in muscle cars from the late 1960s and early 1970s than there was previously, and it's driven the prices way up," he said.

"You're talking about the guy who had to sell that Pontiac GTO to raise his family or buy a house. Now he wants it back."

Such enthusiasm has helped push sales of automotive parts and accessories to $3 billion a year, Lentinello said from his Bennington, Vt., office.

And this retro craze is moving beyond hobbyists' garages to the executive boardrooms of the nation's major automakers, where recent decisions have called for new models that look like old ones.

Four years ago, Chrysler started the trend with the PT Cruiser. Ford later produced a Thunderbird similar to its mid-1950s models. And Chevrolet sells its SSR, a vehicle that blends the design of '50s trucks with modern roadster effects.

For 2005, Ford has unveiled a retro Mustang that harkens back to the models produced in the mid-1960s.

But it's the bona fide classics -- not their modern counterparts -- that hold the most appeal for purists like Yocum. He and other car owners get together at car shows and cruise-ins to show off their prized possessions.

As baby boomers' influence over the hobby has increased, the cars from their youth have become more common at car shows. Models from the '60s and '70s have grown more prevalent than older classics, Lentinello said.

"Fifteen to 20 years ago, Studebakers, Ford Model A's and Packards were the primary focus of the hobby because those owners were like the baby boomers of today," he said. "They grew up with those cars, and that's what they wanted to buy and restore.

"But now that generation, I'm sad to say, is dying off."

The popularity of classic cars from the '60s and early '70s makes sense to Steve Humphries, 49, a Far-Eastside resident who was at a recent Greenfield car show to display his 1970 Plymouth Roadrunner.

Instead of a pinstripe, his Atlantic-blue car features a miniature Roadrunner of cartoon fame zipping down its side -- just as if Wile E. Coyote were in close pursuit.

"When I was dating my wife, I had a '71 Roadrunner," he recalled. "For a lot of guys, these cars bring back memories. You might want the same kind of car your dad drove when you were a kid.

"Or you might want the same kind of car you drove during high school, you know, and drove to the drive-in theater with your girlfriend."

After raising his kids, Humphries has restored five Dodge and Plymouth muscle cars during the past eight years.

"I was always interested in cars, but I never could afford them 'til the kids got up and out," said Humphries, whose children are now ages 23 and 27.

As a particular model becomes more popular, its market value changes accordingly, Lentinello said.

And that can mean big profits for some auto dealers.

Look through a national car sales magazine like "Deals on Wheels," and you can find prices for classic cars ranging from $25,000 to $125,000.

Mike's Classic Cars in Blair, Neb., for example, recently offered a 1970 Chevy Chevelle for $34,900. A less-common 1969 Dodge Charger RT Hemi with only 64,000 miles listed at $119,000. Generally only the most flawless, pristine vehicles command such prices.

The Charger wound up selling for $99,000, said Mike Patak, owner of the business.

"That's fairly cheap because there's a lot of them going for a lot more than that," he said. "Challengers and Barracudas with the hemi are going for $150,000 and up."

Patak pointed to the baby boomers as the reason for high prices.

"The kids are gone, and they've got their own businesses, and they've got money to spend on the toys they had when they were kids," he said.

Some dealers still cater to buyers of more modest means, specializing in ordinary old cars in addition to perfect specimens. A solid late-'60s muscle car still can be purchased for $4,000 to $12,000 if one doesn't care about having it in showroom quality, said car dealer Russell Noel.

He owns Country Classic Cars, located a few hours west of the Indiana state line in Staunton, Ill. His business features more than 600 classic cars and trucks for sale on 13 acres. Noel, 60, was a farmer whose passion for old cars led him to a second career that has become his full-time job.

He owns about half the vehicles for sale at his lot; the others he is selling on behalf of their owners. He reaches many buyers through his Web site, www.countryclassic cars.com.

"Everyone likes the muscle cars," Noel said. "They like the Roadrunners and Challengers. They like the Chevelles and Camaros. Of course, everyone loves the Mustangs."

Lentinello and Noel offered several tips to people considering buying classic cars.

Get involved with a car club first, Lentinello said, and learn from the expertise of others in the hobby before making the leap. Besides, he said, the best part of the classic-car hobby is the friendships formed among enthusiasts. The Internet is a good place to find car clubs formed around a particular make or model.

Run from rust, Noel said. Rust on a car's surface probably means rust in hidden places throughout its chassis and underbody, which could cause problems for years to come. Looking for cars in Southern and Western states, where less road salt is used in winter, is one way to avoid rust.

Though middle-age men dominate the classic-car hobby -- Lentinello estimates 95 percent of serious enthusiasts are male -- that's starting to change.

Sheri Ashcraft, 27, has been a "car nut" for as long as she can remember.

"My schoolteachers said I liked to play with cars and trucks in kindergarten," said Ashcraft, of Greenfield.

She owns a 1972 Ford Ranchero and is negotiating to purchase a 1973 two-door Ford LTD. The Ranchero has a small V-8 engine that is not all that impressive a performer, she admitted. She sounded more excited about the LTD.

"It's got 63,000 original miles, with all original interior, engine, body and everything," she said. "It's got a 460 (cubic-inch engine). We're thinking it's the police model, which means about 375 horsepower.

"I'm not ashamed to talk about that one."

Meanwhile, Yocum is looking forward to celebrating 40 years with his Fairlane next December.

"I ordered it in September (of 1965) when the new ('66) models came out," Yocum recalled. "I got it three days before Christmas from Jerry Alderman Ford."

He has promised the Fairlane he won't forget the anniversary.
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