With his new book ‘Auto Biography,’ Earl Swift is king of the road

Posted Monday, Jul. 14, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Meet the author

Earl Swift makes two appearances in North Texas this week:

• 7 p.m. Monday at Barnes & Noble, 4801 Overton Ridge Blvd., Fort Worth

• 7 p.m. Wednesday at Half Price Books, 5803 E. Northwest Highway, Dallas

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A car can be a simple mode of transportation — a way to get from Point A to Point B.

Or it can be a work of transcendent automotive art, the embodiment of a culture’s dreams forged in iron and steel. Such is the case with the 1957 Chevy Bel Air, a car that remains emblematic of its V-8, Space Age era, a sleek, tail-finned totem from a time of cheap gas, drive-ins, and that new thing called the Interstate.

Author Earl Swift tells the story of one particular ’57 Chevy and its 13 owners — and, through them, a history of the past half-century — in the entertaining and enlightening Auto Biography: A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream (HarperCollins/It Books, $26.99).

It was a two-tone Chevy Nomad, the station-wagon version of the Bel Air, that caught Swift’s eye in the early 2000s when he pitched the idea of telling the story of one car to his editors at the paper where he was working, Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot.

“I was looking for an interesting old car but didn’t know what that model was,” he said in a phone interview. “But I’ve always liked, and everybody likes the ’57 Chevy. For me, it’s shorthand for a period. It’s instantly recognizable.”

“If you’re over 50 — and certainly if you’re over 60 — you can close your eyes and summon its details,” Swift writes. “To foreigners, it is a quintessentially American emblem of postwar brashness, of confidence, power and excitement — and maybe of red, white, and blue excess, too.”

Swift traces the history of this one car — VIN No. VB57B239191 — from the summer of ’55 when GM designers were “putting their finishing touches on the classic-to-be” to its manufacture in Cleveland and Baltimore, and delivery to Colonial Chevrolet in Norfolk, where emblazoned across the showroom window was “1957 Chevrolet — picture of perfection!”

Then former shipyard worker and avid gardener Nicholas Carl Thornhill walks into the showroom, and the story, with $2,456 in hand and walks out as the car’s first owner.

And so it goes through 11 more owners, and 50 years, until the car is nearly scrap, a rusted-out shadow of its former self.

Finding his star

That was pretty much the story Swift told when his 12,000-word series ran in the newspaper in 2004, which is very different from the book. “It didn’t attempt to tell a broader story about America,” he says. “It reads more like a transportation history of southeastern Virginia.”

But he had the feeling there was more to tell.

“I tried to turn it into book but what I found, when I put the story together, is that I had a necklace of 11 separate stories,” he recalls. “I didn’t have a main character of sufficient weight to bind the whole story together.”

In 2007, that all changed when he discovered that Tommy Arney — a colorful grade-school dropout, felon, strip-club owner and bear of a man — had bought the car.

It also helped that Arney, whom Swift had originally met while reporting a story in 1993, was a car fanatic who also ran Moyock Muscle, across the state line in Moyock, N.C., a salvage yard/car dealer for gearheads and vintage-auto fanatics looking for hard-to-find models and parts.

“I instantly knew I had a main character,” Swift says. “The main character had to be the current owner, and Tommy views cars as history because cars are his history. ... When I approached him in the fall of 2009 he was excited and pretty much stayed that way through the remaining three years it took to report his part of the story.

“There were things that happened in his life that I’m confident he wishes didn’t happen and he’s a guy used to having some control. But, in for a penny, in for a pound, is his attitude, and he remained active in helping me right to the end.”

Auto Biography then becomes as much about Arney’s life — he’s the “outlaw motorhead” in the subtitle — as that of the car. As it sketches Arney’s colorful past, as well as the lives of the previous owners, it becomes a distinctly 20th-century American story of sprawl and suburbia.

“We’re unique among the people in the world in that [our culture] is based on giant road trips and westward expansion. A book like this wouldn’t have been written about Europe and an old Fiat,” he says. “People don’t have the relationship with their cars the way we do.”

Changing driving habits

But for how much longer?

Swift’s generation could be one of the last for whom the very essence of Auto Biography has personal meaning. He recalls that it was living in Houston as a kid that taught him the car-centric lifestyle.

“I learned to drive down there, and to get anywhere you drive quite a distance,” says Swift, whose father now lives in Bedford, which he visits a couple of times a year. “It whet my appetite for road trips; we crisscrossed the country quite a few times. There’s nothing more liberating to me than to get into a good car with comfortable seats and take off with the stereo blasting.”

Rising gas prices, traffic-blocked commutes, environmental concerns, more mass-transit options, and an increased disinterest in driving among millennials and those coming after them means that the bloom is off the automotive rose.

“We’re getting to the point where cars are more like appliances than they used to be,” he says. “They’re much more reliable, last so long, and designs are unchanged for long periods of time. [But] the distinctiveness and individuality of individual models have fallen by the wayside. ... I don’t think you can write the same book about an ’87 Corolla.”

Still, he thinks there will always be an urge to get behind the wheel. “I don’t think that translates into a reduced desire to hit the open road,” he says.

Because of Auto Biography and his previous book, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways, Swift has developed a bit of a reputation as an auto expert, which he says is a stretch of the truth.

“I’m not an automotive writer. I’m not a car guy,” he says. “I like cars and have been interested in them but I can’t work on them. I’ve written five books, and the two most recent have been transportation oriented. It just accidentally worked out that way.”

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