Few things represent history and nostalgia as vividly as vintage automobiles. That was especially evident Saturday, July 17, when the “Autos Through The Ages” classic car show returned to Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center in Townsend.
The free event, sponsored by West Chevrolet, Twin City Buick/GMC, The Peaceful Side of the Smokies, and the East Tennessee Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America, brought several hundred auto enthusiasts to the Heritage Center. More than 110 vintage vehicles of various ages and manufacture lined the center’s driveway, parking lot and entranceway.
The show spotlighted several cars that were of a limited design and manufacture, among them, a 1954 Chevy Corvette, 1955 Bentley, 1954 Buick Skylark, 1949 Buick Roadmaster Woodie, 1927 Model T Mail Truck, 1929 Model A Fire Truck, 1958 Edsel Pacer Convertible, 1966 Chrysler Imperial Convertible, and 1954 Hudson. Several of the models on display are considered extremely rare.
Robert Quillin, president of the East Tennessee Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America, said that after two previous events at the Heritage Center, there were initial plans to present the show there last year. The pandemic put a halt to those plans, forcing the group to postpone its third annual event until this year.
Despite the delay, Quillin clearly was pleased with the turnout. “The weather gods smiled on us,” he said, noting that the dire weather originally forecast for the weekend had failed to materialize. He pointed with pride to a number of the more prominent classic cars on display, including his own 1965 Oldsmobile Cutlass, which he originally purchased for $2,000.
“It was the first car I ever owned,” he said. “I bought it when I was a student at the University of Tennessee, and I drove it while I was dating the girl that I later married.”
A former history teacher, Quillin said that in addition to being a kind of time capsule and a historical memento, each auto also comes with a specific backstory as well. Some, he said, represented vehicles driven by heads of state, while others were family heirlooms passed on through different generations.
He also noted an occasional irony, such as a vintage Corvair that bore a bumpersticker that read “Vote for Nader.” Nader, a consumer advocate and presidential candidate, famously authored “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile,” a book that cited evidence automakers were ignoring safety hazards, specifically those inherent in the manufacture of the Corvair.
While Quillin’s interest in automobiles was evident, he said he had another reason for pursuing his passion.
“I joined this club for the cars, but I’m here for the people,” he said. “Car guys are good guys.” He added the current mission of the East Tennessee Region of the Antique Automobile Club of America — founded in 1956 and part of a larger national chapter that dates back to the 1930s — currently is focused on recruiting younger members for the organization.
Most of the cars on display Saturday were owned by individuals who had either inherited their vehicles or purchased them and then worked on their restoration.
Jim Watson of Maryville, owner of a 1959 Austin-Healey MG TD and former chapter president of the Blount British Cars club (or “BBC”), said his fascination with his car began when he was 16 and happened to spot a copper-colored Austin Healey “Bugeye” Sprite — so named for its prominent headlights — on a local road. That led Watson to buy his first model of the British sports car at age 19.
“I just thought it was the coolest car ever,” he said.
While the show mostly spotlighted automobiles of vintage origin, at least one car on display served as an example of current technology. Louisville residents Jack and Susan Goodwin’s 2016 Tesla Model 3 reflected a growing trend toward electric cars capable of traveling dozens of miles on a single battery charge. The couple pointed to the fact that they recently completed their first road trip in the car — an 18-day, 5,277-mile journey out west that saved them an estimated $300 in fuel charges versus what they might have spent in a gas-powered automobile. They then shared a map showing the charging stations they had connected to along the way.
Jack Goodwin noted out that the very first cars ever made were, in fact, electric and had to be cranked up to start. However, once internal combustion engines were developed, manufacturers no longer relied on electricity to power their automobiles. Goodwin said there’s currently renewed interest in developing electric vehicles due to financial, economical and environmental reasons.
Goodwin and his wife, who are members of the Knoxville Electric Vehicle Association, had another reason for touting electric cars.
“They’re fun to drive,” he said.
Enjoyment and entertainment appear to be one of the prime reasons why so many enthusiasts collect cars in the first place. “We get people that join our club from all walks of life,” Quillen said. “We have lawyers, doctors, white-collar workers, blue-collar workers, and everyone in between. I’ve met so many nice people at auto shows, and after I meet them, I often invite them to take part in ours.”
Maryville resident and auto enthusiast David Dwyer offered his own opinion on why people have such special attachment to vintage cars.
“It allows them to reminisce,” he said. “It brings back memories of their childhood and creates a visceral relationship to the past. That’s not always possible with newer cars. These antique automobiles demand attention, respect and devotion. It’s the difference between art and gumdrops.”