The Car That Got Away
Scouring junkyards, hiring detectives and calling ex-girlfriends.
Jennifer Saranow on the lengths men are going to find the cars they
By JENNIFER SARANOW
January 11, 2008
They were the first generation to come of age with their own cars,
and now they want them back.
Across the country, middle-aged men are going to extraordinary
lengths to locate the actual vehicles they drove decades ago. They
are trolling online car classifieds, cold-calling junkyards and
hiring lost-car detectives to help. When they get desperate, they're
begging friends in law enforcement to run serial numbers and even
sending instant messages to strangers who live near the last known
person to own the car.
A growing number of older men are trying to reconnect with the
automobiles of their youth. WSJ's Jennifer Saranow reports.
Dee Cole, 54 years old, is preparing himself to call an ex-girlfriend
he hasn't spoken to since he broke up with her decades ago, to ask if
she has photos showing the license plate of his old 1966 Dodge
Coronet 500. Joseph Bruno, 52, frequently roams around the San
Francisco neighborhood where the last known owner of his dad's old
Dodge Dart lived -- in 1972. "My eye is wandering through driveways,"
Share your long-lost car story in an online reader forum.Standing in
his garage outside Chicago recently, Alan Thompson looks at the
photos of his customized 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air hanging on the wall.
He then counts more than a dozen car-show trophies the Bel Air won,
displayed on two high shelves. The only thing missing is the car,
which Mr. Thompson sold in 1965. "I'm glad I have some memories, but
I still wish I had the car," says the 66-year-old retired
engineer. "I'd do anything to have it back."
To help the lovesick former owners, a number of lost-car discussion
boards, Web sites and trackers have opened for business. For about
$440 an hour, Simon Kidston, a former classic-car-auction president
in Geneva, is helping clients scour the globe to track down
everything from 1960s Ferraris to rare 1930s Bentleys. The Lost Car
Registry in Clawson, Mich., a five-year-old Web site devoted
to "finding the ones that got away," has more than 700 postings for
Still, the odds of finding one car among the more than 244 million
vehicles currently registered are slim. Cars from decades ago weren't
as durable and technologically advanced as current models, making
them likely to have been scrapped. Privacy laws governing motor-
vehicle records have made tracking old cars extremely difficult.
Keith Ingersoll, the founder of the Lost Car Registry, says he's
aware of only five reunions for users of his site so far. (He
launched the site hoping to track down his father's old 1969 Ford
Mustang Mach I, but he hasn't found it yet.) "It's like trying to
find a needle in the haystack," he says.
Most of the men pining for their old cars were among the more than
102 million war babies and baby boomers born in the U.S. between 1936
and 1964. In the 1960s, auto makers took advantage of rising incomes
among middle-class families and the shift to the suburbs to sell more
niche cars. They began building models aimed at young people: pony
cars like the Ford Mustang and muscle cars like the Pontiac
GTO. "They were the first generation to grow up with cars that
actually symbolized your age and your lifestyle," says David Gartman,
a professor of sociology at the University of South Alabama. "That
made for a very special attachment that we probably won't find in
Marketing researchers have found that all people tend to form
preferences for things like music and clothing during late
adolescence and early adulthood, and carry these tastes with them
throughout their lives. But when it comes to cars, the tendency has
been found to be statistically significant only in men, says Robert
Schindler, a marketing professor at New Jersey's Rutgers School of
Business, Camden. They "show what we call the raging-hormone
phenomenon," says Morris Holbrook, a professor of marketing at
Columbia Business School. "Young adult boys are kind of all hyped up
with all kinds of sexual energy, and they have to have a place to put
With money saved from two summers' loading and unloading flour bags
at the freight yards, Jeffrey Weaver bought his first car in 1965, a
1966 candy-apple red Ford Mustang GT K-code fastback. He replaced it
in 1968 with a bigger Pontiac GTO after getting married. But as the
years passed, he found himself reminiscing about his Mustang --
winning drag races, hanging out at the local drive-in eatery and
picking up girls. Six years ago, newly retired, the 62-year-old in
California, Pa., decided to find his car. He contacted Mustang clubs
and motor-vehicle departments and placed ads in local papers and car
magazines and on Web sites. After four years, he gave up and bought a
similar model for $43,000. He sold it for the same amount within a
year. "It was a beautiful Mustang, but it didn't feel like it was the
one," he says. Mr. Weaver is still looking for his original car.
Long Lost: Alan Thompson transformed his garage into a shrine to his
old 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air, complete with a lookalike model. He is
still looking for the original (left). The Next Best Thing: Chad
Parrish (right) found his old 1965 Dodge Coronet 500, but the owner
had turned it into a racing car. He ended up buying a similar model.
"I tell him he's trying to find his youth again," says his wife,
To find the 1954 Ford F100 pickup he had restored with his dad in
high school, Ben Thomas III started in 1997 with the man to whom his
father sold the truck 10 years earlier. With the help of the white
pages and the Georgia division of motor vehicles, he found the next
two owners, but he couldn't go any further and abandoned his search.
In 2004, the 41-year-old quality control technician in Rockingham,
N.C., learned a friend was working for a government agency and asked
her to run the vehicle identification number. She obliged, asking him
not to tell anyone -- it was illegal for her to give out personal
information -- and gave him the name and address of the last
registered owner, a man in Ludowici, Ga. This man's phone number was
unlisted, so Mr. Thomas decided to track down Ludowici residents
online and send them instant messages asking if they knew the owner
or the truck. The first person he tried did. Mr. Thomas finally found
and bought the truck for $5,500 -- despite the fact that the seller,
47-year-old Rodney Jacobs, had just bought it weeks before. "I really
had wanted the truck but his story just hit my heart pretty hard,"
Mr. Jacobs says.
Last year, 6.8% of self-described auto collectors said they were
searching for a vehicle they once owned, up from 1.6% in 1985, CNW
Marketing Research Inc. says.
The Internet has made searching somewhat easier. Some of the most
effective sites are focused on specific models, like 428CobraJet.org,
dedicated to 1968 to 1970 Ford Mustangs with the 428 Cobra Jet engine
option. Many of these sites keep registries of past and present
owners, searchable by VIN, and have "lost and found" discussion
Reunited: After a seven-year search, Ben Thomas III found his 1954
Ford F100 truck. His souvenirs include a 1988 photo, a letter he
wrote to the Georgia division of motor vehicles and his most recent
bill of sale. However, sites for vehicle-history reports, like
Carfax.com, generally don't have data for cars built before 1981,
when the government standardized the VIN system. The federal Driver's
Privacy Protection Act of 1994 made it illegal for state motor-
vehicle departments to give out personal information except in
certain situations, "mere curiosity about a car not among them," says
Chris Hoofnagle, a consumer-privacy law expert at the University of
California, Berkeley, School of Law. While many departments will let
a searcher with a VIN know whether a car is registered in the state,
many purge their records after about five to 10 years.
Unable to find any of the original paperwork for the 1966 Dodge
Coronet 500 he had in high school, Seattle stay-at-home dad Dee Cole
has focused most of his four-year search efforts on trying to
determine its VIN. He checked his high-school yearbooks for pictures
that might show the car's license plate and called the yearbook
photographer, with no luck. Last weekend he searched through photo
albums at his mother's house "under the pretense of family history,"
but found only a picture of a side profile of the car. Next, he will
check with the national office of his parents' old insurance company
to see whether they have any records that might contain the Coronet's
VIN, and if all else fails, he plans to track down and call his ex-
girlfriend. "I'm beginning to think my karma for leaving the girl is
never finding the car," he says.
The urge to reconnect with a former car is part of a broader
nostalgia wave. Baby boomers have been driving up prices at auctions
of everything from model trains and tin toys to concert posters
and "The Catcher in the Rye" first editions. They have also helped
drive up the collector-car industry about 60% since 2002 to a $25
billion industry last year, estimates Phil Skinner, collector-car
market editor for Kelley Blue Book.
The same nostalgia has led auto makers to recently reissue versions
of 1960s and 1970s youth-oriented models like the Mustang, Chevrolet
Camaro and Dodge Charger.
Now, the Shelby American Automobile Club gets at least 40 requests
annually from men trying to track down their old cars, up from just a
couple yearly a decade ago. Before its classic car auctions, Barrett-
Jackson Auction Co. receives hundreds of calls from people asking
whether cars they or their families used to own will be on the block,
up from a fraction of such requests a decade ago. Turner's Auto
Wrecking in Fresno, Calif., which specializes in classic cars and
parts, gets about half a dozen calls annually from men across the
country asking whether the junkyard has a certain car, up from about
one or two calls yearly a decade ago. There's been one match so far,
and that's only because owner Jerry Turner happened to know who owned
the 1939 Plymouth the caller was looking for.
Bill Sherk, 65, found his old 1940 Mercury on Jan. 2, 1994, after six
years of wandering through car shows, placing newspaper ads and
tracing the car's path owner by owner. As the newspaper columnist and
retired high school history teacher in Leamington, Ontario, stood
alone with the rusty convertible in the current owner's garage for
more than an hour, the memories came flooding back.
He saw a fleck of white paint left from when he decorated the running
boards and a dozen other parts he had put on the car. He recalled
sitting atop the front seat with the top down shortly after he bought
the car in the summer of 1959, his hands on the windshield and his
feet steering the car. He remembered when the hood flew off while he
was driving on the highway and when he set his girlfriend's front
lawn on fire by revving the engine instead of honking the horn. The
words from an old Jimmie Rodgers's song, "someday the man I used to
be will come along and call on me," played through his head. "I was,
I felt, 17 again," Mr. Sherk says.
Chad Parrish's search yielded something unexpected. After only three
months of hunting for his lost red 1965 Dodge Coronet 500, the 61-
year-old radio station manager from Missoula, Mont., found it. But
the owner, 61-year-old facilities manager John Winslow of San Jose,
Calif., had received the car as a Father's Day gift and transformed
it into a "super stock" racing car -- and he wasn't willing to sell
Still, the two men hit it off and now talk every few weeks. Mr.
Winslow even helped Mr. Parrish find his new car, another red 1965
Coronet 500, which Mr. Parrish plans to outfit with his original
car's engine valve covers, courtesy of his new friend. Says Mr.
Parrish, "The two of us have something in common that meant a lot to
us -- that car."