What’s with our North Carolina mountains and old cars? I stopped off at the Ingles in Murphy the other week and started looking around at all the decades-old automobiles. From the vintage of the vehicles, you’d have thought they were filming the next “Mad Men” episode in the parking lot.
Is it just me, or are old clunkers and classics everywhere — on the highways, parked in carports and farmers’ fields, in the church gravel lots? Or are our North Carolina mountains part of some open-air antique car museum?
Western North Carolina vehicles endure Northern-style winters and the dunes of salt put down on the roads. They have to negotiate those washed-out, rutted tracks straight up a mountainside, potholes and loose rocks on old dirt roads. These bygone models are probably abused more than any other vehicles in the state … and yet, they live on.
Surely I don’t have to convince you.
Haven’t you parked half on, half off a mountain two-lane to snap a photo of an old Burley tobacco barn and a rusted farm truck from the 1940s, with the balsams rising up behind the scene? Haven’t you, winding up the mountain to the Blue Ridge Parkway, been stuck behind Paw-Paw in his Sunday driving hat, coaxing his 1940 LaSalle into second gear? And once you arrive on the Parkway, haven’t you noticed how frequently you pass a classic car, taking in the view with the top down, a powder blue Starfire or a yolk yellow Chevy Bel Air Coupe?
Well, I notice, and would be willing to swap them my gray 2002 Chevy Cavalier for a ride above the clouds, borne aloft by chrome and whitewalls, cutting through the Appalachian air with pointed grills and tail fins.
I’m beginning to wonder if anyone up here knows how to trade in a car.
“Evidently not,” says Eddie Henline of Clyde. “I don’t reckon we do.”
Eddie and his wife, Renée, have kept ahold of every car that has come their way, including Eddie’s father’s 1950 Ford pickup. Renée is fixing up her family truck, too.
“I’ve got my daddy’s old 1968 Ford F-100 now,” she says. “Three-speed on the column, that’s what I learned to drive on. We ought to replace the bed, and maybe one of the panels, but she’ll run just fine.”
But the real treasures are in their garage: three of their four Ford Mustangs. Sister-in-law Patti has a 1966 Mustang Coupe, and like most of the Mustang-crazy Henlines, she’s a member of the Mountaineer Antique Auto Club, based in Waynesville and around since 1967, when classic meant Model T’s and Model A’s.
“My husband drove himself to his graduation in this,” Renée says, plucking an old Polaroid out of a photo album. Eddie, circa 1978, sporting a wide-brimmed black hat only Richard Petty could love, leans on the hood of his midnight blue 1965 Mustang Fastback.
“I’m a little shy about taking this one out on the road,” Eddie says, looking lovingly at his high school-era ride. “So many drivers these days are plumb crazy out there.”
The club’s president, Carl Queen, understands the impulse. “Yep, you put so much love into a vehicle, keep it alive so long, you think twice before taking it out. We got club members with some beautiful vintage automobiles that go to the car show and back, putting 10 miles a year on their cars.”
But not Carl. His 1957 Ford Thunderbird is for driving. “I like the two-, three-hundred-mile ride,” he says. “Naturally, the Blue Ridge Parkway, down to Georgia for a car show. And it’s hard to beat the park road.”
The “park road,” everybody local knows, means U.S. Highway 441, which bisects the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, climbing from Cherokee, under the dense shadowy canopy, up a mile high to Newland Gap, where green immensities and blue infinities beckon in all directions.
It’s still not easy to drive over the Smokies: To the north, there’s N.C. Highway 19E across the Roan Mountain Ridge; to the south, there’s U.S. 129 through the Snowbirds. In 1996, the U.S. Forest Service opened another highway to traverse the high mountains, the Cherohala Skyway, at a cost of $100 million. The Blue Ridge Parkway-like road winds scenically from Robbinsville to Tellico Plains, Tennessee, topping out at 5,400 feet, with plenty of temperamental weather and that far-from-civilization feeling. Yet rumbling along it in Carl’s powerful T-Bird, with its 5.1 liter V8, its 245 horsepower, it must feel like low-level flying.
“You can have the skyway to yourself some days,” Carl says. “It’s a little remote for most people.”
The only traffic that does concern Carl is the lack of new drivers in the Mountaineer Antique Auto Club.
“You look around at our car shows and cruises, and you sure see a lot of gray hair,” he says. “I don’t think the kids, even the ones who love all the ’50s and ’60s music and furniture, seem to care about the cars. It’s ol’ baby boomers and older folk like us in the garages fixing up their machines, making it a hobby. I suppose if you didn’t grow up riding in these cars, they don’t mean much to you.”
All the post-baby boomers drive cars that look depressingly alike. Can you imagine a regular meet-up of car enthusiasts in 2030, there to show off their polished Camrys and Escorts?
The motel. The motor court. The semicircular array of log cabins or tepees or garden cottages beckoning toward the old two-lane highway.
These architectural treasures just about passed into extinction thanks to the interstates, which, along with competition from the cookie-cutter chain hotels, turned many a motel strip along the U.S. routes into ghost towns. Motel extinction would have been a national tragedy. What could be more American, in the country of the road trip, than the motor hotel — the “motel” — family-run and friendly? The red neon VACANCY (with an option for the “NO” to be turned on), the rocking chairs in front of each room, the extravagant themes — the Alamo, the Teddy Bear, the Pocahontas — the landmark glowing signs persuading motorists to call it quits for the night after a full day of getting their kicks on Route 66. (Or, since we’re talking about North Carolina — Route 64.)
For North Carolina’s best surviving mountain motel strip, check out U.S. Highway 19 through Maggie Valley, up and over the Soco Gap and on into Cherokee and Bryson City. The gamut runs from beautiful dream cottages to sad ruins like the Warrior Motel with its historic sign one could recall enacting a tomahawk chop in multicolored neon stages, now fallen prey to weeds.
Back in 2007, future moteliers Jim and Mary Sears were cruising the Blue Ridge Parkway for the colors: aquamarine blue, powder-puff pink, tortoise-shell green, and royal purple. A classic car club was out on its annual fall cruise, gathering at the overlooks, letting people take all the photos they wanted of the Dodge 440s, the Thunderbirds, and the Galaxie 500 XLs, the Camaros and Firebirds, polished to perfection, ready for liftoff.
“Wouldn’t it be great,” Mary said to Jim, “if there were a motel that catered to us automobile people?”
Jim, who is always refurbishing a car in his garage, agreed. Not just the classic car clubs, but the retired couple seeing the country in their vintage Oldsmobile, the hobbyist working bit by bit, year by year, to get his old Trans Am up to scratch. What about a place where the devotees could stay in the North Carolina mountains, near the great driving roads of the Eastern United States, where they could meet other gearheads?
Full of their idea, they talked it over with friends, and by the time the fire burned down in the fireplace, they had it: the Gear Head Inn. Mary began collecting memorabilia for the walls of the rooms before they’d even bought a place. Each room would enshrine the 1960s, down to the period furniture and fixtures, and each room would be dedicated to a great ’60s muscle car.
And so they went shopping for a motel bargain.
“You don’t know what a fixer-upper is until you get into the motel business,” Mary says, through a hard-earned smile.
The Carriage Motel on U.S. Highway 19 stands just outside the Cherokee Nation in Whittier. Built in 1968, the joint had seen way better days. The crumbling pool, the cracked parking lot, the old carpets in the rooms, paneling issues, plumbing concerns. Mary bought Jim a fat, school-style notebook of lined paper. They would make a to-do list, room by room.
“We filled that notebook cover to cover, every page eventually,” she says, laughing.
Opened in 2009, the Gear Head Inn has rooms dedicated to the most popular cars (the Corvette, the Mustang), but also room shrines to the great Mopar (shorthand for the Chrysler Group) ’60s lineup: a Plymouth ’Cuda room (“Barracuda” to you civilians), rooms for the Super Bee 440 Sixpack and the GTO Judge, inspired by “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In’s” “Here come de judge!” co-opted from Durham-born vaudevillian Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham’s signature routine. Pontiac marketed the Judge with the slogan “The Judge Can Be Bought.” And Jim and Mary created a room for the rare Dart Demon 340, which, muscle car fans will recall, stirred up the religious folk over the glorification of demons and, after a threatened boycott, Dodge rechristened it the Dart Sport, a wimping-out from which the soon-to-be-discontinued model never recovered.
The railing of the motel office steps is made of Chevy headers.
The lights by the pool are one-story-tall gear shifts modeled after the legendary Hurst Gear Shift, which died with the 1960s.
There are even some impressive laid-down rubber and doughnut skid marks in the parking lot.
“Yeah,” Mary says, “that was Jim.”
Jim nods. “I was trying out the 1965 A.C. Cobra I’m re-building. Couldn’t help myself.”
Jim and Mary consider the Gear Head Inn a work in progress, and they hope to turn a corner of it into an auto parts desk for so many of the hard-to-find thingamajigs associated with this lost era of great automobiles. They travel to classic car rallies, hoping to find more posters and mementos for the motel room walls.
“It’s getting pretty hard to find period merchandise these days,” Mary confesses. As is finding 1960s furniture at a reasonable price.
Even more challenging is 1950s furniture, says Lori Roberts of The Sunset Motel in Brevard, which sits pretty in pastel pink and turquoise trim, where U.S. Highway 64 Business divides going into downtown.
“The hipsters have certainly made my decorating life a little more difficult. You can find something like this,” she says, pointing to one of the ’50s-era outdoor lawn chairs, a round metal rim strung across with colored vinyl bands, “but I’m paying hundreds more than I used to pay for it, thanks to the nostalgia craze. Retro is in.”
Roberts loves all things ’50s the way the Searses love the ’60s. The word MOTEL glows in neon cursive; pink plastic flamingos decorate the front forecourt. The Sunset Motel lobby is decorated with 45-r.p.m. singles. (I searched for some classic ’50s hits before understanding that if you actually had Elvis’s “Hound Dog” with “Don’t Be Cruel” on the B-side, you wouldn’t be gluing it to the wall.) There’s an ancient Philco TV in the lobby. Does it work?
“Sadly, no,” says Roberts. “Not many people can work with vacuum tubes these days.”
And classic car enthusiasts of ’50s vintage have flocked to her themed motel. For her grand opening in 2011, Roberts invited the Hendersonville Antique Car Club to drive up in period cars. Folks arrived in leather jackets and poodle skirts, leaning against a bone-white Ford Super Deluxe V8 and an aquamarine Bel Air.
Roberts’s plan for reviving a classic American motel earned her, just like the Searses, a Herculean cleanup job. The Sunset had declined to near-ruin; the residents were using the place as a flophouse, for drug deals and other unsavory business, and they didn’t share Roberts’s dreams for renewal.
“Had the police over here all the time,” she remembers, unperturbed. “Everyone moved on but not without a lot of noise.”
Then began the project of turning each room into a mid-century gem. In most rooms, there’s a bit of period art above each headboard, such as iron rods in a tic-tac-toe pattern with space-age circles and triangles peek through. (Was there a name for those ’50s Mondrian-inspired wall sculptures?) There are lamp shades that taper, the light sconces’ with teardrop shapes, and the squat, stylish bedstands.
“Everything’s ’50s or ’50s-style,” Roberts says proudly. “The TV’s are modern, as are the bathroom fixtures. There are limits to nostalgia when it comes to those items.”
My parents had a lime green, two-tone 1964 Rambler with vinyl seats so sticky you could take a layer of skin off, getting up too quickly on a hot day. I don’t recall wearing a seat belt once, or seeing my baby sister ever being cooped up in a car seat. And I remember when we didn’t even make it to Knoxville some vacation driving days, my dad calling it quits in Marshall or Newport, Tennessee, or, on the southern route, in Franklin or Murphy, and me giddy to be in a motel room, exploding in pent-up energy, bouncing on the bed inside, while Mom and Dad cooled off in the chairs under the motel awning outside.
It’s amazing how much of that world remains visible on the roads of western North Carolina.
Part of the charm of our corner of Appalachia is the aura of olden days, the antiquated feel of Marshall’s Main Street, the unchanged county courthouse square of Hayesville, which would be the delight of any Hollywood director looking for a Depression-era film set. Asheville southwest to Murphy is an interstate-less tract, where the still-vital U.S. routes and the old postwar highway culture still reign: the motels, the diners, See Ruby Falls signs, the fish camps and stocked trout ponds, the find-’em-yourself gem mines, the cartoon prospector on the billboards telling us to come Pan Fer Gold! — indeed, the artifact of the billboard itself, promising us homemade ice cream or mama’s country cookin’, Santa’s Land, discount cigarettes, and the best price on moccasins. These old classic cars are right at home here.
Maybe in a land where geological change plays out in eons, and the mountains are a few hundred million years older than everybody else’s mountains, the locals’ appetite for change is wisely slow. Slow as Paw-Paw in his Sunday driving hat, taking that rattletrap 1940 LaSalle up the mountain, up to the High Country, one more time.
Gear Head Inn
6280 Ela Road
Whittier, NC 28789
The Sunset Motel
523 South Broad Street
Brevard, NC 28712