We’re pleased as punch to present an excerpt from the first chapter of Earl Swift’s latest, AUTO BIOGRAPHY: A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead and 57 Years of the American Dream.
Behold Tommy Arney: six-one, two-forty, biceps big as most men’s thighs and displayed to maximum effect in the black wifebeater that is his warm-weather fashion essential. Thick neck. Goatee. Hair trimmed tight on the sides and to a broom-like inch on top, having grown too thin to facilitate the lush mullet he favored for the better part of two decades. Big, calloused mitts roughened by wrench turning and car towing and several hundred applications of blunt-force trauma, of which dozens resulted in his arrest. Self-applied four-dot tattoo on his left wrist, signifying his years as guest of the state. A belly nourished by beer, whiskey, Rumple Minze, and buckets of both haute cuisine and Buffalo chicken wings—of the latter, seventy-two at one sitting—but ameliorated by excellent posture: He leads with his chest, shoulders thrown rearward, daring the world to take a swing at him.
Few scars, considering. Under his right arm is the ghost of a surgery he endured without general anesthesia, its healing compromised when, a few hours after he was wheeled from the O.R., he snuck out of the hospital for a beer at a nearby strip club, got into a fight, and reopened the incision in such manner that he drenched himself, the club and a neighboring 7-Eleven in blood.
Point of information: He owned the strip club.
On his skull, a dent wrought by repeated blows with a heavy stick of lumber. Two breaks in the bones of his nose. And here and there, faded nicks recalling a melee outside a Norfolk, Virginia, sailor bar, during which he says he warned away an advancing K-9 cop by hollering, “Don’t set that dog on me, or I’ll fuck up your dog”—then made good on the threat by clamping his beefy hands around the charging animal’s neck, squeezing until it passed out, and beating the cop with his own German shepherd.
Speaking of which: He can be intemperate with the language. He once announced in court that if it were up to him, the opposing counsel would be executed. “I like to fucking cuss,” he’s said while introducing a buddy, “but this motherfucker, he fucking cusses like a motherfucker.” He called one municipal attorney on whose good graces he relied a “stupid motherfucking cunt,” then, having had time to reconsider, told her, “I’m sorry I called you a stupid motherfucking cunt.”
In the twenty years since I first met Tommy Arney, I’ve heard many labels applied to him. Crazy. Brash. A rough customer. Charming. Funny. Shrewd. A case could be made for any and all of them, to which I’d add: a scholar. He has devoted more than thirty years to study in his field. His expertise is such that people come hundreds of miles to tap it. He is a historian, a curator of memories, a student of America’s popular culture in the mid-twentieth century.
Though admittedly, that is not the first thing most people notice about him.
A Friday in September 2010 in Moyock, North Carolina, a roadside burg that hugs the Virginia line—tattoo parlors, discount cigarette joints, prefab warehouses and (hard to miss) Arney’s place, Moyock Muscle, a scrubby five acres crowded with roughly four hundred old cars.
Most aren’t much to look at. A few restored classics gleam in Moyock Muscle’s showroom, which occupies the front half of an oversized Quonset hut on the property’s southern edge (Corvette Stingrays, a couple Chevy coupes from the mid-thirties, a souped-up, blaze-orange Nova), but the real trade is in “project cars”—beaters, some little more than rust-brown skeletons, sought by motorheads looking to stay busy for a few hundred weekends.
This particular afternoon finds Arney in the showroom office, eating lunch with members of his regular crew. He’s known Skinhead, his right-hand man and best friend, for most of his adult life. He hired Victoria Hammond, a.k.a. Slick, as an exotic dancer when she was twenty; now thirty-eight, she manages all of his business affairs. Painter Paul not only runs Moyock Muscle when Arney isn’t around, he lives next door to him, in a knot of suburban houses the boss owns. The Arney compound, its occupants call it. What Hyannis Port might be like, were the Kennedys skilled at applying sleeper holds.
Lunch is muted, for Arney and company are exhausted. They’ve spent the past month trying to whip Moyock Muscle into compliance with the demands of Currituck County, the closest thing to government in this part of Carolina. The county people are displeased that among the first things a southbound traveler sees on crossing into the state is a chaos of derelict cars, some stacked three high. They’re unhappy that Arney displays his wares less than twenty feet from State Route 168, in violation of county ordinance. It’s their view that the place could use some landscaping—ornamental shrubs and trees, perhaps, or an earthen berm to soften the visual impact of massed Detroit iron going to seed. They also appear to be of the mind that Moyock Muscle isn’t a car lot so much as a junkyard. That annoys Arney. That annoys him a great deal.
Not as much, however, as the disrespect he senses whenever he speaks with them. They know next to nothing about him, neither that he’s a scholar, nor a felon, nor an elementary-school dropout, yet they dare to condescend. At a recent meeting at the county courthouse, Arney became so irritated by a smart-mouthed and slightly built young planning official that it was all he could do to restrain himself. “Back in my younger days, I’d have slapped the fuck out of that little prick,” he tells his crew between bites, “and I mean at the fucking meeting.”
For all that, he’s tried to abide by the county’s wishes, knowing that to do otherwise will invite pain. The crew has pulled a long string of bruising days at the lot, crushing and hauling away cars that Arney forced himself to admit he’d never sell. He’s reduced the inventory by three hundred vehicles and arranged the survivors in neat rows. Anyone familiar with the Moyock Muscle of five weeks ago would scarcely recognize the place.
He hasn’t got around to everything the county asked him to do, though, and he’s out of time to try. He had until today at three o’clock—right about now—and look: In walk two officials from the county planning department, folders of paperwork in hand. Arney, chewing, watches them cross the showroom. One is the man he came close to pounding, the other a slender, bearded young fellow who politely announces they’ve arrived for a look around. Arney nods and suggests they have that look, then come see him with questions.
He watches them leave. “My original plan was to come down here and walk around the whole place with them,” he tells us. “I thought about it and thought about it. Woke up this morning at six twenty thinking about it, and I decided I wouldn’t walk around with them, because that’s where I’d get aggravated.”
“You did right,” Skinhead says.
“You don’t need to get worked up,” Slick agrees. “It’s unbelievable, the attitude they have.”
“Well, they’re young,” Arney sighs. “And they’ve got an education. And they have the authority to be fucking assholes.”
The crew is cleaning away the crumbs when the county men return. The bearded fellow notes the improved state of the property, but adds, as expected, that much remains to be done: Arney will have to pull the inventory away from the lot’s edges and do something about the landscaping. Then he gets to the county’s underlying concern: Most of these cars, he says, look way beyond repair. Too far gone to save. Too far gone to sell. I mean, he says, what are the odds that someone will actually buy some of these wrecks? They’re scrap.
“They’re project cars,” Slick offers.
“Project cars,” the planner says. Evidently, the term is new to him.
“Project cars,” Slick says again. “People buy cars to fix them up. They don’t want them perfect. We get a lot of guys who buy cars to work on with their sons, as a bonding experience.”
The county men stare at her. “Here,” Arney says, wiping his mouth with a paper napkin and rising to his feet. “Let me educate you young men.”
On other days, in other venues, such a sentence leaving Arney’s lips might carry a certain menace, for an education at his hands has been known to usher lengthy convalescence. He has stabbed at least two men. He has bitten, chewed and swallowed a mouthful of neck from a third, and ripped the scrotum from another. And when an associate lied to him once too often, Arney knocked him unconscious and bored twice through his kneecap with a Black and Decker cordless drill. Unsatisfied, he drilled into the top of the man’s head. He failed to hole through before the bit snapped.
Today, he simply leads the way outside, into the bright heat of late summer, where, in the company of his sun-chapped bulk, the county men look fresh-scrubbed and pencil-limbed and unnaturally pale. So, for that matter, do I, bringing up the rear. We weave a path through a platoon of aged sedans and hardtops, chrome flashing in the sun, until Arney stops beside a 1970 Chevy Chevelle. “See this car?” he asks. “Just look at it for a minute.”
We scan the car. It’s rough. Black paint has turned cloudy. Rust has consumed the rocker panels. Chrome peels from the bumpers. A tire is flat.
Arney pops the hood. It opens with a groan. “Not looking good,” he announces, and points to an empty space behind the grille. “The battery box is gone. All rusted away.” He steps around the car’s right side. “See this?” He runs his hand over what was once the cowl, a narrow steel panel between the hood and windshield. It has decayed to nothing. “There should be a piece of metal here, but it’s gone. All turned to shit.” The visitors exchange a glance. He seems to be making their case.
Arney leans under the hood, points to the car’s wheels. “You shouldn’t be able to see those from in here,” he says. “The inner wheel wells, both of them—gone. And look at this engine.” A piece of plastic sheeting has been laid over the Chevy’s big V8 and weighted in place with a foot-long piece of two-by-four. Arney lifts away the makeshift cover to expose a portal into the engine’s guts. “Doesn’t even fucking have a carburetor,” he says. “This is where the carburetor would go, but instead, it’s got this.” He recovers the hole and drops the hood.
“So,” Arney says, folding his arms over his chest. “How much would you pay for this car? How much do you think this car is worth?” He eyes the county men. They stare back, saying nothing. He gives them a gentle nudge. “Not fucking much, probably.”
“Right,” the bearded planner says.
“Right,” Arney nods. He stands silent for a moment, and I detect the slightest hint of amusement in his eyes. “Well, it might interest you to know,” he says, “that just yesterday, I had a man from Connecticut pay me forty-five hundred dollars for this car. Not only did he pay me forty-five hundred dollars, he’s paying me another eight-fifty to take it up to him in Connecticut.”
Arney pats the car’s hood. “See, this is a 1970 Chevelle. It’s one of the most collectable cars there is. People search the country for this particular car in this condition. That fellow from Connecticut had been looking all over, and when he found this one, he was as happy as he could be. So what you might think is junk, another man’s going to see as treasure.”
He turns away from the Chevy and with a sweep of his arm takes in the hundreds of seeming beaters that surround us. Within view are a couple of wasted Plymouths, a dozen old Fords, ancient General Motors models of every stripe. A thrashed American Motors Javelin. A two-tone but faded Studebaker Commander. “The same goes for all of these cars,” he says. “Somebody wants every one of them, and they’ll be willing to spend some money to get what they want. Because this”—here he stabs at the Chevelle with a thick index finger—“is American history. And the people who buy a car like this understand that.”
The tenor of the visit shifts.
Let the record show that on the day Tommy Arney utters this business about American history, he has not cracked a text devoted to the subject, not once; in fact, Arney says, he has not read any book intended for adult consumers in his fifty-four years of life, and doesn’t often pick up a newspaper or magazine, either. He is not illiterate, though he often describes himself that way. But having achieved only a fifth-grade education, and not a particularly high-flying one at that, he’s not much of a reader.
He’s right, just the same: The cars he sells are fossils of the twentieth-century American experience, of a place and a people utterly devoted to the automobile and changed by it in uncountable ways. He doesn’t need a book to tell him so. The evidence is plain on any summer’s day, as travelers from Virginia and points farther north stream past on Route 168, bound for the beaches of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. One after another peel from the herd and into Moyock Muscle, park among the forebears of their sleek SUVs, sedans and minivans, spy familiar shapes sugared in rust, and find themselves transported back to moments of great personal import that they shared with cars exactly like the junkers before them—moments softened and dimmed by the years but restored to high relief, if only for seconds, by the smell of a Buick’s ancient vinyl, or the style of the numbers on an old Chrysler gauge, or the bulbous, vaguely cheery prow of a ’48 Ford pickup.
Many feel compelled to seek him out, to share with him the power contained by the metal, rubber and glass on his lot. Some can bandy around engine sizes and performance specs, but most don’t; they’re excited by encountering a long-ago and (so they all say) simpler time in their lives, moved by a remembrance of childhood joys, or clumsy teenage reconnaissance, or critical junctures as lovers, spouses, parents—memories interwoven with, and inseparable from, those of riding in cars, in a car exactly like this, behind this skinny melamine wheel.
He’s witnessed hundreds of these intimate reunions, and has come to understand that as unique as they might feel to the person involved, they vary only so much: What makes Americans who and how we are is in no small measure tied to our status as the most automotive people on the planet. We may have individual experiences while on the road, but one individual experience doesn’t stray far from the next; driving is driving. As driving is also close to ubiquitous, Arney’s cars are time capsules of not only automotive engineering and design, but Americanism itself. Like he said, they’re our history.
Across Moyock Muscle’s rust and ruin, over on the property’s northern fringe, sits a relic of particular note, a Chevy station wagon languishing under a thick carpet of grime and flaking metal. Even by the standards of its setting, it’s in deplorable shape: Its turquoise paint is sun-bleached, salt-pocked and cracked like a dry lakebed. Its body is dented and creased. Flat tires give it a strong list to port. Its interior is stripped to bare and rotting steel, floorboards chewed away, back seat gone, the headliner’s vinyl trim ripped from its moorings and draped like bunting.
The driver’s window is shattered, and long exposure to the elements has left two craters in the front seat, each a foot across, one lined with feathers. Gauges are missing from the dash, along with much of the steering wheel. The clock is shattered. A thick, rusty chain snakes into the cabin through rough holes in the floor, an inelegant swap for brackets that once held the transmission in place. Under the hood, the radiator, battery and a host of minor components are absent. Even if they weren’t, the car wouldn’t start. Its engine hasn’t turned in years.
That it’s a 1957 Chevy, among the most universally beloved models to ever roll off an assembly line, makes its decrepitude all the more obvious, because just about everyone knows how the car should look. Chrome-laden front end, bumper and grille united in a gleaming, thick-lipped pout. Bumper guards jutting like tusks from the corners of its wide mouth. Bright, two-tone paint. And a departing flourish: fins, chrome-edged and massive, jutting a foot aft of the tailgate. Sixteen feet, eight inches of Eisenhower-era flash.
As it is, “classic” isn’t a label the wagon brings to mind. It seems beyond salvation. A goner. So consumed by rot and rust that it isn’t even worth recycling: To look at it, there’s little to scrap, let alone save. Except that an invisible asset sets this hulk apart from the other cars in the yard. Unimpressive though it might be in the present, the wagon has a well-documented past.
Unless a car has had just a few owners, or always been held by collectors, such a past is elusive. Most states pitch their motor vehicle records after a handful of years. The typical used-car buyer doesn’t long remember the seller’s name, and vice versa. Details blur; often, the only reliable givens about a vehicle’s past are those of its birth, encrypted in the numbers and letters stamped on its body and engine—figures that say nothing of its journey after leaving the assembly line.
This car, though: Arney acquired this one knowing that it had passed through twelve pairs of hands before his. There was the middle-class boilermaker who bought it fresh from the factory, and that man’s veterinarian grandson, and a shipyard worker who took his poodle to the grandson’s clinic. Then came a guy who ran a body shop, a fun-loving couple in the outer suburbs, and a struggling single mother. A gay physician and his partner. A pawnshop owner, briefly, followed by a navy sailor; after that, a high school dropout whose father was obsessed with old Chevys, and who’d grown up among scores of them. Next, a born-again Christian garbage man enamored of anything old. And finally, an electrician and weekend hot-rodder who happened to know both the garbage man and Tommy Arney. Which is to say, a dozen men and women from a dozen walks of life, of varied background and varying means—a cross-section of America in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first, all of them players in a single narrative for having sat behind the wheel of this Chevy.
This provenance, as Arney sees it, is central to the car’s value, right up there with its beauty, its mechanical merits, its storied place in American culture. He has watched the travelers pull off Route 168 to meet their pasts long enough to understand that the wagon transcends mere transportation, or performance, or design. It tells a story. It is a story, that of individual Americans, traces of whom it carries in its blemished skin and worn upholstery—their joy and anguish, hard days and easy, childhood and old age. Each dent and tear recalls a scene, a plot twist.
So it is that the Chevy heads the list of Moyock Muscle heaps that Arney has deemed worthy of rescue. Of all the choices on the lot, it’s this one he says he’ll next spend tens of thousands of dollars returning to its former glory.