Auto Motives

Vroom service: When he's not on the job, Jerry Trujillo keeps his engine running.
James Bludworth

At Denver Water's annual employee car show, God is in the detailing.

"She's a garage queen," says Jerry Trujillo of his 1931 Ford Roadster. Trujillo's a paving coordinator at the water department, and his off hours are few. Nevertheless, through years of effort and heavy reliance on the kindness of mechanically inclined friends, he's turned this car from a rusty relic into a showpiece worth over $30,000 -- a number he finds hard to ignore. "This car here has probably been out of the garage three times this year," he says, "and only to go to car shows. Rain? I see a cloud, I hide."

But on this hot afternoon, there's no sign of anything like a cloud, in keeping with the shortage that's plagued Denver Water all summer. It's so hot and dry that the ice cream that's always served during the car show has been moved indoors -- not that anyone goes inside. Instead, they walk up and down the parking lot, admiring the twenty or so cars and motorcycles assembled for the occasion.

"This is a lot better than the Christmas luncheon," opines Jerry Honebein as he shows off his 1998 three-wheeled Harley, resplendent with painted flames. "You get a chance to move away if you get bored with who you're talking to. You get to look at cars instead of talk, in the first place."

"Some tricycle, Jerry," someone cracks. "Do the pedals go all the way around? Did it used to be a PT Cruiser?"

"Yeah, yeah. It was custom-built by Hawg Wild in Loveland."

"That's his brother's shop," someone else points out.

"Hey, I started it with him," Honebein says. "After a while, I was having too much fun, so I had to break down and get a real job."

Reality hits hard. Honebein now works as an administrative assistant in the department's human resources section; he commutes from Loveland, usually on one Harley or another. Rain doesn't bother him the way it does Trujillo.

The two Jerrys started the car show eleven years ago to showcase the department's evening and weekend mechanics. "People from different walks of life who care about the same things," as Trujillo puts it. "We decided not to do any judging. It was just a bunch of guys bringing in their cars. There's a lot of talent in this place, and you don't always realize that sitting at a desk."

"This is an engineering/quasi-military-dominated place," explains Jane Earle, the department's manager of community relations. "Its founders were ex-Army Corps. These guys love machines."

The affection is contagious. This year, Earle proudly displays her own vintage baby-blue Karman Ghia. "Of course, I know nothing about cars," she admits, "but I'm a great shopper. And I knew this was a deal."

The Karman Ghia sits between two classic cars that Earle is old enough to remember simply as regular transportation (she's not the only one) and down the row from heavy-equipment operator Ralph Smith's high-end race car. That car has its own pit crew/entourage.

"I started with all this when I was a kid," Smith says. "I got hooked. When it's working, it costs me a hundred dollars a day just for the insurance." And Smith intends to keep it working at races around the country through the summer.

He starts the car, and it sounds like a jet engine. For a few minutes, all conversation ceases.

Conspicuously absent this year is department manager Chips Barry, who's been occupied with matters more pressing than his obsession with vintage Saabs.

But scratch that. Almost nothing, he says, is more important than an elegant old Saab.

"The early ones are actually three-cylinder, two-cycle cars," he tells me a week after the show. "Did you even know that? I'm not an expert, but I went to the national Saab convention once. And some lady called me up and said, 'I understand you buy old Saabs,' and I said, 'No, I don't buy old Saabs -- I don't have room; I don't have time; how much do you want?' She had two for sale. I bought a rare old sports car."

Barry dates his obsession to the year his now-28-year-old son, Pennan, turned fifteen. "I did a variation on the suburban thing," he recalls. "When your kid learns to drive, he expects a new Impala on his birthday. I said, bullshit. I'll never do that. But when the alternative was me driving him everywhere, well, something had to be done. So I got him a car. 'By the way,' I told him, 'it doesn't work. You need to rebuild it, and I will help you. We'll just dig in and figure it out.'"

This is how Pennan Barry came to drive a 1968 Saab -- "the one that looks kind of like a bathtub," his father says helpfully -- and learned enough to not just rebuild its engine, but to keep the car functioning during automotive emergencies. A few years later, Pennan's younger brother, Duncan, suffered the same initiation, this time with an ancient VW van. "And one night Duncan came home late because his accelerator cable had broken on the corner of Alameda and Monaco," Barry recalls. "Apparently, he fixed it with some used shoelaces and a spring."

In other words, both sons knew enough to set out into the world prepared. Also, Barry says, for one year, in one garage, each spent time alone with his father.

"There's just something about working on cars," he says. "It's one of those things you can just do. You don't have to form a committee or write a report or issue a press conference. You just do the work, and you get results."

I know this truth to be self-evident: If you ask a man to talk about a car, he will. This applies to introverts, recluses, even hermits. Men crowd my head with numbers I've never managed to truly appreciate: zero to twenty in one-point-five seconds! No, wait! I really meant two seconds. Write that down!

But hidden in these stats is deep affection, and this I've understood since long before I got my learner's permit. Machines have personalities -- surely you've met a Bad Seed -- and some turn out to be the automotive half of a marriage made in heaven. Since highways and parking meters have removed most opportunities to take a long, lazy look at an interesting car, I like car shows, especially small ones. I like the names painted on the flawless waxed metal at the Denver Water display: El Lobo Solo, Low Beast, Geezer Glide.

Naturally, I fall for the rebel in the crowd: a 1962 Chevrolet half-ton pickup owned by surveyor Ray Savard. I'd call it blue, but to do so would ignore the mottled patina of rust seldom seen in the arid West. The truck is unbuffed. Trashed, if you will. Its huge wooden bed is splintered; the bungee cords Savard uses to tie down loads -- of, well, probably junk -- are anchored by strategically rusted holes in each fender.

"It's very Jed Clampett, isn't it?" Savard says. "My wife has a good car. I have this." In fact, he's had it since 1986, and he's still not sure exactly why. The car's previous owner -- its only owner until Savard -- was a fellow department employee, a large man known as Tiny. Savard, Tiny and another friend were in the habit of carpooling to work, alternating cars each week. As a result, Savard had ridden many hours in Tiny's truck, and was unimpressed with its rotten upholstery, crackling radio and inadequate restraints. But when Tiny said he'd sell it to the other guy in the car pool, Savard heard himself offer $250.

"I paid him fifty bucks a paycheck four times," he recalls. "By the fifth, Tiny said, 'Oh, hell, just keep it.'"

The truck now exerts its mysterious magic on me. Long after I should be moving on to the next car, I continue to hang around it.

"What's not to like?" Savard says sympathetically. "There's no upkeep. You change the mufflers when they fall off and buy a new used tire once in a while. If you need to change the oil, you can open the hood and sit in there."

"Can I look inside?" I ask.

"Ah, yes, the interior. It looks like shit. Here's the heater" -- an ancient blanket -- "and the defroster"-- a spray bottle of Windex -- "and the seat belt" -- a coil of nylon rope.

"Sit in it if you want," he offers, "but I hope you've had your tetanus shot."

I'd go two-fifty. No, three. But I say nothing. You don't come between a man and his car.

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