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Car Collectors Search for Memories

What's driving their obsession to own the classic car of their dreams?

I find Derek Hunter, 40, beside his father's 1964 Austin-Healey 3000, a gorgeous British roadster. A framed photo rests on the car's grille. In it, a bride and groom smile back from 1967: She's in a long dress; he's beaming beneath horn-rims. The car has "Just Married" scrawled on its dusty flanks.

And that's the bride herself — Derek's mother, Marcia Hunter Elam — sitting in the same car's snug passenger seat. The car was bought new in Covington, Kentucky, across the river from Cincinnati. Derek's father was an accountant and a sports car buff who died when Derek was young. A few years ago Derek pulled the car out of a barn and spent thousands of dollars bringing it back to life. And now he and his sister, Erika Hunter-Sedmak, are selling it. This is smart: The values on this model have skyrocketed. "I told Derek, 'It's a piece of metal,' " says Marcia. "The memories are what you hold on to."

Derek confides later that this transaction is even more emotionally fraught: His father took his own life, and Derek has few happy memories from that time. The most vivid is of sitting in his father's car as it crested a hill at speed — that moment of weightlessness, as if he were flying.

An auction staffer signals. It's showtime. Derek hops in the little car and fires it up; the Healey settles into a warm, chuckling idle and rolls into the glare of the television lights. Thousands of people are out there watching. Things get hectic. The bidding briskly climbs all the way up to $75,000, far more than the pre-auction estimate. When I look back at Derek, he is crying.

The new owner is a plump fellow in his 60s, from Palm Springs, California. Afterward they swap phone numbers. "In 20 years," Derek tells him, "I'll buy it back."

Time stalks all car guys. Rust works its implacable corruption; rubber and plastic crack and split; fluids go dry. Keeping these machines on the road demands a set of increasingly antiquated skills and an abiding tolerance for breakdowns. Even the most badass of Camaros can't outrun fate, and neither can their drivers. Collector magazines and sites are full of estate-sale listings for unfinished projects, each a bittersweet score for a new owner.

Those fresh buyers are often themselves of AARP age. "There aren't that many people of my generation here," says Greg Keith, 31, who's drinking beers with a coterie of ex-NFL players in the raucous bar beneath the VIP stands. It turns out he's here with his father; they run car dealerships in Vancouver, British Columbia. He's already picked up a '57 Corvette and a '65 Jaguar E-Type I'd been eyeballing earlier.

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