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Car Collectors Search for Memories

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

Both these vehicles were built long before Keith was born, which is typical. Collectible cars, especially American ones, that postdate 1973 or so are rare. That's when environmental and safety restrictions killed off the last golden-age muscle cars, and when American automaking in particular entered an aesthetically challenged period that few enthusiasts wish to revisit. Which makes some aficionados conclude that their hobby, despite record-smashing prices and booming interest, is stuck in neutral. "Are we going to be playing in this era forever?" Keith asks.

A lot of market experts predict just that — the collectible era of automobiles has essentially ended, and future gearheads will churn through a dwindling stock of ever-more-elderly cars until the gas finally runs out and the last V-8 sputters. Few anticipate that aging Gen Xers, gripped with nostalgia, will rescue their high school Corollas from junkyards a decade hence. The emotional bond that boomers forged with their wheels in car-crazy postwar America didn't reproduce itself, and few modern cars possess the soulful intangibles that elevate a machine into a vessel of dreams. Andy Smith motions at the crowd. "Look at all this gray hair," he says. "I fear we're the last ones. This is the peak right here."

If he's right, this is less a Super Bowl of car collecting than a jazz funeral — a riotous send-off to a culture lead-footing into oblivion. Whether we know it or not, we are gathered here to wave good-bye to the automobile, or at least what we loved about them, before they are gone for good.

Or maybe it just feels that way after the sun goes down and the desert chills. Behind the auction tent, sold cars emerge in a steady stream, led off to new owners. Most drive off under their own power. A few are towed behind golf carts, which buzz about the site like tugboats attending ocean liners.

There's that '59 Cadillac, the one with the epic fins. A white-haired man is futzing around under the hood. It's the battery, or the alternator, or something. The engine fires, but the car manages to move only a few feet before it stalls. It's frustrating. A golf cart stands ready to escort the giant Caddy out of the way. But then the white-haired guy gets it running again and gently lays down the hood. The motor burbles on.

"Try it again," he tells the driver one last time. "Let's see how far it'll go."

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