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Car Collectors Search for Memories

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

American Beauties

Car-crazy boomers are smashing price records (and exasperating their families) buying up their teenage dream machines. — Photo by Ron Kimball/Kimball Stock

Tim McManus is a car guy, the son of an Edsel dealer. He is the kind of man who, when you ask him how many cars he owns, has to stop and think. Twenty-three, he decides.

McManus is pursuing number 24. An hour earlier he had been on the losing end of a bidding war over a 1957 Thunderbird at the Barrett-Jackson collector-car auction. Now he sips a beer in a Scottsdale, Arizona, hotel bar, running the numbers on his life behind the wheel. A semi ­ retired Denver industrial realtor, McManus, 66, has owned 77 cars — so far — and aches for more. A 1970 Pontiac Grand Prix. A mid-'60s Lincoln Continental convertible. His teenage dream was a 1963 Buick Riviera, considered one of the all-time best-looking American cars. He was 17 when it appeared. "I swore to myself the day I first saw one that if I could ever afford to have that car, I would," he says.

And he did, of course. One is parked in his garage now. It has plenty of company. A few weeks back, a close friend and fellow collector died, passing on his own cache of 19 vintage vehicles — most from 1957, each one black. This brush with mortality has left McManus with a fleet of monochromatic cars and a gnawing unease about what to do with them. His own children aren't interested. "I don't want to burden my kids with my fantasies," he says.

Yet McManus is here, looking to fulfill one more fantasy. (Forget, for a moment, that he already owns a 1957 Thunderbird.) Explain this to me, I ask: How many old cars does one driver need? And what exactly do you find when you sit inside that '63 Riv you lusted after at 17, and smell the leather seats, and listen to the ageless rumble of a Wildcat V8? What's in there?

He smiles indulgently.

"Yesterday," he says.

Behold the dilemma of the Last Car Guys, creatures of the early 21st century's crash-up of memory, demography, and disposable income. These are men slipping past midlife with empty nests, full wallets, and an almost primeval urge to take another spin in the icons of their past — logic and garage space be damned.

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