I’ll freely admit this job is far and away the best one I’ve ever had because I’m immersed in a kinder, gentler world that crosses every decade since 1900.
This is a world where cars and trucks and trucks have individuality and style—those are things you can’t say about a brand new Toyota.
That’s why you can get a pass on an exact identification on a 2014 Toyota because honestly—who cares?
The game changes dramatically when I’m faced with the difference between a 1963 and ’64 Ford Galaxie. I was a huge fan of the fastback roof line when Ford introduced it in mid-year because it made the car look like it was doing 100 mph even when it was parked.
Ford carried on with this roof line in ’64 and to the casual observer the cars look pretty close but to the owner—the differences are huge. I don’t have a problem identifying the difference between a ’63 and a ’64 Ford because I was a kid who couldn’t wait for my dad’s new car editions of Mechanix Illustrated, Popular Science or Popular Mechanics showed up in the mail.
Actually, I never miss on any test to identify mid-50s to late 60s cars with some exceptions. I’ll never miss the ID on a ’58 Buick over a ’58 Olds because the differences are very clear but to the casual observer (or the guy who grew up with these cars and didn’t really care) they both look like giant land yachts with massive amounts of chrome.
Detroit’s subtle styling variations between models were by design because back in ’58 the difference between a Buick and an Olds was the difference between a general manager’s salary and an assistant general manager’s salary. That minor shift in what car was parked in your driveway was enough to tell your neighbors where you stood on the corporate totem pole.
This era (1955-1969) is a relatively easy one for me because that’s when I took a deep interest in cars. Every year was a new adventure for me because those new car editions would come out and for a kid obsessed with cars-this was an early Christmas gift.
Unfortunately, I fail miserably on most other decades. I have to really look at a ’32 Ford to ID it even though it’s an automotive icon. Hot-rodders could ID a deuce coupe from the moon but I really have to get close to it and I’ll admit to peeking at the information on the window if the car is at a show. The details never seem to stick in my memory files—my personal failing.
That’s why I barely get a passing grade with the identification of 1930s iron, but I can spot a Chevy, Plymouth or a Dodge by looking at the radiators first (my dad taught me that trick-he never missed) but hot-rodders play games with things like headlight buckets so a Dodge might get a Ford headlight bucket treatment. I go down in flames when that happens.
Post-war models are a huge problem for me because the difference between a ’47 and a ’48 Chev is so slight I flip a coin to decide. I won’t confuse a post-war Ford or Plymouth with a post-war Chev but I’m definitely guessing when I see a ’47 or ’48 Chev.
Ford’s golden era for trucks was post-war but the 1953-56 lineup is a part of the cultural fabric in North America. These trucks were so cool and so easily hot-rodded they became the blueprint for 50s truck customizing but I have to really look to see the differences in badging and grills to ID a ’53-56 Ford truck. The information just doesn’t flow out of me like it should.
Unfortunately, the same mental block applies to ‘49-53 Chevy trucks. The 1954 version is easy (although it carried into ’55) because of the distinctive grill but every Chevy truck before that year is a blur to me. I know the split windshield is a cue and other subtle differences come into play but if you have a row of post-war Chevy trucks I’m going to need a reference book— I’m that weak and I’m not above cheat notes.
There’s a local legend who can ID cars like a human Google. Wayne Russell has never missed on anything built before 1955 and I’ve thrown some incredibly tough tests at him. One of his finest moments came when he pulled off an ID on an old car buried in a river bank. I went to the default position that it was a Model T but Wayne picked it off as a Dodge from a few clues like the dash and the doors.
Guys like Wayne are car gods because if the car is outside my comfort zone of ’55-69. I’m going to need a smart phone and good internet connection.
Wayne just needs a good memory.
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