Americans, With So Much Bleak News on TV and Social Media, Are Embracing Nostalgic Pursuits Like Vintage Cars

Whether it is through sentiment or a search for purpose, joining a group or organization that fulfills both is at the heart of American exceptionalism.

Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
A vintage Bentley. Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

BEDFORD, Pennsylvania — For a brief moment, it was like stepping back in time when a series of 1920s Bentley Roadsters chugged up along the ridge of the winding Lincoln Highway in the mountains of Somerset County. The drivers and passengers alike were wearing goggles, their scarves billowing in the wind.

The smiles on their faces, so carefree and joyful, were something you wished you could bottle and save for yourself.

It was only when an 18-wheeler with bright Dollar General signs on both sides came barreling up behind them that the whimsical spell was broken.

What is it about seeing something from the past that makes us want to capture a long-gone part of time that either we’ve experienced in our childhoods, or with which our parents or grandparents have captivated us through storytelling?

A member of the North American Vintage Bentley Meet, Paul Tupis, said the nostalgic draw of collecting the old cars, restoring them and then joining up with people who share your passion gives him and the other members a real sense of well-being.

“It is inspiring to be part of something that once was and give it new life; you feel more optimistic in life when you have purpose and also take some risks,” he said.

Mr. Tupis was standing among a sea of vintage Bentleys, all owned by men and women from around the world who, he said, meet regularly.

“It started in 1981 and with the exception of two years has continued every year,” he said. “We get together somewhere in the middle of the country, drive around on the back roads around 150 to 200 miles a day, and just share a passion for reliving an era that has passed.”

The grand old Bedford Springs, which has its roots in 18th-century America, looked even grander as nearly three dozen green and black 1920s and 1930s Bentley automobiles lined outside the hotel’s driveway.

“The cars are just part of why we do this; the sense of community may be the big reason we all get together,” Mr. Tupis said.

What was even more interesting is that most of the cars were their great grandfathers’ and passed down to each owner through the generations. With a smile, Mr. Tupis said most group members don’t say they own the automobile: “We are just caretakers.”

Behind him several owners were checking the conditions of the tires, determining if they needed an oil change, and looking for leaks after many of them traveled for hundreds or even thousands of miles to meet here in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Tupis says that, old or new, the Bentley has always been a luxury car, “but honestly the aspirational qualities that make people want to be part of this is more about the camaraderie. … In the end, it is all about the people.”

William Ball knows a little bit about nostalgia. That’s his business. With several other family members, he runs Ball and Ball, the family antique restoration hardware and 18th-century lighting business that his father and grandfather ran at West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Complete with a blacksmith, the family has worked closely on restoration projects that range from the White House and Colonial Williamsburg to Mount Vernon.

Mr. Ball said whether through his family Bentley — his late father owned it before him — or through the work he does, nostalgia is a powerful emotion. “It can give us a wave of joy but also can be bittersweet for something or someone that has passed, but I have found it has a profound impact on people’s happiness,” he said.

The contrast of seeing the old automobiles chugging up the nation’s first highway, as well as the way the owners sat around the fireplaces in the old lobby of the Bedford Springs, set against the nightly news of the violence and hate that has spilled out on our college and university campuses, is striking.

It is no wonder people go searching for a stabilizing force in their lives. Whether it is through sentiment or a search for purpose, joining a group or organization that fulfills both has been at the heart of American exceptionalism since just a few years after our country was formed.

No one captured that exceptionalism about the American experience better than French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville when he observed more than 200 years ago our remarkable tendency to organize around a pursuit of shared goals.

In his book “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville wrote, “Americans of all ages constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations, in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small.”

Tocqueville said throughout his visit to America between 1831 and 1832, he was struck by people who were living through a time of rapid change and people were moving and building new cities and infrastructure and ways of communicating.

Yet Americans continued to find ways to increase their associations. No group was too small or large, too diverse or too similar; they were complex and often led to associations that grew across the country.

Wanting that, over what we are fed every day in the news, explains why belonging to a car group, or an Elks Club or a Rotary Club, no matter how large or how small, is much more empowering and appealing than what social media has brought to our doorsteps every day.

The New York Sun

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