Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rolling Home

Jeffery Blackwell

I get the motorhome thing, I do, but to a degree.

My Dad's and Mom's "coach" (Class A. I think it was 42 feet!) was one of my parents' true pleasures, and though it had been across much of North America, it spent quite a bit of time parked right outside my kitchen window, where it was always a welcome sight. The kids loved to get off the school bus and see the coach hooked up at the top of the driveway!

I drove the thing once and I felt like people should be staring in amazement and pointing at me, "Look! That guy's driving an apartment down the road!"

Personally, I would prefer a Volkswagon Westfalia. Or maybe one of those converted Dodge Sprinters. Something small enough to drive around, but big enough to sleep in. I used to have this idea of building a tiny darkroom in the back of a VW van, and doing the Ansel Adams thing... fade to black.

It's not all about all the conveniences of home.

Being able to travel in any direction and not have to book a room in advance is completely different than the hotel-hopping experience. Somehow, it's just more of an adventure without a credit card deposit pinning down the end of your day.

But, some folks do like to bring their home right on down the road, complete with window treatments.

I image a pair of corduroy Lazy Boys right behind those curtains.

Roll on.

All words and images copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Fred (not Flintstone)

copyright 2009 Jeffery Blackwell

I had just started taking pictures of a Corvette that was for sale in the parking lot of a quarry operation on the main highway, north of Watertown, WI.

The car wasn't that interesting, but I had flashed on this silver sports car with these gray piles of gravel behind it in the flat, overcast light. Or maybe against the row of huge black dump trucks in the lot.

I had barely raised the camera.

"What's that thing worth?" boomed a voice from over my shoulder, startling me a bit.

I turned to see Fred watching me. He had just come out of the office carrying his lunch cooler, knocking off for the day.

I said I wasn't sure... maybe $25 grand.

"Sheeew. Guess I'll be stickin' with my Jeep," Fred grinned.

Fred drives that dump truck you see behind him in the picture, which he has been doing for 23 years "for this company. I climbed into a truck back in 1970."

Big grin, as I started to do the math.

Fred asked me where I was from, and when I told him, he mentioned "that school for boys". I guessed he was referring to a prison for juveniles that is not far from my home, but there's also a military academy in town.

"The bad boys?" I asked. After I said it, I realized there was still room for interpretation.

"Well," said Fred seriously, "I really don't believe there are "bad" kids..."

"My dad died two months before I was born," he continued.

"When I was 12, my mother told me "You're old enough to run the farm now, Fred. I'm going to get a job in town." And from the next day, I was up at 4:30, taking care of the cows, the chickens... and when I got home from school, I milked the cows, and fed all the animals again".

"One time, when I was 15, my Mom gave me $158 and told me to drive the tractor down the road and offer the money to the farmer who had a corn planter for sale. She said that's all we could afford."

"So I did."

I believe Fred's point was that kids live up to their parents' expectations, and it's up to parents to set them high.

After I shot this picture of Fred, he said "Well, I best be going. Don't want to worry the wife."

Extending his hand and flashing that wide smile, he asked "You got one of those? You know from which I speak?"

I hope Fred and his wife have a bunch of kids, but I never got to ask him.

All words and images copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

Friday, April 24, 2009

Truckload of Happiness

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

This is John in his 1956 GMC truck. Makes you smile, doesn't it?

When John graduated from college in Mankato MN, he spent his last $1,000 on this truck, loaded his belongings in the bed, and headed home. That was 16 years ago. "Longer than I've had my wife", John pointed out. Not comparing, just saying.

As you might expect, John found the truck where it had come to rest in a farm field. But she's not a Minnesota native, having spent most of her days in sunny Arizona. "Good steel", John smiled. "And it's a "small window", which makes it pretty rare", he told me. Apparently most had the rear window that wraps-around the back corners of the cab.

As you can see, John has put a lot of himself into this truck. And it's not quite finished, even after 16 years. The bed currently has no floor. John's a painter by trade, and has something unique in mind for the floorboards, using wood and incorporating the flame motif he designed for the hood.

After we chatted, John fired up the 350 cubic-inch "built" engine that sounds every bit like you would expect a 375HP engine to sound, and grinned like it was the first time he heard it. Yeah. Sweet.

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

All words and images copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Harley's Model A

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

I saw this Model A parked in front of a machine shop on National Ave. this afternoon.

Actually, I spotted it from down the road at "Insane Choppers". I had pulled over at Insane to take a look at a hot rod parked out in front. The rod turned out to be nothing special, and I when I saw the Model A, I moved on.

I learned that this car is owned by the founder of the shop, Overlook Engineering Service. His name is Harley, Harley Larson. Overlook does machine services, welding and blacksmithing. Did you know that jackhammers get dull? Well, Overlook sharpens them, along with repairing all kinds of heavy machinery. It's tough, dirty, noisy work, and these guys seem to enjoy doing it.

Unfortunately, I did not get to meet Harley, as he was catching a short nap when I happened by.

I did spend some time talking to his son, Peter, who also works in the shop. He told me that the A was the proverbial basket case when Harley picked it up, the orphan of a botched restoration job. Harley remembered driving a Ford A as a kid, and spent 10 years rebuilding this car.

Not a showpiece, Harley has made some concessions to safety. It makes sense, as he drives this car to work every day during the warm months.

I'll have to stop by again some time, and get a photo of Harley with his Model A.

If you need some machine work done in the New Berlin, WI area, I'd recommend giving Harley or Peter a call: 262-697-2138.

copyright 2009 Jeff Backwell

All images and words copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

Photographer's note: I really thought about making this monochrome to add to the "period" feel, but I love the greens and blues. What do you think?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Jack's: Badges

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

The final installment from Jack's Auto Ranch.

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

all words and images copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Jack's Auto Ranch; the Badges

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

I am going to do two posts on this, just so those who appreciate automotive art can savor it.

Besides, I am going away for the weekend, and need to stretch my material a bit ;-)

When my eyes settled down, and the overwhelming wave of loss and loneliness brought on by seeing so much automotive carnage had receded, I began to narrow my vision to "ultra-tunnel", and could have spent days stumbling around Jack's Ranch, slamming images onto my memory card.

Jack's is an archive of automotive history. The great and the worst, some looking relatively youngish, most severely weathered, but all laying equally motionless, never to turn a wheel again.

Each of these badges was the product of very serious work by talented people who were trying to convey through a piece of chrome-plated pot metal the feeling, the emotion, that one would have if she were handling the wheel and the shifter, foot on the gas pedal. Trying to convince her that this car - this model - was unique. Even though it was produced on an assembly line, preceded and followed by thousands of cars different only in paint and trim.

None of the cars represented by these badges was a "classic". They were just cars.

But these badges were part of the package that convinced their owners that this car was special and they had to have it. And to them, it was.

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

all images and words copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Jack's Auto Ranch: the Lines

These pictures are among my favorites from my shoot at Jack's Auto Ranch.

I look at these as sculptures, reflecting the ideals that the car represents; freedom of movement, speed, power and status. Sometimes these result in lines and forms that are inspiring and graceful.

Other times, it seems like gratuitous decoration.

But the patina of age makes them all interesting to me. Even the most mundane car becomes interesting when it's 30 years old or more.


copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell


All words and images copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

Jack's Auto Ranch: the Graphics


While cruising through Jack's Auto Ranch (see previous posts for location), I made these photos of graphics from commercial vehicles.

Nowadays, of course, most vehicle graphics are just big stickers. Not these.

Each of these mobile advertisements was hand painted.

I really love what the elements have done to these.





Tuesday, April 14, 2009

More from Jack's Auto Ranch

copyright Jeff Blackwell

As you know, driving around last Friday, I stumbled upon "Jack's Auto Ranch", a boneyard located in Watertown, WI, which you can triangulate between Choncord, Pipersville and Farmington, South of I-94 between Milwaukee and Madison.

Over the last forty years, Jack has assembled a monumental collection of cars and trucks on the Ranch, where he does some repairs, but mainly parts. I hope to return at some point to photograph Jack himself, and the interior of his shops. I tried emailing him, but his account is closed. I'll take him some prints, so that he can see what I am doing, and see if he'll let me shoot inside. I think he'll like the photos, but he's a pretty quiet guy, at least around strangers.

His office is heated by a wood stove, and his junkyard cat is never from the stove, always looking for a scratch. Just avoid the torn-up ear she got from some Tom cat.

The walls are completely covered with hubcaps, steering wheels, alternators, starters, and other small parts on shelves, and a number of hand-lettered signs advising of the Ranch's policies; "No returns if you remove a part, and then decide you didn't need it."

A round wooden table and four bucket-style Naugahyde seats are screwed to a sheet of plywood near the front window like they were transplanted here as a unit. When I was there, there was a box of doughnuts, minus a few, right in the middle of the table.

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwwell

Outside in the cold morning light, I was really overcome with the scale of it all. As a photographer, you are always looking to simplify the background, to separate your subject and to eliminate distracting details, especially on objects that are close enough to stay in focus. If you are thinking this way, a junkyard is a nightmare. The vehicles are so close together that many times, you can't squeeze between them. They are stacked on top of one another, and every background is a jumbled, reflecting mass of edges and colors of other vehicles.

After a short period of strong disorientation, I began to see pictures, and opening up the lens wide to create a narrow plane of focus, and soften the backgrounds. I got a lot of nice images, actually much better than I thought while I was shooting. They seem to fall into some distinct categories. These I consider "wrecked cars", which seems obvious, but by that I mean that a significant portion of the car is intact and recognizable, but they, or parts of them, are in positions that you immediately recognize are unnatural, shall we say.

And always, the patina of chrome, rust and faded paint are magnificent.


copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

copyright 2009 Jef Blackwell

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

all images and words copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

Friday, April 10, 2009

Jack's Auto Ranch

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

OK, you're me. You're driving along an unfamiliar road and you see this great handmade sign with an old-school arrow pointing down a crossroads, up a hill into the rising sun.

Jack's Auto Ranch. Woohoo.

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

I really wasn't sure what Jack meant by an "Auto Ranch". After taking pictures of the first sign, I crested the hill into the brilliant sunlight, and there was the Ranch. Acres and acres of dead cars. Stacked on top of one another.

Junkyards are like nothing else. If you read this blog regularly (thank you!), you've probably experienced one. If you haven't, it's kind of hard to imagine.

The thing about it is, although it appears to be just a sea of random smashed up and rusting vehicles, there is a system to it, even if it's not visible except for the hand-written notes and numbers on some of the cars. Things like "engine runs - do NOT pull parts". And "39 DESOTO HAVE MOST PARTS TO COMPLETE"

Jack has been amassing wrecked and broken down cars on the Ranch for 40 years. I'm sure he could give a close guess at how many there are, but when you are walking down one of "main roads", it appears endless.

These are pictures I made of a 1956 Packard Executive. Billed as a car "for the young man on the way up", its body is clung with chrome decoration, mixing themes of jet-age stylized bird/airplanes, sharp edge geometric sculptures and heraldic crests thrown in for good measure. What a monstrosity. This car epitomises the gratuitous styling excesses of the 1950s, and was really the last gasp of a once-great automobile manufacturer on the way down.

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

Only 2,815 Packard Executives were built. The final day of production at Packard's plant on Conner Avenue in Detroit was June 25, 1956.

Jack has a Web site at, yes, Thanks, Jack for letting me poke around the Ranch. More pictures later.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ike and the Chevy Sisters

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

I like Ike. You have to. The man has a patent pending on his method for preparing bratwurst.

I spotted not one, but two sets of the fantastic winged taillights of the old Chevys from the street. Certainly a story there. Anyone who has two of the same make, model, and year of a car has a story.

Especially cars that are nearly 50 years old. A brown one and a blue one. ( I didn't know about the green one in the garage.)

Ike seemed a bit wary as I approached in my business-meeting clothes, but said I was welcome to shoot the old girls, both '59s, both Biscaynes, and both for sale, Ike pointed out. His good one is in the garage. After shooting for a while, I asked if I could see it, and there was a long silence. "It's OK", I told him, "Not a problem." Ike is a man who values his privacy. I never even bothered to ask him if I could take a picture of him.

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

Ike and I bantered while he continued to rake his yard and I took some more pictures, and eventually, he decided that I "looked honest", and showed me into his garage. It's an honor, and I say that without a touch of irony. You should see the place.

Ike's other '59, is what he called a "rat rod". This was a new term to me, but I am beginning to understand the philosophy. True "Hot Rods" are very expensive and most are "trailer queens" - not practical for any kind of actual driving. Rat Rods, on the other hand, are about performance, but also about the ingenuity and mechanical skills of the owner. There is an originality to every one of these machines, and part of the mystique is that they are never finished. After a certain point they are drivable, and drive them, they do. But they always look like they are under construction, because they are.

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

So, besides the three Biscaynes, Ike has a Model A project going and a beautiful 1940 Chevy pickup, which he says has hauled almost 100,000 ("in the 90's") of his unfortunately-not-cooking-when-I-was-there brats from Ike's up to Green Bay. You could say Ike's a fan. Ike has a Super Bowl party. At which he burns dozens of dead Christmas trees and wooden skids, and 200 or so of his friends gather in what I can only describe as a small stadium in Ike's backyard, most of which he had to cement over to get a permit for the Super Bowl bonfires. There's even a "Press Box", which is a good-sized former tree house left behind by a neighbor, which Ike has placed atop an eight foot stack of wooden palettes interleaved with 2x4s, which he screwed together specifically for this purpose.

I told you you'd like Ike.

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

For the record, if you're interested in buying the sister Chevys, I can tell you how to find Ike, but he's not interested in parting 'em out. Ike bought 'em both from a woman who had just lost her husband and the "dead man would want 'em on the street."

I have no doubt that Ike will see the Chevy sisters end up with someone who appreciates them.

copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

All words and images copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell

Monday, April 6, 2009

Racing Season is Here!

(click image for a larger view)

I have attended all kinds of racing events, but last year, at the kind invitation of some relatives who had moved to Indianapolis, I went to my very first Indy 500.

A Grand Prix race at Indy is a multicultural, intercontinental affair, with lots of great European clothes, sunglasses and fabulous shoes in attendance, a fair number of the latter being spiky-heeled, which is really not a good way to go when the ground has been tenderized before you by tens of thousands of your fellow racing fans.

But The 500 is more than an event. It is spectacle.

By anyone's count, The 500 is in the pantheon of the top three motor races held each year anywhere in the world. (The others generally being accepted as the 24 Hours of LeMans and the Monaco Grand Prix.)

But, well, Indiana being Indiana, The 500 has Jim Nabors singing "Back Home in...", Florence Henderson (for some reason I never learned) an Air Force fly-over (I think there were actually two of those - Navy, maybe?), dozens of marching bands complete with baton squads and some carrying weapons, a multi-gazzillion helium balloon release, quite a few mass-broadcast prayers for sunny weather and safe race (in that order, as I remember), an ocean of beer and mountains of grilled, smoked and fried meat, a million or so token ears of corn, and some rituals that simply defy any understanding in the light of a 500 mile motor race.

This group was obviously seasoned veterans of the spectacle that is The Indianapolis 500, although I gotta say, I think the bling on Danica just looks trashy.

The race was predictably boring, but what a fabulous day!

If you haven't been to a 500, you need to go!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

More Merc

(click image for a larger view)

Here are a few more pictures of the wonderfully rotted 1941 Mercury I found parked in a field near my house.

In a cold spring rain, I felt a strange nostalgia for a time I never knew.

It's hard to imagine that when this beautiful old car was new, the United States had not entered into World War II, but the Japanese were likely laying plans to attack Pearl Harbor.

When I think about the problems facing us now - the economy in shambles, unemployment rampant, two wars ongoing and the likely launch of a long-range missile by the North Koreans today or tomorrow, it is somehow comforting to know that in 1941 we also faced unprecedented challenges, and we still managed to continue building this country.

I hope that the American automobile industry is still around in another 65 years, although they won't be building cars like this one.

(click image for a larger view)

(click image for a larger view)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Mercury Eight

(click image for a larger view)

I had noticed this hulking, denim blue car a ways out in a field not far from my place several months ago, looking like it had lost all compression on the rise up to the tree line.

I made a note to myself to return when the light was more interesting. I rolled up yesterday, in a soft, but miserably cold March rain.

(click image for a larger view)

From the road, with it's silhouette compromised by its shorn rear fenders, I wasn't sure what this car was. As I approached, I could tell by the windows and the wing-like front fenders that it was pre-war.

It's a 1941 Mercury. Its signature V-8 engine, prized for the generation of copious torque, had been shut down, leaving the big Merc silently resting here, looking like it had been humbled by this gentle grassy slope.

The rain really seemed to bring the old Mercury to life, adding a bit of long-lost sheen to its elegant lines and worn paint. This was quite a glamorous car, when mass-produced cars were beginning to be marketed in segments - a Mercury being a serious step up from an ordinary Ford.

A car like this Mercury was ripe with implications cultivated by great advertising - mainly that the driver's life was much more interesting, and worthy of notice by others. This was the time when the perceived value of certain car brands rose well above their usefulness as mere transportation, and became for their drivers a suit of prosperity, technology and glamor. Detroit would continue to market cars by luring eager buyers up the chain of luxury and power for decades, and many Americans still value a fine car so much more than a perfectly good one.

(click image for a larger view)

Peering through the rain-streaked windows into the interior of the Mercury, with its painted dash and huge, upright steering wheel, I was reminded of rainy film noir scenes with these great, hulking cars on narrow wheels, with small, rounded windows piercing their inflated-looking skin. Glamorous characters looking out of the corners of their eyes trying to make out figures through those soft, wet windows under a glaring streetlight.

(click image for a larger view)

The shapes of the cars of this era reflect their designers' intuition about aerodynamics, but also their great optimism for the America's future, the country's need to put the Depression well behind us.

This car was driven by someone who was looking confidently down the road through its split-windshield and over the long, prominent hood.

I wonder if they were aware that the forces were already moving in Europe that would turn the auto factories to building tanks and airplanes, and that the nuclear age was straight ahead.

(click image for a larger view)

All words and images except the Mercury ad copyright 2009 Jeff Blackwell