|Folks who own old cars are a happy, if afflicted, bunch. If you ask, they’ll explain the causes of their condition. They’ll say, “My dad had a car like this, so I bought one,” or “This is the car I wish I’d had in high school, so I built one.” And they’ll tell you their symptoms, too—“I’m running out of garage space,” or “I’ve spent a fortune on parts for this thing.”
Call it old-car fever.
Bruce Balderson ’85 has causes and symptoms, too, but he gets off easier than most. His fever is mild, almost imperceptible, except for a few symptoms that he can’t deny: he owns a light-yellow 1972 Chevelle Malibu convertible—a real looker—and he’s been spied at Spring Carlisle—one of the biggest car shows in the world.
As he walked around the old fairgrounds on the northern edge of Carlisle in April, jostling between crowds of people and aisles of auto paraphernalia, Balderson said that he acquired his low-grade fever by default.
“I’ve had this car for so long that I can’t get rid of it now,” he said.
He bought the Chevelle in high school and then drove it off and on during his years as an economics major at Dickinson. But when he started law school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1986, he tucked the car away in a friend’s garage for a “long winter’s nap”—a nap that lasted 10 years.
In 1996, his everyday car gave out, so he decided to drag the old Chevelle back into service, at least for one summer.
“I cleaned out its accumulated contents,” he said, “including the directions, which I found under the seat, from my first trip to my now-wife’s [Stacey Wittmeyer Balderson ’86] house, and I had the car taken by flatbed truck to a mechanic where it was restored to drivable condition.”
A few months later winter weather sent the car back inside, where it has remained ever since, except for some short outings and a complete body restoration in 1997.
It was around this time that a few traditions were born. Every other year or so, Balderson makes the trip from his home in Moorestown, N.J., to Carlisle. He visits a few Dickinson friends, and he hits the car show to rummage through boxes, looking for “new old-stock” parts—usually small cosmetic items, like knobs or chrome pieces. And he’s always well prepared for his parts quest with a brown-bagged, toted-to-the-car-show Hotchee-Burger lunch from the Hamilton Restaurant in downtown Carlisle.
Balderson remembers an earlier trip to the car show, back when he was still a student at Dickinson. It was a fraternity father-son weekend.
“My father and I came to the car show together,” he says with that tone grown-up sons often use when remembering special things they did with their dads.
This spring, after munching down the traditional Hotchee lunch, Balderson kept an eye out for a new rear bumper, saying that his was a little banged up. As for the more mechanical parts offered for sale at the car show, Balderson said he didn’t know what most of them were.
“Really,” he smiled, admitting that he’s no mechanic, “I don’t know anything about cars. I’m a real-estate lawyer.”
For a self-confessed nonmotorhead, Balderson has some pretty good car connections. Wife Stacey is a chemist for DuPont, a NASCAR sponsor, which means the Baldersons have access to race events and to DuPont’s most famous driver, Jeff Gordon.
“We’re having dinner with Jeff next month,” he said, “and we have pictures of our kids with him. He’s a really nice person.”
Balderson believes the excitement of meeting a racing legend like Gordon was probably lost on his kids because they were too young, but the old Chevelle once gave his son a genuine moment of wonderment.
Reeves, 6, had never been in the front seat of any car until one lovely day, when dad took him for a ride around the block in the old car. The sun was shining and the top was down, but, he noticed, his son wasn’t looking at the passing view—Reeves kept his eyes locked on Balderson’s feet. After a few puzzled moments, it became clear that perspective was everything … because kids sit in the back seat, they can’t see the floor of the car, so Reeves had no idea that cars had pedals and that feet were involved in driving.
Like so many old-car stories, it was another parent-child moment in time, one that Balderson won’t forget.
And maybe someday Reeves or his sister Shea, 4, will go traipsing around the Carlisle car show, looking for old parts or pausing to gaze at a light-yellow convertible, remembering how their dad had a car just like that.