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Classic autos still cruising Texas roads
Rollin' On

A Texan's first car often holds a special place in its owner's heart. And while the original car may never come back into the owner's hands, one just like it certainly can. And with some work and elbow grease, it can look and run just like it did when it came off the showroom floor.

Classic and antique cars can inspire a wave of nostalgia. Motorists are often compelled to comment on the appearance of a car they once owned or a car once owned by someone they knew.

Texans can show off their favorite vehicle with "classic auto" or "antique auto" designations on license plates or plates that are replicas of plates from the year a car was made, said Roger Polson, public information officer for the Vehicle/Titles/Registration Division of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).

Increasing classics
Polson said the number of Texas vehicles sporting the plates has been slowly and steadily rising over the last decade.

"The numbers don't change much, but they generally go up," Polson said. "There are some seasonal variations, but [overall] they're tending upward, gaining in popularity."

In April 2003, 8,674 classic cars were registered in Texas, up more than 100 from March 2003, said Polson. The number of registered classic trucks also jumped more than 100, to 1,793. One hundred and forty classic motorcycles were also registered, he said.

"A year ago, there were about 6,800 classic autos," Polson said. "Then they took a pretty good hop in January, February and March [2003] when there were about 500 new ones for those three months. That's a little higher than your average increase."

Not every classic car in Texas is registered, only those whose owners have chosen to register them and pay the extra fee for the "classic" license plate, which is $15 in addition to the normal registration fee for the vehicle. Owners can customize classic plates for an additional $40.

The classic plates first became available in 1958 and Polson said they have generated more than $525,000 since 1998. Revenues from the classic plates increased from less than $85,000 in 1998 to more than $120,000 in 2002.

Classic, not antique
To be considered a classic in Texas, a car must be at least 25 years old, according to TxDOT. So a car manufactured before 1978 could be registered as a classic car. But until an owner pays the extra fee, a car is not officially registered as a classic.

"There are lots of cars made before 1978, so yeah, there are lots of cars that aren't registered [as classic]," Polson said. "It's just a car until someone decides to recognize it [as classic]."

Cars and trucks with classic plates differ from those with "antique" plates--of which there are more than 36,000 in Texas--in that they are registered like other vehicles and thus are roadworthy for everyday driving.

"Classics are ones that operate regularly on the road and the owner pays regular registration fees," Polson said. "Antiques are more for shows, and theoretically aren't supposed to be on the road."

Polson said antiques fall into the category of "exhibition" cars, used for parades, club activities and other events of public interest and thus prohibited from everyday use on the roads, unlike their "classic" counterparts.

Antique plates are similar in price to classics--$10 if the car was manufactured in 1921 or later and $8 if built before 1921--but the plates only have to be issued once every five years, not each year, as is the case with classic cars and all other vehicles. When antique-plated cars are on the road, they are usually operating under an event permit that gives drivers temporary permission to have them on the road.

Antique plates also can be personalized, Polson said.

Keeping memories alive
Whether completely restored or barely running, plenty of older cars are still on the market today. The classic car sales market has gone through some ups and downs in recent months, said T.J. Malone, owner of Corvette World in San Antonio, and has been especially volatile since the events of September 11, 2001. But he said the arrival of summer 2003 may have been just the thing to get it kick-started again.

"We almost didn't make it from November through February, but since the sun came out in March, it's picked back up," Malone said.

Malone deals mainly in Corvettes, though he does have a smaller selection of other models. He said the over-35, professional man is his average client.

"It's mostly men, probably 35 to 60 or 65," he said. "Lately they've all been in their 50s, but that's a little different than usual."

Where the girls are
Don't tell Linda Lacewell that classic cars are toys just for the older boys, either. Lacewell, the activities director for the Caprock Classic Car Club (CCCC) of Lubbock, has been with CCCC for 10 years and said membership has been diverse over that time and remains so.

"We're right at 75 members now, and we've had over 100," she said. "We have [members] in their young 20s, maybe even some teens now and then, but mostly we have professional-aged [members] in their 30s and 40s. We have some retirees, too."

Dozens of car clubs exist throughout the state. Some cater to owners of specific makes and models, while others are open to enthusiasts of all types of automobiles. Lacewell and CCCC welcome cars and their owners from across the automotive spectrum.

"We've got antiques up to special interest cars from today, but most are from the 50s, 60s and 70s," she said.

Lacewell said, like many other clubs, CCCC meets regularly at a designated location to swap car talk and just for an excuse to get the cars out on the road. But they also get ready for regular trips to car shows or host their own.

Lacewell said the CCCC is associated with two main shows during the summer: the Make-A-Wish Foundation show in Lubbock in August, which CCCC co-hosts, and the "Rock and Roll Nostalgia Cruise" in Slaton, Texas. The 2003 cruise will be the eighth annual. CCCC had more than 300 cars at the 2002 cruise, Lacewell said.

She said the work to bring a show together starts early.

"I've been working on it pretty heavy since the start of the year, mailing out letters for sponsors, working on T-shirts and such," she said. "But everybody [in the club] chips in and it's a team effort."

Lacewell said car-club members take their rides to different shows around the area and on occasion, out of the state, to show them off or to look at other cars that have been restored.

"We do Hobbs and Clovis, New Mexico and some have been going to the Good Guys show in Colorado," she said. "But mainly we go as spectators."

Good Guys, an automotive-event production company based in Alamo, Calif., puts together 22 car shows across the country, including a large event at Texas Motor Speedway (TMS) in Fort Worth.

"Ours is becoming more widely known, and it's grown a little every year," said Betsy Livingston with Good Guys advertising and public relations. "We get cars from all over Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia and other states, too."

Livingston said nearly 1,600 cars were registered for the 2002 show at TMS and more than 41,000 visitors came through during the show's three-day run. The 2003 show at TMS is scheduled for October 3-5.

Lacewell added that shows do not merely benefit the car club but also a community organization.

"We are a nonprofit organization, so all the proceeds from entry fees to get the cars in and sponsors for the event go to different charities," Lacewell said.

In the end, it's just another way to enjoy automobiles from a bygone era.

"It lets the boys be boys again and has been a helpful thing in our retirement," she laughed. "It helps keep us busy and out of trouble."

Clint Shields