American Guitars, English Sports Cars, My Uncle, and Me

My uncle has the coolest things. Stuff you have to see to believe.

One of twenty produced. 1991 Lotus Esprit. Jim Clark Edition. British Racing Green on the outside with gold colored Connolly Leather on the inside. Five speed manual transmission, a car that my Uncle Jack has told me over and over would someday be mine. Here’s the thing though, I can’t drive that car.

The Esprit isn’t alone either, it might be the crown jewel of his collection but it has some serious competition for that spot. His place is just jam packed with unusual, valuable…stuff.

Fifty plus year old tube amps, vintage Playboys, German bass guitars, scale models of English race cars, Bits of carbon fiber broken off of formula one bodies, All of it stewing in CIGARETTE SMOKE. I love my uncle.

He gave me a Rickenbacker 360 in Jetglo black when I was confirmed. It was a guitar that I never could have afforded at the age of fourteen and will probably never be able to at any age- barring some serious changes. For years and years, through High School, College, and the beginning of my adult life, that guitar just sat in the case. Two competing powers kept it there- firstly guilt at receiving such an expensive gift and secondly the misguided hope that it would someday appreciate into something I could sell. People would ask me about it from time to time.

“Do you really have a Rickenbacker?” “How come you never play it?” “Can I see it?” “I’ll give you $1,000 for it.”

Don’t ever lowball me on the Rick.

Jack bought a motorcycle. A Harley Davidson Police Special. Pearl White. He was going to let his best friend Joel take the bike with him to Houston for a time undetermined. No key for the ignition. Somewhere in between multiple stays in storage the key disappeared. I remember me and my best friend Jackson trying to push that hog up a ramp and into a Penske truck in neutral. Motorcycles are heavier than they look.

My uncle Jack tied a rope around himself and pulled from inside the box. Cigarette smoke. Jesus christ. A nice man with a golf cart and a winch ended up pulling the bike up the ramp. I love my uncle.

The Motorcycle had a sticker on it that said Schwinn.

He thought that was pretty funny.

Jack has had some beautiful cars over the years. Corvettes, Camaros, Mustangs, street cars, hotrods, and race cars too. He sold a split window 1963 Corvette that would be worth more than my parents house today. The new owner totaled the car.

There was a time when he wanted to start racing again. A shoulder injury had taken him out of serious driving for years. He built a new roadster to take to the drag strip out in Scribner- 1,300 horsepower at the rear wheels. As far as I know the car still hasn’t moved. It’s sitting in a trailer behind his house.

Me and Uncle Jack were out putting summer window screens on his old house. He would climb up the ladder and I would hold it steady. Lift up the heavy window front for him to attach. Hand him some screws or a putty knife. Of course we were talking the whole time about guitars and cars. “Visiting” about guitars and cars as my dad’s side would say.

He was telling me about that split window Corvette- how he stored it over at his Uncle Warren’s farmhouse along with two others and a Camaro.

How they’d felt like a truck after he’d driven his first Lotus-

A twin cam Europa from the dealership in Des Moines.

I was ten or eleven when Uncle Jack took me out for a spin in his Europa, it was British Racing Green with black vinyl interior.

Don’t underestimate the appeal of British Racing Green.

I remember feeling completely in awe of the car, how much noise it made, how I felt like I was flying over the pavement just inches below my butt, how the car smelled musty and foreign. Not foreign as in English but, like from another planet. It didn’t seem to have anything in common with my mom’s Caravan.

Touching every single button on the dash- rolling down the windows and sticking my head out there into the fresh fall air- looking BEHIND ME to see the ENGINE, which I later found out was a Renault Gordini Alpine with an all aluminum hemi head making 125 Horsepower. A lot of power for a car with the weight and structural integrity of an empty shoebox. He had that engine sent in from California for the Europa. Crazy. Ancient vinyl and exhaust are two scents that go wonderfully together.

Watching my uncle deftly flick through the gears up and down on that little Europa. Watching his expression change from easy confidence to one of concern and then disappointment.

The transmission failed that day. It was the only time I ever got to ride in the Europa.

Thanks to Jack’s influence I grew up obsessed with cars- and my favorite Marque was (and still is) of course Lotus. Maker of acerbically beautiful, rare, lightweight, ridiculously English, incredibly tiny sports cars.

I don’t have any singularly striking memories of the Esprit even though it has played a bigger role in my life. Has to have to do with the age difference, right? The one thing I really remember about the Esprit is when the turbocharger spun up it felt like you were being pushed down the road by The Hand Of God.

You can’t overlook the simple joy of acceleration.

I only ever got to ride in the Esprit four maybe five times before I was too big to fit in.

I’m 6’2” and big enough to have some internalized guilt about my failed football career. It’s the pedals. They’re too close together for me to use. I could wear pointe shoes and I’d still depress the clutch and the brake at the same time. Barring some miracle of science, I will never be able to drive the Esprit.

The lead guitarist in my band was asking about the Rickenbacker over the past couple of weeks. I have to admit that I have been feeling The Rick’s Pull as well. I finally pulled it out from the closet, set it up, plugged in, and strummed a few chords. You know what? It felt really good. I ended up bringing the guitar to rehearsal that week. It sounded great, the way the meaty Hi Gain pickups pushed the speaker in my amp into a warm breakup, the way the thick white plastic pickguard framed the gleaming tone controls. The Standard input and the Rick-O-Sound input. The way the thing smelled.

I played the Rickenbacker at our most recent gig- an outdoor thing, baking the fragile Jetglo finish in the deceptively sweltering early September sun right after work on a Friday. you know who turned up? Uncle Jack- the last time he made it out to see me play I was still a teenager.

We were chatting after the gig and he was smiling and I gave him a sweaty hug. He didn’t seem to mind. I handed him my heavy 77 key Korg stage piano to haul out to John’s Subaru. I watched him fold up the keyboard stand. That thing will pinch you into another dimension if you’re not careful. I think seeing me play the Rickenbacker meant something to him. I know it meant a lot to me to see him there.

There we were the very next morning putting up those window screens. He paid me $35 for my help. I spent the money on fast food and some flowers for my girlfriend Claire from Trader Joe’s

Maybe Claire will learn how to drive a stick. Shit maybe she already knows how to. I know she knows how to smoke cigarettes.

She’ll drive and I’ll sit diagonally and poke my shoulder out the open window. I can’t drive the car; I can’t sell the car. Maybe I’ll smoke in it.

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