The Art of the Wheel

No matter what you think, your car is not fully loaded

Ingram, who works as a nighttime assistant supervisor for a bank and volunteers at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, made Betsy I, her first cow car, about two years ago. The transformation had to wait until the 1985 Oldsmobile station wagon was finally paid off and in her name. There are actually two Betsys. Betsy II is a 1992 Chrysler LeBaron convertible. It has the black-and-white Holstein pattern and sports a large cow in a field made of Lego blocks on the hood. The electronic horn moos as well as making nine other animal noises. On the trunk, written in script, is her moniker--Cow Goddess.

"A friend of mine gave me that name," she says, laughing. She does, admit, however, that her knowledge of cattle breeds is somewhat limited. "I'm a goddess in training."

Betsy I was closest to Ingram's heart. As soon as the car was paid off--she bought it from her dad--she hand-stripped the faux wood paneling and painted it Holstein black and white. She made ears and a tail for it. She adored driving around town and her Junius Street neighborhood with that car.

"I had a very close bond with her," Ingram says. "I used to live in her for a while. She was my very first car."

Only an uncle has seen Ingram's original cow car. And he was suitably taken aback.

"He said, 'Well don't that beat all. That's the damnedest thing I've ever seen!'" Ingram recalls. "His friend paid me $5 to moo the horn. I told my dad what I did to Betsy I. He wasn't too thrilled. But what could he do? It's mine now."

In a not so odd way, Ingram suits her cow cars. She is tall and willowy thin with a complexion that can only be described as peaches-and-cream. She is also an actress and model. The car does draw attention to her, but it isn't merely a gimmick. She believes her car looks better this way.

"I personally hate the cars out now," she says. "All the new cars all look the same, and they're boring. I did this originally because I wanted the car to look better. It was so plain and ordinary and sad."

Betsy I, however, perished a few years ago in an accident. It happened New Year's Eve. Ingram--the designated driver--was waiting at a red light. As the light turned from red to green and Ingram drove forward, a drunk driver smashed into the side of the car. Ingram says the shock was nearly too much.

"I just looked at this woman and said, 'Why?'" She pauses. "Tears were running down my face. I had such future plans for her. I was going to redo her interior." She pauses. "And this woman killed her."

As I listen to Ingram and Emmons talk about their cars, I hear something in their voices that reminds me of a phone call I made to my father not so long ago as he desperately searched for someone to fix his own car after an accident. But it was hard to find a mechanic who would work on a 22-year-old car, giving it all the loving care it deserved. Nor was it easy to find someone who would take the car seriously.

You see, my father, Richard Henry, had decorated the car with faucets.
The story goes back to 1973, when Daddy bought a big piece of his American dream--a brand new Oldsmobile Regency 98. It was a huge, lumbering thing, dark woody brown with a creamy interior. It was spacious enough to seat our family of seven and still have room to carry all our gear on long family outings to tacky Florida theme parks.

This was the time when my father says he was "into cars"--their looks, lines, textures. Personalization of the car was just his way of claiming ownership, of showing his newly adopted country that not only could a Jamaican immigrant afford this American essential, but he could make it stylish. Daddy had been in America six years then. In Jamaica, he says, he was known for kitting out his cars. His 1961 Ford Comet had extra horns, warning lights that blinked and beeped, and an alarm. After meeting my mother, Joan, he painted the car pink and white to match her school uniform.

"The natives used to think because he had a pink car with flowers in it that he was driving a hearse," my mother says.

"Yep," Daddy agrees. "But I didn't care. It said style."
When he bought the Olds 98, Daddy decided to add his own special flourishes. That's when he put on the faucets.

"Not just any faucet, Delta faucet," Daddy says. The memory amuses him. "It wasn't the whole faucet now, just the handle and the section of the faucet that holds the handle. I tried three different types before I got the one I had. It took me about three years."

The Big Car, as we called the Olds 98, had faucets across the top of the roof, tracing the line of demarcation between metal and vinyl on the roof. The handles looked like truncated Nike swooshes with knob ends. Between the faucet handles was the head of Mercury, messenger of the gods.

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