What happened to car design? Seems as though the architects of the machines we practically live in have grown complacent lately. They've rolled out legions of cookie-cutter sport utility vehicles (what's the difference, really, between a Range Rover and a Land Cruiser, besides ethnicity?) and look-alike econo-mobiles (the new Civics and Tercels); they even house champing-at-the-bit V-8 engines in casings as safe and blocky as the reliable Lexus. No wonder the new Volkswagen Beetle has grabbed so much attention--it has no aesthetic competition.

Once upon a time, car design was a glorious art form--playful, aggressive, exciting. Sparkling chrome, jutting fins, red bullet taillights--cars had personality. And people cared about them; they named them, tinkered with their engines, watched movies from them, even had sex in their back seats. Now you're lucky to find a car owner who so much as drives his vehicle through the gas-station car wash on occasion. Drivers' attitudes have shifted. Their onetime four-wheeled buddies are now just boxes that get them from point A to point B. Maybe it's because they look like nondescript steel boxes instead of the exotic pets they used to be. Couldn't car designers fit the new reliability into a more interesting shell?

This weekend at Trader's Village, the 23rd Annual Antique Auto Swap Meet offers up three days of gas-guzzling glory: Car buffs and amateurs alike can browse the giant collection of shiny, humming vintage cars. From the antiques to rare imports to the finned greats of the '50s and the muscle cars of the '70s, the sellers, collectors, and parts vendors who gather for this yearly event offer what no magazine or classified ad can. You can touch the car that catches your eye, get behind the wheel, listen to it purr, and if you've got some cash, even drive it away. Where else can you play with a 1929 Packard, a 1960 Austin Healy, and a 1978 Firebird all on the same day? And throughout the 1,100 vendor stalls are hard-to-find parts and accessories that make these babies haul ass. (Good news--some of them are "handyman specials." Buy that red '69 Bonneville and the rear side transmission mount that fits it.)

OK, some people don't want to spend every weekend for the next three years plinking around the innards of a compulsively purchased hot rod. But even for them, the swap meet serves as a fascinating journey through a faded subculture, an anthropological field trip of sorts. As art critic Robert Hughes wrote of Detroit's post-war inventions: "They were designed and marketed as fantasies; as works of art, in fact, in their own right...a rocket, onto which a heavy layer of symbolism and body metaphors was packed...both womb and phallus. Triumph, lust, aggression, and plenty of room for the whole family; the siren song of imperial America. Nothing like them will ever be made again."

Sad but true. Afterward, if you still haven't succumbed to the romance, you can get in your Accord and drive home.

--Christina Rees

The 23rd Annual Antique Auto Swap Meet takes place Friday, June 12, through Sunday, June 14 at Traders Village, Grand Prairie, from 8 a.m. to dusk. Call (972) 647-2331.


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