Curbside Classic: Cheolet Jalopy – A Window To Its Owner’s Soul?

(first posted 2/19/2011)    If the eyes are the window to the soul, is your car a window to your personality? It’s awfully easy to stereotype cars and their drivers, and of course, it’s inevitably flawed. As the Lamborghini-driving grandma proved so well, not every driver of that breed is actually a wanker or poseur. But then, a 1974 Espada is not Gallardo. And I happen to know one Camry driver who’s a royal jerk. But what about a completely home-built car, like this jalopy? Wouldn’t it have to be a near-perfect representation of the builder’s personality? How would you describe the owner of this one?

Admittedly, the definition of jalopy is a bit broad, and its origins obscure. But that’s the word that popped to mind when I saw this home-brew creation in front of a car parts store – naturally – on a Saturday morning in nearby Junction City. This vehicle is neither a hot rod, nor a rat rod. Some might argue for the latter, but rat rods are actually very self-conscious. They may not have started out that way decades ago, but now they’re as stylized and competitive as classic rods.

This lovable heap is anything but self-conscious; it’s essentially a random assemblage of found or scrounged junk parts. The total budget was probably less than a nice dinner for two in New York. Obviously, the cab and front end are from a ’32 ’34 Ford truck, which is of course the holy grail of rods. But under that hood sits a GM “Iron Duke” 2.5 L four, in what appears to be stock condition. Hardly the stuff of either hot rods or rat rods.

And that back bed is what really caught my eye: a cut down old Chevrolet pickup bed, that now proudly spells CHEOLET. But that’s only part of what makes that rear end so unique.

It’s also asymmetrical: the rear fender on one side is totally different than the other; one looks like it came off…maybe the original truck, but not the Chevy bed-donor; the other side looks like something I would cobble up with parts from the hardware store if I needed to build a fender.

And the whole rig is obviously sitting on a relatively modern frame, with that front suspension and rack and pinion steering. I’m not familiar with Chevy S-10 underpinnings, but I’m guessing that’s what this might well be, right down to the motor.

Now in more typical circumstances, I would have just shot a few quick pics, and rejoined my ever-patient wife sitting in the car and headed off. But there was a wrinkle: a boy of about ten or eleven or so was fast asleep in the cab, his head nodded back in total surrender. I would never even get close and shoot under those circumstances, but this jalopy was begging for a bit of CC posterity.

So I went in, to see if I could find the owner and get permission. And although most often under those circumstances that works out fine, you never know, especially after my experience with the ’46 Packard. But there was something about this jalopy, its utter lack of pretension and self-consciousness…and the kid sleeping so contentedly in the car. I know that’s not a big deal, but it counted for something, maybe.

There was only one person on the customer side of the counter, and as soon as I approached and asked him if that was his car out front, it all clicked instantly. As a landlord, I’ve learned to make pretty quick assessments of prospective tenants. In fact, I usually make an initial decision almost instantly when I first meet one. Quite a few times, I’ve said “sorry, but I just rented it”. Psychologists have confirmed that we size up a stranger as a potential foe or friend within one-tenth of a second. Evolution has done its job; eat or be eaten. Or be friends. And I don’t like to be eaten up by my tenants, which is all-too common. It’s also why I meet every prospective tenant personally, and don’t use a management service. I want to really know who’s going to be living in my house, not some stranger’s tally of the anonymous scribbles (and lies) on an application.

The owner of this jalopy was the most relaxed, open, friendly, direct and light-hearted person I’d met in quite a while. Tall guy, mid thirties, Scandinavian features (Junction City was settled by quite a few of them), a man who obviously worked with his hands and body, and was utterly comfortable in his skin. He laughed heartily when I pointed out about his sleeping kid in the car. “Help yourself with my pile, and don’t worry about him”. No need to explain, justify, or apologize about the jalopy’s condition, its purpose, and its past or future.

In the very brief lighthearted exchange, I never even thought to ask him about any of that. There was really no need. What you see is what you get. And sometimes that’s enough, for both a car and a person. In this day and age, where everyone is so much more self-conscious, cultivating their carefully preened image on Facebook (or their professionally-preened car at the show), that was deeply refreshing, like stepping back about fifty years or more.