The life of a car is more than the miles on the odometer. The life of a car is the life of its owner; the body made of metal and plastic is an extension of the life of the people who bought that automobile in the first place.
That is, in part, the premise of journalist and author Earl Swift’s latest book, “Auto Biography.” It is a story about the lives of a series of people who share one car in common. And at the center of the story is a colorful North Carolina outlaw who breathes new life into an old car that is not only a touchstone to the past, but also a symbol of a fading America.
Swift, who will be at Page After Page Saturday, will discuss the book, the people and the car from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The car is a 1957 Chevy 210 wagon. It was a rust bucket, a beater, when Swift found it. It was a part of a narrative series he was doing for the Virginian-Pilot back in 2004 that would become the basis for this book.
“It’s almost a cultural history of post-war America of the people who have touched this one car,” Swift said in an interview from his home in Virginia.
The idea is to tell the story of people who have all owned this one car. The 22-year veteran of the Pilot was on the newspaper’s now defunct narrative team for five years. He came up with the story idea and started looking for cars that might fit his criteria.
Generally speaking, the criteria was a car from the early 1970s or older that had a series of owners who had all driven the car. Preferably, the car would not be a showroom quality vehicle, but rather a vehicle that might be a “beater,” something that had a rich history.
“The car had to be interesting,” he explained. “It had to be owned by six or seven people.”
It also had to be a local car, and the people who owned it had to be interesting.
He came up with a list of cars from the paper’s classified section but none of them would work in the end. Then he found a “beat to hell ’57 wagon.”
“A ghost of its former intensity,” said Swift.
Swift filed for information from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles in hopes of tracing the car’s lineage. He received a poorly redacted file and was able to see through the ink marks to uncover a few names. From there he was able to trace all 11 owners.
The story would be written and published in the Pilot back in 2004, but it wouldn’t become book-worthy until a couple of years ago.
Swift says the original story was perfect for a newspaper narrative, but was missing a cohesive element for a book-length story that would keep the reader’s attention. However, years later, when he discovered the car’s 13th owner, Tommy Arney, he realized that he had the core of a story he’d been waiting to tell.
Arney is the owner of Moyock Muscle, a classic car dealership and restoration service in Currituck County that many have described as more “junkyard,” than dealership. Swift says Arney was the character he could anchor this compelling story on, the guy who could give dimension to the life of a car as it made its way through more than half a century of Virginia and northeastern North Carolina life.
Arney, who is now in federal prison, brought a level of storytelling to Swift’s tale that is multidimensional, entertaining and rich with the life of an outlaw whose claim to fame, among many things, rests in his fists.
When Swift discovers that Arney has purchased the old car, the author realizes that he has his story’s central character. This is, after all, the man who had choked a K-9 police dog until it passed out, and then beat a police officer with the same German shepherd. He was the guy who would drill a Black and Decker into a man’s knees in search of the truth.
“Arney was over the top,” says Swift.
The first chapter of “Auto Biography” opens with a riveting description of a man who was up against the Currituck County government for running what was looked upon as a junkyard. Swift deftly describes not only Arney, but also the man’s encounter with Currituck’s planning department as witnessed by Swift. But more to the point of the book, he illustrates America’s love affair with the automobile through Arney’s insistence that he is not running a junkyard, but rather a specialized dealership that matches classic cars waiting to be restored by the people who would love them.
While Swift says this is not a love story about a Chevy, it is a purely American story about Americans who love their cars.
“I had owned a lot of beaters, especially in college and had often found myself wondering if they had been decent cars and what kind of people had owned them,” Swift said about the impetus for the story and book. “That, over the years, had morphed and solidified into an idea.”
And it is a fine idea that is brought to life in a book that uses the masterful skills of a writer who is not only passionate about the story, but also passionate about storytelling.