ASPEN – The prototypical image of the “Aspen car” is undoubtedly the rusty, rear-wheel-drive pickup truck with a broom strategically placed so that anything from sawdust to dog hair to life’s worries could be swept away at a moment’s notice. You know, like something from the TV show “Northern Exposure,” in which vehicle-based image was, if it existed at all, an anti-image. Cachet via premeditated lack of cachet.Those halcyon vehicular days are long gone, of course, replaced by fuel-injected, all-wheel-drive modernity. But there are still folks hereabouts who hearken back to mountain-country days of yore – either by choice or fiscal necessity – preferring to hit the road in venerable vehicles that boast rust, primer paint, suspect emissions and carburetion so old it ought to be coal-powered.As more and more of us trade in our snaggle-toothed Volkswagen Bugs, Jeeps and other assorted beaters for Outbacks, Range Rovers and Priuses, we decided to celebrate a few of Aspen’s remaining landmark cars.
Willy’s WonkaWillie Waltner’s ’61 Willys Jeep is from old-time mountain country central casting.Waltner bought the Jeep, which has a WONKA license plate, in 1985 for $1,200. He has driven it almost every day since.”I have always liked old cars,” says Waltner, a 30-year Aspenite who makes his living as a computer geek. “I used to have ’48 Jaguar Coup. I’m mechanically competent, so I’m comfortable working on cars.”Waltner has kept his Wonka in near-original condition – he has opted to not spent any “restoration” money on it.”I did have a Buick V-6 installed,” he says. “That was a simple bolt-in conversion. Other than that, I’ve really not had to do much.
“I don’t know how many miles it has on it, because the speedometer has been broken for many years. I don’t take it out of the valley much anymore, but I have driven it to Boulder, and my son had it down at college in Durango for a year.”Waltner feels there’s much that’s lost with new vehicles.”New vehicles pretty much look and feel the same. I like the personality of older vehicles. They might not be as efficient, but they have something else. I’ll never sell this Jeep.”The ugliest car in AspenKiefer Mendenhall needed a new gas cap for his ’77 Suburban one time. When he went into a local car parts store, the clerk immediately recognized the vehicle.
“She told me it was the ugliest car in Aspen,” said Mendenhall, who makes and purveys Aspen Mulling Spices. “I was flattered.”Mendenhall bought his Suburban 28 years ago.”It’s rusted through, the windshield is so cracked it looks like a road map, and most of the trim has been peeled off,” says Mendenhall, who for many years owned Wax and Wicks in Aspen. “People in Aspen know me by my car. It’s a joke, but it’s a badge of honor to me to be driving this old Suburban in a town filled with new Range Rovers. “Thing is, I bet I have not spent more than $150 on it in the last nine years.”Mendenhall’s uglymobile only has about 130,000 miles on it, despite its venerability.
Trophy carTim Anderson rives a piece of Aspen history. A “mansion maintenance person” who takes care of a 15,000-square-foot house at Smuggler, Anderson is the proud owner of the old Grog Shop delivery vehicle – a bright-orange ’79 Suburban adorned with the most de rigueur of Aspen vehicular accouterments: Tiger stripes.”I got it because it was given away in a raffle, and the person who won it gave it to me,” Anderson says. “It gets driven almost every day. Actually, I’ve given it to my girlfriend to drive. She loves it. It has a million dents, but it only has about 100,000 miles on it, because it was only ever used to do deliveries in Aspen.”Anderson feels he also is fighting the current of trendiness that has, in the minds of many, swept Aspen down some sort of irreversible cultural flash flood.”I like making a statement,” he says. “And, if I’m not making a statement with the old Grog Shop truck, then I’m at least getting some laughs.”
Anderson takes his statement-making seriously enough that the Grog Shop-mobile is not his only period car.”I also own an ’82 Chevy pickup that’s not exactly new and trendy,” he says.The menagerieJim Hayes has called Aspen home for 56 of his 85 years. And, in a way that is both typical and atypical of mountain-car culture, he has been under the hood all that time. One of the fast-dying stereotypes of old-car culture is the yard that boasts a menagerie of five or six vehicles in various states of disrepair. The owner’s hope is that, at any one time, one of those vehicles will start and run.
That stereotype is centered around a kind of mountain sociology where aging hippieism meets traditional redneckism. Hayes defies those stereotypes, but his yard is home to four to six cars at any one time.Hayes is a master goldsmith who raised five children in Aspen. He developed a comfort level with engines back in the military.”I was flying a single-engine plane 10,000 feet over Texas, and the engine started sputtering,” Hayes remembers. “I had to land in a cow pasture. It was tough, because I had to weave through the cows as I was landing. I had been trained to work on the engine. I walked several miles along a fenceline until I found some bailing wire. Then I walked back to the place and fixed the fuel line.”That gave Hayes the confidence to fix any engine under any circumstance. Right now, Hayes is building from scratch an engine for an old VW bug. He also has an old Camaro, and old Mustang and an not-too-old Cadillac. At this point, it’s the Mustang that’s running. The VW, which just had a new turbo-charger installed, is almost ready to hit the road, the Cadillac needs some minor maintenance and the Camaro needs new tires.If there is one observation Hayes makes about new cars and their owners these days, it’s that they don’t know a valve cover gasket from a bad case of hemorrhoids.
“If you understand the fundamentals of how a car works, you can work on it, but it’s a lot harder on new cars,” he says. “They rely so much on computers that most people can’t work on them. Even mechanics can’t diagnose problems on new cars without a computer. “I have trouble understanding why someone would want to drive all over the place and not be able to fix their car.”Kill the CelicaIn the buttoned-down world of financial advising, cars are usually of the new and shiny variety. Trent Powell decided when he moved to Aspen four years ago to buck that trend. He bought a ’75 Toyota Celica from local legend Jan Johannsen for $1,500, and, despite the pleadings from his fellow financial advisors, he has stuck with that car ever since.Now, with the car approaching 170,000 miles, the second gear fading into obscurity and the risk to fellow motorists on the rise, he plans to sacrifice the Celica for the greater good.
“It has been a great car,” says Powell, who works for Raymond James. “I bought it at least partially because I did not want to get caught up in the whole new-car Aspen scene, where people spend ridiculous amounts of money on their cars because of image or because they think you have to have a new Range Rover in order to make it in the mountains.”The Celica, a ragtop of all things, now has 167,000 miles on it, and Powell feels its productive days are done.”It’ s definitely getting to the point that it’s dangerous to drive,” he says. “So I’m going to sacrifice it. We’re going to have a ‘Kill the Celica’ benefit on Saturday, May 27. I’ll charge $25 or so for people to be able to take a few swings at the car. I know a lot of my friends and co-workers have been wanting to beat this car to death for years. All proceeds will go to the Aspen Camp School for the Deaf.”Powell, who is hearing-impaired, envisions a fitting sendoff for what has turned out to be a great little mountain car.Vail, Colorado