“I knew I would solve the mystery”

Author and Americana obsessive Charles Phoenix describes his very personal version of the space race. 

“I knew I would solve the mystery”

Growing up on my dad’s used-car lot in Southern California in the 1960s and ’70s was a big part of my education. From the time I was toddling, I spent countless Saturdays on the lot pretending to drive each car, all the while making the appropriate sound effects. The bigger the tail fins, the more I liked the car. This was the genesis of my obsession with midcentury Americana.

I began collecting classic cars when I was 22, with the purchase of a 1959 Plymouth Belvedere convertible. After this, I fell in love with a super-rare two-tone pink 1959 Dodge Coronet convertible. I had eyed the car many times in the Sears parking lot in Pomona in the late ’70s. (I’d heard it belonged to an employee.) A few years later, I went back to find it, only to learn that the Sears had closed. I kicked into detective mode and traced the owner to her home. She wasn’t in when I dropped by, but the garage door was unlocked, so I went in and there it was: the Coronet. The owner came home shortly thereafter and, of course, was startled to find me in her garage—but then she said, “I’ve been waiting for someone like you to come along.”

Many years later, after I’d become a collector of vintage Kodachrome slides, I stumbled upon an image of an amazing 1950s space-age show car. In all the car books and magazines I’d read, I’d never seen this dream car of the future—it looked more like a spacecraft than an auto, with a bubble window over the cockpit, and a single tail fin, as if ready for flight. I had no idea what it was and couldn’t quite read the nameplate on the hood. I grew obsessed and knew that someday, some way, I had to solve the mystery.

Finally, during Palm Springs Modernism Week, I attended a lecture about midcentury show cars. Halfway into the presentation, this car appeared on the screen, pictured on a 1956 cover of Newsweek. I was delighted to finally learn that the striking gem was the Astra-Gnome, displayed just one time, at the 1956 New York Auto Show.

Knowing that the majority of midcentury dream cars were made only for show and then destroyed for insurance purposes, I almost fell out of my chair when the lecturer said it was on display at the Metropolitan Pit Stop, a vintage car shop in North Hollywood, California. I’ve traveled coast to coast to see classic cars, so I couldn’t believe that the Astra-Gnome was so close to home. I went to see it the very next day. Turns out, before it was restored to perfection in 1980, the car was discovered sealed up in a New York high-rise office.

To this day, the Astra-Gnome remains indoors, virtually undiscovered except by those who trek from all over the world to the shop to seek parts for their Metropolitans. All four headlights still work, and the bubble top rises and lowers with the push of a button. It’s a national treasure, and I couldn’t believe they actually let me sit in it. My imagination was inspired, and my space-age-loving spirit soared.

Charles Phoenix’s latest book, Addicted to Americana, is out now; charlesphoenix.com.