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Saturday, November 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 25.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Cars on State in Madison recalls glories of cheap gas
View photos of fins, curves, chrome, and horsepower displayed on Saturday
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Where's Mr. Fusion?
Credit:Kristian Knutsen

Classic car fans in Madison have been lucky with not one but two auto displays on downtown streets over the last week. The Public Enemies production at the Capitol brought about a dozen period cars from the late '20s and early '30s to the Square on Monday, providing one of the most visible parts of the shoot for gawkers lining the sidewalks of Pinckney Street. The real deal came on the weekend, though, with the return of Cars on State Classic Car Show to a street not typically known for its autos.

Visitors eating and shopping on State Street, as well as others going to and from the farmers' market ringing the Capitol were treated to the rare sight of cars parked along the iconic pedestrian mall on Saturday. Scores of vintage vehicles lined most of the street for the second annual show, which was launched with much success last summer. Interest by car owners, many of them downtown businesspersons, along with the big turnout spurred organizers to bring the show back for this year.

With construction resuming on State Street, though, only its first four blocks between the Capitol and Gilman Street were available for the show. This meant that two adjoining blocks of Henry Street, adjacent to and facing the Overture Center, were also enlisted as parking spaces for classic cars, extending the carnival atmosphere prevailing at the market on the Square. Nearly 100 different autos were listed in the official program for this year's Cars on State. The oldest was a Mason truck from 1909, while the youngster of the bunch was a De Lorean DMC, dating from 1981.

The bulk of the show belonged to the 1950s and 1960s, though, with nearly two-thirds of the entries hailing from those glory decades of American car culture. The first decade boasted numerous Bel Airs, including one driven as a pace car at the 1955 Indy 500. Particularly well represented were the muscle cars of the late '60s -- the Mustangs, Impalas, Corvettes, Corvairs, Thunderbirds, Chevelles, Camaros, and Chargers -- in all colors of the rainbow but appropriately dominated by those painted red.

Many of the more popular draws came from either before or after that post-war era, though. Younger folks gravitated towards several of the more unique cars, primarily imports, which increasingly made their way onto the scene immediately preceding and during the Me Decade. These included a VW Beetle convertible and a Citroen 2 CV, along with a colorful and fully extended VW Bus Type II. Then there was the gull wing-doored De Lorean, the sole representative of the '80s and an unquestionable rarity and icon of that decade.

The oldest vehicles, primarily parked on the top block of State Street near the Capitol, were likewise popular. Though there weren't many cars of the type seen during the movie shoot on Monday, there were a handful of early 20th Century standouts. These included a 1923 Ford T Bucket, a 1929 Ford racer, and a pair of 1941 Lincoln Zephyrs, among other glorious old boats.

Altogether, the scene recalled a passage in the book American Theocracy by former Nixon strategist and American historian Kevin Phillips, in which he discusses the oil-fueled U.S. rise to superpowerdom and subsequent and ongoing dependence on the formerly cheap energy source. He specifically cites the growing nostalgia for the classic Americana of Route 66, drive-in malt shops, the fins and curves of the '50s, and the high-powered horsepower of the '60s, comparing this to the train and rail museums that sprouted throughout the U.K. during the same mid-century period as that nation was succeeded in preeminence by the U.S., just as oil replaced coal as the fossil fuel du jour. Are our classic cars, or more specifically their veneration, on the road to becoming just as quaint? It's certainly no longer quite that easy to drink a milkshake.

This summer is already becoming dominated by talk of fuel prices, from the everyday conversations between family and friends to the highest levels of national politics. With the arrival of $4 gas and speculation looking ahead to the specter of $200 barrels of oil, heady hopes of long summer road-trips or cruising strips of small towns and big cities alike are more easily dismissed. It may all be in the rearview mirror, this cliché even a reminder of the dominance of cars in our proverbial way of life.

No matter what changes develop in American auto culture, though, the cars on display were unquestionably beautiful and absolutely worth the trip up State Street. We're lucky that many of these vehicles are being preserved for posterity, and shared by their owners at shows like these. Hopefully once the final two blocks of reconstruction along the street are completed this autumn, next summer's edition of Cars on State can grow even larger and span its entire length once again.

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