For years, David C. Cohen had recurring nightmares abou the car.
He'd wake up excited, certain he had just been driving that '57 Pontiac Chieftain, the first wheels he ever owned. Or that he'd spotted one cruising away down the street. Or that he was in his early 20s again, racing on the regional quarter-mile drag strip circuit.
Mr. Cohen sold his car in the early '60s, for all the usual good reasons: marriage, looming maturity, settling down.
"I didn't have a choice, but I was heartbroken," he says. "It was a total nightmare to give it up, and an obsession over the last 10 years to find it again."
Mr. Cohen, 50, a vice president of sales and marketing for CFS Health Group, a Baltimore health maintenance organization, is chairman of the third annual Street Cars of Desire Classic Car Show at the Timonium Fairgrounds tomorrow.
Finally, about two years ago, a friend told Mr. Cohen he'd heard of a '57 Pontiac that was slated for sale at an annual auction in Carlisle, Pa.
With cash in pocket, he headed north, took one look and "fell in love with it." A beauty. A '57 Super Chief (a kissing cousin to his long lost Chieftain), repainted the original Caribbean Coral, with a Sheffield Gray top and side spear and just 44,000 miles on the clock.
"I knew right off I was going to drive it home," recalls Mr. Cohen.
And he did.
"I got back in the car and felt like I was a teen-ager again. . . . I stopped along the highway to get a drink at a fast-food place, and the people were unbelievable, they were all over this car."
He adds, not entirely persuasively, "Believe me, I'm really not as nuts as a lot of guys." He has only four other vintage autos: a '40 Plymouth street rod, a '63 and a '72 Pontiac Gran Prix and a '72 Cadillac.
Cars can do that to you, as demonstrated by tomorrow's show. Mr. Cohen anticipates up to 300 vehicles on display.
American cars only, they range from customized and souped-up '32 Fords like the "Little Deuce Coupe" of the Beach Boys song to perfectly stock production models up to 1972, the last year of "the muscle car era."
The show also includes a flea market for swapping and selling parts and accessories, an exhibit by the state Motor Vehicle Administration (including how to obtain vintage and vanity license plates), a presentation by Craig Singhaus, from the staff of Maryland Public Television's "Motor Week" (from noon to 2 p.m.) and a constant background of deejay-spun platters from the 1950s.
"Nostalgia is back. I'm connected to the '50s, when cars were a social happening. We ate in our cars, we dated in our cars, we cruised around in our cars, everything was in our cars," Mr.
Thousands of Marylanders share the enthusiasm. According to the MVA, almost 26,000 vintage license plates have been issued in the state this year.
The third annual custom car show raises funds for the Caring Program, which provides health care benefits to low-income children. The previous two Street Cars of Desire shows, says Mr. Cohen, raised $40,000 for the charity.
"It's the biggest car show of this kind in the state," notes Mr. Cohen, who helped establish the Street Cars of Desire club three years ago. It currently has 125 family memberships.
"There are lots of car clubs in the area, of course, but they single out a particular type of vehicle, like the Mustang clubs, or Corvette clubs or the T-Bird clubs. . . . We wanted a group where anybody with any kind of car or truck can feel comfortable," he says.
Judging at the show includes about 30 classes of autos. Mr. Cohen describes these major divisions, with some of the cars expected:
* Antique cars and trucks. Vehicles 25 years old or older, %J restored to as nearly stock condition as possible. Mr. Cohen's '57 Pontiac, which has won national awards, is an example of "a total restoration from the ground up."
* Corvettes, including a '63 split-window coupe.
* Thunderbirds, including the well-known '57 convertible.
* Chevys, 1955-'57.
* Muscle cars. The big-engine cars, including Pontiac GTOs, Chevelle 396s and 454s and at least one Plymouth 426 Hemi. These run until the 1972 model year, when "they began to de-tune the engines and make them less powerful."
* Custom cars/trucks. "Any car that has been modified in any way" from stock condition, vintage 1949 to 1972.
* Street rod cars/trucks. What most showgoers would call "hot rods," modified vehicles from the earliest days up to 1948.
* Pro street cars. Cars built up to 1972 and modified with big engines, oversize tires and the like to be racing cars, "just barely legal" to drive on the street.
* Special interest vehicles. Limited production models and others that don't fit anywhere else, such as a 1940 Ford oval-track race car due in the Timonium show.
"There'll be lots of ingenious displays. Some of these guys do really elaborate setups, with carpets and mirrors to show off the undersides of the cars," says the show chairman.
Mr. Cohen does not challenge the impression that car collecting can become a consuming passion, and he says he is grateful his wife, Nancy, shares his interest. The couple spend most weekends from spring through fall at shows and otherwise involved in the automobile addiction.
But he argues that the hobby can be pursued on an average budget. "Car collecting can be an extremely expensive hobby or a moderately expensive hobby," he jokes. "I've owned collector cars for $3,000, and I've owned them for $40,000."
If someone should get the urge to acquire a piece of the past, he suggests a stock American car from the 1960s that runs OK and needs some loving attention, available for as little as $2,000.
When: Tomorrow 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: The Cow Palace, Timonium Fairgrounds.
Cost: $3; children under 6 free.
Information: (410) 998-KIDS