The Tale of The Count Car

In the late 1980s they held a little parade in my hometown. Looking back now I wonder how they shutdown the only farm to market road through town to have it, but it was (and is) a small town. At one of those parades I saw a car that I immediately loved and wanted. There was no other place to drive this kind of vehicle other than the main highway or dirt roads and neither of those were going to do the car or the driver very much good. But, I kept wanting it, nonetheless.

I had no idea what it was called or that it was a kit and I didn’t care. Initially thinking back I thought this was the parade after my Kindergarten year–the year I would have turned seven. But when I went back through the images I had scanned to find this image the only shots I could find were much older. Regardless it’s in that impressionable age to say the least. Incidentally the man driving it was the husband of the 5th grade teacher in my elementary, who I eventually had as a teacher. He also drove the church bus for Vacation Bible School, and had had polio as a child.

Another thing happened around the same time that I have attributed to my full immersion into these styles of vehicles. The US finally saw the release of the Rankin/Bass production of The Wind in the Willows. Why is that important you ask? Well obviously you haven’t seen it, which is a pity because it is the best version of the book rendered moving, and it strengthened my resolve to one day own a contraption.

Every few years I would think about this car or happen to see one somewhere. I eventually learned that they were fiberglass kit cars built on donor bodies and that they were called Mercedes Gazelle. Most were/are built on Volkswagen donor cars but some had Pinto or Chevette drive trains. I also liked the standard muscle car faire, namely the Dodge family, I mean who didn’t want to climb into a Charger through the window? But it has always been the prewar cars for me, the ones with the long narrow front ends to accommodate those straight 8 cylinder engines.

Turns out that might be genetic. My great-great aunt (that’s my great grandfather’s sister for all you playing genealogist at home) would always drive down to the family reunions in her Jaguar. That was the bridge or practical and old in my 8-9 year old mind. About a dozen years later I found one for sale in Houston which I drove and loved every minute of it, but eventually sold it not long after I got married and we were working on moving. It’s one of the only vehicles I’ve gotten rid of that I miss, but I also have a list of all the little things that needed fixed on it so when I get to feeling to nostalgic I look back over it and go, “ah, yeah.” After I got mine I was talking to Aunt Gracie and she said “You know, I always liked a car with a looooong front end.” She gestured out with her hand for extra emphasis. She lived to be 104, and I think she hated the shortened Ford Taurus jags more than I did.

Finding this picture has me looking back over that list of things to fix again. I sold it to a cafe owner in SETX and I think it was ended by one of the Hurricanes that blew through there not long after.

But back to the Gazelle. These things are basically fiberglass bathtubs bolted to car frames, so the whole assessing risk factor you have as a human being factors in. I wasn’t going to get one to drive on the freeway between home and work and there weren’t any clubs or anything like that where I lived so I left it along again for awhile. I did take up some bidding on ebay motors once I lived in a city that had neighborhoods, but thankfully that one fell through.

I was still set on something that looked old, whether it behaved (or cost) as such or not. Having happily read P.G. Wodehouse and thoroughly enjoyed the Fry and Laurie rendition of Jeeves and Wooster reinforced all of that. Incidentally, my modern style of fatherhood is a derivation of the Jeeves and Wooster relationship. I figure my number one job is keeping my son safe and giving him chances for all kinds of experiences. Jumping over the “I’m your dad not your friend” cliche I’ve found that adopting the smug all-knowing Jeeves routine and treating your children like they are Bertie Wooster works rather well. At least it has for us. Jeeves had an Aston Martin in the series; though we’d do well to remember that Jeeves had a lot of money in the series as well. And though Stephen Fry is two and a half inches taller than me, I still have to adopt the same “looking over the top of the windscreen” manner of conveyance.

Now let’s fast forward a bit until I’ve gotten married, moved out of state, had a child, and working on a PhD. My two year old sees one of these in the grocery store parking lot in our neighborhood and from this own referred to it as “my car.” I think it’s funny, but do start to look around some more and find several in various states (and states of disrepair) online. But nothing really grabbed us. He started in on his car kick. He separated my Clive Cussler books by whether they had a picture of a car or the author on them. His absolute favorite car in the world is a Duesenberg, so we had that whole “excellent taste; I hope you make a lot of money as an adult” talk. And we watched a lot of Jay Leno’s garage on youtube when we were home avoiding COVID.

I decided it might be time to seriously think about getting one of these since I live in town, it’s only a couple blocks through neighborhoods to my work and a little farther to his school. I decided that I’d spec out what I wanted first and not settle. I wanted one that was on the Pinto drivetrain, it was a manual transmission so I could teach him to drive stick, and I preferred one that wasn’t cream and burgundy. I wasn’t thrilled with red, but the grey and burgundy wasn’t bad. But color wasn’t going to be the deciding factor.

Found a red one with black interior on marketplace a few years ago and was in talks for it, went to cash out some investments when everything tanked. My portfolio lost enough to by two of the ones I was looking at so that didn’t work.

Meanwhile we start in on reading Sesame Street at bedtime. You may remember from Follow that Bird that the Count drives a purple Nash with batwings. He actually has at least two vehicles in the books, and the Nash appears here and there. And at least as illustrated it wasn’t too far off the MGTDs anyway.

Now the Count is my son’s favorite Sesame Street character (shared with Grover and Oscar the Grouch–and I will add a caveat here that these are the late 70s and early 80s versions of these characters in the books and are very much in the Jim Henson’s Muppets style of humor). As such I gathered up as many Count books as I could find including Count all the Way to Sesame Street

See where this is going? Drawn off model, this version of the Countmobile is far more similar to the Gazelle than the Nash. I had only ever seen three black Gazelles online before and all of them were listed as VWs. But at least we had another limiting factor.

Late spring I started watching marketplace again as these kinds of cars start coming out and going up for sale again and saw a nice little one in Kansas that while VW powered was a nice British Racing Green (which I’ve only ever seen two others of as well) and was a good price. I have been saving up since out first illustrated encounter with the Count Car, and thought I’d just drop the cash when I had it when it occurred to me that timing was off. Currently my son is out of his car seat stage and can ride safely on the roads we take to school/work in this car. My daughter is only four months old and when my wife goes back to work she’ll be riding with her in her carseat to daycare, until she starts school and then I will take her and need to carseat in the car again. If I wait to have the cash then I miss on years of drive time. Which is the entire purpose of all this finally getting done in the first place.

So I call up the credit union to see if we can get a little loan for the green one in Kansas. Everything comes through and the green one is sold three and a half hours before there is money in my account. But, for the first time I am following up on this one scouring marketplace, but also the multiple groups on facebook (which 90% of the members one are members in all, why can’t there just be one?). Multiple posts are there, but one is never listed, it is just mentioned in the comments as being for sale. It’s on a Pinto and a manual transmission. One comment even had a photo:

It was black. There it was, THE Count Car, just waiting. But for more than I currently had on hand. I went back and forth a few days before finally reaching out to the owner for a phone number to call. We talked for a while about the car and about life in general. Told them what I had and that I could get the rest but it would be the end of summer and I imagined they weren’t going to want to hold it, and then they said “if you bring your son with you to pick it up so he has that memory tied to this car, I’ll take less for it.” I was a bit dumbfounded, but it was too good to pass up. So we made all the arrangements and after a weather delay me, my son, and his Papa drove all the way across Arkansas to pick up the Count Car.

There were two very happy five year olds involved in this whole ordeal. We told my son what we were doing and going to get, but when we pulled up to the house and he saw it he said “Are we REALLY getting this Count Car?” We had to tell him that he couldn’t sleep in in in the garage that first night we had it home, and for that first few days we would lose him and go look to see him sitting in the car in the garage. It’s been the best poor life decision I’ve ever made. Going to get a custom Count printed spare tire cover for it soon.

But wait! There’s more!

Remember I said that his favorite car was a Duesenberg? When the previous owner gave me their insurance cards since it would still be covered to the end of the week, it was insured as a “Duze.” They said when they first saw it that was what they thought the kit was modeled on.

Even the color scheme matches an old motorcycle I had. Back when I replaced the vinyl seats on my 86 Shadow, I opted to go back with tan to contrast the black:

There is even a fun thing about this car being in (on the other side of) Arkansas! That part of this story goes back to Y2K. New Year’s Eve, 2000 my father, mother, and my father’s friend from high school (who happened to be my boss at the time) drove somewhere in Arkansas to pick up a 1957 BelAir. I wasn’t invited on the trip (even though I did still live with them at the time) and spent the evening/night at my friend’s bonfire. Not only did I not get the memory of the road trip to get the car, I never rode, or even sat in it. Sometimes I wish I knew the VIN and could dig through the internet to see where it went and if I could afford it just to have, but this Count Car means more even if it isn’t as all-weather a vehicle as the Bel-Air is.

Eventually I am going to work up some fiberglass batwings to attach where they top pins. I can’t drive this thing with the top on it without looking like Dino on the Flintstones, but that doesn’t take anything away from the enjoyment and the fun we’ve had so far, and we’re only getting started.

I’ll sign off on this with something I clipped from Follow that Bird. It’s the simplest of life’s philosophies that I really hope I can better adopt through the rest of my life and, if it does anything, this car helps that.

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