by Nat Frothingham
Photos by Michael Jermyn
Very little in life is fair. That’s true.
Let’s admit then that few of us can afford — or much less own — or drive — or be seen to be driving — anything as wicked-cool as a “show-off,” caramel-colored, road-hugging classic car like the 1939 Ford coast-to-coast hot rod that’s parked out in front of Just Escorts garage on the River Road in Middlesex.
That Ford hot rod is just one of the classic cars that’s been stopping traffic on the River Road this summer.
Then there’s also the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere that’s still parked in front of Just Escorts. It’s a honey. But sorry, that Belvedere has already been spoken for and is no longer for sale. But more on that Belvedere later.
Let’s go back in time.
To begin with, there was the Barrows family, consisting of Vernon Barrows, his wife, Virginia and their four sons — Mike, Mitchell, Dan and David.
Vernon Barrows who is still warmly remembered locally ran Barrows Aluminum, a storm window company that served a pretty large sales territory from White River Junction all the way to Burlington and beyond. Here in central Vermont, Barrows Aluminum had such clients as the now-defunct Brown Derby Restaurant and he had contracts to install storm windows with clients in the commercial blocks up and down Main and State streets in Montpelier. Further afield, he was the storm window provider for such clients as St. Michael’s College in Colchester.
Back in the 1950s, there was comparatively little cash in the local economy. People pretty much fed their families from what they produced on small farms — a few cows, a few beef cattle, tons of chickens. There was always a big garden with lots of food canning during summer and fall. In addition, Virginia Barrows raised rabbits — 500 in all — that she sold as pets. She kept track of each rabbit by taking a green ballpoint pen and writing an identifying number inside an ear of each rabbit.
Talking recently about his brothers, Dan said, “There were four of us and every one of us was car crazy.” Growing up, the boys had the farm to run. “We had two Jersey cows,” Dan said. And the four brothers had their own stall in the barn where they worked on racing and classic cars.
“My mother had her hands full with four boys, Dan said to begin with. “I’m next to the last of the four brothers.” Dan’s older brother was only 16 and you had to be 18 to race cars at Thunder Road. “He tricked my mother into signing the papers that allowed him to race at Thunder Road,” Dan continued. “He drove but all of us did the work,” said Dan. “We raced for eight years and in the last year, we were top contenders, losing by only three points.”
The car obsession has never stopped, even today. All four brothers still live within a few miles of each other. “They don’t always agree,” said Dan. “But they all turn wrenches and every one of us has a classic car.”
Mike, the oldest, tinkers on cars at home. Mitchell, who is next in line, has his own garage on the hill. And Dan, who is owner, and his younger brother, Dave, work on cars at Just Escorts.
For a number of years, Just Escorts specialized in Ford Escort repairs and service, and Dan and Dave still do repair Escorts. But Ford stopped making the Escort in 2002 and today there are fewer and fewer Escorts on the road. In recent years people have asked Dan, “When the Escorts disappear, what are you going to do?
Well, as early as the 1980s, Dan was discovering a stronger and stronger market for classic cars. As the Escort business faded, Dan turned his attention to finding, then rebuilding — and not just rebuilding, but doing complete makeovers on classic cars.
Sometimes Dan’s work involves a complete restoration. Sometimes he builds a replica. Pointing to a Ford hot rod out on the middle of the grass, Dan said, “That’s a replica car. The top comes off and it turns into a convertible.”
With a replica car, it’s not enough to produce a car that looks exactly like the car it once was. You’ve got to take those cars and make them all modern by adding disk brakes, power steering, air conditioning. Dan’s Ford hot rod includes a number of “show-off” gadgets that open the door or the gas tank, or that slowly lift the trunk. The high luster shine isn’t metal. “It’s fiberglass and it won’t rust,” Dan said.
Talking about price, Dan said that Ford hot rods like the one on his lot now average between $30,000 and $60,000. “That orange one is on eBay for $40,000,” he said. “I can find you five on eBay for $40,000.”
The Plymouth Belvedere at Just Escorts has its own delicious story.
Like a number of other classic cars that Dan Barrows has worked on recently, the Belvedere was found locally. According to Dan, “The last eight cars I brought here were within 21 miles of me. Some of them were in storage lockers. Some of them came out of barns tucked under blankets.”
The Belvedere was an estate car meaning that its owner had died. It was a surviving family member who phoned Dan to ask, “Are you still buying classic cars?”
Well, of course, he was.
“We went to Barre Street (in Montpelier),” Dan said. When they opened the garage door, the car was there but it was under a cloth cover. When Dan peeled back the cover, there in front of him was a 1957 Belvedere with 52,000 miles in near-mint condition.
“I was blown away,” Dan said, to think that a car like this had been stored in a local garage less than 10 miles away from his shop all these years and in near-mint condition.They hooked up the battery and drove it out of the garage.
Getting to the final deal was a comparatively straightforward task. “I gave them a price. They said, ‘No.’ Then they came back with another offer. I finally agreed on their price.”
Without disclosing the final price, Dan said, “A car like this, as it is, would sell for $30,000 to $45,000.
That Belvedere does take your breath away with the awesome sweep of its wrap-around windshield, its classy grill and headlights and its whitewall tires. The car is parked. It’s not moving. But like a crouching animal, it’s ready to go. It’s ready to fly.
Warming to his subject, Dan said, “Those high fins in back. You don’t see those anymore. Those dual antennas — that was the look.”
Dan and I talked about the almost irresistible pull of a classic car. He remembers what it was like in the 1950s and 60s in Montpelier when 30 to 40 guys with their muscle cars would hang out there in front of the old Chittenden Bank building on State Street where Capitol Grounds is today.
Said Dan, “There are a lot of people walking around who want to relive their youth, who want to get in touch with their memories. A classic car? You find that car. It’s the key that opens a door to his heart. For a man it might be remembering the first car he ever drove. For a man and a woman, it might be the car they got married in. It might be remembering what it felt to be young.” Said Dan, “They know the car. They had that car when they were young. “The man might say, “I had that car when I was 16 or 17. My wife wants it.”