When his American dream turned into a nightmare, Ross Hutchinson gave up his most treasured possession. Now, he's on a mission to find it again.
If you say 'childhood holiday' to any adult who grew up in the UK, it's likely they'll remember the taste of sand buried deep into their homemade sandwiches, or the long walk from the caravan to the holiday park toilets in the middle of the night.
But Ross Hutchinson can remember going to the slightly more tropical Belize, a former British colony in the West Indies, watching old battle-worn cars rattling around on dirt tracks, sitting on his dad's lap, steering his grandfather’s Lincoln Mercury and thinking, 'This is what it must feel like to drive an oil tanker'.
The cars back at home in Kent, where the family lived, paled in comparison. Between trips to see their grandfather, Ross and his younger brother, Ryde, immersed themselves in American culture, living vicariously through films from the 70s and 80s, like American Graffiti and Christine.
The two of them were “kindred spirits," “thick as thieves", “inseparable,” says Ross.
Their father worked in the oil industry. He was abroad in Kazakhstan, Botswana and Afghanistan for weeks at a time, and his sons grew closer in his absence. When they got a bit older, Ryde started going out with Ross and his friends, who lent Ryde a friend’s fake ID and snuck him into nightclubs where they’d dance the night away to Britpop.
“He went from being the little sibling under my wing to being my best friend,” Ross says. "I can’t think of a better relationship to have with a brother.”
While he was living through the Britpop phase that’s since become a nostalgic touchpoint for others his age, Ross was still piggybacking on the nostalgia for the post-World War II American decadence of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
The automobile had already become a status symbol, one that ran parallel to the American value of individualism. The country was a strong military power, its economy was booming; by the end of the 1950s, more families in the US owned cars than didn't. It was the golden age of American capitalism, and cars were at the centre of that.
“Up to the 50s, it was all about rock and roll and refrigerators and food processors covered in chrome. They slapped it on everything in the house to make things look like jet engines to say, ‘Look, we can put rockets into space, we won the cold war, and our cars look like they’re straight out of the space age’," Ross says.
But by the 1960s, the novelty of cars was starting to wear off. Americans had other things to think about, like war, poverty and civil rights.
“The cars of the late 50s were at home outside diners with the girls rolling up in cupcake skirts asking: ‘Do you want fries with that?’," Ross says.
“The same cars belong to the parents of the kids, who are asking if they can borrow the car for the weekend, driving to Woodstock, sitting on the roof singing protest songs."
To own a car from the era of post-war American optimism is to own a part of that story, which is a privilege you don’t get from a Ford Fiesta, Ross says.
When he was 19 and attending the local grammar school, Ross decided it was time to live the American dream and get an old American car for himself. Ryde found an ad in a local newspaper for a ’58 Chrysler. It was perfect, and Ross just about had enough money saved from his job at the local theatre.
Ross went to a farm in a nearby town to buy the car, and handed over £1,500 without any assurances it would drive away in one piece.
“Looking back, I should’ve haggled, but the guy was really big and had tattoos and he scared the bejesus out of me, so I just gave him the money and got it delivered to the house. Our parents’ jaws dropped when it turned up.”
The car was in terrible condition. The seats had the original horsehair stuffing. No two body panels were the same colour. It didn’t have interior headlining, just a piece of carpet glued to the roof, which, if you hit the brakes too quickly, would fall down into Ross’s face and whoever else was in the car with him would have to hold it back up.
Without the money to fix it up properly, the car needed some help from Ryde’s dad, who gained experience of stripping out American cars when he was growing up in Belize, and Ryde, who was much more mechanically-minded than Ross.
“He had aptitude for looking at something and fixing it at drop of a hat, an improvisational ability to fix things on the hoof. Dad was the same,” Ross says.
Structurally, the car was sound – and it passed its MOT. Nevertheless, the brothers’ dad rolled his eyes at the inspector.
“Don’t worry, it’s just a phase. He’ll soon grow out of it and get a normal car,” the inspector told him.
After some tinkering, the car had it all. Except seatbelts, or a stereo. The brothers fashioned an alternative – they took an old cassette player and a mini boom box they’d seen in an Argos catalogue, ran wires through some old hi-fi speakers into the back of the stereo and gaffer-taped the speakers into the boot. They were playing Prodigy, Sade and Herby Hancock cassettes in no time.
“I don’t know what we must have looked like to normal people,” Ross says. “My brother and I just adored it. Everywhere we went it turned heads, I think people were terrified we’d cause an accident. But it just looked like a rolling clusterfuck of vehicle.”
Ross wasted no time driving the car to school.
“It was the mid-90s and, while everybody else in my sixth form was saving up to buy Ford Fiestas or tubbed-out Astras, we had our eyes on owning a gigantic American land yacht and we got it."
On weekends, Ross drove his friends and his brother to gigs in London, wedging the car up the road behind the old Camden Palace building, which was then at the centre of the rave music scene. The car brought the brothers even closer together. But in early 2002, when Ryde was just 18, he was killed in a road traffic accident in London.
Not long after, Ross sold the car. The buyer was a man from the local Rockabilly scene, who wore a long teddy boy coat and a big quiff. Ross watched him drive the car away, turn off at the bottom of his road, and that’s the last time he saw the car.
Ross hasn’t grown out of his teenage phase, despite the MOT inspector's predictions. He’s had a 60 Fleetwood Cadillac limo and a 1971 Cadillac Eldorado, and his current squeeze is a 59 Cadillac, the same model as the one featured in Ghostbusters, and 50 Chevrolet Impala. Each one has given him the anachronistic sense of driving something that doesn’t belong in modern day Kent.
“There’s something about the functionality of something transcending the time when it was created. You’ll never know its full life – you’re the transient custodian of something that will outlive you.”
Ross lives in a 400-year-old farmhouse that was known to locals when hop pickers came down from London in the early part of last century. Sometimes, people walk past and tell Ross their stories of staying there.
“When you walk through the door of the house, time doesn’t seem linear, it feels like one big coexisting thing. I know that generations walked through it before, and it’s like I’m sharing that space for moment.
“It feels like that with a car. If I can find the person who owns it now, we can share that we were both once custodians of this same car that they’ll some day pass on.”
A few years after losing his brother, Ross’s dad was diagnosed with lung cancer, and his condition deteriorated over the next seven years.
In September this year, when he was tidying out his parents’ house, Ross came across photos of the Chrsyler, of him and Ryde working on it when they were teenagers, and, sitting on Ryde’s old bedroom floor, he uploaded them to Facebook.
When he looked at the photos, Ross realised he could make out the registration plate. He typed it into the DVLA’s website, which told him the car is still in the UK, and still taxed – and it had just had its insurance renewed.
“I thought it had probably gone to a scrap yard or banger racing,” Ross says.
He asked his Facebook friends to keep their eyes peeled for the car. His plea was shared in Facebook groups, prompting people from across the country to contact Ross, claiming to have spotted the car. Soon enough, a man got in touch, claiming to have brought the car over from the US to the UK in 1990.
“He proved it was the same car because it had the engine changed at some point in its life. He said, ‘Let me guess – it didn’t have its original engine and the gearbox was swapped for a Mustang gearbox’.
“He explained that he sold it on to someone who was involved in a crash. The car was damaged down one side and the panels replaced, which corroborates with me buying the car when all the panels different shades.”
But despite learning more about the Chrsyler’s past life, the leads have dried up. Ross remains hopeful, but he's also conflicted. He’s worried his quest seems self-indulgent in the midst of a pandemic, but admits his search for the car is like looking for absolution for a part of his life he worries he let go of too readily.
“I probably parted with the car when I didn’t want to – I think I just needed money, I was young at the time, and the car was a ridiculous thing to keep piling money into. But it carries so many fond memories of being the car that my brother and I both enjoyed, spent time working on and driving in.
“Just see it again, maybe get a photo of me standing next to it with a local newspaper grin, to rock up in one of the cars I’ve got now…”.
Ross's Chrysler lived a whole life before it came to the UK in 1990. Its original owners were part of a generation described as consumerists on steroids, obsessed with status and excess after what felt like a lifetime of frugality. Ross insists his search isn't about status, or even a love of cars.
Ross's mission shows just how deeply we can fall in love with objects; a love that would disappear in an instant if it wasn't attached to something far more meaningful. Much like the stark contrast of American excess and the preceding plummet into cold war and protest, Ross's old Chrysler endured another huge change: life with, and then without, Ryde.
The car hasn't always been in the best physical condition, but it serves as a solid, sturdy reminder that some things don't change, even when it seems like the whole world has shifted.