There's getting from A to B, and then there's getting there in style. The Charleston area isn't a known hub for car culture just yet, but we do have a few standout rides that have been known to hold up traffic. Meet the people behind some of the most exotic, souped-up, and downright astonishing vehicles in town.
The guy's name is John Finlay, but they call him Brother Speed. He says his mama hung that nickname on him back in his stock-car racing days, but today he's best known for the ancient motorcycle he rides.
He pronounces the word "motor-sickle," like Arlo Guthrie, and when he talks about law enforcement, he calls 'em the "poe-leece." He says the bike was once used by lawmen in Birmingham, Ala., but he purchased it for $125 and put it to different use. "I bought it back there in 1969, and I rode it to Daytona Beach, Fla., and that's whenever the police department was telling everybody with motorcycles to stay out at the racetrack instead of going downtown and all that ... So I said to heck with Daytona, I'm going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras," Speed says. All his stories take this form, like a pinball ricocheting across the continent. He's based in Cottagevillle, but he's ridden that thing to bike rallies, car shows, and biker bars in Myrtle Beach; Sturgis, S.D.; Anchorage, Alaska; Laconia, N.H.; Gary, Ind.; Edmonton, Alberta; and about everywhere in between. He says he's served in the military and worked as a Porsche and Volkswagen mechanic, but he's made a living for decades working security detail at motorcycle rallies.
Each of the tchotchkes, coins, and artifacts he's glued to his bike with silicone gasket sealant comes with a story. The moose antlers, for example, come from a Canadian friend's dude ranch where he says he was named the unofficial sheriff. There's even a police badge on there, which he says came from a Charleston County officer he refers to as "Brother Pat" who retired in 2000. Speed says they originally met in the mid-'80s when he outran Brother Pat on his motorcycle on Rivers Avenue, but they later became friends and rode to Sturgis together with a law enforcement charity group. Speed claims to still have over 70 traffic tickets pinned up on the wall of his mobile home.
There are plenty of other stories: Kids steal the bicentennial quarters and silver dollars off the bike all the time, and once a young man on a bicycle removed a 16th-century crucifix from the bike frame. Speed says it was three months before he tracked the kid down washing dishes in the back of a restaurant near the old North 52 Drive-In Movie Theater.
Very little of the original motorcycle remains except the frame, with engine parts swapped out through the years by a long line of trusted mechanics and friends.
But why ride a motorcycle in the first place? "You meet the greatest people in the world, sir," Brother Speed explains. "Through all these years of me traveling and all the rest of that type stuff there, I have a saying: I tell 'em all, we're like Mini Jesuses and Mini Marys. I says, give us your mentally handicapped, your partially physically disabled, the wild ones, and the ones that nobody else wants to love, you know? We're a magnet. We are the ones with our arms wide open saying, 'Come on, bro, come on, sis, it'll be alright.' And that's always been my psychology towards anybody and everything." —Paul Bowers
Thierry VanDyck drives the perfect car for Charleston. It looks like what would happen if a pick-up truck made a baby with a golf cart, or maybe one of those Fisher-Price Power Wheels. It's called a Citroen Mehari.
"This little car is the dream car for here," says VanDyck, with a thick Belgian accent. "It doesn't rain here really. In the winter it's still convertible weather if you put a jacket on. It parks everywhere. It can't be stolen because nobody can drive it." (They might be able to — if they know how to drive a stickshift with the gearbox on the dash.)
If it does rain, it's no worry. Plastic tarp-like windows and a roof slide easily into place. The car's body is made almost entirely out of plastic, so VanDyck's never had to wash it. Mehari's do not rust. These little post-war cars, he says, can be found all over the French islands. Around here they're rare.
"There is not one day that somebody doesn't stop me," he says. Big trucks honk at him. Everyone wants him to pop the hood and show off the tiny engine. A woodworker and builder, VanDyck, was recently building an outside brick oven for backyard barbecues and used the Mehari to haul materials.
"You have to see all the contractors at Lowes," he laughs. "I come in with my little thing there and they have those huge pick-ups. I put eight bags of concrete in there."
VanDyck, a frequent world traveler who has lived in Charleston for about 15 years, was looking for a Mehari and found one for sale in the South of France. He had it shipped to the Holy City. Maybe you've seen it — he drives it everywhere — parked at the Tatooed Moose during lunch or somewhere downtown in the evening. Or even at the beach. The little car has a two-horsepower engine and gets 50 miles per gallon. It can go 60 mph, and he drives it on I-26.
"That's the car after the war," he says. "That was the car that every French person with not too much money had."
But VanDyck isn't content with just one Mehari. Another should be arriving soon by boat. Unlike the one he has now, an original, his new one will be completely rebuilt.
But what about the big question: does it have air conditioning?
"The air conditioning is the door open," he says with a laugh. —Corey Hutchins
What's the worst part about driving a drag racing machine that looks like a taxi cab from hell?
"I have to keep the back doors locked. If I'm stopped at a stoplight, I've had a couple of people try to hop in," says Sean Contreras, who drives a souped-up '61 Ford Galaxy with a fictitious cab company logo painted on the side.
OK, that and the gas mileage, which comes in at about 9 mpg by Contreras' calculations. Still, it's all worth it for Contreras, a Boeing airplane mechanic who lives in West Ashley. When Contreras heard about the car from a friend at an Upstate hot rod shop called Rusty Nuts Originals, he knew it had to be his.
The customization and major engine modification was already complete by the time Contreras bought the vehicle last month; all he had to do was replace the pinion gears, tighten a few bolts down, and install air conditioning — a rarity in the drag-racing world, but a must for a car that he planned to use as a daily driver.
Contreras hasn't taken his ride out to the dragstrip in Orangeburg yet, but when he does, he'll be driving a mean contender. This old Ford sports a '70s-model Cobra Jet engine under (and outside of) the hood, a twin Holley 500 carburetor to suck massive amounts of fuel into the motor, and — of course — a wicked paint job.
"Normally when you go to the drag strip, everybody's got stuff, like there's a school bus, and you try to make them look as unsuspecting as possible," Contreras says. "You're not going to expect a taxi cab to pull up onto the drag strip and blow your car away." —Paul Bowers
By day, Matt Anderson works on top-of-the-line engines as a motorsport engineer for Bosch's racing division. By night, he fixes up beaters.
Anderson's projects aren't just any old hoopties, though. He favors junkers that are rare, exotic, and foreign, like the tiny North African Simca sedan he's currently working on or the sleek New Zealand Morris Minor he recently got in exchange for a Volkswagen Rabbit diesel pickup.
So when Anderson came across a Los Angeles Craiglist ad this August for an Australian Ford Falcon Ute — the Down-Under answer to the El Camino — he impulsively put in a lowball bid during a lunch break. To Anderson's amazement, the seller took him up on the offer. Anderson sealed the deal on a Wednesday, flew out to L.A. with a friend that Friday, and braced himself for a grueling cross-country trip back home. To hear the affection he lavishes on the car, though, it sounds like the trip was worth it.
"It's so trashy," Anderson says. "It's basically the color of skin, and it looks like a Mustang with a pickup bed on the back of it, and it's got a horrible Australian mural on the back."
Within three miles of leaving the seller's house in L.A., the car overheated and the engine started knocking. Weighing their options and considering the possibility of breaking down in the middle of the 108-degree Mojave Desert, Anderson and his pal decided to make a go of it. "We took the hood off in a Denny's parking lot, put it in the back, and we just started driving," Anderson says. Crossing the country with a blown head gasket, they frequently stopped and used a bike pump to push water from the overflow reservoir back into the radiator, refilling as needed with gallon jugs of water from the back. They made it home in 48 hours.
Did they get some looks on the highway? "Oh, yeah, but not in a good way — more like, 'What the hell is that guy thinking? Is he serious with that mural? Did he paint that? Is that him?'"
Back in Charleston, Anderson uses the Falcon — a.k.a. the "'Roo Chaser" — on a daily basis, meaning he's easily got the ugliest car in the parking lot at Bosch. With the steering wheel on the right side, he faces daily dilemmas like how to use a drive-through restaurant window or ATM. Still, he's got the car running like a dream, and it suits him. Starting her up on his residential street, the engine rumbles and grinds to life like a semi truck.
Believe it or not, the 'Roo Chaser is something of a D-list internet celebrity in the car-enthusiast community. Anderson has featured it on his own website, beaterblog.com, and the car also made an appearance on the car-culture site Jalopnik in an Aug. 17 edition of the "Nice Price or Crack Pipe" feature. The Jalopnik story was based on the Craigslist posting, but by the time it went live on the site, Anderson had already snagged the deal, earning the envy of Aussie-junker enthusiasts worldwide. —Paul Bowers
When James Islander John Cook drives his custom-painted VW Thing downtown, he says it feels like he's in a parade. Strangers walk up to ask questions at intersections, drivers slow down to ride alongside him, and folks his age feel at liberty to share stories about people they've known who drove a Thing.
Cook, an accountant, says he likes having a car that stands out in the parking lot. "I'm always looking for creative outlets, since the profession isn't known for that," he says.
In fact, Cook has owned two Things in the past 10 years. He has a nostalgic connection to the unusual car, which Volkswagen only made for two years in the United States: He learned to drive on one. The first one he bought was painted camouflage, so he didn't feel any qualms about painting it red, white, and blue for a Fourth of July parade. Later, during a Piccolo Spoleto exhibit where local artists festooned local cars, the painter Marius Valdes — known for his whimsical folk-art animal paintings, including numerous Charleston Animal Society posters — signed on to paint Cook's original Thing.
Cook loved the design so much that when he sold the original Thing and bought another one, he wanted to have Valdes do the paint job again. Unfortunately, Valdes didn't have time to paint another car, so when Valdes called him asking for financial advice, Cook made a proposition in lieu of payment: "You know what? How about if you let me use your characters when I get around to painting this car?" Valdes said it sounded like a fair deal. "I told him I'd always give him credit, if people asked, that he's the creative genius behind the characters," Cook says.
Valdes, who lives in Columbia now, credits Cook with giving him an opportunity to exhibit his art back when he was still working up the courage to show it publicly. "I am sure I have benefited more from his help than he has from mine," Valdes says.
Valdes also says he's impressed and flattered by the imitation of his art. "He got pretty close. He needs a thicker black outline," he says. "But what's really exciting for me is to see that he tried to copy my characters and maybe that I inspired a little artistic creativity for an accountant. He's making art, and that's a good thing."
Today, Cook drives his Thing around town when the weather's fair. His backup car is somewhat unconventional, too: a '76 Jeep Wagoneer, another boxy behemoth from a bygone era. But his first love is still the Thing.
"It's obviously not the most practical car in the world, but if you have the flexibility and can have something that's different, why would you want to put one more Toyota Camry on the road?" Cook says. "I don't want to slam anybody for driving a practical car, because that makes a lot of sense, but for me, I have the good fortune to be able to have something different." —Paul Bowers
The D'Allesandros are a bike family. Nick rides a fixie to work every day at D'Allesandro's Pizza, his brother Ben has been known to ride a unicycle, and the whole family enjoys cruising the beach in an Italian-made pedal Delfino Surrey.
"We try to ride bikes everywhere," Nick D'Allesandro says. "We're not those crazy people that aren't going to drive — we drive, but [riding bicycles] makes me happy."
The surrey van was a Craigslist purchase from a family on Sullivan's Island who wanted to upgrade to a golf cart. While it's not an especially practical choice in downtown traffic, D'Allesandro says it's perfect for relaxing days on the beach, riding in holiday parades, and — it turns out — politics. When Ben ran for City Council in November on a platform that included expanded bike-friendly policies, Nick and the family went out campaigning in the surrey. The reasoning was simple: "It gets a lot of attention."
The brothers D'Allesandro grew up in Philadelphia with a father who encouraged them to ride and race, and now their own families have gotten the bicycle bug. Nick recently bought a one-seater Mercurio cargo bike from a Craigslist seller in the Upstate, a tricycle contraption with two wheels in the front and a front-loading cargo bed. He and his wife Stefanya use it for grocery store trips and excursions to the park with their 20-month-old son, Felix. "He loves it. He'll stand up and do his thing, look over the sides," D'Allesandro says.
Little known in the U.S., the cargo bike is a common vehicle among Mexican street vendors, and quadricycle surreys are available for rental in larger cities including San Diego and Minneapolis. Who knows? Maybe they'll catch on here. Two-wheeled bicycles already have.
"I wasn't on a crusade. I've always worked downtown, and I was like, 'Well, I might as well ride my bike,'" D'Allesandro says. "And then as the bike movement has happened, it's like, well of course, why would you drive?" —Paul Bowers
Back in his college years at Indiana University, Garrett McNally caught a glimpse of a dream. An alumnus from one of the school's fraternities donated a vintage firetruck to his brothers, who outfitted it with beer taps and created the ultimate party machine.
One day, McNally swore, he would have one of his own.
Two-and-a-half years ago, McNally opened a bar called Mac's Place on East Bay Street, finally giving himself the rationale for owning a big red boozemobile: The place is called Mac's, so if he could find a Mack firetruck, he'd have a built-in advertisement. That's reason enough, right?
For the past year or so, McNally searched high and low for a firetruck that fit in his price range and could be converted for beer-dispensing purposes. Finally, in August, he found one on eBay — in New Jersey. After sealing the deal, he put out a call for bids on uShip, a shipping website where truckers compete for gigs. "They put it on the back of a flatbed and drove it down — gas mileage is not great," McNally says. "The fastest I've had it up to is about 45 mph, so from New Jersey to here would have been a very long trip."
With the old Mack pumper finally in his possession, McNally took it down to Superior Transportation for some engine work and enlisted the help of his beer supplier Lee Distributors to outfit the beer spouts. It's fairly low-tech: A big, tapable cooler, commonly known as a jockey box, is lowered into a compartment near the back of the truck, and the beer gets pumped through a 60-foot metal coil that cools it on the way out. McNally plans to drive the truck in the city Christmas parade, and he's renting it out for special events. Even when it's just parked on the street, he says, it's great advertising.
"It's a big billboard. Everybody stops and takes pictures, and people ask about it all the time," he says.
Occasionally, when the truck is parked in front of the bar, someone remarks on the odd placement — it's right next door to a strip of East Bay bars that was badly damaged by a fire in April. "I mean, I feel kind of bad. I've talked to all the owners, and they think it's kind of funny in a sense — obviously that's not the intention," McNally says. "[The firetruck] is something I'd been looking for for a while. But yeah, it is ironic." —Paul Bowers