The hood ornament that sat in retired Navy chief Alexander McGinnis’s closet for 23 years may have been out of sight, but it was never truly out of mind.
McGinnis had to give up his beloved 1956 Chevy Bel-Air when a growing family necessitated a switch to a much more mundane van in 1979. Booooring. But he held onto the ornament, and the desire to find another hood to attach it to.
So just how strong was that desire? Strong like bull. Strong enough that 23 years later he saw a nearly-identical red-and-white Bel-Air go cruising by and he decided to do what any rational person would have done – he tailed the guy until he stopped driving and made an offer on a car that wasn’t even really for sale.
The offer was accepted, the hood ornament was returned to its rightful home, and a love affair – for both McGinnis and the city of Concord, as it would turn out, was born.
Love affair is hardly hyperbole. Listen to McGinnis describe his relationships with his wife and his car, respectively.
“That’s my wife,” McGinnis said, nodding toward Karen before shifting his gaze to the parking lot and pointing at the red-and-white car visible through the window. “And that’s my girlfriend.”
As mistresses go, she’s pretty harmless in Karen’s estimation. But the car isn’t a one-man kind of girl, either – McGinnis has gained some notoriety for offering to drive people to proms or weddings in it, or even take complete strangers on quick trips up and down the street. He once piled seven Canadians into the rig and took them from The Draft to Tandy’s, he said.
The do-not-touch restrictions many people place on their antique automobiles doesn’t fly with McGinnis.
“I’ll take family or friends, or anyone who asks me. And I never charge anyone one cent,” McGinnis said. “I drive down the road and see the thumbs of just about everyone in Concord. I just want to share. Do-not-touch is fine for some people, but people with my car get to enjoy the ambiance of a ’56 Bel-Air, inside and outside.”
McGinnis has chauffeured at least three parties to high school proms, and has been the driver for a wedding near Weirs Beach. For those occasions, he dresses up to play the part. But otherwise he spends much of his time giving curious citizens quick journeys or letting little children sit behind the wheel and honk the horn. He used to frequent the cruise nights at Arnie’s on Loudon Road, but had to tell the children who got to crawl around in the front seat that they weren’t allowed to touch the other cars on display like they were his.
“There are kids all over Concord who have had their picture taken behind the wheel,” McGinnis said.
McGinnis first fell in love with the Bel-Air while stationed in Ethiopia in 1972. He rented one from a military contact he had for $100 a month until it was time to leave, when he received some great news.
“He told me, ‘Just keep the thing,’” McGinnis said.
So he shipped the car back home and drove it until the (as yet uncovered in school history books) infamous family van intervention of 1979.
McGinnis spent many years in the military in some interesting places, including two years in Africa and five years in Iceland – though he holds to the belief that “the worst foreign country I was ever stationed in was West Virginia.” When he retired from the military, his wish list was short and sweet.
“What I wanted after the military was a decent apartment and a ‘56 Bel-Air,” he said.
So when one went cruising by out near Steeplegate Mall one day, he wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass. He followed the driver into a nearby parking lot and asked how much it would take to buy the car. A final price of $5,000 was settled on, and McGinnis picked the car up in the spring and paid it off over the next five years.
That fateful reunion took place in 2002, and the car’s seen a lot since then. It’s seen both the old and new World Trade Centers, McGinnis said, and has been to New Jersey, Provincetown, Connecticut, Vermont and Berlin, N.H.
“If there’s not salt on the road, it’s rolling,” Karen said.
McGinnis used to drive a limo for race car driver Sterling Marlin when NASCAR came to New Hampshire, and Marlin drove the Bel-Air from the Capital Grille to Harry’s Steakhouse, which is now Beijing and Tokyo, and signed the dashboard to commemorate the experience. The car has been photographed by dozens of people, including one professional photographer, and has been used in a band photo shoot for now-defunct cover band Code 3 when lead singer Laurie Luckern posed provocatively on the hood as if stuck there by an unseen force.
“That’s the chick magnet at work,” McGinnis quipped.
With all the pressure to look its best, the car undergoes a cosmetic upkeep program that most Hollywood actresses would envy. McGinnis dusts it religiously with a California Car Duster and waxes it frequently. He also never drives it when it’s raining. If he happens to be out when ran starts, he’ll stop and wait for the rain to quit and the car to dry before he heads home.
It recently required some repairs after it was hit by a stray BB, an incident that frustrated McGinnis because he believes it to be intentional. The culprit remains at large, and though he seeks no prosecution, McGinnis would love to find out why the incident happened.
“What a shame, because the car has done a lot of good things for people. I’d just like to face the person who did something like that and say, ‘Why,’” he said.
Recently repaired blemishes aside, the car has come a long way since he first purchased it. At that time, it had no heater, so he had to hand Karen a blanket if she came along with him. It also had no windshield wipers.
Now, all mechanical parts are operational, and the engine – one McGinnis repurposed from a Chevy Suburban some 10 years ago – purrs like a kitten. Well, most of the time.
“It can be a little cranky, but I know its idiosyncrasies.”
The car remains in terrific cosmetic shape, and is stored under what McGinnis calls “a very effective car cover,” having lived outside for the last 11 years. And it is obviously enjoyed by McGinnis and complete strangers alike.
So does he plan on keeping it until it doesn’t run anymore?
“No, I’m going to keep it until I don’t run anymore. Then I’m going to pass it on to my children,” he said. “When I first bought it, it was just for my use and my family. But I wanted to be able to pass something down to my kids to remind them of their old man. But seeing how much everyone just loved it, it evolved.”