Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Oh, the true joy of a first love

Even if it's a '69 Dodge Dart Swinger

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It's been more than 40 years since Lorne Lautens met his first true love and more than 30 since they parted. Even though he's been married almost that long, Lautens has been looking for his original beloved ever since she went off with another man.

Then Sunday night -- sigh -- the 59-year-old civil engineer from Tuxedo found her again.

She was waiting for him in the Pony Corral Grant Park parking lot. Still looking as gorgeous as when he first laid adoring eyes on her, that day beside the freight elevator of the old Century Motors showroom.

Yes, Lorne Lautens' first true love was, and still is, a 41-year-old car.

No, not a Cougar. Something even more provocatively named: a Dart Swinger.

A 1969 Dodge Dart Swinger 340 to be precise. When he was 18, Lautens used the $2,800 he had earned playing in a rock band, and his parents kicked a few hundred bucks more, for the custom-ordered car he turned into a renowned Winnipeg street racer.

But by 27, Lautens had outgrown that and he sold her to a Winkler car collector. In turn, the car collector sold her to Bill Hughes, a now semi-retired Winnipeg electrician who spent close to $28,000 putting her back in near-showroom condition.

"It was like I saw her for the first time," Lautens wrote to Hughes in an email mere hours after they chanced to meet him and the car at the Pony's regular Sunday night cruise.

"I can't believe she has had another life without me," Lautens lamented. "It doesn't seem possible... it seems like cheating."

So what is it with men and their cars? Or at least some men.

I'm not a car guy, so I don't pretend to understand why guys -- and even gals -- gather on Sunday summer nights at the Pony to look under the hoods of classic cars and caress their curves. Lautens' story in particular sounds like a Harlequin Romance version of a Stephen King novel. Except this car has sex appeal instead of a killer instinct.

Actually, there is a bit of a spooky element to how they were reunited.

Bob Shettler and Barrie Creran are St. John's High pals and bandmates of Lautens. They remember the Dart of Lautens's heart and listened for years about how much he still missed her.

About a month ago, Shettler and Creran were in the Interlake doing some birdwatching -- hey, that happens when guys get older -- when something else caught their eyes.

It was a painting of a car on the side of a garage. It looked like Lautens' long-lost love, right down to the rear racing stripe. Naturally, the pair reported the sighting to Lautens. The origin of that mural, which seemed to be foreshadowing what would happen next, is still a mystery. And before he could go out and investigate, Shettler and Creran invited their old friend to Sunday night's car show. Which is when he found the real thing.

As Lautens wrote in the email thanking Harris for looking after his baby: "I'm still in semi-shock and awe at seeing my original 1969 Dodge Dart Swinger 340 this evening with you at the Pony Corral on Grant Avenue."

The day after he sold the car, Lautens regretted it and he's regretted it every day since.

"That's 32 years of looking and hoping," Lautens wrote in the email he carbon copied to me.

Lautens wants to buy her back, of course, and Harris isn't opposed to selling her.

"It's like being reunited with a long-lost child, or your first love," Lautens said.

A first love he calls baby, maybe.

"It is definitely a guy thing," Lautens agreed. "My wife Kathy 'likes' the car, but she doesn't 'love' the car. That's the difference. The car is a very powerful and beautiful time capsule on wheels."

So what is this all about?

The time capsule analogy has something to do with otherwise unsentimental males getting all sweaty and sweet about muscle cars to which they ascribe feminine attributes.

"I think it's something to do with your youth," Lautens told me. "As soon as you see that car you relive your youth... The stories that car could tell. The excitement and the adventures. Both legal and illegal."

Lautens figures that besides the legal races he drove, he and his first love competed in about 500 street drags.

And she only lost five.

Her enduring allure might be as simple as that, I suggested to Lautens.

She's one very fast lady.

Lautens just smiled.

Somehow I get the feeling that right now, Lorne Lautens would be happy just cuddling with his fast lady.

Hey, it's like birding.

It happens when guys get older.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2010 B1

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