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You may have heard about the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, a California car contest filled with fussed-over classics owned by wealthy car buffs like Ralph Lauren. Imagine a mechanical beauty pageant held in an Intel clean room and you'll get the picture – this is a place where champagne is sipped on barbered putting greens while white-gloved detailers polish Bugattis with waxes that cost more than uncut heroin.

No disrespect to the fine folks of Pebble Beach, but they've got it all wrong.

I thought of this on a rainy Friday evening when I came across a car that stopped me dead in my tracks. Sitting in a dirt parking lot was an Austin-Healey Sprite Mark 1, a car best known as the Bugeye, manufactured from 1958 to 1961.

This particular Bugeye was no Pebble Beach concours candidate – it was a 50-year-old car that looked 75, with the decaying, hard-worked presence of a Liberian tramp steamer. Every panel was dinged and rusted, and the plastic side windows looked as if they'd gone through a Sahara sandstorm, then taken a few hits from a pickax.

And yet I loved it.

I was looking at a prime example of one of the world's rarest and most inspiring forms of automotive beauty – the rat rod. Also known as working classics, rat rods are Keith Richards four-wheeled equivalents: they should have died long ago, yet they soldier on, each scrape and contusions a hard-won badge of honour.

It's a strange genre, but rat rods work on me every time. Maybe it's because they appeal to something in us that longs for character and human presence in a world gone bland and corporate. New cars are a variation on what Tolstoy said about happy families – they're all alike. Each rat rod is unique in its decay.

That's why you can't fix them too much. Restoring an old car erases the past – rust is sanded away, dents are smoothed, and history disappears beneath layers of new, perfect paint. And with perfection comes loss. If you've ever been to an English country estate, you'll know what I mean – take away the moss, the sagging drainpipes and the cracked plaster, and you may as well move to the suburbs.

There is a thin line between a rat rod and junker. In many cases, the only real difference is a licence plate and a tank of gas. As I took in the Bugeye on that rainy Friday night, I realized that I was looking at a car that had been built when Winston Churchill was still alive. Most of its mechanical brothers are long gone, their steel shredded to make new toaster ovens and Hyundai Elantras, but this one had beaten the odds: not only was it still with us, it was still being used for daily transportation.

Unlike the cars at Pebble Beach, the Bugeye was not a pampered garage queen. It had served. And it had suffered. The bolts were rounded off by years of pliers and screwdriver repairs, and the paint was chalky from the sun – the Bugeye's last coat of wax was probably applied back in the Richard Nixon era.

As I studied the battered Bugeye, I felt enveloped by its history. I couldn't know the specifics, and yet each dent and tear spoke to me, like the flavour notes of an old, extremely fine wine. The worn steering wheel carried the signature of all the hands that had used it. The hazed windows and tattered leather seats conjured up the Battle of Britain, the rise of the Beatles, and nights at a long-lost club. I looked at the scarred dash and remembered speeding down European back roads when I was 20, my hair blowing in the wind.

This is the magic of the rat rod. Each car is a portal into the past. But like all art forms, the rat rod is easily abused. There are Rat Rod clubs filled with cars that have been artificially aged (a process that reminds of me of trying to turn Justin Bieber into Tom Waits). The cars are strewn with rock salt that promotes stylish rust blooms. Cracks are filled with compost so moss will grow. Fenders are thrashed with hammers and lengths of chain to simulate decades of hard use.

But for a real rat rod, there are no short cuts. To display its history, a car has to live it. Keith Richards calluses weren't applied by a plastic surgeon – they were formed by working steel guitar strings for five decades. And once that history is there, it should never be taken away.

Until a couple of years ago, my neighbourhood was graced by what may be the ultimate rat rod – a thrashed 1957 Aston Martin DB2/4. I never saw anything more elegant in my life. The Aston lounged by the curb like a British lord. A few days ago, I saw the Aston again, this time in a restoration shop that had straightened out the body, installed a new sunroof to replace the squirrel-gnawed rag that was the original, and sprayed on a new coat of silver paint. The Aston still looked good, but it wasn't the same – a bit of the majesty was gone.

As a teenager, I was obsessed with improving cars, and I liked nothing better than tearing them down to the frame, sandblasting the parts, and painting everything so the car looked new again. I once spent a year working on a mouldering BMW, but when it was done, I didn't love it.

My father, whose auto services were limited to oil changes, valve adjustments and occasional wash, had warned me. "Some things aren't meant to be taken apart." he said. "You just use them."

I thought of my dad as I walked away from the Bugeye that night. Maybe no one else would see what I had. But that didn't really matter. The memories were there. Where they came from made no difference.

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Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive


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