There are nearly a dozen Chevy El Caminos in Darrel Boardman’s Spokane Valley back yard, buxom car-truck hybrids, with throaty motors and air shocks to stiffen the ride with the blow of a hose.
Guys, gearheads in particular, go bonkers for this kind of stuff, mechanical beasts assembled in a half circle waiting like lions for a tamer in greasy bib overalls and wielding a box-end wrench to open their hoods and lean in deeply.
But looking all day might not reveal what really makes Boardman’s cars special. Boardman’s cars have stories, chrome for the soul.
The 1966 maroon El Camino at the crown of Boardman’s horseshoe driveway is a real-life Christine of an automobile, linked to the deaths of two women romantically involved with its previous owner.
“I bought it from a guy who was fixing it all up, painted it, had a new motor for it, bought all the chrome for it, had new tires. Then his wife died and he stopped,” Boardman said. “So the guy starts going out with his wife’s girlfriend, starts working on it again and then she died.”
Stories like that don’t come from the car lot, where every previous owner was gentle on the pedals and you have to push through the preset stations on the radio to hear the soundtrack of the last driver’s life.
A person has to buy directly from the owner to get the real story, has to take possession of the vehicle’s, old, worn keys and any warmth they might convey from the seller’s hand. Boardman, 73, a retired tinsmith who first fell in love with El Caminos 20 years ago at a Coeur d’Alene car lot, usually does buy from owners because the cars come cheap that way, in one case only $75. And he keeps the car’s story alive. Only part of his collection is on Boardman’s back lawn. The rest has spilled onto off-premise garages, or been driven away by a friend in need of wheels.
“I’m going to have one more coming from Yuma, Ariz. As soon as that one gets here, I’ll have 16,” Boardman said.
A man with 16 cars is no different than a man with one, in that he drives them, listens to their rattles, reads their quirks vibrating through their steering wheels like Braille, questions how he’s going to fix them and hopes the answer lies in a $5 tincture of fuel additive. Boardman though, can entertain the potential of a car without having to walk while he’s doing it.
There’s a 1977 El Camino with a hood and quarter panels powdered orange with rust after years of overexposure. The car belonged to a man and woman in their 80s who watched helplessly as the vehicle broke down and the engine compartment burst into flames on the roadside.
“They didn’t have anything to stop the fire. No one came out with a fire extinguisher,” Boardman said. “The woman, she had a walker. She couldn’t walk well. Her walker was behind the seat. She had to wait in the car while it burned.”
The flames burned right up to the bottom edge of the front windshield before extinguishing itself. Boardman believes the car is still good and says so like a coal miner who sees diamonds in the carbon around him. It’s the trait he shares with former owners like the man who grafted an entire driver’s side from one El Camino onto another to give it life, like the carpenter who thought he’d turn his half car, half truck into a stock car before running out of money.
Listen closely, you can hear Boardman’s story about a man who loved El Caminos so much, he seldom turned one down and worked to keep them alive forever. Soulful chrome indeed.