• Photo slideshow: Scott Benson's vintage cars.
* * *
Scott P. Benson declares that this car will be his last.
He says this in the same half-hearted way I say this Hershey's Kiss will be my last — last! — and it's all carrot sticks from here on out.
So I don't remotely believe that the 55-year-old Omaha city housing inspector, who has owned over two dozen cars in his lifetime and buys and sells cars on eBay the way you or I would go to Younkers for a sweater, has called it quits.
His girlfriend, Traci Shaffer, has a word for this car thing: obsession.
“I would say it's a passion,” Benson counters. “There's a difference.”
The obsession-passion started in childhood with Hot Wheels cars you could hold in your hand and race off the dining room table or on a loopy orange track.
Later, there were model cars to build. There were cars to swoon over in magazines like Hot Rod, Street Rodder, Road & Track, Car and Driver, Rod & Custom — he had them all. And finally, there was a real car, a 1963 Ford Falcon Futura convertible that Benson bought for $150 with the money he earned as a lifeguard.
He bought this Ford in 1974 when he was 16.
His father, the late S.P. Benson, a car guy himself, wouldn't let Scott behind the wheel until the teenager had learned how it worked and how to fix it if it broke down. That took a year.
By then, he had his sights set on other cars. Benson sold the Ford for $175, thought he was rich, and within two years had bought and sold three more cars: a Toyota Landcruiser 4x4 for off-roading. A friend off-roaded it right into the Missouri River. No one was hurt, but the car was a goner.
Then came the Buick Electra 225. This was a car your grandpa would drive, but it held all of Benson's friends and was perfect for the drive-in. After that was the 1967 Pontiac Firebird convertible.
Benson drove it in the Northwest High homecoming parade and took first place.
Once at a stoplight, a man behind the wheel of a Mercedes asked Benson if he wanted to sell that Firebird.
Benson said something to the effect of: Yes, for the right price.
Benson didn't wind up making the deal, but it led to a job with the man's company, which linked fancy-car owners to buyers. It was heaven to Benson, who spent a year and a half driving Panteras, Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Jaguars.
“You name it,” Benson said, “we had it.”
The job introduced him to Omaha's affluent car owners and put him in the driver's seat. He drove Omaha Mayor Al Veys through a Benson parade in a Duesenberg SSJ, one of only two of its kind. He drove musician Chuck Mangione around in a Rolls-Royce Drophead Sedanca that once belonged to John Philip Sousa. He drove actress-dancer Cyd Charisse in a 1947 Triumph.
When the band Cheap Trick came to town, and a band member wanted to buy a 1965 baby blue Ford Thunderbird, Benson delivered the car to the tour bus parked outside the Civic Auditorium, was paid $7,500 in $100 bills and partied with the band.
Benson entered college in the fall of 1977 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, driving a ride most UNL freshmen would trade their Husker tickets for: a 1963 Porsche 356B coupe. Benson had it turned into a six-cylinder, but the day he picked it up from the shop a driver ran a red light, T-boned him and that was the end of the Porsche.
Over the years, cars came and went.
» The rare: A 1965 Sunbeam Tiger convertible.
» The red: A 1966 Alfa Romeo Duetto with an engine whose sound was sweeter to Benson than the radio.
» The road-going: A 1972 BMW Bavaria he said offered the smoothest ride.
» The big names: Jaguar (2); Saab (2); a 1964 Corvette; a 1957 Volkswagen Beetle.
» The one that got away: A 1970 MGB GT coupe that was white with red leather interior.
The oldest of Benson's cars was a 1929 Ford Model A. The most “gangster” was a 1930 four-door Buick that had artillery rims, window shades and running boards. Benson rented it out for weddings and felt like Al Capone when he drove it around Omaha.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Benson has owned hot rods, like a 1936 Plymouth two-door sedan that got featured in Rebel Rodz magazine.
Benson said he also owned other “non-interesting” cars like a Volkswagen Rabbit, a Dodge Dakota pickup he uses for parts runs and a 1992 Volvo four-door sedan with 300,000 miles. He can't seem to part with that.
He's owned no lemons. He's never gotten burned by an online car purchase. Knock on steel.
And he was sustained by this obsession-passion a dozen years ago when his parents, S.P. and Joan, were killed in a car accident halfway between Omaha and Kansas City. Benson's daughter Caroline, then 8, was riding in the back seat of her grandparents' car and nearly died. A year later, Benson went through a divorce and suffered a massive heart attack. He had sextuple bypass surgery at age 44.
The cars were a constant in his life, giving him a needed distraction.
When Caroline got old enough to drive, Benson found himself echoing his father: Be careful. Respect the road. Make sure you've got a tube of sand in the trunk.
Benson and Shaffer share a home in the Keystone neighborhood. Their house has a sloping driveway and a two-car garage that right now holds the alleged “last” car that Benson will ever own.
It is a 1971 Austin America. It is orange on the outside. It is black leather on the inside.
This little low-slung car has a surprising amount of legroom and trunk space, which was a selling point when it was marketed to compete with the Volkswagen Beetle.
You wouldn't dream of driving this car on the snow. Benson sure wouldn't.
Given how rare it is, you might not even dream of driving this car, period.
But Benson doesn't have the garage space, the money or the inclination to treat cars like they're museum pieces. He doesn't believe in owning a car you can't put on the road.
“I like to drive them,” he says. “If they break down somewhere, I've got to fix them. I want to smell them. I want to feel the leather.”
He sees himself as a conservator of a machine that, if gently used and cared for, will outlive him.
So is this truly the last car, Scott?
“I don't know,” he says with a laugh. “I say that. But I've said that over and over.”