Open the door of Dave Koehler Sr.'s red-and-white '56 Chevrolet and you can almost smell the pomade from a time when he and his friends had plenty of hair to slick back every Saturday night.

Now 61, Dave never got over that feeling of cruising State Street and buying orange floats at Zissi's cafe in South Salt Lake. That's why today you'll find him polishing chrome fenders in his garage or tinkering with the engines of 180 classic cars owned by car and RV dealer Ardell Brown.

"I've always had four wheels on my mind — old cars are my life," says Dave, who could pick out the year and make of every automobile on the highway when he was 3 years old. It's a talent he inherited from his grandfather, who carried an extra handkerchief with him at all times to keep the dust off his '48 Oldsmobile.

"That car was sweet — it had a Rocket 88 engine," says Dave. "When I went driving with my parents and grandparents, my grandfather would tell me all about the cars we saw on State Street. I couldn't wait until I was old enough to buy one of my own."

Today, besides a PT Cruiser (about the only modern car he can tolerate), Dave can fit six classic cars inside his custom-built garage in Cottonwood Heights. Eager to share his love for shiny fenders and sidewall tires, he recently joined me for a Free Lunch chat before tackling another engine tuneup.

As a teenager at Granite High School, Dave's dream car was a '55 Chevy Bel Air, and that's exactly what he bought for $350 when he'd saved enough cash. "It was yellow and white, a two-door hardtop with chrome bars on the inside at the top," he says. "I went out to drag State Street the minute I got it."

When he was 17, he met his wife, Carol, after blowing his engine and throwing a rod in front of her house on the way to pick up his pals. After they married in 1968, Carol didn't believe Dave when he told her he was going downtown to buy a brand new Pontiac Firebird.

She should have known better. The '68 Firebird still sits in the garage, along with a '56 Chevy, a '69 GMC pickup and two Camaros from '68 and '69. Over the years, Dave has gone through Corvettes, Comets and Falcons, but one thing has remained constant: The feeling he gets behind the wheel of a classic car is always better than any model made after 1969.

"It's like going back in time — it makes you feel young again," says Dave, who confesses that he sometimes doesn't recognize the lined face reflected in his mirror. "I'm old on the outside, young on the inside. That's what happens when you become obsessed with old cars."

A retired Salt Lake City water plant operator, Dave now enjoys caring for Ardell Brown's car collection, stored in three large buildings in Draper. A cancer survivor, he hosts a "Cruisin' for a Cure" car show at Ardell's place every fall to raise funds for prostate cancer awareness and prevention.

"If my wife hadn't insisted that I go to her doctor for an exam, I probably wouldn't be here right now," says Dave. "I've got a lot of living to do." And a lot of cruising, too.


Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to [email protected]. You can also write me at the Deseret Morning News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.