Historic Lake City Auto
Cacti and vintage vehicles in Lake City, Florida

For many years I have seen pictures of the remains of old vehicles and machinery among the cacti in the American deserts. They are a reminder of the early days of motoring, when it took a little more than just turning the key and placing the car in ‘Drive’. The roads were few and often not forgiving. For those of us afflicted with a nostalgic streak, the photos let us dream of those days gone by. When these vehicles were new and in their full glory it was cutting edge technology back when there were more horses on the roads than automobiles.

While visiting Lake City, I never expected to find such a place that looked like this. Not far out of town, on US 90, I found an old closed-down gas station. It is surrounded by rusting and decaying gas pumps, ancient machinery, and even an old Willys pickup truck. Many folks do not know that long before the Willys’ Jeep of WWII fame came about, Willys had been building cars and trucks.

A Willys pickup
A Willys pickup

I didn’t stop the first time I drove by and I do not know why. Perhaps it was the shock of seeing such a sight in North Florida. Or maybe I was busy thinking about how I always wanted one of ‘them’ or one of ‘those.’ These were the odd things I have dreamed about owning to as part of automotive landscape around my shop and garage.

Old gas pump
Those were the days!

If you have been bitten by the antique auto bug, go ahead and admit it. You have had these same dreams. Or you may have already picked up a few of these ancient artifacts of the early years of the automobile. If so, your wife and non “car guy” friends are still wondering what are you going to do with all that junk.

Historic Lake City Auto
A rustic, western-like setting in Lake City

Driving north of town I came across another surprise collection of vintage auto artifacts. These were different, restored, and almost glowing. A reminder of how they looked when new. This collection was part of a working garage. The owner, a mechanic and car lover for all of his life, moved from South Florida to quieter North Florida and set up shop. He enjoys the relaxed pace of his quiet Lake City location.

Gleaming gas pumps
Gleaming gas pumps at Historic Lake City Auto

This time, I stopped. He took the time to talk and compare the vehicles we have owned. Some we wished we still had, and for others, the memories are enough. He showed me around the shop, the antique tow truck, his antique work truck, and even his antique RV. There seems to be a pattern that us car-crazy types follow. When he showed me his non-antique RV tow vehicle, I had to laugh out loud. It is a 20-something year old little GEO 4X4 Tracker with a Florida “Support cycling” license plate. There is a really good chance that many years ago, he and I participated in some of the same long distance bike rides together. When I was cycling the back roads of Florida, I was always on the look out for a cool old classic antique car with a “For Sale” sign, or tucked away in a barn. Now I know that I was not the only one watching for those during my rides.

Historic Lake City Auto tow truck
Historic Lake City Auto tow truck

Leaving Lake City, Sandy and I visited a little cafe for breakfast, Shirley’s Restaurant on US 90. It is the kind of place that you would expect the locals to hang out, stopping in their classic vehicles for breakfast before going out on a backroads ramble on a beautiful North Florida day.

Shirley's Restaurant Lake City
A tiny amount of the many license plates on display at Shirley’s Restaurant

As we walked inside, my jaw dropped. I fell in love with their ‘metal’ wall paper, a massive collection of antique auto license plates. I have seen this motif many times before, including inside my Dad’s workshop. What made these license plates so special was their vintage. They were from the very early days of metal license plates from around the country, with many from the 1910s and 1920s.

When my parents moved to Florida in 1957, Dad purchased his first Florida license plate. It is hung on his workshop along with other year of license plate that Florida has issued since then. Since the number of plates matches my number of years, there are more than I wish to admit. As the years have gone by, Dad has added most of the early Florida plates as well.

I am always on the lookout for the ‘BIG’ plates that he is missing. These early Florida license plates – from 1918 to 1937 – are noticeably larger than the standard sizes used today, which makes them easy to pick out from the smaller ones in stacks and boxes. They still exist in antique shops and flea markets. In the past year I found a 1923 and a 1925 for his collection.

Dining amid this array of license plates, it was a fitting finale to the unique automotive vibe I discovered while rambling around Lake City.