Auto Biography by Earl Swift


In July 2014 my brother Steve wrote an entry in this blog about Earl Swift’s book Auto Biography. He did a great job of writing about it so I will limit my thoughts. The motivating factor for the author to write the book, finding a ’57 Chevy whose owners were all known, is a great hook. It was only possible because unlike most people who bought cars in the late 1950s, the original owner kept it so long that the second owner was his grandson. It helped that he was meticulous in his care of the car. By the time the thirteenth owner came along, the car was a complete wreck.

That thirteenth owner, Tommy Arney, is central to the book. He illustrates one of Charlotte’s observations about humanity:  we are hopelessly attracted to stories about bad boys. Some of our favorite movies are about murderous people, say, “Bonnie and Clyde” or “The Godfather.” Now Tommy Arney is far from any of those characters, but the number of men who were on the business end of his fist is apparently legendary. And there was the story about the police dog. Though he didn’t go beyond the fifth grade and the men in his mother’s life were violent, he became a successful businessman. He specialized in go-go dance joints, a good business plan for a location within spitting distance of the Norfolk naval station. The stories of his successes and failures in business and the banking world at the time of the recession are gripping.

Earl Swift had written a newspaper story about the car and all its owners in 2004. Years later he subbed for a friend in a journalism class describing how to use library and other resource materials with his story of the car as an example. After class a student told him that his father, Tommy Arney, currently owned the car. Earl had known Arney previously from another newspaper story, and he began to visit Arney at his junkyard, oops, car lot, and became involved with the restoration of the car. Thousands of dollars, countless hours of labor, and the parts of other “donor” Chevys went into the effort to restore the car. The outcome? Well, I suspect it’s not over yet.

Earl Swift, Auto Biography:  A Classic Car, An Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream, HarperCollins 2014, 333 pages.



  • I like the way Mark Phelan in Detroit describes Earl’s book: Every old car has a story, but the ’57 Chevy Bel Air Townsman station wagon at the heart of “Auto Biography: A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead and 57 Years of the American Dream” has been down more twisting roads than most.
    At the book’s heart is an epic character: Tommy Arney. He’s a brawler and jailbird who speaks like the guy who taught sailors to swear, but invokes the words “1970 Chevelle” with the reverence of a priest celebrating mass.
    Proprietor of go-go joints and junkyards, Arney once choked a police dog unconscious in a bar fight and beat the K9 cop with his own German shepherd before being subdued. He wears his scars like Donald Trump’s campaign ribbons, and he’s gearing up for another fight as the book opens.


Recent Posts


Blogs I Like