Bill Chandler’s wanderlust for classic automobiles turns into a creative hobby
By Billy Ingram
Feature Image: Toyota Supra 2019
Left: 1950 Aston Martin DB2
Middle: 1967 Corvette 427
Right: 1952 Jaguar XK 120
In a story as familiar to me as Aunt Goo-Goo’s spaghetti sauce recipe, Bill Chandler is a transplant whose glancing flirtation turned to love for the residents of Greensboro. Having spent most of his career as a neurosurgeon at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he established a second home here to be close to one of his sons, an orthopedic surgeon, and his daughter-in-law, a local pediatrician.
Chandler enjoyed his visits here so much that he’s made the Gate City his permanent retirement home. “You’ve got to realize, people come to North Carolina and they never leave,” Chandler says. “Three of the finest neurosurgeons in Greensboro trained with me up in Ann Arbor. I spent seven years with each one of these folks. So that’s a nice connection, as are my two lovely granddaughters who are now 15 and 12.”
Performing surgery and teaching in a world-class medical school devoured his free time, but now Chandler can passionately pursue photographing classic cars. “I’ve always enjoyed photography,” Chandler tells me. “Even way back when I was young, in training, I had a dark room and all the stuff you used to have to have. Then along came digital photography, which I thought was wonderful.”
Chandler believes older automobiles should be enjoyed to the fullest, not perched up on blocks waiting to be transported from one collector’s event to another. “These cars are made to be driven,” he points out. “In fact, they don’t like being stored. All the rubber gaskets go bad, so the more you drive them, the better they are.”
This gearhead is particularly intrigued by the front end of these older, collectible automobiles and does an extraordinary job of capturing the quirky personality each embodies. “I started taking pictures with the red 1953 MG TD that’s sitting in my garage right now.” That ’53 MG is a head-turner and serves as a great way to meet people. “Invariably, you pull into a Lowe’s parking lot and somebody comes out and says, ‘My dad had one of those,’ or young people will ask, ‘What is that . . . and what’s an MG?’ Curiously, I was walking around one time in a hat with an MG logo on it and some guy came up and said, ‘So, how many MGs do you have?’ Not what kind, but how many.”
At one point, he owned two MGs, including a red 1957 MGA. “That model sort of brought MG into the modern era,” he says. “In the early ’60s, they started making the MGB, which they manufactured for a long time. That was sort of a squared-off design, to me, not as attractive.”
Born in 1945, Chandler remembers being impressed as a youngster with ’50s era car-nnoisseurs piloting those sporty MGs. “I thought, boy, someday I’d like to have one of those,” he says. “They made the TD model from 1950 to ’53. He says that a 1936 model, though, looks a lot like his ’53 model. “In The Crown, Prince Phillip shows up driving an MG TD,” he says. The same year that Chandler’s MG was manufactured, the first Corvette debuted. Around the same time, Detroit offered up the first Thunderbird. “Before that, there were no American-made two-seat sports cars,” Chandler says. “When I was growing up, around 1955, we’d go over and look at the brand-new Corvette, a little two-seat thing, and the original Thunderbird, which was a cute little car.”
Left: 1965 Austin Healy 3000 Mark III
Middle: 1934 Auburn 1250 Boat Tail
Right: 1954 Mercedes Benz 300SL Coupe (Gullwing)
Detroit’s more typical mid-’50s models, like a Buick Roadmaster that Chandler gave the Andy Warhol treatment in his photos, were bloated behemoths, easily seating six adults, equipped with 300 horsepower, overhead-valve V8 engines, aquatic-like fins, protruding headlamps, cinemascopic tempered glass windshields, massive chrome ornamentations and accents, and moderne amenities like electrically adjustable body-contoured seats. Weighing in at almost 2 tons, sailing one of those land yachts to and from your job at the Rand Corporation told the world you had made it.
In contrast, driving a British-made sports car in the ’50s was a somewhat rebellious move. Not quite a James-Dean-smeared-across-a- country-road-in-a-Porsche-550-Spyder level of rebelliousness, but a statement nonetheless. “The ’53 MG has no rollup windows, no heater, so they’re pretty basic little cars,” says Chandler. “And that’s why you can work on just about any part of it. On the ’53 model the hood lifts up from the sides and meets in the middle like an old-time car.”
Love for MGs must be coursing through his veins because the first new vehicle Chandler ever bought, back when he was an intern, was a feisty flame-red 1971 MG Midget two-seater costing around $2,400 back in the day (About $17,000 in today’s dollars). “Through much of my career I wasn’t working on cars, but now I enjoy the mechanics of it. I guess being a surgeon, you like to be hands-on.”
While he was still primarily residing in Michigan, Chandler brought down to Greensboro that ’53 MG which he purchased in 2009 to tool around town in. “I’d drive it to racketball three days a week, usually with my golden retriever in the front seat, and people would take pictures at stoplights.”
He still owns that magnificent machine. “I’ve had it 14 years and it starts up like an old lawnmower,” says Chandler. “Occasionally I have to replace the spark plugs or something leaks a little bit. But, the adage about cars is, you don’t worry that it’s leaking. You only worry when it stops leaking.” (To put pedal to metal on a racetrack, he also owns a 2017 Porsche 718 Boxster S. “It’s lightweight and has a mid-engine design,” he says. “So it’s perfectly balanced for the track. It’s fun, but not really as photogenic as the classic cars.”)
Of course, unforeseen breakdowns will happen, but it’s purely a mechanical thing when it comes to repairing classic autos. “There’s the diagnostic part and then the fun of fixing it,” Chandler says. “A modern BMW or Porsche, you can’t touch those engines. Half of the time you can’t find the engine.”
Neurosurgeon to grease monkey in one easy step? Complex brain surgery and car engine repair are hardly comparable. “There are just many, many more unpredictable unknowns that you’re going to find in surgery,” reports Chandler. “I’ve had a lifetime of enjoyment doing a lot of the most complex neurosurgery, brain surgery tumors, aneurysms, and, because it was a big medical center, we would always see the most complicated cases.”
Left: 1953 MG TD
Middle: 1954 MG TF Jack
Right: Morgan 1934 Super Sport 3 wheeler
By contrast, no matter how complex a car is, it’s just a collection of parts. “Whether the carburetor needs tuning or the head gasket needs changing or anything else, I’ll take care of it myself,” he says. From tuning carburetors to changing head gaskets and replacing water pumps, Chandler has developed the skills to take take apart almost everything.
Some of the older and more expensive models seen here were photographed in the field or at car shows such as Concours d’Elegance in Michigan. If the 1950 Aston Martin DB2 Drophead that Chandler shot looks familiar, it’s a precursor to the James Bond DB5 model seen in Goldfinger, which reappears in six subsequent films, although this author was unable to determine whether retractable headlights transforming into a pair of machine guns came stock on consumer models.
A rare oddity is a 1934, three-wheeled Morgan Super Sport labeled VJ62342 with the then-new “barrel-back” body style, its 1200-cubic-centimeter JAP V twin engine jutting out front; what one former owner referred to as “a special kind of madness” to drive. The 1934 Auburn 1250 Boat Tail salon car was built in Indiana, designed by Gordon Buehrig who was renowned for the luxurious but sporty Cord Model 810, also manufactured in the Hoosier State.
One of the most expensive collector cars on the market right now, and no wonder, is that 6-cylinder Mercedes Benz 300SL Coupé with dual Gullwing doors, an option only offered between 1954 and 1957. Its lightweight, 110-pound-frame couldn’t accommodate normal doors but helped this “dreamcar” hit a top speed of 162 mph.
The Iris Blue, 150-horsepower, twin-carb 1965 Austin-Healey 3000 Mark III convertible came with sumptuous leather upholstery, striking that sweet spot between performance and comfort, and is considered highly collectible. The first sports car to feature a top-hinge hatchback, this was the last of the big Healeys before that lineage was discontinued in 1968. “I created that look through the [Austin-Healey] windshield because there were people standing back there, there’s so much clutter in every photograph,” Chandler explains about the challenges involved in getting the crisp, clean images that are his trademark.
“You have to take a photograph and look at whether the essence of the car is good and there’s not some crazy reflection . . . that also happens.” To declutter and make those photos pop, he captures his shiny metallic subjects in brightest sunlight, replacing the background with solid black. “There are a lot of interesting photographic challenges with blacking out the background, at least the way I do it. It’s not some button you push. I will enlarge the photo millimeter by millimeter, go along the edge of every mirror and everything else and then turn it black. So it’s a process.”
With a base price slightly more than $4,200 in 1967 (around $36,000 in today’s dollars), that gorgeous Marlboro Maroon Corvette Sting Ray, the most refined of the second generation ’Vettes, was a world-class racer with an optional 427CI three-carburetor, 430 horsepower, big-block V8. There’s a reason Corvettes won Car and Driver’s “Best All-Around Car” or “Best Value” award 10 out of 12 times from 1964 through 1975 — and it wasn’t just for the sleek body styling. A Concourse condition Sting Ray like the one pictured will set you back around $140,000 today.
One of the photographer’s favorite images is a full frontal look at a 1952 Jaguar XK120 Fixed Head Coupe. “A friend of mine owns that one,” Chandler says. “It’s funny, you would think a black car with a black background wouldn’t show up but it turns out there’s so much color in that car — there are blues, pinks and all sorts of colors.” That was Jaguar’s first sports car offering since SS 100 production ended when WWII broke out.
“As I met more and more people who collected old cars, once they saw these photos they said, ‘Wow, can you do one of my car?’” As a result, people from around the globe send Bill Chandler their hi-resolution pics for digital super-charging, which he does for free. “A lot of these cars here are owned by friends of mine. I never charged them anything, I just have so much fun doing it. It’s sort of like taking pictures of their kids because they love their cars so much. I always say, whatever you own, it should be fun to drive.” OH