Neil Martin, owner of Goldenrod Garage in Freeport, lives life to the fullest. A racer driver, car collector, and teller of tall tales, he has transformed a former chicken farm into a playground for gearheads.
When Neil Martin fires up his 1978 Camaro stockcar, the sound is deafening. It starts as a low rumble, a masculine growl that fills the garage. When he revs the engine, I imagine the sound waves bouncing off the concrete floor, jagged and brightly colored as they jump into the exhaust-scented air. I can’t hear Martin as he shouts from the cockpit of his racecar, but I can see his face, and he’s grinning like a child on his birthday.
Martin has been buying and selling vintage cars for almost 60 years. He purchased his first used car at age 14. In his cluttered office on the sprawling land that houses his business, Goldenrod Garage, Martin keeps a copy of this first bill of sale. He hands me the framed piece of paper within minutes of our meeting, and I read aloud: “Twenty- five dollars paid in full for a 1947 Pontiac station wagon, June 11, 1957.” He laughs out loud before boasting, “I bought that car in June and sold it in September for 65 dollars. I almost tripled my money in three months. It steered me down a path from which there was no going back.”
Martin lends himself so easily to a story that it’s almost hard to believe what he’s saying is true. He is a character, in every sense of the word. He’s a showman with a colorful past and a fascinating life. He wears mismatched Converse All Star sneakers and sports a big, bushy beard. He lives (and works) on a property with hundreds of cars and races at Oxford Plains Speedway (and other Maine racetracks) in his spare time. He has appeared in commercials and on television, and as a young man he spent several years in Boston running a singles bar. Were it not for his sense of humor, I might be intimidated by this living legend, this modern-day Paul Bunyan.
But just when my imagination starts to get the better of me, he puts a tiny crack in the façade: “I like to tell people I named my garage ‘Goldenrod’ for the flowers and the bucolic pastoral image. But truth is,” he says, leaning in as though he’s about to confide some great secret, “the name came from this liquor I used to take shots of at a nightclub. The drink was called Galliano. Do you know it?” I don’t, but later, I look it up. It’s a sweet amber-hued liquor that comes in a tall, thin bottle—a golden rod.
Here’s the thing about Martin: he’s a real person. He tells fantastic stories yet leans continually toward the truth, even if the truth isn’t what you may have expected. He’s also a lot of fun. His love for cars is infectious and, by his account, intrinsic. “There’s always a question among sociologists about the impact of nature and nurture on a kid,” he says when asked about his childhood in northern Maine. “From my earliest conscious thought, I was fascinated by mechanical things that moved. My father had no interest in cars at all—none. They were a necessary evil for my family, a way to get from point A to point B.” He doesn’t know where his mechanical tendencies came from; all he knows is that they couldn’t be ignored. Even when he worked in corporate America—“I did sales at Exxon—three-piece suit, company car, expense account kind of gig,” he explains—he still “fooled around” with cars constantly. Racing has always been a particular passion of his, and from April to September he can be found on the tracks of Oxford Plains Speedway and other tracks around the state, racing one of his vintage racecars and driving “as fast as I dare to go.”
Even if you’re not interested in cars, there’s something electrifying about speaking with a true fanatic. Obsession is not necessarily contagious, but the energy that kind of single-minded love generates is impossible to ignore, particularly when the evidence physically surrounds you, like it does at Goldenrod Garage. There are three barns filled with cars (including a reinforced second floor, which is also lined with cars), cars sitting in overgrown fields, cars parked along the side of the garage, and cars in the driveway. There is a big Esso sign hanging over the entrance to one garage, and a recreation of the Bangor gas station where Martin worked as a teenager. He has rooms filled with car parts, piles of hubcaps, stacks and stacks of wheels. He estimates that he owns approximately 300 cars, but the number is constantly changing.
Part of the reason Martin has been able to amass such a collection is his Freeport location. He has the space to store each and every car he purchases, as well as the other pieces of vintage flotsam and jetsam he picks up along the way (special edition Coca-Cola bottles, transistor radios, chipped and faded road signs). “In 1978, I bought the barn, the house, the chicken house, and 12 acres of land for $39,000,” he explains. He has converted the former chicken farm into a storage facility for vintage automobiles and other items, much of which is for sale. Each year, he sells between 100 and 150 cars, which are shipped to locations around the world. “Only about 25 percent of my business happens in Maine,” he says. “The rest of them go to places like New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, or the Czech Republic.”
While Martin has put the barns to good use, much of his 12-acre estate remains undeveloped. “I have a horrible aversion to all these farms in Maine being turned into fields for McMansions,” he says. “I gotta keep my field the way it is—for old time’s sake.”
This instinct to preserve the past is present in every corner of Goldenrod Garage. “Cars that were produced after the late 70s hold no appeal for me,” says Martin. Instead, he seeks out cars that evoke memories, pieces of metal that transport him through time and space. “I love the cars that I originally drove when they were used cars, cars that I drove before they became old and collectable.”
Looking at Martin in his mismatched sneakers and race-ready fire suit, I’m reminded of Peter Pan. Of course, Martin did grow up—the former oil executive is now 72 years old, and despite the hobbyist nature of his profession, he has enjoyed a very successful career buying and selling cars. “I don’t restore cars,” he clarifies. “My joy comes from finding the cars, not from working on them. I don’t have the skill or the interest to work on engines. I want to go for a ride—I don’t want to polish a fender.”
On a crisp day in late September, Martin takes me on a tour of his land. As we linger in his garage, he absentmindedly strokes the elegant edge of a 1950 Dodge Wayfarer convertible. Suddenly, he stops in the middle of a sentence and asks me, “Do you want to hear my jukebox?”
The answer is yes. Martin takes me over to the jukebox and gives me a lesson in how to use his vintage machine. Like his favorite cars, his preferred music comes from an earlier era. I recognize songs by Elvis and the Beach Boys, but Martin puts on one of his favorite jams: “In the Still of the Night,” by the Five Satins. In front of a fake storefront, an indoor replica of the gas station where Martin worked in high school, “back when we had a four-digit phone number,” Martin begins twisting his hips. He holds out his hands, and we do the twist. We dance and laugh, music bouncing off concrete and sneakers squeaking on the floor. After a few minutes of goofing off, I turn to Martin and ask him, “Do you always have this much fun here?”
“It sure beats working,” he says with a grin. When I point out that this is supposedly his job, he laughs. “It’s a struggle. Thirty-eight years into it, I thought this would be easier than it is,” he says. While his words are serious, he manages to inject humor into even this discussion, speaking frankly and without a hint of remorse or self-pity. “You pay a price for doing the thing you love. Sometimes, the thing you love isn’t matched by pecuniary rewards. My life is a trade-off. Is it worth the fun? Yes. Do I have a secret Swiss bank account? Not even close.”
Martin makes his money selling cars (and, occasionally, real estate). Every car on his property, with the exception of his racecar, is for sale. “Buying cars is a hell of a lot more fun than selling them,” he points out. But he claims to feel no regrets as he watches a car leave the lot. “It just opens up room for me to buy another car,” he says. Automobiles roll in and out of Martin’s life with so little sentimentality partially because Martin isn’t truly interested in collecting. He loves the thrill of the chase. He enjoys digging up old cars, locating beautiful junkers, and rescuing them from obscurity. Cars aren’t status symbols for him, nor are they purely functional vehicles of transportation. (In fact, many of the cars on his land aren’t currently “road ready.” “The buyer has to do some work,” he says.) Martin loves cars because he loves the experiences they facilitate. He loves going fast. He loves remembering his youth. He loves the freedom and the rush. For Martin, cars are conduits for, as he puts it, “pure, sweet joy.”
But Martin does recognize that cars hold a significant emotional charge for many people, and that everyone has a different relationship to their vehicle. His may be centered around speed, but for other drivers, it’s all about the car’s look, how it handles, or how luxurious it feels. “Every one of these cars was bought by someone. They bought it new. They were so excited. There is so much emotion that goes with buying a car,” he says, looking around the garage at all his finds, all his relics and his treasures. “You take it home, and you are so excited! And the next time it changes hands? The next time some kid gets their new car? They’ll experience those emotions, too. Where does that go? I like to think it stays with the car. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. These cars have souls, all of them.