A Rambler's Life

How a 1964 classic car drove Austin's comedy scene to the 21st century

J.R. Brow and his old friend Howard Kremer hadn’t seen each other in years, but as they sped up Interstate 35 toward Round Rock, they laughed and reminisced about Elizabeth.

They were elated: They were going to see her for the first time in almost a decade.

Elizabeth was a 1964 AMC Rambler they both had owned at different times. Kremer bought the car from Brow, who had bought it from another friend. As Brow drove his silver 2012 Ford Escape on an April afternoon, he remembered the sinking feeling he had when he sold Elizabeth to Kremer for $750 back in 1996.

“I kept wanting to buy the car back because I really loved her, and that was the plan,” Brow said. Then one day while driving his new car down Fifth Street, he spotted a familiar cloud of smoke. Brow saw Elizabeth zipping through the streets when the exhaust fumes dissipated and realized she was going to be OK.

“I see Howard (in the Rambler), and I pulled up next to him and yelled, ‘You can keep it.’ ”

By that point, Elizabeth, a two-door with an aqua color like the bottom of a swimming pool, had become a fixture in Austin’s budding comedy community, passed down from one comedian to another, and Brow and Kremer were no exceptions. The car became a legend — a piece of old Austin lore from the capital city’s dozy days that inspired Richard Linklater’s cult classic “Slacker” — and getting behind the wheel was almost a rite of passage for young couch-surfing comedians honing their craft in a fledgling comedy scene.

“Of the 15 comics that were maybe doing the road and stuff, probably five of them owned the Rambler,” Kremer said.

That tradition came to a sudden stop when Elizabeth disappeared, seemingly stolen by a shady wrecker from the curb in front of an East Austin comic’s home.

Now, nearly nine years later, the car had re-emerged.

Austin police had found her and had her hauled to a tow lot in Round Rock. As Brow and Kremer pulled up to the lot, their minds raced with anticipation. Elizabeth was coming back to Austin’s comedy community.

“We were giddy,” Brow said.

Johnny Hardwick, the voice of Dale Gribble on 'King of the Hill,' bought the Rambler for $400 from a Guatemalan waitress with whom he was enchanted.

Johnny Hardwick

Johnny Hardwick is best known as the voice actor who plays Dale Gribble, Hank Hill’s conspiracy theorist neighbor in the long-lived animated show and love letter to all things Texas “King of the Hill,” but in 1992, he was paying $175 a month to rent a beat-up home on Rainey Street.

Hardwick was doing stand-up regularly when he became enchanted with a Guatemalan waitress named Kytte. She worked at the Sixth Street stand-up comedy club the Velveeta Room, one of two regular spots for local comedians to get on stage at a time when Austin’s comedy scene had about a dozen serious, full-time comics.

But Kytte also drew Hardwick’s eye because of the car she drove.

“It was one of the reasons I was attracted to her at the time,” Hardwick said. “I thought, ‘This girl must be cool if she is driving that car.’ ”

The car’s name was Elizabeth — the story of her name and how she came into Kytte’s hands is a mystery — and when Kytte decided to sell her, Hardwick paid about $400 and snatched her up.

The 1964 AMC Rambler was sort of a nod to the Chevy Nova and its “unit body design,” which kept the car lighter than most, giving it an unexpected pep that Ramblers hadn’t seen in previous models.

“It ran like a top back then,” Hardwick said. “I remember when I first got it, that engine purred.”

The Rambler’s hardtop had a long, sleek roof with very thin support that made it almost look like a convertible. The wide windows made it easy to hang an arm outside or, in Hardwick’s case, fire off bottle rockets out in the Hill Country on summer nights.

“I took her out to Enchanted Rock a few times for some ritual fungi research and that sort of thing,” he said.

But Hardwick’s star as a comic climbed, and his time in Austin waned. He moved to Los Angeles and, without knowing he’d started a tradition, passed Elizabeth on to a fellow comedian.

J.R. Brow had a knack for maintaining Elizabeth and still enjoys repairing old vehicles. He restored this 1974 Honda CB360 motorcycle.

J.R. Brow

Through memories hazy from long nights downtown sated by cheap beer, it is hard for even those who helmed the Rambler during that time to know exactly what happened next. For years, she had a porous back-and-forth between the city’s comics as they decided who was up to the challenge of keeping the car moving.

“This car is so mysterious,” Brow said when interviewed recently in his Central Austin home, several months after his journey to Round Rock to reunite with Elizabeth. “Everyone has their own different story. You know how many people drove that car blotto drunk?”

As for Brow, his Elizabeth story has less to do with drunken driving and more with bulls.

Of the half-dozen or so comics who owned Elizabeth for a time, Brow had a love for turning wrenches that probably made him the best-equipped to handle the maintenance of the aging car. He installed an eight-track player, but even that was a little janky.

“You’d play the Mamas and the Papas, but one speaker was out, so you’d only hear the Mamas and not the Papas,” he said.

When Brow got a hold of Elizabeth, her drive shaft was an issue, and finding replacement parts was hard in the mid-1990s, when the internet was still in its infancy and do-it-yourself aficionados couldn’t even ask Jeeves how to fix it.

But Brow located a lot out near Lockhart that turned out to be a large repository for AMC parts. When he arrived late one afternoon, he asked the man working the gate where he could find a drive shaft. The man pointed toward a 40-foot stack of parts, telling Brow in a thick drawl that “yep,” they had the part — but he'd better beat the cows in.

Brow did not understand what the man meant until after he found the drive shaft. Looking up from the junk pile, he spotted a large black bull. Turning his head around, he realized bulls were all over the place.

“Turned out that’s how they let you know the yard is closing,” he said. “And I got this red rag in my back pocket, and I’m thinking that’s what they’re after.”

Leaving the lot was Brow’s own personal Pamplona as he sprinted for the gate holding a brand new drive shaft in the air like a javelin.

The 1990s MTV sitcom 'Austin Stories' featured Howard Kremer and the Rambler. Austinites loved Elizabeth, but the show wasn't as popular.

Howard Kremer

Around the time Kremer got the Rambler, he could consider himself one of the more successful comics in Austin. He had a steady gig doing comedy defensive driving.

But Kremer was about to have a brush with greatness. MTV was dipping its toes into television comedy with productions such as the iconic sketch show “The State” and a humorous talk show hosted by a pre-“The Daily Show” Jon Stewart.

And Austin had just had a light shone on it with two Linklater films, “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused.” It was about that time that executives at MTV decided they needed to find some aimless funny types in Austin for a new show.

Kremer fit the bill. And so did Elizabeth.

Kremer and fellow Austin comedians Brad “Chip” Pope and Laura House developed a pitch for MTV that eventually turned into the sitcom “Austin Stories.” Elizabeth became a co-star by chance after Brow drove Kremer to the set one day. When staffers spotted the car, they knew they had to have her in the show.

The car came to be sort of her own character. In one episode, Kremer’s character schemed to get money to get the car from an impound lot. In another, the car acted as his makeshift domicile.

Kremer recalled getting shouted out on the highways with people enthusiastically complimenting the Rambler. Austinites loved Elizabeth. The show, not so much.

“Anyone who wasn’t a slacker was sort of ashamed that the show was trying to portray Austin as a place where there were slackers,” Kremer said. “I have been coming here on and off for 20 years and lived here for eight years. There are slackers here. I don’t know if they wanted us to do a story about grad students and lawyers.”

The show lasted only one year. Despite network assurances and critical acclaim, lackluster ratings and a change in management led to its cancellation.

But Kremer had had his taste of television. Just like Hardwick, Kremer packed up for L.A. and passed Elizabeth along.

Elizabeth's acting career expanded with a role in a pulpy monster flick produced by Scott Calonico, who worked hard to keep her running. 

Elizabeth's acting career expanded with a role in a pulpy monster flick produced by Scott Calonico, who worked hard to keep her running. 

Scott Calonico

It was a time of transition for Scott Calonico, a stand-up comic and former film student, when Kremer gave him the Rambler around the turn of the century.

He had been doing stand-up for years, but his interest in film had reignited over the possibilities blooming on the new digital frontier. He began producing documentary films, including one entered in the Sundance Film Festival.

Elizabeth had a small role in Calonico’s resurgence into film as part of a personal project that Calonico had finally gotten around to doing: “A dumb little Super 8 film that just dragged for two years,” he said. It was a homage to old black-and-white Japanese monster movies called “The Creepees vs. Robot Monster Two,” and it featured a Japanese rock band battling a robot monster constructed of HVAC ducts for arms and a beer keg for a head.

There, in grainy black and white, was Elizabeth, a dated hunk of a car that made her the perfect prop for Calonico’s mock 1960s pulpy monster flick.

Calonico worked to keep Elizabeth running, even rebuilding the carburetor. But the car, by then more than 3 decades old, was becoming a growing burden — a revered but increasingly problematic relic that Calonico felt responsible for.

“It was fun at first, but as it started deteriorating, it became this albatross,” he said. “I couldn’t let it go. I had this obligation. I had to take care of Elizabeth.”

Eventually, Calonico chose moving forward over looking backward. He moved to England to continue his film education. Elizabeth stayed behind.

While Elizabeth was staying with Matt Bearden, a wrecker hauled her away, and she disappeared for years.

Matt Bearden

In a deal brokered by Kremer, Elizabeth found a new home in East Austin at the house of fellow comic and “Austin Stories” cast member Matt Bearden. By this time, the Rambler was no longer running. She languished in his driveway, then at the curb of his house.

“I wasn’t out every morning waxing her,” Bearden said. “It was just a chunk of metal at that point.”

Kremer said it would be a week. But that turned into months.

Then one day in July 2007, an orange sticker that marked her as being in violation of city ordinances showed up on one of the Rambler’s windows. The car’s stickers were eight years out of date, and she couldn’t be parked on the street.

Two hours later, a wrecker was there — a guy named Dennis, according to a police report — and he told Bearden that he was required by law to tow Elizabeth away.

Frantically, Bearden called Kremer and tried to stall the wrecker. But Bearden had erred: He had admitted the car wasn’t his. Since he wasn’t the owner, he couldn’t keep the wrecker from taking the car. Armed with that information, Dennis hauled Elizabeth away.

“I feel a little like I’m the one that dropped the ball,” Bearden said. “Somehow it made sense to me that afternoon, but in retrospect, why the (expletive) did I give away that car?”

Kremer had remained the car’s owner on paper since “Austin Stories” and had maintained a desire to drive her again. After Elizabeth was towed, he called the police and reported the car stolen, but the weeks rolled on with no new leads. He traveled to Austin and searched for her at area impound lots for days, to no avail.

Life went on after the Rambler disappeared. Bearden became a morning radio show co-host and a regular at Cap City Comedy Club.

Life after Elizabeth

Elizabeth was gone, but the Austin comedy scene continued to grow.

“Now it’s so big, you can be a stranger in your own scene,” Bearden said.

In the 1990s, the number of serious comics was about a dozen or so; now it’s closer to 100. More rooms are available in Austin for comedians to play. And the city now hosts the Moontower Comedy Festival and the Out of Bounds Comedy Festival, which held a reunion for the cast of “Austin Stories” this year.

In what was once a relatively small contest, the number of contenders who vie to be named Funniest Person in Austin is now north of 200 each year. It’s a distinction that many of those who were once behind Elizabeth’s wheel have earned at different times through the years.

For those comics, the gigs got bigger. Brow has been a road comic for 26 years and still lives in Austin, though he’s noted for traveling usually 40 weeks a year. Calonico lives in Scotland and focuses on creating short documentaries. Bearden is a co-host of 93.7 KLBJ-FM’s morning radio show and has a regular Tuesday night show at Cap City Comedy Club called “PUNCH!” Kremer lives in Los Angeles and writes for the George Lopez show “Lopez,” along with Pope, his “Austin Stories” co-star.

The car became an afterthought for them, but those years in Austin in the 1990s have remained a happy memory and a constant source of inspiration. Hardwick, who earned an Emmy as a writer and producer for his work on “King of the Hill” and recently moved back to Austin, would sprinkle little bits of his past into the show, including Hank Hill’s address, 84 Rainey St., where Hardwick lived when he had Elizabeth.

Austin’s comics had presumed the car was lost to the ages, snatched up by a less than legal tow operation. It would take nine years for them to hear from her again.

The Rambler was in poor condition when Kremer and Brow found her in a Round Rock tow lot.

The Rambler returns

On March 10, Kremer got an email from a Round Rock woman. It began: “I’m not sure if you’re the right guy or not. I bought a 1964 Rambler American from a guy here in Austin. He doesn’t have the title, so I’m on the hunt for the owner.”

Kremer remembered thinking, “Oh, my God.”

Instead of contacting the woman, Kremer called Austin police. Within days, the police had reached out to the woman. According to the police report, the woman had agreed to purchase the car from a family friend contingent upon the acquisition of the title. She wanted nothing more to do with Elizabeth after learning that the car had been reported stolen.

A Round Rock towing company took possession of the Rambler. And Kremer, who by coincidence had been scheduled to come to Austin to perform, contacted Brow, who at one time had proved adept at keeping Elizabeth in working order. Kremer’s idea was to hand the title over to Brow in exchange for a promise to bring her back to Austin’s comedy scene.

Brow was on board.

“It had to stay in the comedy community,” he said. “That was the deal.”

So on an April day, the two comics pulled up to the stucco office of Round Rock Towing and Transport on Rocking J Road.

And there she was. Elizabeth. Her teal was unmistakable from 100 yards out, tucked away in the back corner of the small, fenced-off lot. For a moment, they were right back in the day when each had first bought the car.

But as they neared, reality started to set in.

They could see that the tires were shredded before the padlocked gate to the lot was unlocked. On closer examination, the interior looked as if someone had taken a machete to it.

And the rust. Elizabeth looked as if she had been sitting in 2 feet of water for years.

The optimism both comics had zooming up I-35 had been dashed. Elizabeth was done, too much for either to handle. She wouldn’t have a chance at a second life as a misfit in this tech-era Austin, weaving leisure miles in today’s downtown traffic jams.

They rode back to Austin in near silence. Days later, Kremer was back in L.A., relaying the sad news on his pop culture comedy podcast “Who Charted.” Brow was back on the road.

“It’s sad, but you move on,” Brow said. “It’s a good memory. I sure had some good rides in that car.”

Gordon Schuller bought the car and towed her home to Arizona. He will probably use her for parts to restore another Rambler.

The postscript

Before leaving Austin’s comedy scene for good, Elizabeth took one final parting shot in the form of a $473 bill. Kremer had to pay the tow lot owners just for them to accept the car’s title and get rid of her.

Weeks later, an Arizona man named Gordon Schuller purchased her, sight unseen, after finding her for sale on Craigslist. Like Kremer and Brow, he was caught off guard by the car’s condition.

Schuller is retired and has made restoring AMCs his passion. However, he considered Elizabeth too far gone. Schuller won’t be taking her out for a cruise in the Arizona sun; she will probably be used for parts to help him restore another Rambler he has in his barn.

For Kremer, that’s a fitting ending.

“Some girls only date comedians,” he said. “I guess that’s how Elizabeth was.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of the Moontower Comedy Festival.