I learned that people really love old Ford Thunderbirds, especially if they’re convertibles and in tip-top shape.

When the sleek, black 1956 T-bird rolled up onto the auction stage, everyone let out a collective sigh.

It was perfect. Shiny, quiet and slick.

The bidding went up, up, up, until it stopped at $37,000 and one happy person walked away with the prize.

The 36th annual New England Auto Auction at Owls Head Transportation Museum was an eye-opener, an education.

Hundreds of car enthusiasts from all over the world gathered on a sunny Saturday recently to peruse the rows of antique and specialty cars and trucks parked on the tarmac. Then they watched them being driven, one-by-one, onto the stage where the auctioneer touted their best features and sold them off.

The event, a big fundraiser for the museum, was both sophisticated and down-home. Museum officials wore shirts and ties, tan pants and navy blue blazers with gold buttons. An older man in a straw hat and striped jacket escorted each vehicle onto the stage, opening its door to allow bidders and spectators a glimpse of the interior.

Like a male version of television hostess Vanna White, he silently highlighted the virtues of each car, never breaking a sweat during the auction, which lasted all day.

Bidders under a large tent carried folders and took notes. Some took bids by cellphone.

Spectators, relegated to side tents, watched intently. They were mostly men, but a good number of women and girls floated in and out of the tents, some outfitted in colorful summer dresses and wearing sunglasses and straw hats. Fathers and sons on a guy’s day out chatted about the cars and took occasional treks to the food cart for a hotdog and cold drink.

The bidding was serious stuff, but there were light moments. Some old cars stalled or refused to start and had to be pushed up the stage ramp, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Airplanes were taking off and landing in the nearby airfield. Visitors checked out the transportation museum. It was a real summer event that only a Maine venue could offer.

Seeing those old Fords and Buicks from the 1950s took me back to a time my friend Patty and I piled into the back seat of her mother’s Buick and Patty’s teenaged sister, Mary, was at the wheel. She drove slowly out of their Skowhegan driveway but by the time we reached U.S. Route 2, she was flying, the speedometer of the straight-eight engine shooting up to 80 mph, then 90.

Wide-eyed, we watched as the trees whizzed by, Mary promising to kill us if we told.

Back in the ’60s, my brothers worked on cars in our dooryard, hauling engines out with chains suspended from a tree branch overhead. That vision comes back to me whenever I step into an old garage where car parts are lying about, covered in grease.

When we were kids, we’d drive around the field in those old cars, round and round, dust flying, until sometimes, we’d tip them onto their sides. Our parents never knew.

Some of the cars from long ago sold for pretty money at the auction (would that we knew 50 years ago that they’d be so valuable now).

A gorgeous black 1912 Ford Model T roadster with brass fixtures sold for $36,000; a 1968 Ford Mustang convertible went for $13,000; and a 1960 Jaguar XK150, $104,000 — the highest price paid at the auction, which featured some 180 cars, trucks and motorcycles.

There were some bargains: a 1975 Cadillac Coupe DeVille fetched $1,000; a 1973 Mercedes Benz 280SEL, $2,300; a 1961 Chevrolet Apache pickup, $3,100; and a 1954 Chevrolet sedan, $2,800.

A few dozen cars and trucks were passed over, which means bidders did not reach the reserve amount set by the consignors.

My husband’s white 1974 Cadillac Eldorado convertible sold for $7,500, but bidders did not meet the reserve for his 1931 Model A Ford roadster, which is just as well because I like that car.

Aside from the auction, the Owls Head facility is beautifully laid out, with exhibits for patrons of all ages. There are airplanes, motorcycles, cars, trucks — and some very unusual vehicles and equipment on display.

The museum administrative staff is friendly and knowledgeable and will tell you anything you want to know.

Maine is lucky to call it home.

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 25 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]

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