$ign my ride

They’re young, on vacation and broke. After three weeks in the area, they’re ready to get back on the road. But the Buick isn’t, so they’re asking people to sign their ride.

Published September 13, 2006

CLEARWATER — They’re low on cash, but not on spirit.

Darlene Brown and her fiance, Tim Reel, came to Clearwater Beach from Maine about three weeks ago.

They quickly ran out of money. They sleep in their ’85 Buick Skylark.

One day, Brown, 20, wrote a message on the vehicle’s bumper: “I’m not spoiled — I’m just well taken care of.”

And that launched their first business.

Sign the car, the couple ask strangers, and if you wish, toss a couple of bucks into a plastic tub full of Sharpie markers.

In two weeks, they’ve made just $150 but gathered more than 1,000 signatures. The dirty white surface of the Skylark is now nearly invisible under messages from people ranging from Army vets and police officers to waitresses, doctors and even a fashion model, said Reel, 29.

The couple haven’t left the Tampa Bay area since beginning the project. Still, there are signatures in Arabic and Russian. There’s a message by someone from Budapest, Hungary, and another from Yorkshire, England.

“A guy in a Rolls Royce pulled over and signed it the other day,” Reel said. “Now that was fantastic.”

Brown and Reel made their way to Clearwater from Brown’s hometown of Houlton, Maine. Reel calls the place a “one-stop town for truckers.”

They’ve been sleeping in a beach parking lot, but both said they want to get on the road again for a destination unknown as soon as they have enough money to get the Skylark, which Reel purchased for $600, in full driving order.

“More than money right now, I need car parts,” he said. “If people want to sign my car and donate car parts instead of cash, I’d be even happier.”

There are only two rules for signing the car: “No cussing, and you’ve got to put where you’re from,” he said.

Some local business owners, such as Robin Loesberg, of the Junction, a coffee lounge and nightclub near downtown Clearwater, have left their business phone numbers on the car as impromptu advertisements.

“They’re really nice people,” Loesberg said.

While eating chips on the porch of the Junction and scratching the mosquito bites covering her feet, Brown’s face lit up as she talked about all the people she has met during her car project. She gets her biggest kick when police officers sign the car.

“That makes it legit,” she said.

Reel hopes to make a living as an auto mechanic someday, and Brown plans to go to college. But all the attention their Skylark has brought has given them grander plans.

“Someone told us we should call the Guinness Book of World Records,” Brown said, pointing out that the only area of the car that remains unsigned is the inside of the trunk.

Or at least they should get a patent so no one takes the idea, Reel said.

“I bet our car is worth more money now than when I bought it just from all the people who signed it,” he said.

But until that patent goes through or some grand donation comes their way, Reel and Brown will probably remain in Clearwater, waiting with their Skylark for the next curious pedestrian.