Friday, October 3, 2008
In the late 50’s and early 60’s cars were something to take for granted. The prosperity that was abundant after World War II manifest itself in gloriously ostentatious displays of societal wealth and material comforts for the new middle class. There was a proliferation of young men home from the war that demanded new housing in growing suburbs. There were automobiles with longer and longer tail fins driving down every street. While Henry Ford had done a lot to create affordable cars in the decades preceding the war, GM did him one better. Through the application of our new found production prowess and a fresh supply of youthful labor home from the war, GM became the largest car producer in the world in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Cars not only seemed to be a symbol of wealth, but also of a general ebullience in our outlook on the future. Everybody seemed to be in on this new world affluence. Our family had two. We had a sedan for the family and a pickup truck that my dad used to drive himself to work. I never thought much about them except that everybody appeared to have one or more. There were commercials on TV for them all the time. We sang about them: “See the USA, in a Chevrolet” went the catchy commercial ditty. Cars were parked at every curb. They were a part of who we were.
Some of my friends had older brothers or sisters who had their own cars. They used them for transportation, to look cool, and to get themselves into trouble mostly. Little Johnny was modestly famous because his older brother crashed the family car across town from the library where he had told his parents he was going. Burleigh Smith, our local newsman, was there for the event. He broadcast the story on the six o’clock news, complete with black and white film of the wrecked car and the two boys involved. Burleigh’s rich baritone voiceover was dark and ominous as was demanded of any legitimate broadcast journalist of the day. Johnny’s parents were not happy about this. Johnny was famous because his older brother was on TV and that was pretty cool.
I had a toy car that was modeled on a 1955 Porsche that I put batteries in, flipped the on/off switch (cleverly disguised as the air vent on the back) and watched it bump into the legs of the kitchen table, bounce back, turn slightly and try again. However much fun this would appear to be it did not serve as endless hours of enjoyment to me. One set of batteries and it was retired into the toy box. It was still nice to have and it was comforting in some small degree to know it was there. I, however, did not live my youth dreaming of driving around in a Porsche, and I have successfully suppressed any desire to do so as an adult.
I also had a small collection of “match box” cars, small die cast models of cars that were painted smartly and had wheels that allowed them to roll. These were fun to push across the kitchen floor, but only good for rainy days, or when my friends came over and we were tired of looking for other trouble to get into. My favorite was a yellow tractor with an operable scoop bucket in front, but even that had serious limitations in the fun department. There were only so many dust bunnies or debris on the kitchen floor that was actually interesting enough to scoop up. Frankly, after a while, I think everyone gets tired of spitting on themselves or getting dizzy trying to make the requisite tractor noises.
I graduated to building plastic car models when plastic airplane models stopped providing a challenge. Airplanes just didn’t have enough parts to make model building fun. Model cars had the added incentive of more parts and the possibility of real paint instead of the World War II decals that came with the planes. So, for a year or so I tried my hand at building model cars until I realized that none of these model sets seemed to have parts that were very well made. They just didn’t fit quite right regardless of my ability to shave them down, build them up, or tweak them however they needed to be tweaked. It is a sad note that real car building really hasn’t come very far in solving this problem. Given real car builder’s notorious quality problems these days, I would bet most of their design engineers began their careers by building these very same plastic model kits. Their experience has served them well.
My older sister, like most California sixteen year olds in the sixties, was duly trained and practiced in the finer arts of driving. Sometime after she was granted a license, our dad brought home a 1956 Chevy. It was a Bel Air; a green and white two tone with three on the tree and a straight six. The interior was big enough to play croquet in. It was ten years old when we got it and the paint had a dull oxidized finished that a little rubbing compound and a lot of elbow grease was finally able to dispel. It sat at the curb, gleaming in the sun, and waited like a trusty steed – 3400 pounds of steel with 140 horses under the hood.
It wasn’t like Randy’s car. Randy was another older brother type who lived just down the block. He was a few years older and he had a little Corvair. It was about the same age as the Chevy, but much smaller and lighter. Randy was quite the mechanic and he tinkered with his car all the time. Rather than fuss with it out on the street, he would drive it up on his lawn under his shady mulberry tree and, with the help of his younger brother, turn it over on its side so he could work on the undercarriage standing up. In addition to this being a little unorthodox, it was also unwise and perhaps not the best for the car, but it suited Randy just fine. He actually survived to adulthood without a Corvair logo or door handle imprinted on his chest. Clearly, our Chevy just wasn’t a candidate for these kinds of mechanic's tricks. It also was not a convertible.
Janine lived next door to Randy and was about the same age. She was pretty good looking for a neighbor. Her dad was a sign painter and they owned the block’s only convertible. I don’t know what kind of car it was. I don’t remember anything about it except that one day Janine came flying down the street with her hair blowing wild and free. The tunes on the radio died away as she parked in front of her house. She got out of the car and stepped into my dreams – a nice twist on the lyric to “You’re Sixteen.” The back of her dress was tucked neatly into her panty hose. That scene was indelibly etched in my mind and set up rather unreasonable expectations for convertibles in general. For a long time, I thought convertibles were pretty special.
My sister endured her inaugural test drive in the Bel Air with Dad as copilot. She was pronounced safe enough to be entrusted with the daily transport of herself and, reluctantly, me to high school. At first, it was just us two, then, as our parents gained confidence, we were allowed to pick up various friends along the way to school. Thus began the carefree and short lived days of cruisin’ around in the “bomb.”
The Bel Air had one drawback that we discovered only in the winter months. There was some sort of coolant leak in the defroster system. When the defroster was engaged the windshield immediately fogged up and no amount of fan would clean the windshield’s interior. The car became quite impossible to drive without my sister sticking her head out the window. This was not only inconvenient, but something our mother really frowned on. There were several loud discussions regarding possible courses of action, but there really was only one alternative. At Mother’s prompting, my dad sold our Bel Air. The days of “cool” were over.
It has been my regret that our ’56 Bel Air didn’t last long enough for me to get to drive it; to cruise the strip in it; to flirt with the girls in it; to drive it to the bowling alley. I could have been cool. “I coulda been a contender.”
No, a couple of years later, I ended up with a sky blue ’61 Comet, with three on the tree, and as many horses as it’s little six cylinder could push out – which wasn't very many. It wasn’t quite the babe magnet that I envisioned the Bel Air to be. And, it wasn’t a convertible.
© 2008 Mark Indermill - All Rights Reserved