Cars were my passion as a little girl. The world outside the window of my parent’s car in the late fifties and early sixties was filled with colorful, moving three-dimensional sculptures that featured the best designs that American engineers had to offer. It was a time before seatbelts and car seats — being so small I was able to stand on the back seat and lean on the rear dash watching all of the great works of American Art roll past me on the road.
Some kids in my era collected coins or stamps and knew all the various types of horses and dogs, but I collected cars — at least in my mind. My sisters were content to pass the time during a road trip petting and mumbling to their Patty Play Pal or other such doll of the era, but I left mine laying in the car seat and watched those beautiful, stylized creatures in action, rumbling by and growling and honking at one another on the striped pavement.
I memorized their names. I knew all of the makes and models like a botanist would know all the trees and their classifications: Buick, Chevrolet, Ford, Cadillac, etc. There were many classes and subclasses, with a huge variety of plain or two-toned colors with large panoramic windows, white-walled tires and big shiny bumpers. Each sported its own individual face, but you could discern which family of cars it belonged to by the way its chrome lines followed its shape along the side or the way its front grill formed either a smile or a snarl depending on your own imagination; like us, they were born and styled after their former models, but tweaked a little for the new generation. I puffed up a little when I discovered a species born in the same year as I — even sharing part of its name, 1955 Ford Fairlane Crown Victoria.
My grandmother owned a 1959 copper-colored Chevy Impala with wings that spread across the entire width of the trunk, the chrome edges of which hung like eyebrows over the large red cat eyes above the rear bumper, creating an expression that would ward off any potential tailgater. She placed a little dachshund knick-knack in the rear window and its head bobbed up and down when the car hit a bump in the road.
Riding into town in Grandma’s car was, by today’s standards, akin to getting your turn on the ipad for 20 minutes or spending the afternoon at the water splash park. We were not restrained by seatbelts and stood in the back seat, moved about, pointed and waved at other passengers on other joyrides and took turns sitting in the special spot between the adults in the front seat.
Of course in those days cars were also dangerous, gargantuan, metal monsters that ruled the road, like the dinosaurs of old. The smooth, scenic, pleasure trip on the highway could easily be interrupted by an unfortunate accident and even become fatal if you were thrown into its fancy, decorative, metal gewgaws on the dashboard, or hurled out the panoramic windshield and into the steel jaws of its front grill. Imagine the menacing chrome teeth of a black Buick bearing down upon you as you step into a crosswalk.
Airbags had not been invented yet, so that many a teenage thrill seeker became victim to its allure of romance and freedom on the road. 60’s era tragedies of teenage lovers dying tragically on the road and remaining perpetually young and beautiful were put into popular song.
Many romantic figures of the age — James Dean and Jane Mansfield, to name a few — died tragically in the prime of life behind the wheel of their machines. Finally, there is the cliché of the eternally honking horn in an old black and white film, signaling the hero or villain’s death at the end of a car chase.
There were other memorable cars throughout my young life: my mother’s green 66 Ford Mustang, my brother’s red 68 Chevy Nova with the black vinyl roof, and the string of cars past their prime that my father owned from time to time, including an old blue and white, 57 Chevy Bel-Air with streamlined fins that pointed backward at the road behind.
The first car that I owned myself was a blue 1966 Chevy Impala that cost me $200.00. The tires were cracked and balled, red primer covered most of its front end and the heater no longer worked. Nobody would get in that car with me, ever, but to me she was just fabulous. She was my first useful companion when I had to find my own way in the world.
My vintage clunker lasted about a year, getting me to work on time every day and even serving as shelter for a short period of time in the winter when I had no place to stay. My friends eventually got up the courage to ride with me occasionally but only as a last resort; they always had an excuse as to why I should drop them off at home sooner rather than later.
When spring arrived my crusty old Impala rounded her final lap when I was out for a ride with a friend. Taking on a mind of her own, she began veering all over the road as my passenger braced herself on the dash and slammed her foot into the floorboard on to her imaginary break. Luckily I was only moving at about 25 mph on a side street with no pedestrians in sight and I was able to bring her under control as she lost momentum and came to a slow halt.
I got out and saw that oil was seeping out of the middle of her front rim. She was clearly in her death throes, and so I did what any decent, financially strapped young person would do in those days. I pulled off her license plates, scraped her window sticker off with the car key, gathered her paperwork and abandoned her. I found out later that she had been pushed to a nearby high school garage to be autopsied by students in an auto-shop class.
Not long after the passing of my Impala, I replaced her with a 65 Pontiac Bonneville Convertible. It was quite a lucky buy for $75.00; I was the second owner and only had to give it a routine tune up to get it in shape. My friends and I enjoyed a summer of fearless open air cruising on our days off and the following September we pooled our funds and drove it safely to California and back.
By the following year I was moving into another phase of my life and I sold my Pontiac for $200.00. It was the last work of art I would ever own. Style was eventually overtaken by utility and I have since driven nothing but trusty Japanese cars with hatchbacks.
The beauty, danger, art and cultural romance that engineering and design brought to the fifties and sixties in 20th Century America is being preserved in the garages of mechanically inclined geeks and gear heads everywhere.
In the summer these great works of art still catch my eye — I see them on display at drive-ins or local car shows, lined up side-by-side, hoods open, ready to speak for my time.
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