Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In my family, we don't have a love affair with cars

My family prided itself in not being swept up in the American culture of crazy automobile worship. Oh no, we're always practical about our cars, comfortable and safe transportation is all we need. Well, except for the fact, it turns out, that we really like to have our photos taken with our cars. I think that's evidence we liked them a lot more than we were willing to admit, starting with my mother's parents, when she was very young. Here they are having a picnic by a pineapple plantation in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, where they lived in the early part of the 20th century. 
That's my grandfather teetering uncomfortably on a wooden crate that says, "Stow Away from Engines and Boilers" with my mother, who looks to be about 3 (making this about 1915). The smiling woman in the hat, under the shade of the car roof, is my grandmother, with friends.
I hope some day to know what kind of car it was. But even though they had a car--grandfather was a banker, after all--they kept this--maybe just for fun, or maybe for those days when the car wouldn't start--and made a photographic record of it, too:
A couple of years later, as their fortunes grew, and as cars evolved, we find them out and about in this rather more capacious and sophisticated-looking vehicle with white-walls!
And yet later, their close friends, known to my mother as Uncle Billy and Aunt Suze, had a Winton 6 worthy of this formal portrait, which in turn was worthy of being kept along with all the other old memorabilia all these years:
What a magnificent beast!
My father's family was not to be left out, of course. Here's a portrait of my paternal grandfather, dated 1943, with a gorgeous, shiny Buick convertible, after the end of the "black-only" paint option era:
My parents met and married a few years after my grandfather had his picture taken with the Buick. My father, who was very junior in the ranks at Indiana University at the time, was nonetheless apparently able to afford his own car. I don't know the story around these photos, but they are marked "Spring 1948" on the back, and I would bet a lot it was their first new car. Here's a view of my mother posed in front it, revealing it to be a Frazer (and that she smoked cigarettes at the time):
Says Wikipedia, "The Frazer (1946-1951) was the flagship line of upper-medium priced American luxury automobiles built by the Kaiser-Frazer Corporation of...Ypsilanti, Michigan, and was, with Crosley, the first American car with new envelope body and fresh postwar styling." In those days it cost about half a year's salary.
By 1953 they had upgraded to a much more modern model. This appears to be a rather large two-door Kaiser, with 3-year old me playing on it.
Sometime during this period, one of our cars, maybe this Kaiser, was completely consumed in a flaming accident on a rural road. The story was that a woman was tearing along the road in the dark with no headlights on, and that my father, who could not have seen her coming, pulled out right in front of her. Somehow (in those pre-seatbelt, pre- airbag days) we weren't hurt, though I don't know the fate of driver who hit us. That was certainly the last time my father would buy a black car though, determining that the dark paint had contributed to our nighttime invisibility.
There may have been others in between, but the first car I have a good memory of was our 1956 flamboyantly pink Plymouth exactly like this restored beauty:
Thanks to Regina Antique Auto, Members' Rides, for the use of this image
My father was about as unmechanical as a man could be. But somebody with a sense of humor (namely, my mother) snapped this on a Christmas 1959 trip to Mexico. Although Mother and I were along, it was basically a business trip, and the cars were chauffeured. My father seems to be supervising the changing of a tire, something he certainly never could have managed himself on his own car:
Around this time,the station wagon became all the rage. Here's my father most debonairly posing in front of our Rambler Ambassador, red with a white blaze and all, in 1960:
Flash forward about 6 years. We now live in a house with a big garage, I have my driver's license, and I have to get myself to school, to work, and out to the farm where I kept my horse. And, Volkswagen not long before had invaded America. Here's my very first car, a 1959 VW beetle with no gas gauge, only a lever on the floor next to the gas pedal that, with the nudge of a toe, would allow just enough additional gas to flow from a spare tank to get me to the nearest gas station when the main tank ran dry:
You're probably thinking, "hey, there's nobody posed with that car!" but if you click to enlarge the photo you can just see my German shepherd dog Katja smiling from the back seat, eagerly awaiting a ride to our next adventure. What wonderful new-found freedom that was for us both!
Cute and useful as it was, my bug wasn't exactly a hot car. My mother, who also worked and had a busy life, decided to buy herself a car, and was unaccountably attracted to a bright red Mercury Cougar with white leather interior seats. Now that was a HOT car. It drank gas like it was going out of style, had a very heavy-duty four-on-the floor, and could lay a patch a block long (which my mother thought hilarious). Need I add, it was a boyfriend magnet when my mother let me drive it? Also unaccountably, my mother actually let me drive it from southern Indiana to New Orleans and the gulf coast of Texas with a boyfriend. I can't exactly reconstruct when that was, or how I managed to get my mother's approval, but here's the boyfriend at what appears to be the edge of a Texas oilfield with just the tail end of the car showing:
Boy, I loved that Cougar. The boyfriend, not so much.
By this time, though, I had sold my pretty green VW and gone off to college, where the undergrads weren't allowed to own cars. When I at last graduated, in her great generosity, my mother bought me my first new car. It was a 1972 Mercury Capri. Pronounced ca-PREE. Which drove my multilingual father, of European birth, insane, as the original Italian isle is unequivocally pronounced CA-pree. The showroom price was $3,000. It too was a sporty four-on-the-floor, very muscular and nimble, and gave me all pleasure and no trouble commuting across country and over the mountains of southern Arizona where I went to grad school. Unfortunately, I can't find a good portrait of the car--I hope there is one somewhere that I've overlooked. But there it is, with a giant U-Haul container bolted to the roof for a cross-country move, forming the distant backdrop for yet another boyfriend. Yes, he is Italian, so that his shirt is open to his navel revealing a gold medallion on a chain goes with the territory. 
Eventually, I wore out my beloved little Capri. It lasted only about three or four years until it started to show signs of serious engine troubles at around 80,000 miles. What I really wanted next was a BMW, but what I ended up with was a blue 4-door Toyota Corona. Not sexy, not hot, but plenty reliable and long-lived. I don't seem to have a great portrait of that car either, but here is KLK grinning hopelessly at me since I had pulled into a space centering his door perfectly over a giant mud puddle, 1989.
And here is the one-and-only interior shot I have from any of my cars. This is my dog Pia (aka Woofie) looking cute in the back seat of that Toyota.
She was a sweet, gentle dog, but had enough German shepherd in her (about half) that she defended that car, more ferociously than our home even, from threats like evil automated car washes and toll-booth attendants who had the temerity to reach toward the driver's window in order to accept toll payment.
The Toyota gave many good years of service, but was ultimately deemed seriously unsafe when it was possible to view the road through the rusted floor boards. In 1991, I bought myself a right nice new Honda Civic, bright red, four-on-the-floor again, and with air conditioning. It was my very first with air. Don't ask how I survived the Capri in Arizona without air conditioning. I have no memory of having been terribly uncomfortable, but it must have been so.
That's me, beaming from the driver's seat, Saugatuck Michigan, 1991. That was truly one of my greatest cars, comfortable, much more roomy than it looks from outside, mechanically sound, road-sure and peppy, but efficient. With crank-down windows, manual door locks, and of course, no airbags.
This darling lasted intact until one early morning in 2003, when I was driving on a mostly empty high-speed interstate highway and I came across a car stopped perpendicular to the median barrier. Both front doors were open and I could see the deflated airbag drooping over the steering wheel and the crushed front end. A few dozen feet away from the car was what must have been the hapless driver, no blood, no guts, just a cell phone socked to her ear. I can tell you that I was deeply impressed by the fact that the driver was uninjured in what could otherwise have been a very different sort of accident. I knew the time had come to upgrade.
I sold the Civic for $500 less than asking to a flattering male Italian graduate student  ("Oh, a be-yooo-teee-ful car, and a be-yooo-teee-ful woman") and summarily purchased my third new car, a silver VW Jetta with all the modern amenities I didn't even know I wanted, like a sun roof and heated seats (both are very nice). Isn't it amazing that I made it through half a century and into the new Millennium before I owned a car with air conditioning? Automatic door locks? Electric windows?  And that what goes around comes around. I started with a VW, and that's where I've ended up, for now.
Door County, Wisconsin
No, we don't we don't worship our cars in my family. But doesn't their coming and going mark signposts in our lives, their power, and sculptural beauty, and capacity bring us pleasure and ease, their very existence add to life's adventure?


  1. Interesting post! Yes you are right, cars certainly do mark milestones and stages in our lives.

  2. Fun post Veronica though methinks you protest too much. Maybe it's just a low key affair. :)