My Grandpa drove a forty-eight Ford,
and it was just as old as me…
I wrote those lines in a song a long time ago. They were recalled to me by an e-mail I got in response to my column, “Cars,” from my Uncle Charles, my late father’s twin brother:
“I also remember your Dad and me coming to Mpls to pick up a 1948 Ford 2-dr for your granddad Sabo that a relative who worked for a Ford dealership near Henn and Lake was able to get when cars still came on a waiting list.”
“Henn and Lake” means the intersection of Hennepin and Lake Boulevards in Minneapolis (“Mpls”). The relative may have been my grandfather’s brother Orlund. And Charles unconsciously named the model of the car they got, which was called a “Tudor.”
To me, my grandfather’s car was always old, always dusty, always worn. Its color, one of ten available, was “Colony Blue,” an almost navy blue not much suited to shine through the prairie grit of South Dakota. But Charles’s note reminded me that it had once been new, shiny, and full of the promise of a spanking clean product, especially remarkable for coming at the end of a long darkness of deprivation during World War II, when all heavy manufacturing had been devoted to the fight. The last new cars had been made in 1942.
A 1944 FORD ADVERTISEMENT CAPTURES the longing, the resignation, and the gloom of the wartime period. The long ad copy, below a busy, dark woodcut of a wintry horse and buggy scene, depicted a very early Ford, an experimental model that came even before the Model T, open, steered with a tiller, and recalled the stir “Mr. Ford” had made with that astounding new machine. “Swifter than a racehorse it flew over the icy streets!” the ad was headlined, quoting a newspaper report of the time. The copy recalled Ford’s triumphs in the years since, ending on a determined note about Ford production news being “restricted” because devoted to “mass production of aircraft and other tools of victory.” And then it said:
But there will come a day when Ford news again will feature civilian models. You may be sure they will reflect all the ingenuity and precision engineering traditional with Ford. Yes, the Ford cars of the future may even challenge the descriptive powers of that forgotten reporter who, at the turn of the century, rolled along the streets of Detroit “swifter than a race horse.” …
The ad is shown here. Page forward through the pictures on that website, and you’ll immediately see the explosion of consumer triumph that followed, illustrating the exuberance of the post-war era. The second page after the horse and buggy ad shows the model my Dad and Uncle Charles picked up for my grandfather, though it is a ’46, not a ’48.
In the years since, the “Tudor” model has been completely overshadowed by the popularity of the 1948 Ford Coupe, a hotrodder favorite, and the 1948 pickup truck, also a renovator’s classic. The Tudor was a big, heavy car, like all its post-war fellows, and, featuring one of “two great engines,” a 90 hp six or a 100 hp eight, seriously underpowered.
MY FIRST MEMORY, WHEN I CLAIMED IT, aroused disbelief. It was a fire, and it happened when I was an infant. My grandparents, out in the middle of the great plains in a tiny town, used to have to find their entertainment where they could, so when the fire whistle blew in the middle of the night, they got out of bed and saddled up to go see it. When I was a baby staying with them, they took me along one night.
A gas station had blown up. The orange flames shot skyward. I watched from (I suppose) my grandmother’s arms in the passenger seat (I remember the chrome trim line down the middle of the windshield and its position in my vision), and later verified the memory to my grandmother by telling her that the gas station had a scalloped clay tile roof.
By the time I was eight or nine, the Ford already sounded feeble, its spasmodic engine note — Rrr–rrr–rrr — sounding through my childhood. Out on a Sunday drive once, I challenged my grandfather to see how fast the car would go. Grampa said nothing, just smiled his careful little smile and stepped on the accelerator.
“Hank!” my grandmother exclaimed. “What are you doing? You slow down now, Hank.”
Grampa never drove much more than a sedate 45. The Ford crept up to 50, to 55. Rrr–rrr–rrr!
“Hank! Land sakes, Hank! Slow down!”
My grandmother never learned to drive at all. Now, with the Ford shaking and juddering and approaching 65, she was truly scared. And at last my grandfather let up, still smiling.
I DRIVE A 12-YEAR-OLD CAR NOW, and it’s in fine shape. I can’t imagine why the Ford wore so badly as it did. It was not like my grandfather to neglect machines, not at all. But by the time I was almost 12, the old Tudor shook and rattled, and the engine displayed no enthusiasm at all. It was noisy and rough and weak. Maybe the horsepower was never enough for the heavy body. Maybe the South Dakota winters tore it up. My parents bought Grampa a new (used) Chevy in 1959, just a year before he died. The Ford, for whatever reason, was shot.
Maybe Grampa got a post-war lemon. It may be that a lot of machines were thrown together in a hurry in that giddyup time when everybody wanted something new.
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