Years ago — make that decades ago — in a mellow living room mood late at night, my friend Rusty began to reminisce about all the cars he had owned. He was a California kid, and he had owned a bunch of them, something like 30 by the time he was an equal number of years old.
I started thinking about cars again more recently, when I asked my mother if she still had the Kodachrome slides of our family’s 1956 automobile trip from Minnesota to Oregon. (She does, and we’re going to have them transferred to a disc, because it’s history. Hard to think of your own family that way, but that America is gone now.) We made that trek in a Dodge sedan, the six of us, my mother and father, my sister and I, and my maternal grandparents, whom we stopped and picked up in Arlington, South Dakota.
It was my Dad’s first new car, and he ended up hating it. It overheated again and again on the way west. We carried a canvas water bag slung over the radiator cap, occasionally losing it and having to double back on the road to find it. As a boy of eight, I remember the back seat best. We had a barrel-sized Scotch cooler, and there was plenty of room for it between front and back seats on the floor; enough so I could sit on the cooler with leg room, like a jump seat.
DAD WOULDN’T EVER BUY a Dodge-Chrysler-Plymouth again. With our next family car, Dad reacted against the Dodge’s problems, and bought a Nash Ambassador.
That car, I remember well. It sailed along the highway on cushy springs. Bragging rights for the time, it got 20 miles per gallon, mostly through being severely underpowered. It sure wasn’t aerodynamics or compact size. The thing was a whale. Inside, the seats made into a double bed, fully flat. The split backs in front reclined all the way back. There, they rested on L-shaped rubber-coated metal braces mounted in the front of the back seat.
We used it, too. Mom made it up with sheets and everything. My parents parked the Nash in my grandparents’ yard and slept there when big family get-togethers overflowed the house. It used to tickle me to see my Dad in his pajamas, padding across the grass with his toothbrush to the back porch steps in the morning.
DAD GOT SUCCESSFUL FAST in the sixties, so we got a new house and two new cars in fairly short order by 1963 and 1964. We had started buying cars from my mother’s uncle Orlund, a confident, glad-handing Scotch drinker who sold Oldsmobiles from a Minneapolis dealership. We had had an Olds 98 after the Nash, a car notable mainly for the recessed hexagon pattern of foam on its roof lining, irresistible to a child’s thrusting finger.
Now, with the new house, the new neighborhood, and the job working out, Dad’s car purchases bloomed. For just about the only time in his life, he did something stylish. He bought an Oldsmobile Starfire convertible for himself, red with white upholstery, a jazzy sleek car free of the whale-like encumbrances of the design era we had just left. And for Mom, her first ever car of her own, Dad and Orlund found a car that still resonates in American automotive history: A 1963 Lincoln Continental sedan, the one with the so-called “suicide doors” (hinged at the rear) for the back seat. The 1965 model is pictured here. A year old, it was powder blue with powder blue tuck and roll leather upholstery. At that time, Road & Track used to include the Continental on its list of “The Ten Best Cars in the World.” Everybody in America of a certain age knows the model. President Kennedy was riding in one, the convertible version, that day in Dallas.
I had all my teenage driving adventures in those two cars. For my first frosty windows unbuttoned in the car dating adventures, I took Dad’s Olds. The bench front seat let me drape my right arm around my girlfriend while I drove in a thrilling casual promising embrace. I had my first teenage accident in that car, too. In a snowstorm, I took the car on what I promised my mother would be a single errand. Of course I was tempted to do something else as well, I don’t remember what. On Highway 52 near the Terrace Theater in Robbinsdale, doing no more than 30 in the heavy conditions, I pulled out gradually to pass a slower car and ended up in a majestic spin. I had seemed to be going so slowly and carefully, and now trundling sideways at what seemed much faster, and unable to do anything about it, I watched a tree zoom up and smash into my door.
THE CONTINENTAL FOLLOWED my mother and dad to Florida while I went off to college in New York. On my first vacation home from Columbia, the airlines went on strike. Typical of my mother, hardy Midwesterner, she said, “We’ll drive then,” and off we went, my mother, my frail hefty old grandmother, and me, in the Lincoln up the east coast from Tampa right into New York City to take me back to school for the spring semesters.
We stayed in New York a couple of days so Mom and Grammy could see the sights. (Grammy had always supposed people only spoke Spanish on the TV.) It was over some quiet weekend, perhaps New Year’s, so even Manhattan was quiet, and that was in 1966, remember, when the city was very, very different. We had a driving adventure.
I chauffeured the car over to Fifth Avenue somewhere in the 80s. We had crossed Central Park, and scoped out the views and the buildings, and now we wanted to see the tall canyons of midtown. I started south on the great boulevard, and we drove smoothly, block after block, when it suddenly occurred to both my mother and me, dedicated drivers that we were, that the green lights were turning in our favor all the way downtown. Without speaking a word, I adjusted the pace of the car to meet the lights, and Mom and I wondered together how far we could get.
There were some dicey bits. The 57-59th street crossings, the Grand Central area at 42nd street around the Pan Am building. Then Herald Square, which would, we saw as we approached, be the real challenge, with all the streets crossing and several closely stacked lights in a row. We got through the first two and there was just barely time and room to nip past the last as it turned yellow, and we were home free downtown. From there, I drove uninterrupted all the way to the Washington Square arch. Mom cheered.
THE LINCOLN CAME to a sad end. Mom had kept the car, sentimentally, as a backup, through her divorce and out to California. When I hit the low point of my life, with failed kidneys and the start of dialysis in the 1970s, I used the car, though I had a motorcycle, too. I foolishly, stupidly, gave it away to a girl who had torn me up and broken my heart (think Bob Seger’s “Hollywood Nights”). I had hoped to hold on to her, and of course I didn’t. She never re-registered it, and we got a call from the Pasadena police many months later. They had found it abandoned, and we just told them to junk it.
“It’s an old car,” my mother used to caution me when I took it out on drives. It had acquired the unnerving habit of stopping — just stopping, the engine would quit, and we hadn’t found any mechanic who could figure out why. It doesn’t seem old to me now. It seems, in my memory, to be absolutely contemporary. I wish I still had it.
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