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Wishing for My Father’s Car

By: John Gross

I bought a new car this year.  It came with every amenity I could imagine, and some I have yet to discover.  It has an air conditioner that uses a Freon gas that will not impact our ozone leading to global warming.  If driven carefully, it can attain mileage figures that a few years ago, would have been deemed impossible.  It has radial tires offering less rolling resistance and disc brakes for safer stopping.  It has ergonomically correct seats, and a radio that receives its signal from an orbiting satellite.  I can make a phone call to anywhere in the world by simply asking my rearview mirror to get someone on the line.  It has steering column mounted controls for the radio and speed control so your hands need never leave the wheel. Its engine, driveline, and emissions systems are computer controlled for optimum performance.  I have more computing power in my car than did the original Apollo Space Program. I may be a middle-aged, balding, white guy, but I gotta say, I’m Rolling Phat…..

Or am I.

When I was six years old, my Father bought a new “family car”, a gleaming white Chevrolet Biscayne Station wagon.  It came loaded with a 283 cubic inch small block motor rated at 165 blistering horsepower.  Dad sprang for the two-speed PowerGlide Automatic transmission and, Air Conditioning.DW Stationwagon  7628

Dad passed on power steering, power brakes, and carpeting as those were luxuries that undoubtedly would have cost more to purchase and yet more to maintain.  And we didn’t need them.  Mom and Dad were both young and absolutely capable to wrenching a steering wheel, or smashing a brake petal, kind of an early day isometric exercise program.  As was true of Detroit Iron at the time, it was a true lead-sled.  The Frame, engine and body pieces were all steel.  No plastic, carbon fiber, fiberglass, or aluminum for this beast.  It was all steel.  As a token of good faith, they did manage to wrap the seats with vinyl, and there was some kind of plastic insert over the steel panels in the door, but it was basically three thousand pounds of steel barreling down the road.flourish16

The dash wasn’t covered with anything except a coat of grey paint.  It acted as a huge heat sink whereby in the summer it would heat enough to cook eggs, maintain that heat the entire time you were driving, then slowly dissipate the hear once you’d stopped in a shady spot.  The car had seatbelts, I remember.  I asked my Mom once why she didn’t wear hers, and she replied “because I have the steering wheel that I hold onto.  You should wear yours.”  Which I didn’t because it was an impediment to clambering over the seats. The rear seat would fold down if you didn’t have guests and create a huge cargo bay.  I’ve seen the cargo bay on Endeavor, and I’d pit our old station wagon against it any day.  Of course Endeavor does have that cool remote controlled articulating arm, but we had three kids, so I believe it’s a wash.

And he bought Air Conditioning.  This has puzzled me for 50 years.  He wouldn’t actually use the Air Conditioning, as he believed the gas mileage suffered.  This at a time when a gallon of regular gas was about 19 cents.  He’d occasionally turn the blower on and all the accumulated dust from those miles of riding around with the windows down would come hurtling out of the vents and settle on the rubber matted floors, or just as likely, your face as you had it pressed against the vent to see where the “cold” air had gone.  Mom was only marginally better.  Apparently getting caught running the Air Conditioner was tantamount to some kind of sick infidelity in our house, so she’d run it intermittently and always with the caveat that we not tell.

Over the years we used those “cubic feet of cargo space” in manners never anticipated by its designers.   It hauled dirt, groceries, kids, bikes, newspapers, horses, household goods, rocks, furniture, dogs and cats, and more.  It ran through hailstorms, rainstorms, snowstorms, dust storms, ice storms, tornadoes, and at least one hurricane.

It was never properly maintained, yet we such utter faith in that car, it always came as a huge surprise when something broke, which it rarely did.flourish16

The floorboards were one of its first casualties.  Beginning with a small seam of rust, it expanded until it finally let go in the back seat.  No worries, we placed a floor mat over the hole and save for the exhaust fumes coming into the cabin you’d never know.  The exhaust fumes weren’t really all that bad as the Air Conditioner was still not used, so the windows were always down.

The quarter panels were next as I recall.  All those years of driving on salted roads, finally rusted the quarter panels through.  Kind of good news through, as any further salt would run all the way out without getting trapped between two panels.  An occasional chunk of rust would continue to fall out but as we had no way of knowing whether that was bad or not, we assumed the car as it aged was just lightening its load.

I believe we must have lost the keys at some point.  The car never, as far as I recall, required a key to start.  It had an ignition port, a place where you could if you wanted to show off, put a key, but it was always an option.  The way it worked was that there was a raised plate of either side of where the key could be inserted and if you didn’t have a key, or simply couldn’t be bothered, you put your fingers on either side of the ignition switch and turned it.  The car was perfectly happy with this arrangement, as were we.  Now you couldn’t open a locked door, until its later years when a sharp tap on the door would make the door window slide down enough to get your hand through it, without a key but our family was never big on locking doors anyway.

The radio was amazing.  AM only, without station select buttons, so you had to tune all the way across the band, stopping when the static faded and some station came through.  Paul Harvey must have been on at least half of the radio stations in the country because I can’t recall ever NOT being able to find a station he was on.  You’d listen and listen and wait until you heard those magic words “… and now you know the….rest of the story” before cranking on the tuning knob again.  Satellite radio on my new car doesn’t have a thing on that old AM radio.  I remember many an evening driving across the plains states listening to WLS in Chicago.  Now THAT was magic.  I’d never even been to Chicago, but here I was 1500 miles away, listening to the same radio station as the people who lived there.  Simply Amazing.flourish16

So now I drive a new car.  It rides better and is safer for my family than the old station wagon.  It gets better gas mileage, pollutes less, handles better, stops better, and even cools better.  But it’s a soulless form of transportation.  It will never have the character that that old wagon had.  I am absolutely sure that in fifty years, no one will be sitting down at their computer to remember a family member that ran on ethanol…..


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