To all the cars I loved before (Part One 1955 – 1972)

Let’s start from the beginning. This is my beginning so will start with cars I owned in proxy with my dad. I think this is fair for a variety of reasons. I always had a knack for things mechanical and my father discovered this when I was very young. He was not being altruistic, he was being frugal, if I could fix something he saw no reason to spend money having someone else do it. In exchange I could drive anything that I could fit into even though I was not legally old enough to drive on a public road. So he would often take me somewhere private and we would play. Another reason for proxy ownership is that I eventually grew up to become a professional master mechanic, race car driver and petrol-head. These avocations led me into some long-term relationships with cars that, while I didn’t own them, I spent enough time working on them and driving them to develop a relationship and bond that was as strong as being an owner. I want to ensure that some of the more interesting of these cars are included because, while I didn’t own the car, I developed a strong sense of what it meant to drive one on a daily basis and live with it. I will mention if a car I write about was not owned by me and what my relationship with the car was based upon.

My father was not a ‘driver’. For him a car was a means to a destination. Despite this he often had “fun” with a car and frequently chose cars that offered something unique; power, style, collectible. His tastes were eclectic and hard to pin down. With that in mind we will start with the first car he had, I barely remember it, never got to drive it, but remember it was one of his favorites and he would always speak fondly of that particular car.

The Jaguar SS Tourer that he drove while stationed in England, where I was born, was my dad’s favorite car. Obviously he was unmarried and had no children. He dated my mum while driving this car. It broke down frequently and was impractical so he sold it before our family returned to the US. Well technically he was the only one returning since my two sisters, mum and myself were all born in the UK. My father kept a picture of the car in his wallet, apparently lost while serving in Vietnam. It looked a lot like this example although less polished and more driven. I cannot be positive of the year, even my mother is not sure, but the picture I remember him carrying looked exactly like this 1936 model.

Upon our arrival in the United States my father was stationed at Walker AFB near Roswell, NM (yes, THAT Roswell) and of course the first order of business was to put our family on wheels. After all that was, and is, “The American Way”. He found a slightly used 1958 Plymouth Belvedere for sale at a local car dealer and brought this car home. It became the most reviled automobile ever to grace the driveway of any home we were ever to reside in. My mother abhorred the car and my dad quickly determined why the car had been returned when the summer heat hit.

We’ll start with my mother’s complaints. One, the car was enormous despite being a coupe. Two, there were NO seatbelts and she had three children! It was fun listening to my father explain that seatbelts were an option that cost extra and were seldom ordered unless you were a racer. He was convinced they were unneeded. The remainder of the complaints could be said to extend from her more European outlook on cars in general and the Plymouth was just about the exact opposite of what any self-respecting European marquee would produce.

My father quickly decided the car was a mistake in July. It had factory AC, that was a BIG DEAL in the late 50s and early 60s. So one fine hot day he turned the AC on. There were four big round vents that came out of a box on the hump. They started pumping out slightly cooler air but it smelled funny and didn’t do anything for us rear seat riders. As my father is proceeding down the highway the car goes slower and slower. It eventually settled down to 25 MPH. That was the car’s top speed with the AC on. It went back to the dealer. My father paid to have a full set of lap belts installed and they checked the motor and AC system. He got the car back and it would now top 50 with the AC on. But every mile or so the car would feel like the engine shut off. Then it would suddenly surge forward. It did this on a dirt road on the way home while all of us were in the car coming back from the base. The surge caught my dad by surprise and before he could react the car had put itself into a ditch. My father smacked into the steering wheel, the rest of us were safely belted. That was the very last time ANY of us ever rode in a car without seatbelts EVER but for a single exception which will be explained in the next section.

The problems with the Plymouth continued to plague my father and the dealer. So when my father went back the next time the dealer offered to trade the Belvedere in and gave him a good price. I still have the receipt and he paid $2453 plus tax and license…yes there was an $8.60 charge for the optional seatbelts. Researching the actual worth of the Belvedere and the Impala of the time and considering that he bought the car slightly used . . . the dealer didn’t really do him any favors. However, the history of the car’s service more than made up for the dealer piracy. He owned that Impala until 1968, explanation below. My father frequently purchased a second car to get around with at each station of assignment and would leave the ‘other’ car at home for my mother to drive. But at each PCS the ‘other car’ would be sold off and we would pack the whole family including pets into that Impala and just drive. We traveled the length and breadth of Route 66 so often we knew all the landmarks by heart. This was also the one exception to the seat belt rule. Despite only having two doors the rear of the Impala was quite commodious. My father placed two duffels into the little wells formed between the front and rear seats and all three of us kids would be able to sleep in the back while my mother and dad took turns sleeping and driving. They liked covering ground fast and the car was perfect at eating up great swaths of American countryside in hundreds of mile long legs. Each day we would get a turn to choose breakfast, lunch or dinner. That was the rule . . . once each day we would stop at a “sit down restaurant” and have a proper meal; other meals each day would be made from ‘road’ food that my mother would pick up at a grocery store. Bladder and bowel timing was expected to comply strictly to the capacity of the Chevrolet’s fuel tank. The only ‘event’ of any kind involving this vehicle was that, in 1964, someone removed the chrome trim while the car was parked in Rapid City, SD. The chrome trim back then was real, very heavy and actually quite valuable. Dad thought the car looked ‘better’ without the chrome so never had it replaced. He had the mounting holes filled, finished flush and a new coat of white paint. My father never owned another Plymouth and until later in life never wandered beyond the Chevrolet Motor Division of GM. My mother, to this day, dislikes anything non-GM. This odd bias had an amusing twist two cars further down.

Perhaps my father hit his “mid-life crisis”. Perhaps the stress of his 4th combat zone deployment (he had just returned from a third tour in Southeast Asia and this was his 7th combat tour!). To this day we will never know. What I do know is this… We were living in Riverhead, New York and his permanent station at the time was Suffolk County Air Force Base. It was the longest we had ever stayed in one place until that point. It was 1968 and he was “fat” with hazardous duty pay and a credit rating that was in the Platinum range. Additionally he had been being driven crazy by guys wanting to buy his Impala, he didn’t understand the attraction but, when an offer he couldn’t refuse was made, he sold it. I later discovered, upon locating the original invoice, that my father had been driving a “409” version of the SS Impala all these years! My father had suffered a pretty serious injury and had hardware in his shoulder and leg, he never made a big deal of it. But perhaps it was this “brush with the reaper” that modified his outlook on the meaning of life. Many years later I suffered a similar fate and the same mental readjustment. That will be saved for another entry.

He asked me to come with him and our neighbor took us to the Chevy dealer on the north edge of town. It took me a bit of searching but the picture I located is identical in color and pose to what he walked me over to. I was a hair shy of 13 and already 6 feet tall. But I felt really small when I saw the car. I even said to him, “Wow, that’s a real beauty! But what are we here for?” He just smiled, opened the passenger door and said, “Get in.” It was his. The Stingray, despite being all of nearly 5 years old still looked and ran like a new car. There wasn’t a mark on it. We spent an entire day driving this car. We went to the Montauk Lighthouse, out to the base and then did a circuit around the entire perimeter of Wildwood Lake. The drive and the car were magical. It was late afternoon and my father drove us home. My mother came out of the house, took one look at the Corvette and asked my dad if the last few marbles had fallen out of his head. My mother made me go inside. My father drove off in the Corvette Stingray, it was the last time I ever saw it. My father’s revenge did come a few years later when he was able to show her an article about the car that explained that, if he had kept it, he could have traded it for a small house! He did come home that night with a completely ordinary Oldsmobile.

In late 1971 my father was advised that the entire family was being PCS’d to the Republic of the Philippines. The Olds was not considered a good choice of car for the terrible roads over there. Additionally he was told that while serving overseas he could purchase a car brand new direct from the manufacturer for factory cost. This was too tempting a deal to pass on so my father used the Olds as a trade for our next automotive adventure. The other cars on this list all lead to this…the car to the left. A medium gold metallic 1965 Corvair Monza. It was, perhaps, the single oddest automobile ever produced by Chevrolet. Air-cooled pancake six-cylinder, the engine was in the back and it was rear drive. It had a boot in the front, an almost perfectly flat floor and was the first car I can ever remember my father owning that had an automatic transmission. This was the ‘odd twist’ from our friends at Chevy. Simply everybody told my dad that the car he chose was a huge mistake. The book “Unsafe at any Speed” by Ralph Nader had already been published. Everybody knew that our whole entire family was going to be wiped out in a terrible roll-over accident. My father was additionally warned by several local mechanics that the twisted fan belt was ‘stupid’ and would never hold up. Since that belt was responsible for charging AND cooling the car he was informed that the car would most likely leave us stuck to starve to death somewhere in the “middle of nowhere”. I don’t know why my father didn’t listen; perhaps it was because it was the first car he ever brought home that was so like the European cars my mom grew up with that she fell head over heels in love with it. The Corvair was the only car I knew my mother enjoyed driving in. She would find excuses to go somewhere so she could drive it. My father simple bragged that he had purchased a really great looking car with very low miles and was out of pocket a total of, are you ready for this, $365. Yes, you read that correctly. he paid the dealer $365 to take the car off the lot and out of the country. I will include it here but understand that this car is a story in and of itself. Let’s look at its history in our family.

With all those dire warnings in mind my father equipped the car for a cross-country like I had never seen before. He had THREE spare belts, spare plugs, spare wires, vacuum line, an extra spare tire and a complete tool kit with timing light and dwell/tach. Note: he didn’t know what those were or how to use them, he asked me and I told him what would be needed, it was at this tender age I got introduced to the world of the internal combustion engine. As if this wasn’t enough the Corvair is a compact car so my father realized that to get all five of us and our cat into the car the stuff normally placed in the trunk and back seat would need to ride in a roof rack. He went to Sears, Roebuck & Co. and had one installed that, for all the world, looked as big as the car under it. We set off in April. We were not in any huge rush as we wanted to visit several of our family members as we went. Our first leg went quick. We drove from Riverhead to Newark, NJ to visit my uncle; from there we travelled to Pittsburg, PA to visit his brothers in the region: at each stop the dire warnings of impending doom continued although the Corvair itself was actually a very comfortable ride. After spending two weeks visiting East Coast relatives we took off for the long cross-country. Our destination was Manhattan Beach outside Los Angeles to visit my aunt and her family from my mother’s side. This trip was taken on Interstate 80 with a cut south to the I70 and I15 just past Denver. After several days of uneventful driving, somewhere in Colorado, we stopped for lunch. I had a bowl of chili. As it turned out it was a REALLY bad bowl of chili! About half an hour after pulling out of the restaurant I felt terrible pain in my gut. My father pulled over in a rest area. I tried to go but nothing would happen, it didn’t help at all that the rest area in Colorado was horrid. Really, there was no other word for the experience. If you looked between your legs you could see a pool of black water…well here’s the thing, you couldn’t really see it, it was black as pitch, what you could see was the reflection of the adjacent holes that comprised the seats of what had to be the world’s largest mass outhouse. The smell would bring tears to your eyes so you tried to hold your breath until you were ‘finished’. I passed a fart. It sounded like a train horn reverberating in that place. But felt better so let’s get moving. Back in the car and about 30 minutes later I have the same bad feeling, I push a little and realize that it’s just more gas so I let it go. Blissfully feeling better after the release, thankful that there was no audio track to accompany, I relax. Then the smell hit. Everybody in the car turned green! Even I, responsible as I was, was mortified by this stench. Luckily it had been quiet and suspicion was that we had passed a dead skunk or something like. This worked for about another 30 minutes but then another pain passed through me and, my sphincter being used to the job, just let it go and this time it was accompanied! RRRIIIPPP, THPPPPTTT! Then that stench…AGAIN!!! My father turned around and very calmly told me that if I did it again I would be walking the rest of the way. The next wave hit right on time, I tried everything to hold it in as tears ran from my eyes. I begged my dad to stop and let me out (seriously concerned that he could justify my death as self-defense at this point) but he wouldn’t. His suggestion made sense . . . wind the back window down and stick my butt out the window and let it go. In utter agony by this point I did as he asked. We were driving through the mountains and my father was enjoying swinging the car around the curves. It was as he was going around a sharp, decreasing radius turn to the right that I got my buns aimed out the window and let the effusive and noxious cloud go. I think my butt missed hitting the Colorado Highway Patrol officer that had pulled the old 356 Porsche off the road by a mere inch or so. However close it was the look on his face had everyone in the car laughing their butts off, I was suddenly the hero! My father was determined that there would be no more stops until we reached Arizona, firmly convinced that the CHP would be hot on our tails the whole way due to “assault with a deadly weapon”!

But I digress, back to the car. The Corvair, at this point, had earned its way into the family. There wasn’t a single person in that car that wasn’t firmly convinced that it was the best car ever built by Chevrolet Motor Division of General Motors. Our next event happened somewhere in the Sonoran Desert. We were driving and my father saw a cloud of dust coming from behind. Many were trying to outrun the cloud and soon we found ourselves flying along at over 90 MPH! We passed many that dropped out due to overheating but the Corvair just went faster. On our left my father saw a hill with a restaurant upon the peak, didn’t care what restaurant, it was “any port in a storm”. All by ourselves, the only car to make the hill, we climbed the hill and pulled in. The storm behind us looked like all the wrath of God was coming down. Coal black clouds, howling wind and what must have been enough dirt to build a small country all bearing down on our band! We went inside and sat. Over hamburgers and fries, for some odd reason my father wouldn’t let me have chili anymore, we watched the world darken. Then began the rain, the hail. It literally felt like the end of the world. After a bit, over our drinks, my father noticed that the long-haul truckers were leaving. “Time to go!” he announced. We drove back down the hill and reentered the highway. There was no more adventure for the duration of our journey. We visited for a few days with my aunt then drove up to Travis AFB for the journey to the far east. The Corvair was loaded onto a car hauler for a rendezvous with the USS Hornet.

It took a few weeks after our arrival before my father was sent to Subic Bay to pick up the car. His first surprise was upon getting insurance. Remember he paid $365 for the car which, as far as he knew, was worth a max of $1500. So imagine his surprise when the car’s insured value was over $3500; understand that at the time you could buy a fully-loaded luxury car for $3500! The agent had to explain that a Corvair was a VERY desirable car outside the US. The features that made it so unique in the US such as an independent suspension, good gas mileage made it very attractive to people used to European type cars. So my father put a little sign in the back saying “Please steal me” and habitually left the keys in the ignition. A little over two years later we still had the car. All the spare parts were still in the boot and my dad had even smuggled a guy through a protest line by putting him in the trunk (nobody EVER thought of checking there after checking the trunk which, while full of engine, still looked like storage area). He sold the Corvair to a fellow serviceman who needed transportation for his pregnant wife to leave at home with her. He was offered $1500 for it. That Corvair was passed from serviceman to serviceman for the next decade, finally disappearing during an eruption of Mount Pinatubo. It was the stuff of legend as they say. He bought the car, drive the living hell out of it for almost three years and sold it for four times what he paid for it.

My father had done as he had promised, there was a brand new car waiting for us at the end of his tour. A perfectly ordinary Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. Even more important, to me anyway, I had a driver’s license . . . but NO CAR!!! This story will continue in Part Two.


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