The conformism that defined the decade between Eisenhower and Kennedy was not all embracing. There were cadres of refuseniks who led revolts against the overwhelming conventions of the day. My father was a fervent warrior in these guerilla uprisings. His innate immunity to popular opinion lent him the courage to drive cars so peculiar, they obliged his family to hunch down in their seats to avoid the glares of disapproving neighbors.
During the 1950's, General Motors was the most successful car company in the world, producing dependable cars that anyone with an extra $35.00 a month could own. No matter their virtues, my father would never buy a car from GM. He wasn't impressed by their status as number one, and their incessant chest beating irritated him. He refused to put a penny into such arrogant pockets.
Ford was in second place, which was a huge selling point in its favor. His problem with Ford was Henry. Henry Ford was a genius, a giant and a changer of worlds but he also dabbled in publishing. His most successful release was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It pretended to be the 'Official Records' of a clandestine meeting of powerful Jews, all come together to formulate plans for world domination. Ford financed the distribution of this forgery in America. A car that carried his name would never be welcome in our garage.
Chrysler was the perennial third place carmaker. The company was still independently owned and wasn't run by a man who thought that the Spanish Inquisition hadn't gone far enough. Socially and politically, Chrysler cars had impeccable credentials. The problem was they cost more than a Chevy or a Ford, which made them, at least for my father, financially incorrect.
His strategy was to buy used cars from carmakers that no longer existed. These automotive orphans didn't offend any of his sensitivities and never mind if you couldn't find spare parts. With the stigma of death attached to their nameplates, these cars sold at a substantial discount. This made it possible for him to move up to a more luxurious car. One that might come equipped with an automatic transmission, power steering or even a radio -- features that were usually reserved for more upscale buyers.
The downside was paid in status. To buy a car from a defunct company was to own a beast whose maladaptive DNA had doomed it to extinction. It was no longer a car but a footnote in the great evolution of the wheel. Yet this idea appealed to him so much, he bought a car built by a company that went under during Eisenhower's first term. It was a seven-year-old Kaiser the color of a rainy day. The upholstery looked like bamboo but felt like plastic. The vintage Kaiser persuaded him that the smell of a new car wasn't as intoxicating as the permeated smoke of a previous owner's cigarettes. When we drove past our neighbors, the contorted expressions on their faces were not formed out of envy. Much of the country hadn't reached the age where anything from the past could be seen as worthwhile. Things that were new were the only things worth having.
His next car, while not an orphan, had parents so old they had to be dead. It was a 1939 Cadillac, a long, black sedan that must have come with a Tommy Gun as standard equipment. In my father's eyes, it wasn't a 15-year-old Caddy. It was a Cadillac celebrating its 15th anniversary. Its interior was cavernous and my brother and I would roll around like bowling balls whenever he made a turn. The car was too long to fit in our garage so he parked on the street, where it upset the neighbors who called it an eyesore and complained that it brought down their property values.
Our next ride was an English Thames panel truck. In the era when American cars had grown into behemoths, my father drove up in something you could stash in their trunk. The Thames was a handy little vehicle built for those who once were called 'Tradesmen' -- they were the plumbers, electricians and carpenters who came when you called them and finished when they said they would. The Thames was also used to make deliveries of small loads of what once were called 'Goods'.
The Thames was our favorite of all the oddball cars he ever owned. The two of us sat in the windowless cargo area, facing each other on the wheel well humps that stuck up through the floor. We'd shake around as if dice in a cup, with no view of where we were going or where we had been. I sometimes got carsick and once in a while my brother would crack his head on the roof. It was so noisy, we couldn't hear a word if our mother turned and ordered us to stop doing whatever we were doing. It was a carnival ride back there, it was fun being 'Goods'.
Then he did something that shocked us. Since the end of the war, just ten years earlier, it had been family canon that whether it be a kitchen knife, a dog or a Black Forrest Cake, if it was German, it wasn't allowed in our home. Now there was a faded blue Volkswagen parked in our driveway. If this meant the embargo on decent binoculars was over, fine with us; besides, the little bug was ridiculous to look at, making it just the sort of car we had come to appreciate. We were surprised when its superior air-cooled engine burned out, stranding us on the highway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on a foggy night.
After the VW, there was a Packard, a Willy's, two Hudsons and a Nash. But after that he took another big left turn on us. He bought a car that was a renunciation of every automotive belief he ever held. He bought a Ford van. A car whose very name had once evoked in him tight-lipped, squint-eyed anger was now parked in our garage -- attached to his home -- where his children came to play. The year of this outrage, my brother and I had become teenagers, each with a driver's license and a girlfriend. When we discovered the singular advantages of the van, we soon forgave our father for his lapse of conviction.
Towards the end of his life, he reverted to form, buying a red Studebaker Lark. True, it wasn't as deviant as some of the others, but at least it wasn't a popular choice. And somehow he must have known that Studebaker would soon go out of business, leaving him again, the owner of a car whose maker had gone to meet his. It was a car that no one else wanted. I think this made him happy.
-- Barry Udoff
Article © Barry Udoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-04-06