Cars and their “effect”

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An Easter blue 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air spotted on Easter Sunday. Photo: JH.

Monday, April 5, 2021.  A chilly weekend in New York with temps dropping into the mid-30s and back to the heavier jacket and scarf. But the Sun was out and bright on much of the daytime. Yesterday it reached up into the 50s. The buds are just beginning to appear. Tomorrow they’ll be slightly progressed so that you can see the green at the tip of each. Progress, Mother Nature’s way (even when us humans forget).

On Easter Sunday, JH sent me this photograph (at the top of the diary) he took on Fifth Avenue and 83rd Street, across from the Met. At first it was almost a shock to see. It looked out of place; I wondered if that were an authentic ’57 Chevy Bel Air convertible. It looked too long.

I knew the car and model well as a close friend had one back then. In black. And I was always very impressed when she’d drive up with the top down, stopping curbside in front of the house and tooting the horn which I could hear from inside. I was a teenager and everything was a movie. Lynn had come to pick me up. This was the early ‘60s.

Her parents (she was an only child) gave it to her as a birthday present for her 18th.  Naturally, I was taken aback, as they say; and very excited to be riding in it. The car had a previous owner and its price new back then was $2600 new (loaded).

My friend Lynn’s black 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air Convertible. Chevrolets were the General Motors version of the Ford. Same pricing class, great reputation; a family car. The convertible separated from that classification. A little racier, cooler, a fun car. Lynn’s convertible was neat and clean but never polished like a jewel like this.

Looking at the stunning photo, aside from thoughts about Lynn, who was a very important part of my teenage years, I found myself thinking about the cars that were popular when I was growing up back then. It was the height of the auto age. Cars were at the center of American domestic life, the way the cell phone is today. From the time I was six or seven, I loved cars with even greater fascination than any toys I possessed; and I knew every model of every car on the road, as well as its year.

My interest was part of the common interest of people, young and old, in those days. We were at top of the Automotive Age which really began at the beginning of the 20th century when an electrician, a farmer’s-son out in Dearborn, Michigan, named Henry Ford built his first Model A, designed for the working man (specifically farmers). Before that cars were luxuries of interest to the wealthy or well-fixed who could afford them. Henry Ford was one of those rare types who had natural vision of the future. He changed all that with his “Tin Lizzie” as they were call for years.

Henry and Edsel Ford introduceing the all-new 1928 Model A.

My father, who was born on April 2, 1900, was deeply impressed as a teenager by the automobile (which in the early days was referred to as the “machine” — automobile came into the language a little later). As a fan he was more taken with the luxury machines. A native New Yorker, born and brought up in Brooklyn, as a young man just out of the Navy after World War I, he got a job in Manhattan as a chauffeur. This was back before most of the city (or anywhere else) had stoplights, so motivating the byways around the other “machines” as well as the masses of pedestrian, bicycles, horses and wagons, could be hairy. 

Mayor Jimmy Walker exiting his Duesenberg.

In the late 1920s, the Mayor of New York Jimmy Walker was given a large chauffeur-driven Duesenberg by some admirer ($$??) but Walker hated riding in it because he was terrified of all that variety of oncoming traffic that the machine had to be manipulated around. And accidents did happen; all the time. Riding in that big Duesenberg, Mayor Walker feared for his life daily, and preferred walking to riding. My father, on the other hand, loved the adventure of dodging and angling the machine through the crowded streets uncontrolled by lack of stop lights.

I heard about all this, years later as a kid at the kitchen table when we were living up in Massachusetts far far from the madding crowd of New York. My mother used to bring up his former job as a driver. She liked to hear the “scoop” on his employers. Because they were rich and/or famous or wild playboys. 

His favorite boss was a man named Black Jack Bouvier who had a  Stutz Bearcat (sportscar) that my father would drive (with Black Jack in the passenger seat), racing at “90 miles an hour on dirt roads” (there were no paved roads out east back then) out to the Bouvier villa in East Hampton. Sounds exaggerated, but to this kid it was all real. And yes, that same Black Jack soon after became the father of two beautiful daughters who grew up to be world famous to this day.

A 1923 Stutz Bearcat. My father, who wasn’t highly verbal about his likes and dislikes, always got excited when he remembered this car. They were the “it” sportscar in the 1920s when the world was beginning to get racier with cars and life itself. I was never one for speed, so when he boasted that he and Bouvier were going 90 mph on dirt roads to East Hampton, I believed the “dirt roads” part because I knew it to be a fact. But “90 miles an hour”…? Wow.

Those were “the olden days” to this kid. My time had come in the first decade after the Second World War, in the 1950s when the auto industry was back to making cars after the years when all manufacturing was mainly for our military and our European allies. By the time I was seven or eight, I could identify all the cars on the road — which were all American — as well as the year and the model of each. Just seeing them on the road and knowing one day I’d be driving one of them myself was a thrill. 

The new post-War models were radically different from pre-War times. Besides the classics of Ford and GM, there were several makes of now long gone auto companies including Hudson, Studebaker, Packard, Nash, DeSoto, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Mercury that come to mind. Pre-war most of the cars had stick shifts (usually three speeds).

The is a 1941 Packard Touring Sedan. It might have been the last private car my father drove as a chauffeur around that time in New York when his employer was a Mrs. Levy, who was a daughter of Julius Rosenwald, the man who owned Sears Roebuck. The interesting thing about Mrs. Levy, according to my mother who never met her (my father obviously having told her), was that she never touched money with her bare hands, but always wore gloves when dispensing it. Later in life, when I was living in California I came to know Mrs. Levy’s son Armand Deutsch. A member of the Reagan Kitchen Cabinet set as well as an MGM producer. A very congenial fellow, full of information and stories about the rich and especially the famous, Ardie had met Charles Lindbergh on the landing field in France, shaking his hand as Lindbergh had just disembarked from The Spirit of St. Louis, having  completed his world famous journey in 1927. Ardie had lots of stories like that. A very nice man, I never got around to asking him about his mother and the gloves she wore when passing money.
The 1951 Ford coupe. Mr. Marcouliar, our neighbor two houses down came home from his business one spring late afternoon about 5 o’clock driving a brand new, just picked up, 1951 Ford. Many neighbors, as well as the kids, came out to look at it. In my mind’s eye, it was a small crowd inspecting in awe. That moment remains in my consciousness as seminal of that time in the American history that I’ve observed. This was a modern Ford; there were no sharp edges and the chrome finished it off. It wasn’t the Past from the depths of the Depression and then the great War across the world. This was the Now. The New. This was a car of the people, as Henry Ford intended a half century before; and it had enough sportiness to appeal as well. And it could be yours at the time brand new for $1,420.

Beginning in the early ‘50s, the new cars were mechanically and technically improved; fresh, modern, and streamlined. In the late ’40s, early ’50s the new automatic transmissions were “optional.” The cars now even came with radios (this was before TV took over our lives), and power steering, and semi-automatic, then a few years later totally automatic transmissions on all cars. Before that people were used to the clutch for shifting speeds, and you had to know how to use it in order to get a driver’s license.

Everything was getting streamlined like my friend Lynn’s very cool and  beautiful Chevrolet convertible, all reflecting the fresh national postwar optimism. Along with the “wrap around” windshields — which first came into fashion in the 1954 models at General Motors. And yes they were as long as they looked in the photos today. The national mood was up, way up. You can see the difference in national moods today in JH’s photo of Chevrolet convertible, compared to the  late model grey Buick on the left, also waiting for the light.

A lot of Americans in those days still didn’t have cars. They walked, often greater lengths than we do today. Although most everyone in my neighborhood had cars and garages. We didn’t have a garage. Our house which was built in 1839 had an old dilapidated barn in back of the property which was eventually razed. But no garage.

We also didn’t have a “new” car. I write that reminded of the disappointment I felt then — that my father couldn’t afford a new car. Instead he had older used cars. Back around the time that Lynn’s Chevy convertible was taking to the roads, my father had a 1935 black Dodge coupe — two-seater with a rumble seat in the back.  Rumble seats, if you didn’t know were where the trunk is. The door pulls out (instead of up) and reveals a small cushioned seat.

This is a 1935 Dodge Coupe. It’s kind of snazzy looking all shined up with white walls. But the one my father owned in 1951 was worn out and unshined long before it came into his possession. It embarrassed the boy (competing with the neighbors’s cars to hide my sense of inferiority – which the ’35 Dodge articulated in my thinking). Although, a ten-year-old riding home in the rumble seat by myself, wrapped in a blanket on a cold Autumn night, I loved it. I got to see all the cars passing in the opposite direction, taking my regular survey, and I could imagine myself as the King, seated in the back of his coach. It was always a good trip.

On most Sundays it was common for families with cars to go for a drive and to visit the relatives. My mother had sisters (wonderful aunts to this boy)  in the general area and after “dinner” (which is what Sunday lunch was called), they’d drive to the nearby towns to visit one of them. And I, being the third passenger, rode in the rumble seat. If it were winter I’d also be wrapped in a blanket since it would get very very cold on Sunday nights on the roads home, but this kid loved it. It was my first experience of something like a convertible — which had already impressed my dreams.

My rich Uncle Ken had a black 1941 Oldsmobile convertible with red leather seats. This was back in the late ’40s when people kept their cars and cared for them especially since the War had closed down auto manufacturing for much of the decade. The Olds, to me, was the luxury. In 1950, he finally traded it in for another convertible — a 1950 Studebaker Commander which was considered a step up from the Olds — although Studebaker-Packard finally went out of business long before Oldsmobile.

My uncle Ken’s ’41 Oldsmobile convertible. Uncle Ken was the rich uncle (in my imagination). He was a very prosperous salesman of business forms, a business severely altered by modern tech, but then a mammoth supply business. He worked independently and evidently was earning in the (low) six figures in the late ’40s and ’50s. Seventy-percent went for income taxes buthe was a proud American and this was simply his way of contributing to its “greatness.”  Once when we were visiting on a Sunday afternoon, the adults were talking about “money” — that’s what it sounded like to this unknowing kid. And Unk pulled a dollar bill out of his garbardine pants pocket, held it up in front of himself for everyone (my aunt, my mother, my father and me) to see, and then he tore it in half as if were just a piece of paper. I must have been about 8 or 10 years old and in those days a quarter or a half dollar was riches to a kid. Tearing up the almighty dollar dumfounded me. I wished my mother had it since she had to work, had to feed us and keep the roof there. My father was not reliable in that department, and I wondered what he thought when he watched Uncle Ken rip one up.


On the other hand, Unk had always wanted a Cadillac convertible, and he could afford it. But he had a wife before he married my aunt and he was afraid that if she saw him in the Caddy she’d take him to court for more alimony. So he went without. The top of the line for an Eldorado convertible in those days was the enormous price of $7000! Loaded.

Uncle Ken kept the Olds convertible until the automobile market opened up again after the War. About 1951 he traded it in for a new Studebaker convertible. It was a good looking car to this kid because it was a convertible and because Uncle Ken owned it. Looking back, it’s kind of odd looking. But it was very very popular back then although they later went out of business as Studebaker-Packard sometime in the late 1960s.

At that age, pre-teen I could identify every car and its year. Riding over to visit the aunts and uncles, I loved seeing all the different cars, and keeping count of each (six Chevys, thirteen Fords, three Dodges, four Plymouths, etc.). In retrospect I see there were far less cars last mid-century then there are today. Even New York City’s neighborhoods, even midtown, had far less cars and more parking spaces almost anywhere.

Mid-’50s, the cars were really flashing. The Cadillac was the Rolls Royce of the American cars. And in the mid-’50s, they went all out with the tailfins. This was very impressive to the kid. The Caddy was rare in our small town. There might have been more than I saw on the local roads, but I saw only three or four. One was owned by Judge Garvey, who became the local judge after a career in Springfield (Mass) working for the newspapers … then owned by the Putnam family (now owned by the Newhouse family) … and as the lawyer/defender of some local mobsters — specifically a man named Ice Pick Louie, and one named Big Nose Sam.

The 1954 Cadillac Fleetwood. This was the ultimate elegance in the 1954 American audience. It represented not only that but success a/k/a wealth. Which of course assumed many other good, high ranking things. Even getting a ride in one, to this kid, must have been an ultimate. I think I was sixteen before I happened to get a ride from Judge Garvey (for what I can’t remember.  Even the ride, seemed like what I’d imagined a Cadillac would feel like: a prince in his coach.

The Judge had a big grey four-door ’54 Cadillac Eldorado. His wife had a Chevy. Two cars meant another level of luxury. Then there was Mr. Hammond who had started out as postman and now owned the local natural gas company called Rural Gas. Mr. Hammond got a new Caddy every year. This was awesome. He was always the first. He lived much farther up the hill but I can still see him behind the wheel as he drove his  distinguished automobile serenely (never speeding) up the avenue to his residence. Very impressive. The third Caddy owner was/were three sisters. I would occasionally see them in their dreamboat new and shiny Coupe de Ville. Although I never knew their names or which sister was the regular driver.

The 1941 Lincoln Continental convertible came along before I was born and while updated over the following decade, it pretty much kept its look —  like a true classic. What impressed me beyond the top down/grille, whitewalls and solid elegance of sport and style,  was … the press button doors.  I saw only a couple of them in my life. Never one in my hometown growing up …

Here it is in profile …

And an all-time favorite memory: a 1961 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible. When I was in college, one of my classmates who became a friend was Allan Zehe from Erie, Pennsylvania. Allan was a hail-fellow-well-met kind of guy, tall and handsome like a movie star, and at the beginning of the sophomore year, when we were both fraternity pledges (DKE) and moving into the frat house, Allan pulled up in the house’s parking lot in this beauty. Brand new, navy blue, with white upholstery. A stand-out? Yes. A great ride? Yes. And hot stuff on campus wheels? Yes. Still a beauty all these years later. Cadillac kept their reputation in future models, but never with the zip and the flash of luxury like this.
My first car that I got second hand from a cousin. A 1960 Volkswagen Beetle. A German car, and said to be an idea in the mind of Adolph Hitler. The War, now being over for well over a decade, it became a big big hit here in America in the late ’50s, early ’60s. Its great success was also the brilliant advertising campaign by Doyle Dane Bernbach. They caught your eye and showed you the car with a fresh, down home, aw shucks, humor. I can’t remember how many miles to a gallon of regular gas (which was then $.30 a gallon) but it was a lot. It was simple, efficient roomy enough for four passengers (no luggage), and it could hold its own on the highway. Price: $1200. And if you kept it up to date with its basic, you could have it forever. I can’t remember what happened to mine.
My prized transportation these days, a 2009 black Mini Cooper convertible. Small, fast, efficient and very comfortable even for four dogs.

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