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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.