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The Family Car As A Timepiece

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Fond Memories

Can you remember your first “family car”? Which was the first one you remember? Did your family mark “eras” in your family’s history by whichever car was owned at the time? As with most American men of my vintage, my family’s history was often measured against the timeline of cars: when did Suzy get married? Did we have the green Plymouth yet? Or, the family car as a timepiece: “it wasn’t that long ago that I got stranded on the New Jersey Turnpike in our silver Fury”….”Dad, that was three cars ago!”
As most readers of Sharpologist, we are all about rediscovering our shaving “roots”: acquiring vintage or classic razors, rediscovering the use of the badger brush, the double edge blade and so on. Have we only nostalgia for the way our fathers, uncles and grandfathers shaved and not some of the other things, which made these men stand out? What of their cars? Uncle Jack drove a great big blue car with fins he steered with his knee while lighting a smoke, Uncle Louie drove a vintage Jaguar, Uncle Kurtz drove the coolest, fastest cars and trucks and Gramps drove a 1958 Vauxhall Victor Super which became my first car. Aside from my first car, the cars to which our family stories were pinned best were my father’s.
The first car I remember was a 1960 Dodge Dart Seneca Dad had bought used to replace his wrecked ’56 Desoto. By today’s standards, the Dart was huge: long, wide and finned. It was a mid-priced car, above the Plymouth and below the Chrysler, and our family owned the base model Dart, the Seneca. This big car had an enormous back seat in which I slept over many a mile on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, supported by the Car Bed. The Car Bed was a custom-fabricated, aluminum-legged, plywood-decked appliance Dad had made, which stood on the floor and extended the back seat’s area into a child-sized sleeping area; perfect for the long car trips from Philadelphia to Mom’s tiny home town in central Pennsylvania.
The best story involving the Dart was of the time we were all driving “up home” as my mother would say, when the muffler failed. Running at a constant highway speed, the car made no extra noises but when another motorist moved to pass us, courteous Dad took his foot off the accelerator and the fun began. The sudden drop in exhaust flow caused a cascade of loud reports from under the car, not unlike a series of gunshots, sounding like a crossbreed of fireworks and a tractor-trailer’s Jake brake. The people in the overtaking car stared at us wild-eyed and panic-stricken. The poor man who was driving stomped on the gas and flew past us and beyond as quickly as he could get his car to go. Dad laughed at this phenomenon, and my mother clucked disapprovingly. I was amazed. We drove on. Dad speculated out loud that the car’s muffler had failed and he began to think of where we could stop to have the car repaired on our way.
A short while later, another car slid alongside us and I piped up, “Do it again, Daddy! Do it again!” Always one to please his only son (especially when he could also prank someone in the process), Dad waited until the second driver came closer. And closer. And, with a deft slip of his right foot, removed it from the gas pedal. The popping, banging, belching sounds began anew and frightened our latest “next door” Turnpike neighbor who, like the first, took off like a flying mammal from you-know-where. I shouted with glee, my sister and my father laughed and laughed and my mother said, “Ted, stop that. Get it fixed the next time we stop!” in her most effective “we-are-not-amused” tone of voice.
We made a stop for food and found a next-door muffler shop, which replaced the muffler while we waited in the diner nearby. The rest of that trip was uneventful but that story is the one I will always associate with that big, black Dodge.
Dad kept having mechanical problems with the Dodge, so our next car was a new 1966 Plymouth Fury II. It was my parents’ first new car. This car marked my years in elementary school and my sister’s wedding. We took many trips in it, even to Niagara Falls the summer my sister was married. One of many stories, which I associate with the Plymouth, follows.
In the summer of 1970, my parents and I went “up home” to my mother’s birthplace to visit and she insisted on travelling back to Philly “the way we used to go; over the mountain.” Mom’s birthplace is a village (says so on the sign) named Hawk Run, near Clearfield, Pennsylvania. Once Interstate 80 was completed across the northern tier of the state that year, Dad always took us to Hawk Run via I-80 because it was faster to travel and a wide superhighway.
66 Plymouth Fury

The summer in question, on the way home my mother made her request, so we travelled home over the two lane secondary roads following US 322 toward the state capital of Harrisburg and the junction with the Turnpike. We stopped at the scenic overlook called Skytop, where there was a small diner and parking lot. The view of the surrounding valley was great and I was suitably impressed. On my way home from a solitary trip to my parents’ graves one year I decided to retrace the route we had taken all those years ago. Skytop is still there, but the view is no longer as scenic as I remember it; the diner is gone and there stands a physical therapy office. It was a little sad for me and reminded me of Thomas Wolfe’s, “you can’t go home again”.
However, back to the story: it’s again the summer of 1970 and we are descending a long grade entering the town of Camp Hill, a suburb of Harrisburg, on our way to the Turnpike. The bypasses and limited-access expressways of Route 322 would not be built for many years yet; 322 was at best, a three-lane road in some areas, two lanes in most.
We had been running in and out of rain and thunderstorms the whole way and my mother was nearly beside herself with fear (she was always a nervous Nellie when riding in a car, except when I drove, years later-don’t know why) and a thunderstorm overtook us. As we came toward a strip of gas stations and restaurants on the edge of Camp Hill, about three or four city blocks in front of us a bolt of lightning suddenly struck a power pole and its transformer with a blinding flash, ferocious thunder and a Hollywood shower of sparks. I had never seen anything so awesome! I had never seen lightning strike and I was in awe! I yelled, “Wow!” Dad hollered, “Look at that!” Mom snapped, “Turn in here!” as we drew even with that great American motorist’s restaurant, Howard Johnsons.
Dad dutifully obeyed and we had dinner while waiting out the storm. It was a powerful one; the lights in the HoJo’s kept flickering and browning out from the lightning strikes in the area. After an hour or two, the storm passed and we were on our way again. I wanted to talk about the awesomeness of the lightning strike, but Mom would hear nothing about it. As I write this, the moment of the lightning strike is as vivid in my mind as when it happened all those years ago.

 In Chrysler’s bad old days

After the ’66 Plymouth began to fall apart at five years of age, our next car, was another Plymouth, a 1971 Fury III. Dad was very enamored of Chrysler products and went with the affordable top model of the lower-end car rather than the base model of a higher-end car. The ’71 was bigger, more luxurious and even had air conditioning! It was our first car to have it. Of course, we soon found out that the car’s big 360 cubic inch V8 and police interceptor axle gearing guzzled gas as if it had a hole in the tank whenever we ran the A/C. It was a powerful car, used by the Philly cops; Dad loved being able to beat out hot rodders at green lights and then drive away from the next light sedately as if nothing had happened. My sister, who was living with her family outside of Washington, DC by then quipped that the ’71 had only 2 speeds (as Dad drove it): high and fly!
A lot happened to our family while we had that car. I learned to drive on it, quickly switching to compact English cars with standard transmissions; my sister delivered her first child in Virginia and we were there; I graduated from high school and we drove to Orlando to see Disney World in 1975 and Mom died a year and a half later, with Dad, Marilyn, baby Billy (Brian’s older brother) and I driving up to Hawk Run for the funeral.
As I said above it was built in the Bad Old Days of the post-muscle car ‘70s when antipollution equipment and adjustments were beginning to be added to production cars and they began to burn unleaded gas. The American automakers scrambled to retrofit early emissions technology to existing platforms and what resulted wasn’t very good: lower emissions, low power and poor drivability. The ’71 was hard to start and tended to stall in traffic if not constantly fed fuel. Over the road, on a steady speed it ran well, but when approaching a turnoff ramp, it would stall as soon as one’s foot came off the gas. It simply wasn’t made properly and suffered frequent trips to the dealership and, once out of warranty, frequent trips to our mechanic.
On the trip to celebrate the baptism of my sister’s firstborn in the summer of 1976, I drove the Fury to Marilyn’s with Dad riding shotgun and with Mom and Dad’s two sisters in the back seat. The trip went well until we got to the I-95 Harbor Tunnel through Baltimore. We got down into the tunnel and traffic backed up and stopped. A huge truck far ahead was too tall and had struck the tunnel’s ceiling. It took at least 45 minutes for emergency crews to finally deflate the truck’s tires and extricate it to free up the traffic. This being said, I had to work the shifter, bumping the Fury in and out of gear to keep it running while navigating the stop and start traffic. I did everything I could to keep the engine running; I didn’t want to use the starter any more than necessary because automotive batteries in the 1970s weren’t as good as they are today and the battery wasn’t new. And, so we went on through the tunnel: shift-clunk-accelerate, shift-brake, shift-clunk-accelerate, shift-brake. I was stressed out from all this; Dad kept talking me down to keep me calm and I actually heard praying coming from my aunts in the back seat.
Upon leaving the tunnel and paying the toll, I noticed we had used up an entire tank of gasoline and we were on “empty”. We exited, found a gas station as soon as we could and continued on our way with Dad taking over the driving. It was a great trip, otherwise. I carry a snapshot of my parents from that weekend in my wallet; it’s the picture I show when I want people to see my parents.
That Fury was comfortable on long trips, despite its voracious appetite. After that trip down to my sister’s, we always traveled sixteen miles out of our way to cross the Baltimore harbor via the Key Bridge in order to avoid the tunnel. Years later, I found out that one of my aunts and my mother were afraid of tunnels, especially one which ran under the water of the harbor.

Closing

Each of three cars played the role of milestone at key intervals in our family’s lives over a period of only twelve years, providing a counterpoint to the events of our family from 1966 through 1978. As with many American men, I am sure, we had many, many more family stories punctuated by whichever car we owned at the time, before the Dart and after the second Fury.
I find some of my own family’s history remembered against the backdrop of my own cars: my beloved ’58 Vauxhall, a 1974 Austin, a 1980 Nissan 310, a 1984 Jeep Cherokee, a 1975 Dodge Charger (sister to the Chrysler Cordoba), and two Caravans. I, too, had a fondness for Chryslers but now I drive a GMC SUV because as a nurse, I have to be able to get to work in any weather. And, I miss driving a stick.
Oddly, my sister also marks the timeline of her own family’s life by her cars; especially The Dinosaur, as I called it, her beloved 1971 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon. But, that’s another story.

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5 thoughts on “The Family Car As A Timepiece”

  1. Excellent tales! I used to sit for hours and listen to these types of recollections and stories from my mother and grandparents and dearly miss hearing them now that they’ve passed. Thank you for sharing yours!

  2. Ah, with me it was a couple of 1960s series Chevrolet that were the milestone cars.
    Excellent stroll down memory lane.

  3. Great reminiscences, especially since I spent the first seven years of my life in a suburb of Harrisburg–amazing that such a small place as Harrisburg could have suburbs!
    We drove similar trips in a 1948 Chevy, 1953 Ford, 1957 Merc, and 1960 Olds 98. The cars kept getting bigger and better (?) and more expensive, certainly more reliable as well.
    Thanks for sharing the fun.

  4. That was just wonderful to read. Thank you for sharing those memories. I have some similar ones having grown up in Canada and later than you. Though the cars for us were different my memories were similar. Thanks again for rekindling them.

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