30. Cars… a nostalgic road trip

“My four-speed dual-quad, positraction 409.” Pure poetry, recorded in 1962 by the Beach Boys. Just don’t ask me what it means. I’m guessing positraction is the opposite of negatraction. 

I like cars. I’ve always liked cars. Not fast cars. Not plain cars. And not pimped-out muscle cars. I’m not “… saving my pennies and saving my dimes” for a four-speed, dual-quad, positraction 409. In my old age, I’ve come to like classic, comfortable cars that reflect an understated elegance, a certain je ne sais quoi appropriate for my venerable station in life.

The significance of cars in my life goes back to the fact that I was automotively humiliated as a teenager. When I turned 16, our family car was a 1960 white Chevrolet Biscayne, the bottom of the Chevy line-up in the ’60s. Our car had an automatic transmission, gearshift on the column, 6 cylinders, AM radio, and blackwall tires. If you looked up “loser’s car” in the dictionary, you’d see a picture of our car with me behind the wheel. It’s a miracle I had any friends in high school. Or dates.

Hmmm. Epiphany: That car was probably why I was the only kid in my high school class to graduate… you know… inexperienced.

As a teenager, I had only asked for two things in the family car: convertible top, and whitewalls. My father’s response? No (convertibles are too hard to heat in winter), and no (whitewalls are too hard to keep clean). 0 for 2. We never had a car that I wanted to drive through the Steak ‘n Shake lot. Nothing about our car said, “Hey, wanna take a spin?”

Out of guilt, my dad did rent me a beautiful 1963 Ford convertible for my high school graduation weekend. I just drove it through the Steak ‘n Shake lot over and over.

Although I understand nothing about a car’s engine, I still remember the biggest, hottest Chevy engines back then. Top of the line, of course, was the 409, of Beach Boys fame. But there was also the 327 and the 283 engines. I can tell you which of my high school friends actually drove a 409 and a 327. They were the lucky boys whose parents loved them. And had money.

In my 20s, I finally realized my dream of owning a convertible; a 1969 Camaro convertible, with whitewalls, was the first new car I ever bought. Yeah, baby! Loved that car. And I got convertible out of my system.

Buying cars in my early adulthood was a challenging task. Because I knew nothing about cars, I never felt comfortable buying a used car. (My father again: “Why would you buy someone else’s problems?”) Each new car I bought was a little sexier than the one before. I remember my first car with air conditioning. (Father: “Why do you need AC? The windows roll down, don’t they?”) The first with cruise control. And the first with a cassette and then CD player.

I went through a sorta hippy stage with a Volkswagen van. A true hippy van would have cost me $100, had 100,000 miles on it, a transmission going out, and a Grateful Dead bumper sticker. This one was shiny, new, and air conditioned, for hippies who didn’t want to perspire. And expensive. So expensive, I sold it after only six months. The impulsivity of youth.

One summer, while my daughter was at YMCA camp, I bought a new silver Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, with a blue landau roof, AC, cruise control and AM/FM stereo radio. A definite upgrade for me. When I picked Erin up from camp, I proudly pointed out our new wheels. She was impressed. A couple years later, when I told her that she was about to meet a woman I was serious about (Carole), she responded, “She’ll certainly be impressed with our car.”

Several months later on our wedding weekend, when I picked up Carole’s father at the airport, he was not impressed. “What Is this? A 4-cylinder??” Wow. It was like he’d seen my tax returns, and knew that I was not worthy of his daughter. Our marriage was already in jeopardy.

Fast forward to today. Now it’s all about the feeling of sitting behind the wheel of a quiet, clean, roomy automobile with all the convenience features at my fingertips. The kind of car we feel comfortable driving on road trips through the Tetons or the Florida Keys or New York City.

A car with that special je ne sais quoi.

So why a blog entry about cars?? I don’t know. They’ve always been important to me. And like most important things, my car experience has evolved, along with my hearing, my vision, my hips and knees. Now, it’s all about old guy comfort.

But every now and again, it’s cool to revel in the nostalgic poetry of 1962: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GHRJCcCYAF4

19 thoughts on “30. Cars… a nostalgic road trip

  1. It sounds like you your songs better than your cars.
    Nice memories though so keep up with the great old blogs

  2. Hi Larry,

    I can really identify with this blog. I, too, had to drive the car that everyone in High School laughed at. It was a hand me down from my Grandmother. In my case it was a 1960 4 door powder blue Ford Falcon. While it did have an automatic transmission, it had NO radio and NO lighter. In fact it had nothing but the metal dashboard, lights, blackwall tires and windows. Try going on a date with that!

    The car was so slow that dogs didn’t even bother to chase it. However, I drove it whenever I could, which was not often. I think that the experience traumatized me and stunted (no short jokes please) my appetite for nice cars. I now drive a 2005 Prius.

  3. Isn’t it true that you drove your high-school era car with the windows rolled up so your friends would think you had AC? That’s what I heard anyway.

    1. Jane, that’s a slightly different story, but similar theme. Uncle Warren would sometimes let me drive his Cadillac — a thrill in itself — when he’d take me to a Cardinals game or a Mizzou football game. I would make sure the windows were rolled up as we drove down our street, so that our neighbors would know it had air conditioning… as if any Cadillac did not have air conditioning! Believe me, my friends and neighbors knew that we did not have air conditioning!😀 (I was always such a deep thinker.)

  4. Gawd, I love you Larry Michener. Thanks for making me stop and remember. Want one of my Mom’s parliaments? I could share….she made me pay 25cents for the whole pack (after she caught me stealing them). If it wasn’t Steak n Shake night, I would go up to our only bathroom, smoke there and blow the smoke out the screen window cause I knew she wouldn’t catch me!

    Ah, also, thanks again for taking me home on that Gin fizz drunk night. I didn’t do too well, did I.

    I’ll be back in Chicago next weekend for a couple…I’ll wave atcha…it’s all kiddo time. Hugs, Suzie

    1. If you really loved me, Susie (notice that?), you’d spell Mitchener correctly. And for the record, we were drinking sloe gin that night 50+ years ago. You spilled that red liquor on Boyd’s camel hair blazer!😩

  5. That’s not Boyd Knapp you’re referring too…is it? Because he didn’t believe in drinking. Wait…did you say camel hair blazer?

  6. There was one spring evening in late highschool when I found myself with a couple of other guys (don’t remember who …) in Jim Patterson’s family’s ’61 – 283 – 2bbl sedan (Bel Air, my memory tells me) cruising around. To make the car sound louder and meaner (… cooler …), as soon as we were out of sight of adults, he pulled over, popped the hood and took the air cleaner off (put it in the trunk). Running the intake raw – with the throaty sound of unrestricted air being sucked in with each cylinder’s pull whenever he goosed the throttle – in that car, there was hope that bystanders would think this was the hottest car in town! (Me? I was out of my league that night . . .) Great blog, Larry!

    1. Smitty, you may have been out of your league that night, but I’m certainly impressed with your engine expertise. I barely knew what you were talking about!! I do remember that the Bel Air was between the Biscayne and the Impala.

  7. Larry , As always it’s fun to read your memories …..In this episode I can truly relate to your car memory , in high school………..I won’t bore you with the junk heap car we had or the divorcing parents , or the fact that I rented a room my senior year just so I could graduate from WGHS……….But to reminisce, is better then to live thru it again…..

  8. Very fun blog, Larry. Our first Lane family car also was a silver Cutless Sierra. Had it for several years before we traded it in for a van. Daughter Anna cried when we did that. She’s always been sentimental.

  9. Great post! The You Tube list of additional options to watch affirmed the aging of Beach Boys fans – second one on my list was cures for tinnitius. Oh, well, twas a fun look and listen anyway.

    1. Excellent observation, Ruth. People who’d like Beach Boys also might have tinnitus issues! (possibly from listening to Beach Boys albums too loud)

  10. Hi Larry,
    While I have certainly never been interested in cars other than for transportation, my father, Bill Stryker would have been considered a fan back in the day. I can remember as far back as age 3, my father had a Packard. From there he moved on to a DeSoto. Around age 5 he bought a shiny red convertible with white top, probably a Chevrolet and took our family to Florida. I thought it was a short vacation but it turned out to be a year! We came back to WG and he got interested in Cadillac’s! Oh my! He had to have a new one every year. New color! Hot pink, light yellow, light pink, black, bright blue (space ship like tail lights) and on. Somewhere in there we did have a sensible family car like a Blue Chevy station wagon. Year 1961! Bill Stryker bought his daughters a 1961 Chevy Impala Convertible, Suntan Bronze (white top) automatic 6. What was he thinking? My sister and I went crazy!!! We had a blast until she had an accident (minor) and then he bought us an old clunker.
    I was finally allowed to drive his current Cadillac (gold) by the time I was 21. I was going for an interview with American Airlines and my clunker didn’t have air conditioning. I got the job then didn’t need a car! I bet some of his cars are in Cuba!

    1. Rudi, this is how much I remember about classmates’ cars. The convertible you drove was a 1960 Chevy Impala, not a 1961. Boyd Knapp’s family had a ’61 Impala convertible, as well as Boyd’s white Sprite. Some kids had all the luck!

  11. I reread your auto nostalgia car blog. Just like the cars of the 60’s and the joy ridding we had with them, your writing takes the reader through all the twists and turns of a good road trip. Let me relay the most humorous hot rod event I recall. In 1967, I headed to my first year in college, without a car. Of course several of the guys had hot, flashing new cars like mustangs, roadrunners, etc. These were macho cars and chick magnets. The owners loved to show them off and take us for rides. Often we pulled up to a stop sign next to another hot car to have mini-drag races. It was fun. One day, I ran into guy in my dormitory who was leaving for class and he asked if I wanted a ride. As I approached the car, it was the oldest, ugliest car in the entire lot. It had large dints on it and and the paint was falling off. It was probably a 51-53 Chevy, completely out of style and a car no one would want to be seen in. As we drove out of the lot I asked him why he drove this piece of crap. He immediately downshifted the three foot floor shifter, hit the gas full throttle, and pealed rubber (yes in every gear, just as the Beach Boys song goes) until we hit about 70 or so on the 25 mph campus road. A bit later, we pulled up along side a brand new, hot something or other 400 HP car. He looked over at the guy in the other car, as he revved up the engine in his beat up 51 chevy. The driver of the other car, with a group of riders, looked over and laughed but they took the bait. The race was quickly over and the shiny new hot car was left way behind. With a big smile he turned to me saying, “This is why I drive this piece of crap. I have so much fun, embarrassing the guys with the fancy cars.” Arriving back to the dorm, he lifted up the hood, revealing a huge shinny engine with all sorts of custom carburetors, air intakes etc. This guy knew how to have real fun. I have never forgotten him.

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