Cars of Atonement –

Posted: Sunday, August 07, 2016

From the August, 1997 issue of Road & Track

Usually, when someone says to me, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for your column!” some­thing inside of me freezes up and my neck gets about an inch shorter, like a person trying to run his car during a hailstorm or perhaps during a tornado in which large pieces of farm equipment are sailing through the air. This opening remark is usually followed by, “Why don’t you write about low-quality wiper blades, where one of those strings of rubber comes off and drives you crazy?”

Or, “How come you never write about clubs that go ice racing with Volkswagen-powered Bugatti replicas?”

The problem here is these readers have perceived, correctly, that I have written long tracts on subjects of much less substance, thereby digging my own grave in the column-suggestion department. Still, one has to be in­spired by a subject, however insipid, so these outside suggestions usually wash over me without actually soaking in, much as higher mathematics did when I sat in calculus class.

My poor math teacher might as well have been reading Finnegans Wake to a parakeet. And so it is with these proffered column topics

But an exception occurred last month when I was visiting the R&T office in California. A bunch of us were standing around the coffee machine when Senior Editor Joe Rusz said, “Hey, Pete, I’ve got a column idea for you. How come our parents, who lived in the golden age of wonderful performance cars and really neat, flashy luxury cars, always bought the dullest possible car they could find, regardless of price?”

We all stood and scratched our heads, silently. Good question.

Joe went on to relate how he had begged his folks to trade in their 1955 Chrysler 4-door sedan on an exciting new Plymouth Fury with ram induction and a gold spear down the side of the white body. He showed them glowing road tests, filled the breakfast conversation with praise and technical information, dragged them to the dealership to view prime examples of this car, and essentially did everything to influence their buying decision but run subliminal tapes in their sleep (“Buy a Fury; buy a Fury; buy a Fury”) and hold a symposium in the living room with a large cut­ away drawing of the car and a pointer.

Joe said, “I prayed at night, ‘Oh, God, please, please, please have them get that car. It’s so cool!’ That was the year Plymouth’s slogan was ‘Suddenly it’s 1960!'”

So, of course, they listened, looked and pondered, then went right down to the dealership and bought a new 1957 Chrysler Windsor 4-door sedan.

“It was the worst possible version,” Joe said, “not even a hardtop, but the 4-door with the pillar. They got the old wedge engine instead of the new HEMI, of course, with pushbutton TorqueFlite transmission. It really looked stupid with the moon discs I put on it…

Joe looked into his coffee forlornly and shook his head. “What on earth were they thinking?” he asked, still with that plaintive, hurt, 16-year-old pleading in his voice. “It was like they were afraid to have fun or were atoning for their sins by making the whole family suffer with the awful car.”

Joe hit a hot button here. He set off a discussion that kept the entire staff from doing any useful work for at least an hour. About two thirds of us, as it turned out, had nearly identical stories, while perhaps another third had actually loved cars and sampled a wide variety of the most interesting and exciting models of their era: natural-born convertible owners, with a love of performance, a respect for good engineering and maybe even the wry Bohemian gene that allows one to buy a 2-stroke Saab or a French car with a ridiculous horn that imitates bleating sheep.

My parents were more like Joe’s.

Just before my 16th birthday, my dad was looking to replace one of his long series of $150 “clunkers,” and one of the cars that offered itself on a local used car lot was a maroon 1954 Ford 2-door sedan with no hubcaps, chromed lugnuts, a 3-speed on the column and Ford’s new ohv 239-cu.-in. V-.

The Ford was nothing fancy; it had a plain mouse-gray interior and no two-tone paint or Skyliner novelty features, but I could see myself in that car. It looked like a James Dean car, if James Dean had been born a few years later and couldn’t find a Mercury.

My dad, of course, sensed my enthusiasm immediately and began his counterattack. He raised the hood and said, “V8, huh? Looks like a big one.” He looked at me and smiled, much the way a king might smile at a chef before giving his untouched dinner to a pale and perspiring court taster.

“Not very big,” I said, “same as the old flathead, but more efficient…”

He stood back and looked at the wheels and the chromed lugnuts. “Looks like it’s been hotrodded.”

The car dealer started up the car for us, and that was the nail in the coffin. It had twin Hollywoods and sounded wonderful. My dad looked at me again and smiled that smile. He declined even to go for a test drive and instead bought a turquoise 1954 Studebaker station wagon that barely ran.


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