West Petersen, Editor in Chief of “Antique Automobile,” the AACA bi-monthly magazine, wrote an article in the May/June 2012 issue, titled “Poetry to Savor.” In it, he focussed on the writings of the late Thomas D. Murray, of whom I had never heard and doubtlessly, many of you may not have. Much of Murray’s literary career was spent writing advertising copy for various ad agencies, including co-writing Corvette ads for Campbell Ewald, now one of the world’s largest marketing and communicating agencies. Eventually, he worked for David E. Davis, a memorable automobile writer whose name every car person probably knows.. His writing eventually evolved into other areas, where he appealed to the “type of reader who wasn’t interested in 0-60 times, but in the ultimate gasoline additive, romance.”
Were Murray still writing about cars, I wonder what romance he would find in driving today’s cars. To my mind, the emotions triggered by driving a piece of machinery capable of reaching 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, cannot compare to the leisurely, elegant movement through the world in an old collector car. Especially the luxury cars of the 1930s and 1940s provide a driving experience that brings totally different emotional responses than the high performance of today’s power cars or the neutral, unexciting ride of the typical jelly bean. In the name of mandated gas mileage or safety, the tactile experience of driving a new car has been engineered out and todays drivers don’t even know the difference. For me, there is no longer any sheer pleasure associated with the operation of a car. They are simply to too neutralized and devoid of any personality. Road feel and the sounds that machines make are what drive my emotional response to cars.
Back to the subject and quoting Petersen, “He (Murray) was the finest writer in America for explaining why we love cars – he virtually defined the nostalgia element in the hobby. It is not so much that he wrote something we never knew, it was the way in which he put down on paper something we felt for years but were never able to express.” That is the most succinct and accurate description I’ve ever read of why I like the prose of certain writers; that they find beautiful ways of saying what I cannot. My myriad memories of the cars in my life, over the years, often rise to my consciousness unexpectedly when I see, feel, hear or smell things that I usually cannot even identify let alone describe. As Murray once said, “Just what is it that you like about gorgeous days and heavenly nights?” (Is it the colors and smells of Springtime, or velvety night skies of Summer? )
Although my memories of cars go back to when I was about two years old, they were primarily of family cars, not my own. There were times that we did not own a car, so some that I remember actually belonged to family members. One fairly vivid memory is of a trip from Oklahoma City to Lawton in the rumble seat of a 1934 Plymouth business coupe owned by Dad’s brother, Uncle Gene.
It was black, of course, unlike the one illustrated. For reasons I con’t recall, Dad sat in the front with Uncle Gene and his wife while Mom, Bubba and I sat in the rumble seat. It would have been about a three hour trip, given the roads and the speed we could travel, while today, the same trip would take about 90 minutes. It was cold and the wind made it miserable, but I didn’t think about it. I was having too much fun in the open air, in that rumble seat. That experience probably had a lot to do with my eventual love for convertibles and I’ve owned four.
Having been obsessed with cars from early childhood, I was excited to have my first car, a 1951 Chevrolet two-door sedan with Powerglide.
It was a good little car and I loved it, but when Dad found my first convertible, I saw STYLE! It was a 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air, pale Green with a dark Green side-stripe, three on the column and a two-tone medium and dark green interior.
The love affair began. Predictably, many of my friends wanted to double-date and go in my car, which made me feel good Gas was only 17 cents a gallon, but I only made about 50 cents an hour at my supermarket job, so Dad and the friends had to help with my gas bill. Talk about the love of gorgeous days and heavenly nights! I don’t think I was ever more acutely aware of either than in a convertible and I still feel that way, today. Driving to and from Austin and Vernon, many times at night, with the top down will always be some of my favorite recollections. For many years, I had a tradition of driving with the top down on Christmas Day, no matter the weather. I think I’m beyond that, now, but if I had a convertible, who knows?
The second convertible, which replaced the Chevy, was another one that Dad found for me in Oklahoma City and was a 1955 Oldsmobile Super 88, white front and Glen Green rear and lower. I don’t have any decent pictures of it, but if you can visually the below car with medium Green instead of black, you’ll get the idea.
It had a two-tone light green/dark green interior, Hydramatic and power brakes, but no power steering. It also was a four year-old used car when I got it, but only had about 15,000 miles and was virtually showroom new. Compared to the Chevy, it was heavy, soft and smooth, and nearly silent, with a lot of power. Even so, I got about 22 or 23 mpg on the highway, if I kept it below 80. It was a cool car for a college student at OU, even if it wasn’t new. It looked really good and I got some attention. The love affair continued, with lots of top-down time, in town and on cross-country trips. I never gave a thought to the danger of a stone being kicked up by another vehicle. At high speeds, that can be a fatal accident, but when you’re twenty years old, who worries?
It just dawned on me that my Dad found my first three cars and each of them thrilled me, especially the convertibles. It gives me a really warm feeling for my Dad, who likely was having a great time finding and helping me buy cars he would love to have had when he was a young man, but due to his meager circumstances could not. He was a sweet little man, only about 5′ 7″ tall and very quiet, but I knew he loved me.
After graduation from OU, I went on active duty as a Second Lieutenant in the US Army, assigned in France and, later, Germany. I had two Mercedes and a Pontiac Tempest station wagon with the troublesome slant four. I owned it for about six months, I think, and had to put four timing belts in it, so traded it on a new, 1966 VW Karmann Ghia convertible, only weeks before rotating back to the US, and I shipped it home. I drove it from the Port of New York to Norman
The miles I put on it in Germany before discharge were a total joy. Remember, it was nothing more than an air-cooled Beetle albeit in a beautiful skin and it had no more power, although the top speed was slightly higher, due to the improved aerodynamics. I think I might have seen 75 mph a time or two, on the Autobahn, but I knew better than to get into the left lane if I could see any other vehicle behind me at whatever distance. Still and all, driving it on curvy, lower speed two-lane roads was great fun and, in my imagination, I was driving a sport car. If I want to maintain any speed at all, I learned to really row the four-speed and having synchro into first gear really helped. When I took a job in St. Louis and my new wife went to work for the Missouri State Welfare Department, she had a case load in the worst possible ghetto area of the inner city. In the humid, Summer, St. Louis heat, she could not keep the windows up for safety and putting the top down was out of the question. So, we traded the little Ghia for a two-year old Pontiac Catalina Sport Coupe, with a/c.
After 25 years of marriage and a number of other cars and a divorce, in which my ex-wife got the 1986 Nissan Stanza and I kept my 1951 Cadillac Fleetwood, which had to serve as a daily driver for awhile. I went through a couple late model cars and a new Grand Cherokee, (probably the most trouble-prone car I’ve eve owned,) before buying my last convertible, a 1995 Mustang GT. Dark Forest Green with a saddle colored leather interior.
That car was really special to me for many reasons. It was the most powerful car I’d owned and had a wonderful dual exhaust rumble. I didn’t know how to handle the power, for awhile and nearly got in trouble, several times. Rounding the corner from the Fitzhugh to the Northbound ramp onto 75, I gassed it a bit too much and the rear end got squarely and sideways on the ramp. A little old lady behind me in a Town Car turned white and backed way off until I got onto 75 and took off. Another time, heading toward Oak Lawn on Lemmon, from West Village, I put it airborne where the hill drops off toward Turtle Creek, which even scared me. I know better than to drive that way, anymore, although you-know-who would likely argue the point. It helps that Daisy doesn’t have that kind of power.
i haven’t had a convertible since 2007 and I can’t think of one manufactured today that holds any interest for me. There are numerous collectible convertibles that I’d love to have, but prices of convertibles have risen beyond my means, I’d still buy one, if I could. I have no illusions that buying a convertible would be a way to recapture my youth, or would make me interesting to some sexy guy. I have someone in my life and have no interest in attracting anybody else. While it would not make me any younger, except possibly in spirit, I have no doubt that it would bring back all the sensations and memories of convertibles past and good times driving them.
Long live ragtops and their romance.