By on January 27, 2007

My first memories are of the womb. The enveloping warmth, the soothing sounds that correlated to alien activity. I remember the sensations of being propelled: forward, stop, turning, forward again, the gentle g-forces rolling me delicately from side to side, ensconced in my snug compartment on all sides, conscious of the rounded form that surrounded me. My first ride was a VW.

I was a toddler. My mother had set me down in that deep little well behind the rear seat of a family friend’s split-window Volks. As I lay directly over the transmission, inches from the blower cooling the little boxer engine, I was one with the car. Every detail is as fresh today as it was then: the textures, shapes and most of all, the sounds. I can still hear the transmission whine and motor music overlaid with the howl of the blower. From then on, I would always call out “VW” when I heard one pass on the street below.

I was born in Innsbruck, Austria in the early fifties. We didn’t have a car. There was no TV. I was car-crazy, left alone with my powers of observation, accumulating vital knowledge. I would make my mother walk around any parked car that I didn’t recognize until she could find the tell-tale logo or emblem.

I had an intimate relationship with every vehicle in the neighborhood. I gazed at them endlessly, trying to discern some additional personality characteristic or trait in their physiognomy. My favorite one was a Tatra 87, a revolutionary Czech car from the 1930’s. I was entranced by its futuristic aerodynamic body, rear air-cooled V8 and dorsal fin.

The highlights of those first seven years of my life: occasional trips in the tiny cars common to that era.  Back then, a VW was a standard size car. Many, like the 600cc 26hp Lloyd my godfather drove, were much smaller; smaller than an original Mini. How did four adults and three children aged 12, 10 and 6 fit? They just did (My 6’4” godfather kept the cloth sunroof open whenever possible). I guess there was a reason why Europeans were all so slim back in the day.

My first intimate encounter with an American car arrived when we hired Herr Miller and his black 1949 Oldsmobile taxi for a confirmation outing. For a child used to automotive constriction, entering the Yank tank was like stepping into another, much larger world. I was quite literally shocked; who could imagine a vehicle with so much interior room? I have a photo of the party: my parents, two aunts, my grandmother, two older cousins, my sister, the driver and my brother and me. All eleven of us piling in was the reverse of a circus’ clown car act, and just as delightful.

My automotive education was occasionally punctuated by authentic automotive exotica. My father’s English colleague once arrived in a black Jaguar MK II. The exotic foreigner inspired awe and fear. After so much emotionally reserved Teutonic styling and friendly little machines, the big Jag seemed like a larger version of its totemic hood ornament, ready to pounce and devour its onlookers.

Another vehicular experience that could– that should have been the peak experience of my first seven years turned into one of my greatest disappointments. My father’s med-school buddy had married into money. His wife had bought him a brand new Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing. He brought his motor by for a visit. I feasted on every exterior and interior detail. I entered that hallowed space– only to be rudely removed so that my father could savor a hair-raising ride with the financially fortunate amateur rally driver.

And so my first peak automotive experience had to wait until one bright spring day in 1960 when I stumbled upon a land yacht parked in front of an historic hotel in Innsbruck. The chartreuse 1959 Cadillac deVille two door hardtop was the length of at least three Lloyds, with soaring fins and a roof that seemed to float above the body.

I’d never seen anything remotely like this four wheeled beast. Who knows how long I stared at every chromed detail, trying to comprehend its language. I totally lost myself in its mysteries. What was it trying to say to me? The closest object in my limited aesthetic data bank: Austria’s many florid Baroque/rococo churches. But they were all about the glories of heaven. Is that were this came from? Surely when Jesus returned to earth, this would be the ride The Father would give him for the journey.

Another intrigued onlooker brought me back to reality and explained the more earthly origins of the Cadillac. Within weeks of this transforming event, my father suddenly announced that we were moving to America. Car heaven, I thought, here I come.

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24 Comments on “Auto-biography Part 1: Revelation...”


  • avatar
    Glenn

    Thanks for the article, Paul. I enjoyed it.

    I was born in Michigan, my father worked at Buick in Flint, right off the farm several hundred miles away, in the Dynaflow factory (early 1950′s). Later, he worked at Ford’s Wayne Michigan plant building Mercury cars, then also senior Edsels starting just after I was born in 1957. He was then laid off (Edsel was a fiasco for many) and sold maple syrup off his brother’s farm, door to door for awhile (the UAW nor the state helped back then). He was one of the lucky guys who got called back to work later in 1958, building Thunderbirds (squarebirds) at Wixom. Six months later, he got a government job to escape the plants.

    I was born with gasoline in my veins, so to speak, and dad still relates that I would walk around his 1955 Ford at about age 2 to 3, and touch the car; touch anything I could reach. I’d then walk over to him, beaming, and hand him 6-8 screws (which he was then obliged to try to figure out where I’d removed them from, with my fingernails!)

    I remember going to all the car dealers with my father to pick up brochures and just look at new cars, every fall. Sometimes even in the summer just for fun. At age 15 I had a collection of literally hundreds of brochures, and 200 model cars I’d put together.

    When courting my wife, I told her if we married, she never would have to worry about me chasing anything except fender skirts (which at the time, she didn’t understand, being English). Kept my promise, 27 1/2 years later.

  • avatar
    Maxwelton

    Glenn, my wife knows the same thing. Elderly and decrepit English cars will show up from time to time, but it’s very unlikely that anything with opposite plumbing will occupy my time other than for a lecherous glance now and again.

    I’ve never understood affairs: c’mon, that’s time and money you could be spending in the shop!

    My first memory of cars is my father yelling out the window of the house to get kids to stop picking at the gaping rust holes in his ’62 Rambler American wagon. I liked cars as a kid but I didn’t really become car-crazy until I turned 13 or so and the reality of perhaps owning one soon was dawning.

  • avatar

    Paul,

    I can totally relate to the rear well of the VW. As a child of probably around 5-6, I found it incredibly cozy back there, and I, too, loved the sound of the engine (we didn’t have the V W, it belonged to parental friends.)

    My very first memory of any sort is being in some sort of baby carrier in the back of the 1950 Studebaker, hearing my father say, “we’re almost home,” before I knew what it meant. I suspect I was a bit less than a year.

  • avatar

    My earliest memories of cars:

    Ripping the headliner out of my father’s 1963 Chevy. I remember it being some sort of synthetic cloth, and I found a loose edge and pulled. Oddly, I don’t recall being yelled at for this.

    My father got out of ticket in that car because the cluster lights had gone out, and the batteries of the flashlight he used to see the speedometer had run down. The cop actually gave him a new set of batteries.

    Refusing to let my parents’ friends put the top down in their circa 1968 Olds Cutlass convertible because I thought the noise the top motor made would be scary. I’d never let a child of mine get away with this…

    Claiming to have seen a car with the exhaust pipe sticking out the front end. Had my father drive around the apartment complex’ parking lot looking for it.

    I didn’t really get car crazy until over a decade later when Detroit showed signs of life with the 1983 Ford Thunderbird and Pontiac 6000 STE. (The 1970s were not a good decade for getting excited about cars.) I remember seeing the Ford on the cover of Car & Drivers’ October 1982 issue, and buying the issue on the spot. Subscribed soon after; my first issue was April 1983, complete with the infamous Baja comparison test that included the Pontiac.

    Been car crazy ever since.

  • avatar
    htn

    I hope you cover the years at Faber College.:)

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    htn: Ironically, I live in Eugene where Animal House was filmed, and I get asked about it constantly.

    Michael K.: We share a common interest: I bought an 1983 T-Bird Turbo Coupe as soon as it came out (after seeing it on the cover of C&D). Nice car for the times, except engine NVH above 4,000 rpm; ouch!

  • avatar
    GlennS

    The first paragraph of this article is inspired writing!
    No wonder so many of us enjoy this site so much.

    My fisrt recallable ride: 1950′s-era big Buick.

    I can still recall the portholes in the front fenters, the sheer size of the beast–inside and out–and the speed at which my father drove that curved barge on the highway.

    No wonder I have a lead foot–it’s in my DNA–to use a recent (and overworked) auto analogy being tossed about.

  • avatar
    NICKNICK

    The best cheating advice I ever got was from Frank Barone: If you’ve got a problem with your woman, the last thing you do is get another woman because now you’ve got two problems.

  • avatar
    bestertester

    Paul, if you live in Eugene, then perhaps you know “Frau K.” who used to work at the Waldorf school?

    Because one of my childhood memories is sitting in her VW camper, returning from a beach excusion.

  • avatar
    cheezeweggie

    My best childhood memory was that of the first generation Mercury Cougar. Remember the turn signal lights which flashed in sequence within the lense ? Wow…

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    bestertester: Sure enough, I know Frau K. Our kids went there, and I took adult classes with her.

  • avatar
    bestertester

    holy cow paul! it’s a small world indeed.

    lazy as i am i did not call her for christmas this year but i will (hopefully) on her birthday in march. should you see her in the meantime (she lives on storey blvd), please give her my love. it would be from martin in frankfurt, germany.

  • avatar
    ejacobs

    Three years old, sitting between my parents in “The Green Truck,” a 1978 Ford Courier pickup (Mazda B truck) with topper. Falling asleep on a trip back home, waking up while pulling into our neighborhood. Two hours felt like 5 minutes and I thought, “This must be the fastest truck in the world.” Also learned how to tie my shoes on another trip in that truck. Loved the sound and feel of the gears whining, the engine working. I really thought of it as a family member–alive and with personality.

  • avatar
    mikey

    I was 8 my dad bought a 1960 Pontiac Strato Chief black 2dr pillar with a grey interior.
    To my non Canadian friends the full size B body pontiacs were American Pontiacs,with a chevy powertrain.Strato chiefs, Laurentein, and Parisienne.
    Two love afairs in my life number one is my wife number two
    has gotta be Pontiacs

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    mikey: stay tuned for Part 2; 1960 Pontiacs are a recurring theme (for good reason).

  • avatar
    KalapanaBlack7G

    Ahhh, automotive memories. My first word was “Trooper” (though I’m sure the pronunciation wasn’t great), as in Isuzu Trooper, a red late-80s example of which my aunt drove at the time.

    The first time I really remember getting hurt is when I cut my finger on the column shifter knob of the three-speed automatic attached to my mother’s 1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme coupe’s 305 cubic inch V8.

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    Maybe not the earliest memory but the most vivid and best memories are of my mom’s 63 Mercury Montclaire, beautiful swooped back look with tail fins and tons of chrome. Probably even more vivid are the smells of my grandfather’s 58 Chevy Apache Fleetside. Now that he’s gone, I have the truck, and that special smell still lingers-in my memory anyway-reminding me of the camping excursions, the first fish that I caught when I was 6 years old, and my grandfather.

  • avatar

    One of my early car memories is the scent of the heater on the ’57 Chevy. I can still recall it quite vividly, and when I do, I go back in my mind to Hollis St in Cambridge, where we lived at the time; there’s snow on the ground, and bright sunshine, and all the warm security good family life has for a four year old. If someone could replicate that particular new car heater smell, they could probably sell me a Kia.

    I can also remember goinh to the dealer one night to buy the car, and getting into the wayback and wondering, “is this a good car or a bad car.” I had a very clear line between the two. I didn’t particularly like the wheel wells, but I decided it was a good car.

  • avatar
    labrat

    I became hooked on cars at age 9. I remember going to the Dodge dealership with my dad to pick up our new car – a 1972 Dodge Polara – grass green with a dark green vinyl top, AM radio, two tone green vinyl interior, no AC, and roll up windows. Somehow, though, I thought it was cool, that is, until he handed me the 1972 Dodge catalog. I saw the beautiful Dodge Charger and became upset with Dad for not getting one of those instead. His reply was something like “Those small cars just don’t drive like the big ones do”. From then on, like Glenn, I went with my dad to the dealerships each fall and collected brochures each year. At age 43, I’m still not much different.

  • avatar

    My earliest conscious memory is standing on the driveshaft hump, holding onto the two front seats at face level, in the back of my parent’s ’64.5 Mustang. I was about 18 months old, and wearing those goofy PJs with feet built in. We were driving around one evening looking at the house my parents had just bought, being constructed. I distinctly remember my parents pointing out where my room was, and thinking it would be hard to live in there, as it was just framing at the time.

    I was brought home from the hospital in a ’62 VW Beetle, and the sound of an air-cooled boxer has always turned my head. I ended up owning a couple of them as an adult. My dad traded the VW for the Mustang, which rusted away by 1968, when he bought an MG B. (Mom had a Buick)

    In 1972 he bought an old 1950 MG TD, which he ended up restoring over two years in our garage and basement. I learned all my “bad words” while providing what little assistance a pre-teen can in the process.

    His last restoration project was right after he retired; a 1965 E-type Jaguar. Which through a series of unfortunate events I have ended up owning (you can read all about that on my website.) Now I am doing my best to pass on the “car guy” gene to my sons too. Genetics is after all, a scary thing. ;)

    –chuck

  • avatar
    geeber

    Paul Niedermeyer: Great article…my mother is German, and she moved to the United States in 1960 after marrying my father. She still talks about his cousin’s 1956 Pontiac hardtop coupe with awe…as I was growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I remember her commenting on how much she loved the “wide-track” pontiacs, particularly the Bonnevilles.

    As for me…I remember being awed by the sequential turn signals on Thunderbirds and Cougars of the 1960s.

    My love of things automotive was spurred by Matchbox cars – especially the 1965 Mustang fastback (white, with the front wheels controlled by a little lever on the side – anyone else remember it?).

    I also remember that Car & Driver cover featuring the 1983 “aero” Thunderbird. I was bowled over by that car. After the bleak years of the late 1970s and early 1980s, that car made me believe that there was hope for the American automobile industry. Ford then followed that one up with the Taurus, which looked like it was straight out of the 21st century.

    Let’s hope that Ford can pull another T-bird out of its hat in the 21st century.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    geeber: What is it about those 1960 Pontiacs? Stay tuned for Part. 2. Do a google image search for fitzpatrick, the guy who painted those blissful wide-track ads; you’ll have a trip down memory lane.

  • avatar
    Mike

    My dad was the source of my car obsession. I don’t remember it, but my mom & dad both tell me that we would go down the road and I would name car makes as they went by: “Pontiac”, “Ford”, “Toyota”, etc.

    The first real memory of a car was when my dad bought a ’86 Nissan 300ZX Turbo (5-speed, t-tops, electronic gauges, gold color) that needed a lot of work done. I remember the day he got it running and hearing it come to life in the garage. It was great.

  • avatar
    P.J. McCombs

    Seems I’m a bit young in this crowd. My earliest car memories involve drawing pages full of gauges, dials, and controls with a permanent marker, and then taping them to the dash and headliner of my parents’ ’84 Cavalier wagon.

    That would become my first car ten years later, a car that taught me volumes about the nuances of understeer and brake fade.

    Thanks for a fantastic article, Paul.


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