By on November 23, 2010

The last time I attended a ball game, JFK was running for president. My older brother tells me that Mickey Mantle hit a homer. He would remember. Tom was a baseball fan.

I loved cars, not sports. At age six, I asked my mother to count the days until I could drive. I loved especially the elegantly maternal Mercurys. Nonetheless, I saw brands as classification systems, like the species of my beloved butterflies, rather than as foci for tribal loyalty, like my brother’s Yankees.

But fandom–the word derives from “fanatic”–is a holy grail of marketing, and I was not immune. At age nine, I sacrificed my objective appreciation of cars on Madison Avenue’s altar. In choosing my favorite car, loyalty trumped aesthetics. We had a Chevy.

Then my mother informed me that Chevy was part of “General Motors,” which also made Pontiac, Olds, Buick, and Cadillac. Once my shock wore off, I learned to love the sibling brands. Soon, I viewed General Motors as the One True Car Company, and I proselytized anyone I could corner. “Gee, he likes cars,” said the 12 year old daughter of parental friends visiting from out of town.

I kept score. I knew that GM owned more than half the US market. I also knew every car in my suburban Boston development. The McRaes’ ‘59 Borgward was no threat to GM’s hegemony, but every neighbor’s new Plymouth or Dodge stung me like a lost ball game.

True, Fords sold better, but Chrysler Corporation played the spunky underdog. “THE DODGE BOYS ARE WOOING CHEVIES,” the radio would boom. “YES, BRING YOUR CHEVY DOWN AND WE’LL GIVE YOU A SPECIAL DEAL ON A BRAND SPANKING NEW DODGE!” I took it personally.

But by that time, our ‘57 Chevy, with 85,000 miles, had gone geriatric. My parents rented cars for trips. For a ski trip, they rented a Dodge Dart. Before we reached Black Mountain, that car’s obvious excellence would test my powers of denial.

When we stopped to leave the pets at the vet, Dad locked the keys in the trunk. Two policemen came to the rescue. “We’ll have your keys in five minutes,” one assured us.

Twenty-five minutes later, the officers were huffing and puffing, the sweat pouring down their faces in rivulets as they labored to remove the rear seat back from its fasteners. “This [huff] is a great [huff] car,” one officer told my father. Most seat backs detach so easily that in a crash, they can kill people, he said. But not this Dodge.

That only added to the cognitive dissonance weighing down my soul. Consumer Reports, the family bible on big ticket items, consistently ranked Chrysler above GM. My logical mind could not fault its methodology, so I combed each issue for slant. When car-shopping parental friends I evangelized dismissed my recommendations with allusions to Consumer Reports, I insisted it was biased.

I wanted empirical evidence to support my own bias, which was further strained by my sense–which I would never admit to myself–that the Dart felt durable. In contrast, the Chevy was clunky. So as we drove north, I prayed, “God, make the Dodge break down,” over and over, not realizing that had God intervened, it would have been deus ex machina.

We drove into the evening, Tom and I in back with our toddler sister, Miriam, between us. At length, a mysterious warmth permeated my nether regions. When it turned cold, I realized what it was.

“Mom, Dad, Miriam peed on me. Can we stop, so I can change my pants?”

“We’ll be there within an hour, Mom replied. “You can wait.” My cold, clammy privates rearranged my priorities. I quit praying for a breakdown.

Fast forward six years. The current family Chevy had just been totaled. With a sabbatical to Stanford looming, my father sought a beater for the interim. Cognitive dissonance had eroded my devotion, and my expectations were low. But I was still disappointed when he announced his purchase: a $200 1962 Ford Falcon. But when I saw the new car enter the driveway, I was instantly smitten. (Scientific fact: car enthusiasts use the same part of the brain to recognize cars and faces. See Nature Neuroscience, March 10, 2003) It was as if some female schoolmate’s obvious beauty had finally penetrated my thick skull. A revelation ensued: I was no longer a Chevy man. I was free to like whatever car I wanted to like.

At the end of the summer, my parents gave me the Falcon, and I drove to California. Though I loved it, I was through with fandom. My parents needed a car, and so after they arrived, we went car shopping. They had asked me what to get, and I had checked Consumer Reports. The Plymouth dealer offered us a Valiant for $2600–a bargain. The Dodge dealer wanted $2750 for a Dart. The salesman put on the hard sell. My father hemmed and hawed. Finally, in desperation, the salesman said, “well, ask the kid!” I noted that the cars were mechanically identical, and that we could save $150 ($820 in today’s dollars) with the Valiant. He threw in the towel.

My sister was then seven. Years later she told me that she had known–as I had known with the Dart–that the Valiant would last. I taught her to drive on it, and it was still running when she graduated from college.

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31 Comments on “How I Lost My Fanhood and Learned To Love Cars On The Merits...”

  • avatar

    I was a GM guy too in the same period, but a bit younger than you. Knew all the cars in the neighborhood as well and could identify brands on the freeway at night by the tailights. Boring, but my claim to fame at the time.
    You are correct, the Chevy Impala’s 60-67 were buckets of bolts and by today’s safety standards, quite problematic.  Very cool looking though, especially the ’63 the most beautiful Impala ever in my opinion.
    A friend had a ’69 Valiant with the slant six. What a simple pleasure one derived behind the wheel of that car! It’s quiet competence was palpable.  And if maintained would last as long as you would want it.

  • avatar

    Unlike most transplanted Brits, my dad refused to buy an English car. He maintained they were crap, and woudn’t stand up to Canadian winters. My dad never considered himself dressed,if he wasn’t wearing a tie. As I recall,Dad might of bought two new cars,and countless used. Always GM. From the mid fifties to the late seventies, Chevys,Pontiacs and Buicks. He changed cars like he did his ties.

     I started working at GM when I was Eighteen, and I have bought nothing but GM since. If I was to stray?…..Maybe I nice gently used Mustang, drop top……or not.

  • avatar

    When we lived in the UK in the 60/70’s American cars were too big, too flashy [keep in mind the size of the barges then] and drank way too much petrol ol’ boy. They just weren’t practical for those narrow, windey English country lanes. And heavens above far too chromed and garish for the staid English taste of the day. This from the land that loved the Morris Minor…

    I seem to remember been taken by the Citroen CX sleek looks.

  • avatar
    The Wedding DJ

    One year later, Chevy advertising became truly bizarre.

  • avatar

    Seriously ugly car. The late 50’s to early 60’s were the nadir for me. Way too much sheet metal excess. Funny, 85K and it was a basket case. Now, it’s not even out of warranty yet! How times have changed.

  • avatar

    What happened to the old guy who was trying to take over GM a few years back?  He had a guy named York was on the Board for a while.  Why are they not buying GM now?

    • 0 avatar

      Jerry York died a year or two ago.  His “patron” was Kirk Kerkorian who is mostly into Las Vegas casinos and movie studios (MGM).  I suspect big investors like Kerkorian steer clear of industries that the federal government has “taken over”.  You never know when the federal government will swoop in and declare your investments worthless (see GM and Chrysler senior bonds for example).

  • avatar

    I believe the Times Square sign seen at the very end of that clip was advertising the Corvair, not the Impala!  It’s pretty clear it says “Four Wheel Independent Suspension” — only the Vair in 1960.

  • avatar

    Enjoyed the ad, since it was color and 2 minutes or so I assume it was for the theatre audience? Or an NBC special? And who cares about cars, did you see that sweet Rolliflex the guy in the crowd had?

    ~300 bucks at the time

    • 0 avatar
      Gardiner Westbound

      I doubt the ad was for a theater audience. It was probably intended for a a TV special.

      Other than the coming attraction trailers theaters didn’t show commercial advertisements back then. The audience would have stormed the box office demanding their money back!

  • avatar

    “It’s quiet competence was palpable.”
    What an exquisitely written sentence!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • avatar

    Nice article, David! I too considered myself as strictly Chevy man as a teen, until my father wisely determined that my old Impala would never make it from MA to the Midwest, where I went to college. He forced me to take his 1972 Valiant and that’s one of the greatest “disappointments” I ever experienced. What a superb car, bulletproof. It was one of those cars that was a rolling exemplar of what engineering should be. Rust and general wear finally killed it at 220k.

    • 0 avatar

      I can remember when the Valiant was about five years old, and still in immaculate condition, being amazed because my parents’ previous cars had been in such obvious decline at that age.
      I also remember a full sized ’62 Dodge that a family in my carpool had that had all the obvious quality of our Valiant and was giving me cognitive dissonance when I was still a Chevy man.

  • avatar

    As a child and through my early teen years, I was a Ford person.  My parents drove them, so that is what I liked.  When I was thirteen or so, I became aware of zee Germans*.  The high power, RWD, classy sedans and coupes had me trying to figure out what I had to do to be able to afford them one day.  My first car was a Subaru.  This was the only acceptable Japanese brand because it was AWD instead of FWD.  The “acceptable” brand quickly became my brand of choice… almost a brand that identified me.  4 years later, when it was time for something newish, I basically turned around and bought the exact same car.  Instead of the base, 1.8L, open diff, economy version, I purchased the 2.5L, rally-look, LSD equipped version.  I went from a 1993 Impreza L to a 2001 Impreza 2.5RS… same chassis and a majority of the body panels… but everything mechanical was improved.  I momentarily considered a Mazda Protege 5 and an SVT Focus, but they were never really considered.  The 2.5RS was the car I wish my first car was. 

    When I got my first real job after college, the parents asked for the car back.  They paid for the car and I now had the capability to provide for myself, I couldn’t complain too much.  By this time, I was no longer a Subaru-only guy.  A VW GTI caught my eye.  Friends and family were shocked.  They all fully expected me to buy a WRX.  4 years later, the GTI is fondly remembered as that car I loved, but it just didn’t work out.  There was something fundamentally wrong with the relationship.  Basically, the GTI was willing to break far more often than I was willing to tolerate.  If I were legitimately a VW guy, I’d still have the car.  I’m a Subaru guy, though.  I have high hopes for the Toyota & Subaru coupe.  I LOVE my 4Runner, my first Toyota, so the FT seems like the perfect “Quentin car”.  It is small in stature, light, agile, and spunky… like me.  Funny, 15 years after I became obsessed with cars, I have no desire to own a Ford or any of the Germans.

    * German cars were few and far between in rural WV in the late 80s and early 90s.  They still are, in fact.

    • 0 avatar

      “German cars were few and far between in rural WV in the late 80s and early 90s.  They still are, in fact.”
      No kidding. I went on a five day canoeing trip, ended up in WV. Our guide met us a couple hours after we’d pulled our canoes out of the water, we loaded up the canoes and took off back for Virginia. Keep in mind we’re deep in the WV boonies at this point.
      It was a good hour and probably 3-4 dozen cars later before I saw *anything* that was not an american SUV or truck. No kidding.

  • avatar

    Loved this article. I can only say: dittos. I hated Chrysler products when I was growing up. Mercury and AMC were my favorites. Loathed GM. That all changed with a 63 Valiant Signet. And with a ride in my father’s Olds Ciera [quiet, comfortable, roomy].

    30 years later I still have the Valiant, it’s still competent, rides well and is still fun to drive [ 3 speed column shift and non power steering make it the most basic of fun]. The seats are still the most comfortable of any newer car I have had along the way. Even in a short ride to the mailbox my Mother remarked how comfortable the seats were. She liked them better than the ones in her Focus. [They have a long history: she and my Dad found the car for me in Yuma. I sent them the $600.00 the owner wanted and the car was mine. That was in Oct. 1980.]

    My brother and his family murdered the Ciera in time, but the hall of shame for them [and especially my brother a vehicular serial killer if there ever was one] is a long one. The 3rd head gasket blowing on the Iron Duke didn’t help.

    And over 20 years of experience with GM cars has made me swear off of their junk for good. 5 ignition switches, sway bar bushings, intermediate steering shafts needing to be replaced and that’s just the start… how many alternators and sub systems did I replace on an Olds Calais in the first 50,000 miles? How many times did my folks take their Cadillac in for fluid likes ? <2 dozen I believe>] 

    This is telling: the most reliable and trouble free GM car I owned was a 99 Cavalier. The ION I have is of even lower build quality and a prime example of GM going backward rather than forward. 100 years since the self starter and GM still can’t get an ignition switch to work dependably ? Criminal. 5 of them and it’s going out again. Not even 50,000 miles on it. The mechanicals will run forever, GM got that part right, it’s the rest of my shameless heap I am worried about…..

    A couple of generations of us are no longer fanboys willing to set fire to hard earned cash and be burned in the afterglow to be brand loyal . Those days are done. Lots of good memories but not willing to pay the price for a plastic meaningless badge any longer.

  • avatar

    We were an all-GM family in the 1950’s. Dad was a flathead Ford guy in his teens, but with a young family, his first new car was a mint green 1955 Pontiac. After the bat-wing ’59 Chevy, he ventured way out once, for a ’63 Rambler Classic due to the advertised safety features. A Rambler, no matter how good looking, had no status, so in ’65 it was back to Chevy. Both uncles bought new Buicks in ’64-65, but Grandpa defected and his last car was a ’65 Plymouth.
    Fast forward a couple of decades and dad was finally done with GM after a bad Oldsmobile experience. It was nothing but Toyota for him from then on. Me, all I knew was GM until the mid ’60s, but fell in love with all things European after that. Today there are two Japanese appliances in the driveway.

  • avatar

    A few years ago I asked a friend – who came of age in the early 1960s – why GM cars dominated at that time. He said that it was for the same reason that people buy foreign cars today – the GM cars felt more refined than the competition. 

    GM was very good at selling the sizzle and just enough steak to keep the people satisfied. GM had the resources to continually “shave” the amount of materials used to build a car while making sure that it still met buyer expectations. GM was able to put just enough into the car to keep the owners satisfied. Chevrolets of the late 1950s through the 1960s had very little of what Paul Niedermeyer has called “quality fat.”

    Dave’s example with the rear seat in the Dodge is a good example. The Dodge seat back may very well have been attached more firmly to the body than the seat back in comparable Chevrolets. The simple fact is that most people at that time didn’t care. They didn’t plan to remove the seat backs, and car accidents happened to “other people.” (People didn’t even wear safety belts on those days.)

    They were more impressed that the Chevrolet Impala had better styling, superior workmanship and a nicer interior than the Dart. The brutal truth is that, sitting on the showroom floor, the 1960 Impala looked better than either the Dodge Dart or Plymouth. GM made sure that plenty of money went where the car buyer could see and feel it. GM was far better at this than Ford, Chrysler or AMC.

    GM’s styling was also the best in the business. Chrysler Corporation styling from 1960-62 was considered weird even at that time. Ford styling was more attractive than Plymouth or Dodge styling, and for many years was pleasantly conventional. Ford never had a total meltdown like Chrysler Corporation did for the 1961 and 1962 model years – but its styling was still not as consistent as that of the full-size Chevrolet.

    I can’t think of ANY Chevrolet built from 1945 through the early 1980s that could be described as really ugly. Even the batwing 1959 model has some sort of logic and coherence to the design (even though I prefer the 1959 Ford Galaxie).

    Reading the old Popular Mechanics “Owners Reports” from the 1950s and 1960s is very interesting. Chevrolet – and GM in general – was more consistent in areas such as quality control and reliability than either Ford or Chrysler. Some years Ford was better than Chevrolet, but some years it was worse.

    Chrysler Corporation, after 1956, tended to be worse than Chevrolet in this regard. Chrysler Corporation had major problems with its workforce in the late 1950s as it tried to improve productivity. There was also a scandal among top management during this time, as executives were found to have substantial interests in Chrysler suppliers. They benefited from the corporation accepting subpar parts from these suppliers.

    But reliability and durability are not necessarily the same thing, and I’m not so sure that Chevrolet was really ahead of the domestic competition in that area, especially after 1960. Reading those reports, one gets the impression that GM owners in general tended to trade their cars more often than owners of Ford and Chrysler products. Trading the car before it develops any major problems can tend to color the perception of its reliability (just as hanging on to it for a longer period of time will do, too).

    It would be interesting to hear from others whether GM cars really were that much better than the competition (at least, as much better as their sales figures would indicate).

    • 0 avatar

      Geeber, I agree with your assessment.  You are right that GM really put all of the money where the customer could feel and see it.  The doors always sounded better when they shut, and the interior materials always felt first-rate.  GM was in the 60s what Toyota became in the 90s.  Nobody would ever criticize you for buying a GM car in the 50s and through the 70s.  They were the norm.  If you cared what people thought about you, you drove GM in those years. 
      Ford was very conservative.  Always the middle of the road choice.  Rarely as beautiful as the best of GM, never as ugly as the worst of Chrysler.  Never flashy, but a good alternative.
      I also agree that Chrysler ownership generally involved more service issues.  And the chance of a lemon was always higher.  But if you got a good one, it would run nearly forever with moderate care.
      My best comparison was in my college years.  I owned a 59 Plymouth Fury (hence my avatar) while my roommate owned a 62 Chevy BelAir.  Mine was a higher trim level with a V8, and his was a lower level 2 door sedan with the 6.  The Chevy felt heavier and more solid.  The interior seemed to be made of nicer stuff.  And the Chevy never seemed to suffer from some of the issues that my Plymouth did – water leaks in the body, brakes that always seemed to pull one way or the other, and the brake lights that kept sticking on.  But, there was a HUGE difference in the way the cars drove.  The Chevy wallowed around corners, had the 2 speed Powerglide, and had power steering that had 6 full turns lock to lock.  It was like piloting a tugboat.  The Plymouth power steering was 4 turns lock to lock (common into the 70s), the torsion bar suspension made the car handle like a car 10 years newer, and you got a 3 spped Torqueflite transmission.  Add the fact that you got a great driving position (instead of that early 60s Chevrolet position that made it hard for even 6 footers to see over the steering wheel) and the choice was clear for me.  If you wanted image, good looks or drive it and forget it ownership, get a Chevy.  If you wanted the better car and were willing to put up with some warts, it was Plymouth all the way.

  • avatar

    I too grew up in an extended GM family. Mostly Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs,  This was in the mid 60s.  But my dad was a Ford man, and I became one in December of 1965 when he brought home the white 66 Country Squire with the dual facing rear seats.

    In those days, GM had over half of the market, so GM was the official car of the “organization man”.  I guess I have always been a bit of a contrarian, because I had the same visceral reaction that you did whenever I found out that someone was driving another one of those stupid GM cars.

    In my area growning up (northeast Indiana) Chrysler products were a strange and almost foreign species.  I liked them because they were unique and because they had really cool sounding starters (NaRare-deer-deer-deer Vroom).

    I became a Mopar convert in the early 70s when I started hanging around with my best friend Dan.  Dan’s dad was a dedicated Mopar man.  I spent some time in those cars and was sold.  Also, by this time (early 70s) Ford’s quality had been proved as somewhat wanting.  The black 72 Newport 2 door was a really mean looking car, expecially when Dan’s dad put the fat tires and slotted wheels on it.

    I am enough of a realist to acknowlege the carburetion and electrical gremlins common to Chryslers of the era, and also that their body and interior materials sometimes seemed flimsy in comparison to the competition, but they were durable and they performed.   The first car I ever owned for longer than a year was the 71 Plymouth Scamp I bought in college.  (a Valiant hardtop with the longer Dart wheelbase). It had about 100K on it then, but it ran smooth as silk.  I sold it 5 or 6 years later at about 145K and it stall ran like new.

    • 0 avatar

      Mr. Cavanaugh, I salute you!  Putting the unique sound of a Chrysler starter into such precise words…priceless!  I was immediately transformed to a summer Saturday morning in my teenage years, lying in bed with the window open and the neighbor lady starting her car.  Probably late for the hairdresser. 

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed with Caljn excellent anamana peee yo there.

      One of the better typos I’ve seen recently..

      I sold it 5 or 6 years later at about 145K and it stall (ran like new)

      Fine comments tho.

  • avatar

    I think GM quality was superior in the ’50s–our ’57 chevy was no great shakes, but it was FAR superior to our ’57 Plymouth, and better than the Fords. Xler was really lousy in the ’50s. But they picked up pretty quickly in the ’60s. As I mentioned in the piece, Consumer Reports repeatedly rated them better than GM or Ford during that period. On the anecdotal level, my parents’ ’63 Chevy II did not hold a candle either to the rental Dodge Dart in the story or to a 1960 Valiant and the ’62 Dodge in my school carpool. I think the fact that GM cars were still so popular had to do with brand momentum, and conventional but very nice styling. I really liked a lot of Chrysler styling, but it was pushing the envelop. Ford styling, on the other hand, was fairly dull in the ’60s, except for the Mustang, which was a tour de force, adding to my cognitive dissonance.

  • avatar

    I’ll admit it – I’m still stuck in the realm of Fandom. Out of preference I will always look to buy a Ford or rent a Ford. I can appreciate other cars, and I can appreciate when Ford has screwed up over the years – I’ve even spent plenty of time cursing Ford’s ability to arrange everything under the bonnet in the cheapest, most maintenance unfriendly way possible… and then wrap it all up in a rats nest of vacuum pipes. But I’m smitten. And it will no doubt take a lemon of a Ford to convince me otherwise.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m actually slightly biased towards Hondas these days. But not so much that I’m not upset about the Accord porking out or Acura going all Buick on us. If they still made Integers as they used to, I’d trade my Accord (a ’99, weighing only about 3,200, and with a stick) for one.

  • avatar

    JP… parents bought a 62 Bel Air wagon brand new, and the body felt anything but solid on the flaccid X frame. It also ate 2 sets of rear axle bearings , and the center u joint in the 2 piece driveshaft was also notorious for failing in those cars.
    There was a reason that drag racers often swapped mopar 8-3/4 and ford 9 inch rear ends into their gm cars, as well as chrysler and ford top loader 4 speeds.
    My dad worked on that car quite often, the best thing I can say about it was that the 283 didn’t smoke at 100k like a lot of 305’s and 350’s.

  • avatar

    Here are 5 pages from an issue of mopar action back in 99.  Check out how hard of a time they had hacking up a 66 Imperial, compared to the ease in which a 68 caddy was hacked.

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