By on February 3, 2007

the-one3333.jpgMy first glimpse of America: looking down on a freeway at night, with glow-worm toy cars and a perfect cloverleaf. It was just like the picture of GM’s World of Tomorrow exhibit at the 1939 New York World Fair that I’d seen in an old book. We were circling to final approach at New York International airport, having left Austria (and micro-cars) behind forever.

It was August, 1960. I was seven years old. The intense surge of anticipation of my imminent immersion into a wholly new world of giant finned and chromed freeway cruisers was like that golden moment when you know you’re about to lose your virginity. I knew it was going to be good. I was not disappointed.

The combination of a mostly-sleepless 20-hour trip, the excitement of flying on one of the first DC-8 jets, and a susceptibility to over-stimulation had my visual cortex in interstellar overdrive (not unlike later experiences with hallucinogens). Exiting the airport, I walked straight into one of those spacey artist-rendered early ‘60’s “Wide-Track” Pontiac magazine ads.

The featured car (“Star Chief”) looked eleven feet wide. Elegantly dressed couples were arriving at a futuristic airport with jets streaking overhead. Looking out at the assembled fleet of earth-bound star-fighters, the mystery of the design language of the aberrant 1959 Coupe de Ville I’d encountered in medieval Innsbruck began to unfold inside my mind.

We were picked up by relatives in a salmon-pink and charcoal-gray ’58 Plymouth station wagon, a bizarre hybrid of utility and flamboyance, a flamingo crossed with a cart. Having only experienced car rides on narrow alpine roads, riding down a six-lane expressway was like swimming in a school of exotic tropical fish fed only steroids.

The huge multi-colored leviathans were all trying to outdo each other. Fins and shiny protrusions extended in all directions. They had bulging multiple eyeballs, iridescent chromium gills and scales, and gaping maws sporting deadly-looking overbites or under bites, some with glittering orthodontia. A lone VW bug, a standard-size car back home, looked pitifully tiny and vulnerable, a baby turtle amongst these shark-finned predators.

We were spending three days with relatives in Brooklyn before continuing to our final destination in the heartland. While my family struggled with jet lag, heat and humidity, I was running around the neighborhood ogling the natives on a mission to create taxonomy of these unfamiliar beasts.

I struggled with a new vocabulary: Custom Royal Lancer, Mainliner, Super Wasp Hollywood, Firedome Sportsman, Champion Regal Starliner. Damn! English was going to be a bitch.

I quickly gave up on the arcane language of marketing gobbledy-gook and focused on the pattern language of shapes. I soon discerned the first of many underlying patterns that grouped most of the newer cars into distinct families: windshields. Those expensive compound-curve dog-legged moldings were obviously shared across corporate cousins. The veil of badge-engineering was all too quickly rent.

There was a freeway pedestrian overpass some blocks from where we were staying. I spent hours there. It signaled the beginning a long quest: to identify cars from ever increasing distances. This pastime filled much of my childhood. It was as engaging to me as my son’s PS2 is to him. The eventual mastery of this skill would become invaluable in my peak speeding era, identifying and eluding the prowling CHP at great distance in pre-radar California.

A relative took us on a tour of Manhattan in his canary yellow ’57 Bel Air coupe. The mixture of skyscrapers, bridges, tunnels and Central Park in the midday heat was intoxicating. Too much so for my sister, who debased the shiny Chevy by spewing her Automat lunch out the window, sullying its flanks in the middle of Times Square.

I encountered new auto-exotica that day, including a matching brace of 1959 Cadillac hearse and limousine. Their paradoxical juxtaposition of feigned flight and formal finality left stretch marks in my delicate still-forming automotive design lexicon.

My first Corvette sighting was the highlight of the trip. It was a sexy ermine white ’57 convertible. Innocent of its primitive underpinnings, I fell for the bad-girl face, the buff body and its delicious curvaceous butt. It was a worthy replacement for that abandoned object of my lust and worship in the old country, the stern Teutonic overachiever known as the Mercedes 300SL Gullwing.

I poured my unconditional love on that plastic-fantastic Yank, slamming my assimilation into all things American into top gear.

Those heady three days in the Big Apple led me to believe that the whole of America would be an endless extension of its skyscrapers, bridges and parkways jammed with shiny land yachts. Little did I know that our final destination, Iowa City, was a freeway-free university town in the middle of endless corn fields and muddy old pickup trucks.

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22 Comments on “Auto-Biography Part 2: Instant Carma...”


  • avatar
    tsofting

    Great story, Paul! Kind of reminds me of my first encounter with the US circa 1971, when my uncle had bought a longer-lower-wider 1963 Impala Coupe for me to have and to hold, and to cruise the highways and byways of Seattle in. I forever lost my soul to Detroit iron, overlooking their obvious shortcomings like sloppy handling and assembly, primitive underpinnings, etc. Now, my next project is to lay my hands on a pristine 1969 – 1971 Mk III!

  • avatar

    That story was almost as good, perhaps even better, than a letter to Penthouse Forum! ;)

    –chuck

  • avatar
    qfrog

    That was a fun read.

  • avatar
    amclint

    Great story, I too had more of a fascination with recognizing cars from a distance than playing games (nintendo was an option for me). My friends used to test me, as we drove around they would try to find a car that I didn’t know the make and model of. They never really could, although some of the really old ones that I had never seen would trip me up every now and again ;)

  • avatar
    esager

    Ahhh, Iowa City….
    Let’s hear part III.

    I loved my 2 years there (M.S. Mechanical Engineering). Met my wife there. Good times…

    Nice story by the way.

  • avatar
    NICKNICK

    Great article. flamingo crossed with a cart? we need more of those today. The closest we’ll probably get is the MINI traveller/clubman.

    FWIW my experience with america has been like losing my virginity, but a lot less positive–i expected greatness but ended up with a lot of complaining and blame.

    I can’t believe PN got two paragraphs out of the school-of-fish metaphor–that was better than the last two books i read.

  • avatar
    tony-e30

    Great writing. It’s always nice to recieve confirmation that I’m not the only person out there who used to pass the time as a young lad trying to identify cars from a distance. Your method of windshield spotting would seem preferrable to my method of headlight identification which, I believe, contributed to my numerically significant eyeglass prescription. I really don’t mind though. It’s like a convoluted badge of honor I wear with pride and not just a little necessity.

    Born too late to have known the Detroit Glory Days (one of my first automotive memories involves crying when I scrutinized the design of a Mustang II), I cling to the hope that history always repeats, and that Detroit will once again produce the industry standard. After all the recent cost cutting strategies and re-structuring from the 2.5ish, and all due respect to the Union Craftsmen suffering from this first-hand, I consider the decision to limit fleet sales as the first big step that will show direct results. Congratulations on offering a glimmer of real hope, Detroit.

  • avatar
    CliffG

    Ay, Paul you’re getting old – oh, well you are the same age as me. My journey was a little opposite as my dad was career military, so to Germany for several years. Ooh, it’s a Ford Taunus! We had a Chevy Impala convertible when we lived there, and wandering through a small Spanish town in it was guaranteed to draw every local within walking/running distance within minutes. Kind of fun. I could while away hours in the back seat naming the year and model of every car that went by. One of the saddest parts of the ending of the every Sept. model year change was the fact that you could actually tell the difference between a ’63 and a ’62. Why doesn’t Detroit bring back that tradition? Back in the 50’s and 60’s one of the highlights of the year was to go by all the dealerships in early October to see the latest models. I guess these days the 12 year old males just get the latest vid game instead…

  • avatar
    gfen

    Well done.

  • avatar

    I read a lot of blogs. I like ideas. I like reason. But I especially like a superbly told story.

    Fantastic stuff Paul.

  • avatar
    mikey

    Great stuff Paul a 60 Pontiac and a 57 Chevy it don,t get any better.

  • avatar

    Makes me want to go back in time.

    From Austria to NY to Iowa City… you must have gone from culture shock to culture shock. I loved my one stay in Iowa City, 2 days end of summer ’70, driving my ’62 Falcon from Boston to Palo Alto. (We’re the same age, btw.)

    You a university brat?

    I had the opposite, a year in France ’65-66, the shock of seeing all those tiny, distinctly unflamboyant cars of so many shapes and sizes.

    My sympathy to your sister.

  • avatar
    UnclePete

    Wonderful story Paul. We’re pretty close in age, so even though I spent my whole early life in metro NY, your remembrances certainly resonate with me!

  • avatar
    Glenn

    Kudos, great story, well done. I wish I were 1/2 the writer you were! Great reading.

    Yet another reason I frequent this site so much.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Thanks for all the compliments. I’ve been wanting to put some of these stories down for years, and with Mr. Farago’s encouragement, there will be more, until someone shuts me up.

    David H. “University brat?” Yes.

    It never fails to amaze me how many folks have been to I.C.; but with a big University and right on I-80, it makes sense. Loved the two different five year periods I spent there. Stay tuned.

  • avatar
    cheezeweggie

    America at it’s peak. Nice story.

  • avatar
    joex-ray

    Great story. Reminded me of my childhood when my grandfather was a salesman at the Ford dealer. When all the other salesmen chose LTDs or Thunderbirds for demos, my grandfrather had the first Poppy Red ’65 Mustang Fastback at the dealership. I spent countless hours crawling all over the sea of endless red in the interior.

    My grandparent’s house was across the street from the dealership, so I would spend hours walking the lot with him every Saturday. At 5, he taught me to read the SAE code in car tail lights to determine the model year, as designs changes annually.

    By the time I was 6, he was betting with the other salesmen whether his grandson could correctly identify the correct year of all the cars on the used car lot. Of course he passed the proceeds on to me. It started a lifetime “game” of identifying make, model and year of everything with four wheels.

    Thanks for taking me back there.

  • avatar
    ceipower

    We are the same age and the era we grew up in was the "fat" days for US makers.Everybody was waiting for the next year to see how they could top the previous one. Sometime around 1970 though the dream started to rot. A big chunk of our domestic makers future is probably to link its current product strongly with it's past."Heritige" is how many refer it. Sell on your heritige, the imports can't play that game.Problem is , todays buyers , at least many of them,(those under 46) see Heritige as the post 1970 models – that crap that was hoisted on us that ran poorly,rusted prematurely, and had assembly gaps and gaffs aplenty. I saw a new Soltice the other day on the showroom floor, my first thought wasn't the 1957 Bonneville Tri-Power, it was the Fiero that came to mind. When I see the Chevy HHR, I don't think about 57 fuel injected Impalas, I think , gee this is GM's answer to a PT Cruiser and only 5 years too late. There are tens if not a hundred such examples that can be made. Those Golden Days we saw growing up were 50-60 years ago, too long ago to generate much buzz today. Finally,have you seen the Cadillac commercial touting their heritige? It shows V-16 Caddys along with a 1955 and a 1959 among others.MY reaction was Where's the Cimmerron,the Allante', The V8-6-4,The Catera? The Post 1970 heritige just can't live up to the sparkle of the 1950's and 60's. Bill C.

  • avatar
    nino

    Back in the 50’s and 60’s one of the highlights of the year was to go by all the dealerships in early October to see the latest models. I guess these days the 12 year old males just get the latest vid game instead…

    We used to take it a step further.

    We used to break into the dealer backlots in August to see the new cars. I’ll never forget the night we hopped over the 8 foot fence to see the 1975 Chevy Monza and the Chevelle Laguna Coupe. That was the first year for “square” headlights. The “rent-a-cop” heard us making noise, saw our flashlights and came to investigate. As he got closer, the four of us just jumped screaming and started running toward him, running him over and just kept going. Even now thinking about it, I’m laughing at the memory of the look of horror on that guy’s face as we ran him over screaming and him fumbling, bumbling… it was another time.

    That’s a thrill that maybe the carmakers could bring back. It wouldn’t cost anything and would have to generate showroom traffic.

    No?

    Maybe?

  • avatar
    Maxwelton

    Very nice article. I’m a bit young to have been a youth then, but I did catch the very tail end of glory years. And then came AMC Hornets, Dodge OMNIs, and other similar dreck. Thinking back, my folks did have a ’66 Toronado. And their brand new ’79 Honda Accord I think made them early adopters…that was a pretty decent car, actually, now that I think about it. Compare it to the ’84 Buick they traded it in on…

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Indeed, in the early Sixties, the Boy Scouts used to give a merit badge to scouts who could identify a certain amount of cars, correctly, from a distance; can't recall the number of cars that were required. I do know that an adult had to be with the scout, to verify. The reason I know this, is I received one of those merit badges. Of course, this was a time when, as Paul Neidermeyer pointed out so eloquently in this piece, automobiles, most especially American ones, were widely differentiated by industrial designers by what was then called their "styling" (then a noun, long before it became a verb). Now, as automobile designers work from templates wherein which aerodynamics are as important as marketing, sometimes it is hard to tell one automobile from another. The Subaru Tribeca B9 which was in my possession, last week, was so generic from the side view, I walked right past it; when I came back to it, after stopping to eat dinner out one evening. It is likely one reason the designers gave it the nose it has, that to me, looks like an Alfa-Romeo and a portion of the female anatomy to others. For those who remember when the 1958 Edsel's horse collar grille drew all sorts of analogies and metaphors, it is easy to forgive Subaru's designers for perhaps over-reaching.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    Perhaps I’m emotionally immature (I’ve heard it before), but at 49, I still get excited about the car show being in town, and I’m not that interested in the exotics except in passing, and I want to sit in every car and note the details.

    We’re finally getting back some distinctive design by numerous brands, and that’s a good thing!

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