Auto-Biography Part 2: Instant Carma

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

My 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.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Terry Parkhurst Terry Parkhurst on Feb 04, 2007

    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.

  • Dave M. Dave M. on Feb 04, 2007

    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!

  • Hermaphroditolog Good hybrid cars use ICE implosion mode.Mercedes-EQXX uses implosion turbines (turboexpanders) for regeneration from heat losses.
  • Kosmo I, for one, and maybe only one, would buy a 5.0 L, stickshift variant of the sedan/hatchback that is Ford's "Not A Mustang EV" tomorrow.I'd buy the sportwagon version yesterday.
  • Akear I am counting the days when Barra retires. She has been one long nightmare for GM. People don't realize the Malibu outsells all GM EVs combined.
  • Redapple2 you say; most car reviewers would place it behind the segment stalwarts from Honda and Toyota,........................... ME: Always so. Every single day since the Accord / Camry introduction.
  • Akear GM sells only 3000 Hummer EVs annually. It is probably the worst selling vehicle in GM history.