Auto-Biography Part 3: Deep Immersion

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
auto biography part 3 deep immersion

Three days after our psychedelic nocturnal journey to America, my family arrived at our final destination: Iowa. The transition was a rude awakening, from a fantastic dream straight into a bad nightmare. We’d traded Austria’s alpine vistas for New York’s towering skyscrapers and wide freeways, and then watched the modern world evaporate in the blazing sun, replaced by endless corn fields and arrow-straight gravel roads.

I landed in the US at a critical turning point in Detroit’s styling (de)evolution. The Harley Earl era of gaudy fins and excess chrome was ending. GM’s new styling chief, Bill Mitchell, was just beginning to exert his artistic influence. Mitchell’s 1960 Corvair was astonishingly clean and lean. The full size 1961 GM cars were smaller, lighter and (relatively) more graceful, having shed several hundred pounds of fins and bling. I became a seven year old Mitchell groupie.

I covered every square inch of my new bedroom walls with the dreamy images of his handiwork, thanks to TIME and Life. The Wide-Track Pontiac ads rendered by Art Fitzpatrick and Van Kaufman were the standout; the automotive equivalent of vintage “Vargas Girl” Playboy paintings. I became a chronic mental-masturbator, gazing at the eye-candy as I fell asleep.

Having been car-less in Austria, I looked forward to our first set of wheels with high expectations. I was hoping for a replication of the his-and-hers matching navy blue 1960 Pontiac Bonneville hardtop and wagon sitting in the driveway across the street. My father, who somehow forgot to consult me, brought home a dull, plump 1954 Ford sedan. On frigid winter mornings, mom used to ask for divine intervention, praying that the sedan would start. The big Ford’s main compensation: an ample sofa upon which the four of us kids could fight.

A year later, in an inspired display of paternal sadism, Pop traded in the geriatric blue whale for a barely mid-sized black 1962 Fairlane sedan. For the coup-de-grace, he bought transparent smooth plastic seat covers. With his hyper-sensitivity to drafts, he barely cracked the windows. Trapped in that stuffy, cramped torture chamber, summer road trips made Abu Grhaib look like the Ritz. Wearing the mini-shorts of the day, we literally had to peel each other off those searing seats.

In 1964, I unwittingly co-opted my family to fulfill my spiritual need for the auto-Hajj. The 6.75 of us (Mom was seven months pregnant) drove three sweltering August days to NY to join the teeming hordes of hot and sweaty pilgrims in circling (counterclockwise) and entering that most hallowed car-Ka’aba: GM’s Futurama exhibit at the 1964 Worlds Fair. Sacred vows prevent me from revealing the other-worldly experiences of those precious hours in that heavenly temple. Suffice it to say, I was fully initiated in the cult of St. Mark of Excellence.

On the Sabbath, I would take the wheezing (but GM!) bus downtown to the local Chevrolet/Buick/Cadillac dealer for my weekly worship. I gladly spent the better part of the day just hanging around– especially on summer weekdays when the service shop was open. I sat for hours in devotion, preferably in the magnificent ’63 Riviera chapel, facing the altar of its heavily chromed and jeweled dashboard, with a stack of brochures in my lap.

Photographic memories of those heavy-stock bibles flash before me– especially the Cadillac books with the onionskin protecting the impeccable color plates. And like a Sunday-schoolboy reciting the Ten Commandments, I can still regurgitate every GM powertrain detail, including name (“Turbo-Thrift”), horsepower, bore and stroke, compression ratio, camshaft type and carburetion.

The annual high-holy days occurred each fall, when the dealers unveiled new objects of veneration. Days before, I would poke around the dealership, hoping to catch an uncovered glimpse of the revelations to come. On the appointed day, a pious crowd would gather to partake in communion of hot chocolate and doughnuts. Once the veils were removed, spontaneous ejaculations of praise to the high-priest Mitchell rang out into the crisp autumn air.

In those pre-liability obsessed days, I could freely wander the service shop. As a young pistonhead, I considered cars to be living and breathing entities. The shop reminded me of the hospital where Dad worked. Cars were poked, probed, and elevated. Bodily fluids were drained and oral medications administered. Watching the mechanic hook up the enormous Sun Engine Analyzer was analogous to the EEG tests my father monitored for crucial brain functioning.

Observing my favorite mechanic pull the engine out of a ’55 Chevy and disassemble it right in front of me was almost too much, though. A painful memory of having witnessed a hog eviscerated flashed before me. Watching that Chevy’s small-block heart and soul reduced to piles of parts was the unraveling of a deep mystery, and marked the beginning of a new auto-developmental phase: the quest to tinker.

Join the conversation
  • Chuckgoolsbee Chuckgoolsbee on Feb 10, 2007

    So Gottleib, what was it like for your young mind to see a Jaguar E-type for the first time? --chuck

  • GS650G GS650G on Jul 08, 2008

    I owned a 1963 Fairlane for quite a few years. It was a reliable car though not up to todays standards. It's best attribute was simplicity. I watched my father rebuild a small block v8 when I was 11. I must say I was hooked from then on. Associates who never check their oil let alone wrench never had that experience. Seeing a block of metal opened up and discovering how it really works is almost religious. Like an addict that goes through recovery eventually I look back at the hours and money spent under the hood and wonder sometimes if it was foolish or not to pour paychecks into the engine bay. But my appreciation for the engineering goes on. Now I tinker with classic Japanese motorcycles but the feeling is still there. When they are warming up the smell of unburnt gas fills the garage and takes me back in time.

  • Chuck Norton And guys are having wide spread issues with the 10 speed transmission with the HP numbers out of the factory......
  • Zerofoo "Hyundais just got better and better during the 1990s, though, and memories of those shoddy Excels faded."Never. A friend had an early 90s Hyundai Excel as his college beater. One day he decided that the last tank of gas he bought was worth more than the car. He drove it to empty and then he and his fraternity brothers pushed it into the woods and left it there.
  • Kwik_Shift There are no new Renegades for sale within my geographic circle of up to 85 kms. Looks like the artificial shortage game. They bring one in, 10 buyers line up for it, $10,000 over MSRP. Yeah. Like with a lot of new cars.
  • Ribbedroof In Oklahoma, no less!
  • Ribbedroof Have one in the shop for minor front collision repairs right now,I've seen more of these in the comments than in the 30 years I've been in collision repair.