By on February 24, 2007

64avanti2222.jpgThe University of Iowa’s reputation for intellectual excellence lured my family away from Innsbruck (it sure as hell wasn’t the skiing). Despite the fact that my elementary school education was a lot less than enthralling, I decided to jump on the academic bandwagon. I threw myself into the study of all things automotive, harboring a secret hope that the University might award me an honorary degree in Autology.

Through incessant showroom visits and compulsive brochure hoarding, I quickly mastered the identification of contemporary cars. So I extended my studies into vintage-auto taxonomy. In a dusty service shop, I uncovered the Rosetta stone: well-worn factory documents identifying the minute differences between similar cars– such as the virtually identical 1950 and 1951 Chevrolets– going back decades.

My ability and desire to recognize the make, model and year of vehicles from a distance increased arithmetically. On long-distance journeys, I’d identify every on-coming car or truck with a pencil and pad, keeping a running tally of each make’s contribution to the automotive ecosystem. I felt it my personal duty to confirm the legitimacy of Chevrolet’s Number One sales claim.

During my father’s attempts to recreate alpine hiking, we walked along Iowa’s many rivers. I occasionally encountered the fossils of vehicles dumped on the banks decades earlier. No rusting, rotting hulk– not even a frame with a lump of an engine– could be left in anonymity. I would climb, scratch and poke while my family anxiously waited for the amateur automotive archeologist’s positive identification.

My grade school had a single book chronicling the life and times of Henry Ford. When I wrote a letter to the Chevrolet Motor Company asking for some historical background to the company’s products, a thorough booklet arrived in the mail a few weeks later. It connected me to the carmaker in a way that today’s internet-fueled information seekers can never imagine.

I finally tumbled on the library downtown, and devoured section 629.2xx. Author Floyd Clymer’s contribution to this island of automotive knowledge was prolific (e.g. “Those Wonderful Old Automobiles”). Through Clymer, I absorbed and relished the unbridled creativity of the industry’s early years, a dot-com-esque boom that spawned everything from two to eight wheeled cars, and all manner of propulsion systems.

The public library offered a gentle introduction to the world of automotive journalism. But one winter day at the University Library, I uncovered a veritable treasure trove: Automobile Quarterly. Savoring the profundities of the Duesenberg, Hispano-Suiza and Bugatti was like discovering an enormous oasis in a vast desert. I drank deep from the well of knowledge; I was very late for supper that evening.

I probed the deeper mysteries of design. How and why had the small change in the Falcon grill from concave in 1960 to convex in 1961 created such a different response? What was the designers’ underlying motive? Was there some positive shift in the group-mood in Dearborn that was reflected in the obviously greater levity and optimism of the ‘61? And I wondered: were there other scholars asking these important questions?

I sought the spirit of a car, the overarching design leitmotif that had inspired its creators. If I squinted in a certain way, avoided focusing on surface detail, and made a conscious effort to clear my mind of preconceived thoughts about the subject car, I could see it in its essence.

Some spoke their design genesis clearly to me, such as Raymond Lowey’s Avanti. Others left me confused, like the ’59 Mercury.  The only thing I saw in the 1961-1963 Rambler American was a child’s malformed toy car.

I also obsessed about automotive interiors. Walking to school, I left a tell-trail of smudges on the windows of dozens of cars parked en route. My favorite was a 1961 Imperial; its dash looked like a sci-fi depiction of a future Mars colony (as depicted by Popular Mechanics).

At a University football game, I had a close encounter of the parking lot kind with a mid-fifties Bentley R type. I was so absorbed by the combination of wood and leather that a campus patrol officer detained me for suspicion of attempted theft.

I spent the majority of my time in school doodling cars (or reading). I burned through endless reams of 500-count loose-leaf paper. But try as I might, none of my artistic endeavors were worth saving. My desk bulged with wads of paper, as crumpled as my hopes of becoming the next Bill Mitchell.

I also failed at model building; my creations always seemed to end up looking distinctly cancerous. They were duly liquidated in balls of fire and foul black smoke, victims of carefully staged “accidents” in the driveway.

To round out my studies, I sought more applied, practical experience: field work. In Iowa, that goal was well within the (corn) field of possibilities.

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20 Comments on “Auto-biography Pt. 5...”


  • avatar

    No doubt what you received from Chevrolet was “The Chevrolet Story” and yearly paper-bound small book/large booklet that my father always brought home. It was the same book year after year with an updated cover and some changes in the last ten or so pages.

    I still remember them fondly, and wish I had a couple of copies. The illustrations were later transferred to a lamp shade for a Chevy truck commemorative desk lamp. Mine got sold on eBay last year.

  • avatar
    mike frederick

    Thanks again Paul, this ongoing reflection puts a nice perspective on what makes an automobile a beauty in the beholders eye.

  • avatar
    kbeals

    Great series. I had a similar childhood, though my auto interest got diverted when I discovered radio.

    Funny you should mention the 1960 Falcon: you must have noticed that in 1960 both the Falcon and the Corvair had concave fronts (though the Corvair was solid of course), and in 1961 both went to a convex front. Coincidence?

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    kbeals: Coincidence? I guess the improved group-mood in Detroit that year was contagious.

  • avatar
    CliffG

    This is a truly frightening series of articles, I never knew I had a doppelganger living in Iowa. I too spent countless hours on the interstates of the mid sixties naming all the models and counting Chevies vs. Fords. So convex is positive and concave negative, who knew? Since they were designed before either Nixon or Kennedy won, it must have been joy that DDE is was leaving office. This is harder than women’s fashions I guess.

  • avatar

    Paul,

    what is the story with the Falcon’s grill going from concave to convex? (I had the convex, a ’62.)

    I kept score betw GM, Ford, and Xler in my housing development. I knew every car in the bneighborhood. I was a GM fan, and especially hated xler, so it hurt that Dodge Darts and Ply Valiants were ascendant in my neighborhood in that period.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    David,

    I guess there really are other scholars asking these important questions. We could have held a seminar on the subject of the Falcon grill in 1961.

    Seriously, Dave, your ’62 had a new “face” altogether, although it was convex.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    Working for several years as an illustrator for an newspaper auto features syndicate, I had a tendency to fall in love, or at least develop a real fondness for all the cars I spent hours drawing. Hence, my shelves are jam-packed with die-cast miniatures (you know, in the name of research).
    All except for the Avanti – never did like the looks of it.

  • avatar
    ejacobs

    Paul,

    Wow, thanks for this series of articles. Although I am a lot younger than you, I walked the streets of Iowa City as a young Hawkeye from 1995 to 1999. Having grown up all over the Midwest, I was a die-hard Chevy fan until just before college. My dad has the tragic story of buying a brand new 1969 Yenko Camaro, dark green, at the age of 19 in Madison, Wisconsin (450 stock hp). He sold it a couple years later to a woman who promptly totalled it. This car would be worth easily 6 digits today.

    Anyway, I was 17 and struck by how many foreign cars were in I.C., and realized that intellectual college town=more foreign cars. I had hardly any exposure to them, even though I knew of them from reading C&D since I was about 12. I started dreaming of owning goofy cars like a Saab 900 turbo, a Volkswagen GTI VR6, or a turbo AWD Subaru Legacy. My roommate and best friend (from Chicago, where about half of undergrads are from at U of I) had a rusted out ’85 Accord with 250,000 miles on it. It stalled in a blizzard at the intersection of Iowa and Clinton, and we later found out the battery connection had too much corrosion. He sold it to his uncle and inherited an ’89 Accord with over 150K on it, and sold it in 2001, rusted out and still running. Iowa City has a lot of these types of cars driven by college kids.

    I walked everywhere during those years and got to admire a much bigger variety of cars parked alongside the streets than I was used to. I even saw a Lambo Diablo driving around the Pentacrest a couple times.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    ejacobs: Thanks for sharing your IC memories. Your Lambo sighting just reminded me of a rich student who drove his yellow Ferrari 512 BB “Berlinetta Boxer” in the salted-snowy streets of IC all through the winter of 73-74. I almost cried; how cruel.

  • avatar
    ejacobs

    Love I.C. Haven’t looked back since 1999 when I moved to Colorado, but if I had to live in Iowa again, no debate. Oh, and go Hawks.

  • avatar

    Lesley Wimbush:
    my shelves are jam-packed with die-cast miniatures (you know, in the name of research).

    Mine aren’t exactly jam-packed but I have most of the corgis and matchboxes and a few Dinkys I acquired in the late ’50s until the mid-60s. Unfortunately, I don’t have the Dinky Rolls Royce, or the Dinky ’60 El Camino, and I’m at a loss as to what happened to them. I now live in the house where I grew up, and I’ve gone through about 97% of the basement. I can’t help thinking that there was a Rambler wagon, but maybe that was George’s, my friend down the street who now lives on th left coast, but still has his collection.

    I also have albums full of photos I’ve taken since ’92, at car shows, on the street (classic cars were a weekly occurance in DC where i used to live–here in MA I see them less than monthly, but I do see them occasionally). If you haven’t gone already, Ihave a small sampling of this stuff at my website, motorlegends.com.

  • avatar

    A lot of the cars of the mid-50s to mid-60s held a certain magic for me (even some of the ones I officially hated as a gm fan): th ’57 Mercury, the ’58 Chevy, the ’59 Imperial, the ’64 Chrysler, the ’64 Chevy and Chevelle, the ’64 Wildcat, the ’64 Cutlass, the 63 and 64 Pontiac and Tempests… Come to think of it, if I were to pick a favorite year, it would probably be ’64. But there’s nothing quite like the ’60 Valiant. True art deco. If you don’ t know it, do a google image search.

    The interiors of the big GM cars from the mid-60s got me dreamng of the beaches in Southern California.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    David: Love all those ’64’s, but as much as I’ve tried, the 60-62 Valiant just doesn’t work for me.

  • avatar
    ejacobs

    “Dual” is in my top five favorite movies of all time.
    The orange Valiant is timeless.

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    Paul, love the Auto-Biographies. Keep-em coming.

  • avatar
    Lesley Wimbush

    Great website David, thanks for the link. :-)

  • avatar

    thanks Lesley!

  • avatar
    NickR

    Thanks for including a picture of an Avanti. Coincidence there was one of these at the car show here in Toronto last week. I really only started to take a keen interest in cars in grade 6 (about ’75 I guess) and it was an Avanti that got it started. After grade 5, my friends and I had to start at a new school and I still remember walking thre and seeing a beautiful copper coloured Avanti. Some lady on her way to work. I walked past it all the time, and I don’t think there was an occasion where I didn’t at least glance at it. Hard to believe it was someone’s daily driver, but I guess it was just an old car then. A scarce one perhaps, but nothing noteworthy. I wished I knew what happened to that car. Hopefully, it found a good home.

  • avatar

    A lot of wonderful cars come to bad ends. My friend’s grandmother had an absolutely beautiful red Dodge Lancer convertible, probably a ’61 or ’62, a twin of the original Valiant. She kept it in great condition. The thing got put out to pasture in one of my friend’s uncle’s yard, and it gradually sank into the ground. Ultimately, before it completely disappeared, the uncle hired a backhoe to remove it.

    Another friend bought a house in New Hamster that had a Corvair sinking into the turf. It wasn’t so far gone, up in the viscinity of the wheel wells. Some car-lover ultimately took the thing.

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