Auto-biography Pt. 5

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
auto biography pt 5

The 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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  • on Feb 27, 2007

    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.

  • David C. Holzman David C. Holzman on Feb 28, 2007

    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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  • MaintenanceCosts I keep finding myself drawn to the Fox PLCs, both the Thunderbird and the Mark VII. They really got the design right by 1980s standards. The cars were reasonably sized but didn't look dinky like the 1986 Eldorado, they were comfortable and drove pretty well, and they were available with a 302 (that even got non-asthmatic in the late years).When I bought my first car - a 1987 Taurus - I also thought about Aerobirds, but I decided (probably correctly, given the number of carpools I was part of) that I wanted four doors.
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  • MaintenanceCosts Where's a gas inline six, for that torque and nice sound without all the diesel stink? Oh, that's right; GM being GM, they prematurely canceled it.