Auto-Biography Part 1: Genesis

(I’ve decided to re-run my Auto-Biography Series on weekends. The series first ran at TTAC in 2007, and then again here in 2011. I know many of you have been exposed to it, but we do have a lot of new readers too).

My first memories are of the womb. The enveloping warmth, and the soothing sounds that correlated to movement. I remember the sensations of being propelled: forward, stop, turning, forward again; the gentle g-forces rolling me delicately from side to side, ensconced in my snug compartment, conscious of the rounded form that surrounded me. My surrogate mother was a Volkswagen.

It is my oldest clear memory: I was a toddler, and my (real) mother had set me down in that deep little well behind the rear seat of a family friend’s split-window Beetle. As I lay directly over the transmission, inches from the blower fan cooling the little boxer engine, I was one with the car. Every detail is as fresh today as it was then: the textures, shapes, smells, and most of all, the sounds. I can still hear that distinctive whine of the transmission and the whirring motor music overlaid with the rising and falling howl of the blower. I imprinted with my surrogate’s voice, and from then on, I would always call out “VW” when I heard one pass on the street below our apartment. And I was always right.

Innsbruck 1950

I was born car-crazy in Innsbruck, Austria in 1953. Not only did we not have a car, but as this picture of the main street (Maria Theresien Strasse) makes all too clear, neither did most folks. And there was neither TV nor car magazines, and my father had other interests. So I was left with only a young child’s keen powers of observation, accumulating vital visual information, often without any context. Since we walked constantly for transportation as well as pleasure, I studied every parked car sitting at the curb. Finding Curbside Classics was my first and foremost life obsession. The problem was identifying them!

On our daily walk to the markets, I would make my mother stop and walk around any parked car that I didn’t already recognize until she could find the tell-tale logo or emblem (I hadn’t learned to read yet). And those were much subtler back then. I have this mental picture of my mother hunched over, circling several times around an old pre-war parked car, straining to find a tell-tale logo on the hubcaps or the radiator, while I stood there on the sidewalk waiting impatiently. How hard could it be? It turned out to be a Wanderer (above). Thanks Mom!

I had an intimate relationship with every vehicle in the neighborhood, all parked in the street in front of the old apartment houses. I gazed at them endlessly, trying to discern some additional insight of their personality characteristics or traits from their physiognomy. Some of the more memorable cars on our block were…

A stolid Ford Taunus,whose chrome globe embedded in its nose (Welt Taunus) was endlessly fascinating, and similar to the one on the front of 1951 Olds, except for which part of the globe was getting main billing. A foreshadowing of Ford’s world cars?

I had a very scary ride in that car; well, scary from a six-year old’s perspective. I was walking home from school (first grade), and it started to rain. The Taunus pulled over, and the driver opened the door and said “do you want a ride home?” Of course I did, despite the natural fear of strangers and getting in their car. Our parents never gave us that admonition, because it wasn’t really relevant then; who was going to do that? My brief moment of hesitation was quickly overpowered by the attraction of a rare car ride. It was the foretaste of that that intoxicating mixture of trepidation and joy of being offered a ride in a complete stranger’s car that I would experience hundreds of times during my hitchhiking years.

Undoubtedly, the Taunus driver knew me and my family, as everyone did in our neighborhood. And it afforded me my first experience in watching someone manipulate a column shifter: now that’s different.

There were several Fiat 600s parked around our block, and I might hazard to guess that they were perhaps the most popular car in Innsbruck at the time along with the VW.

Quite a few tired pre-war cars were still plying the streets, including one rather run-down gray Opel Kadett without hubcaps. I kid you not that I’m 99% certain it was the very same car as this one I found in a vintage picture of Innsbruck. I almost fell off my chair when I found this picture on the web and instantly recognized the Opel. And is that my uncle crossing the street?


Of course there many others, but my favorite car parked on the curb as I gazed down from our apartment window was the Tatraplan, the revolutionary Czech car directly descended from the first groundbreaking Tatra streamliners of the 1930’s. I was in awe of its aerodynamic body, even though its design was then already twenty years old. It was a perfect contrast to current cars like the Opel Rekord, and even then I struggled with why the futuristic Tatra design was being usurped by chromed and flashy cars like the Opel.  It somehow didn’t seem quite right, and a fundamental automotive dichotomy began for me with those two cars: flashy styling and purposeful aerodynamics.

I loved them both, but it made me sad to see the Tatra’s principles abandoned for many decades. It would have helped me then to know that fifty years later the Prius would largely reconcile that dichotomy.

Many of the highlights of those first seven years of my life revolved around cars, especially the relatively rare trips in them, inevitably cramped. At the time, a VW was a “standard size” car. Many, like the 600cc 26hp Lloyd my godfather drove, were much smaller. He and his wife took my whole family on a short outing up to the the Hungerburg. And how did four adults and three children aged 12, 10 and 6 fit? They just did, somehow. My 6’5” godfather kept the cloth sunroof open whenever weather permitted so that he could actually sit up straight. I guess there was a practical reason why Europeans were all so slim back in the day.

Another very popular car that shaped a vivid childhood memory was the legendary Fiat 1100. One of the most modern cars in Europe when it arrived in 1953, it was a huge success and had a lasting influence. Highly popular in Germany (and Austria), where it was license built by NSU as the Neckar-Fiat, it was the biggest and most direct competitor to the Volkswagen.

A friend of my Mother had a brand new Fiat 1100 with a sunroof. We were bopping down an Alpine road, us kids were standing up with our heads sticking out the sunroof; it didn’t get any better than that. I held up my mother’s scarf so that it was trailing back into the slipstream, and at some point I let it go. Turning back to see it fluttering freely was a thrill, but a fleeting one. Paul!! The joys of motoring are always being cut short by life’s unpleasant realities.

My first intimate encounter with an American car arrived when we hired Herr Miller and his black early fifties Oldsmobile taxi for a confirmation outing. For a child used to perpetual automotive constriction, entering my first Yank tank was like stepping into another, much larger world. I was quite literally shocked; who could imagine a vehicle with so much interior room?

I have a photo of the party (above): my parents, two aunts, my grandmother, two older cousins, my sister, the driver and my brother and me. All eleven of us piling in was the reverse of a circus’ clown car act, although nobody watching us would have been impressed; it was as ordinary then as folks jamming into a crowded NY subway.

My early automotive education was occasionally punctuated by authentic automotive exotica. A British doctor acquaintance of my father once arrived in a black Jaguar sedan. I saw it from the third story window of our apartment, crouching down at the curb, and I quickly ran down to examine this big foreign cat. It inspired awe and fear; the big muscular Jag seemed like a larger version of its totemic hood ornament, ready to pounce and devour its small onlooker.

The awe also came in large part from the novel idea of an ordinary person actually owning such a car, and just getting in it and driving it from so far away. I’d never left the province of Tirol, and had not yet fully conceived of the concept of cars as long-distance transportation. Trains, and very rarely planes, were for adults who actually did that. Suddenly, the power of a car to take one to remote places that were just names on the short-wave radio dial hit me. Learning comes in sudden awakenings. My inner automotive fantasy life took had a great leap forward thanks to that Jag.

Another vehicle that suddenly showed up at our curb should and could have been my peak experience of those years. Instead, it turned into my greatest disappointment. My father’s med-school buddy had married serious money, the daughter of the owner of the famed Mahle piston company. The new bride bought him a little wedding present: a brand new Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing. He drove that icon over from Switzerland for a visit.

My father, brother and I instantly went down to it, drawn by its irresistible magnetic pull. This was the greatest automotive achievement of the post-war world, the ultimate symbol of Germany’s resurrection. I had heard of it spoken in almost religious terms, but had never seen one. I circled it repeatedly, feasting on every exterior detail.

Then the magic gull wing doors rose in preparation for flight, and I entered that hallowed space, only to be rudely removed so that my father and older brother could savor a hair-raising ride with the financially fortunate amateur rally driver. With all the practice I had, I could have easily squeezed in. And I’m still trying to get over it.

So my first peak automotive experience had to wait until one bright spring day in 1960 when I stumbled upon an alien space ship that had somehow landed at the curb of the Maria Theresien Strasse in the center of historic Innsbruck. The “wood rose metallic” 1959 Cadillac DeVille two door hardtop (CC here) was the length of at least three Lloyds, with soaring fins and a glass bubble of an upper body that truly lived up to the commonly used term “greenhouse”.

CC 126 130 800

I’d never seen anything remotely like this four wheeled rocket ship. Who knows how long I stared at every chromed detail, trying to comprehend its design language. I totally lost myself in its mysteries. What was it trying to say to me? It was highly futuristic, yet its florid details evoked the many overwrought Baroque/rococo churches that I was so familiar with. But they were all about the gilded glories of heaven.

Is that were this heavenly space chariot came from? Surely when Jesus returned to earth, this would be the ride The Father would bestow on him for the journey.

Another intrigued (but adult) onlooker brought me back to reality by explaining the more earthly origins of the Cadillac (tourists from America). And within weeks of this transforming event, my father suddenly announced that we were moving to America. Car heaven, I thought, here I come.


Next Chapter: Douglas DC-8 – The Trip Of A Lifetime