(first published in 2007) 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. The fact that it hasn’t come yet may explain a few things.
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– and other such automotive doppelgangers 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. And in case you’ve been wondering all these decades, White (and White Freightliner) semi tractors were the best selling of that time, according to my careful records.
During my father’s futile attempts to recreate alpine hiking, he made us hike along the flat country roads. He’d drive out in the farmlands outside Iowa City, park the car on the shoulder of some gravel road, and head off. It was infinitely embarrassing, as the local farmers would perpetually stop and ask us if we needed a ride, assuming our car broke down. No one ever walked there otherwise.
So we started walked along Iowa’s many rivers, especially the Mississippi. 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 archaeologist’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 quite thorough book, The Chevrolet Story, arrived in the mail a few weeks later. My GM Death Watches and Deadly Sins probably weren’t exactly the kind of long-term interest in the company GM was hoping to inspire with their investment in me.
I finally stumbled onto the library downtown, and devoured section 629.2xx. Author Floyd Clymer’s contribution to this little island of automotive knowledge was disproportionate and hopelessly out of date (e.g. “Those Wonderful Old Automobiles”). But I made do, and 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 very limited introduction to the world of automotive journalism. But one winter day, I took advantage of my height, puffed out my ten-year-old chest, and boldly walked into the University library, wondering if I would be busted by the campus police. Thankfully, I was left utterly alone, and 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, and I was very late for supper that evening.
I pondered and probed the deeper mysteries of automotive design. So many questions; so few answers.
How and why had the small change in the Falcon grille, from concave in 1960 to convex in 1961, created such a different response in me? 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? Would I ever find others with whom I could share and discuss these deep mysteries?
I sought the actual spirit of a car, the overarching design leitmotif or inspiration 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 or prejudices about the subject car, I could often see it in its essence, for better or for worse.
Others left me confused, including the ’59 Mercury. There was one on the way to school; it often made me late as I stared and squinted. The woman in the living room window stared and squinted at me. I told the teacher I was doing my homework, but I had nothing to show for it. I still don’t get it.
The only thing I saw in the 1961-1963 Rambler American was a poorly designed child’s-toy car; the Tonka 440.
I also obsessed on 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 1960 Imperial; its dash looked like a sci-fi depiction of a future Mars colony (as depicted by Popular Mechanics). Those giant dials were glass domes under which various human activities could be discerned, if one looked long and hard enough. The steering wheel hovered over the whole colony like a rotating space station, where the colonists could experience proper gravity. The squared-off wheel only added to the surreal effect.
At a University football game, I had a close encounter of the parking lot kind, with a mid-fifties Bentley R type. It was the kind of car not normally found in Iowa. I was so absorbed by the combination of wood and leather that a campus patrol officer detained me for suspicion of attempted theft. I was flattered, actually, that he thought I could possibly drive it, considering I was ten years old. In a rare moment of parental understanding, my father laughed off the campus police when they called our house about it.
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 was 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.
I knew my advanced degree work in Autology wasn’t quite within reach yet. 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.