Auto-Biography: High Speed Assimilation

(First published in 2007)[The previous chapter]

My first glimpse of America: looking down on a freeway at night, with glow-worm toy cars. It was just like the picture of GM’s World of Tomorrow exhibit at the 1939 New York World Fair that I’d seen in an old book. We were circling to final approach at New York International airport, having left Austria (and micro-cars) behind forever.

It was August, 1960. I was seven years old. The intense surge of anticipation of my imminent immersion into a wholly new world of giant finned and chromed freeway cruisers was like that golden moment when you know you’re just about to lose your virginity. I knew it was going to be good. And I was not disappointed.

The combination of a mostly-sleepless twenty-hour trip, the excitement of flying on one of the first DC-8 jets, and a susceptibility to over-stimulation had my visual cortex in interstellar overdrive (not unlike later experiences with hallucinogens). Exiting the airport late on a hot muggy August night, I walked straight into one of those spacey Fitzpatrick and Kaufman rendered early ‘60’s “Wide-Track” Pontiac magazine ads.

The featured car (“Star Chief”) looked eleven feet wide. Elegantly dressed couples were departing at a futuristic airport with jets streaking overhead. Looking out at the assembled fleet of earth-bound star-fighters, the mystery of the design language of the aberrant 1959 Coupe de Ville I’d encountered in medieval Innsbruck began to unfold inside my mind.

We were picked up by relatives in a salmon-pink and charcoal-gray ’58 Plymouth station wagon, a bizarre hybrid of utility and flamboyance, a flamingo crossed with a cart. Having only experienced car rides on narrow alpine roads, riding down a six-lane expressway was like swimming in a school of exotic tropical fish fed only steroids.

The huge multi-colored leviathans were all trying to outdo each other. Fins and shiny protrusions extended in all directions. They had bulging multiple eyeballs, iridescent chromium gills and scales, and gaping maws sporting deadly-looking overbites or under bites, some with glittering orthodontia. A lone VW bug, a standard-size car back home, looked pitifully tiny and vulnerable, a baby turtle amongst these shark-finned predators.

Street 1960

We were spending three days with relatives in Brooklyn before continuing to our final destination in the heartland. While my family struggled with jet lag, heat and humidity, I was running around the neighborhood ogling the natives on a mission to create taxonomy of these unfamiliar beasts.

I struggled with a new vocabulary: Custom Royal Lancer, Mainliner, Super Wasp Hollywood, DeSoto Firedome Sportsman, Champion Regal Starliner. Damn! English was going to be a bitch.

I quickly gave up on the arcane language of marketing gobbledy-gook and focused on the pattern language of shapes. I soon discerned the first of many underlying patterns that grouped most of the newer cars into distinct families: windshields. Those expensive compound-curve dog-legged moldings were obviously shared across corporate cousins. The veil of badge-engineering was all too quickly rent.

There was a freeway pedestrian overpass a couple of  blocks from where we were staying. I spent hours there. It signaled the beginning a long quest: to identify cars from ever increasing distances. This pastime filled much of my childhood. It was as engaging to me as my son’s phone is to him. The eventual mastery of this skill would become invaluable in my peak speeding era, identifying and eluding the prowling CHP at great distance in pre-radar California.

A relative took us on a tour of Manhattan in his canary yellow ’57 Bel Air coupe. The mixture of jet lag, skyscrapers, bridges, tunnels and Central Park in the midday heat was intoxicating. Too much so for my sister, who debased the shiny Chevy by spewing her Automat lunch out the window, sullying its flanks in the middle of Times Square.

Cadillac 1959 hearse-vert

I encountered new auto-exotica that day, including a matching brace of 1959 Cadillac hearse and limousine. Their paradoxical juxtaposition of feigned flight and formal fin-ality left stretch marks in my delicate still-forming automotive design lexicon.

My first Corvette sighting was the highlight of that tour of Manhattan. It was a sexy ermine-white ’57 convertible. Innocent of its primitive underpinnings, I fell for the bad-girl face, the buff body and its delicious, curvaceous butt. It was a worthy replacement for that abandoned object of my lust and worship in the old country, that stern Teutonic overachiever known as the Mercedes 300SL Gullwing.

I poured my unconditional love on that plastic-fantastic Yank, slamming my assimilation into all things American into top gear.

Those heady three days in the Big Apple led me to believe that the whole of America would be an endless extension of its skyscrapers, bridges and parkways jammed with shiny land yachts. Little did I know that our final destination, Iowa City, was a freeway-less university town in the middle of endless corn fields with lots of muddy old pickup trucks.