Today’s Curbside Classic brought back a flood of memories. Now most of those are not so much memories of an actual ’56 Chevy, but my endless machinations (more like imaginations, actually) of how I was going to have one as my first car. I know; me and 43 million other young males in the sixties all with the same aspiration. But mine were probably different than the other 42,999,999. Before I explain, let’s just say that the answer to this question undoubtedly reveals a lot about our personalities. And there’s a difference between wanting and feeling a sense of destiny or inevitability. Are you comfortable in that chair, or would you like to recline on the sofa?
The ’55 Chevy (CC here) made a deep impression on me when I first saw one in the streets of Innsbruck being piloted by tourists. Like any car-crazy kid of five or so, I was endlessly fascinated by pictures and rare sightings of more exotic and flamboyant cars, American or European. But I instantly pegged the Chevy for how it turned out to be judged historically: and ideal compromise between practicality, performance and good taste. It was a big American car, but without any of the excess that was the rage in the late fifties. The Chevy seemed to bridge the best of American and European automotive approaches; the Mercedes of American cars?
Needless to say, tri-five Chevies were very common in Iowa City during my grade school years (1960-1965), their reputation as the best-built older used car having already been cemented. It was the most sought-after cheap used car for the many married families coming to the University; the Camry of its time in that regard. I sometimes caught a ride in a ’55 four door being piloted by my fellow foreign (Egyptian) classmate Adel Towadros’ father. This was usually on very cold mornings when our ’54 Ford failed to start, once again, and Adel’s dad would see me trudging along River Road and have pity.
Sliding into that warm, roomy back living room sofa smelling faintly of exotic Mid-Eastern spices on a freezing morning was a comforting experience, and how I rued the time it was about zero and I watched Captain Kangaroo (with my little brother) too long, and saw the Chevy roll by before I got to the corner, its distinctive rounded tail obscured by a cloud of exhaust condensation as it slowly trundled towards Lincoln School on the crunchy packed snow (no salt or snow holidays back then).
During this period (1960-1965), hot rod tri-fives weren’t really yet a common commodity in Iowa City, unlike in places like California, where they were adopted almost instantly.
The hot-rodder brothers across the street from us were still in Henry-consciousness, endlessly trying to get one of their various flatulant flathead Ford rods running properly. And I hadn’t discovered magazines yet. So the image of tri-fives as solid, reliable cars continued to ferment.
The exception being the region’s most dominant dirt-track stock car racer, whose name escapes me right now. Folks headed out to West Liberty on hot summer Saturday nights to see his hotter ’56 Chevy batter its way to the the checkered flag. Well, not the Niedermeyers; but I would read about it the next day in the Press-Citizen that I helped my brother deliver.
The move to Towson in 1965 corresponded to my discovery of car magazines, everything from Road Track to Popular Hot Rodding (and many more obscure smaller rags). This was now in the heyday of the tri-fives as America’s #1 hot rod (by far), and car like the ’57 Project X became cemented in the collective testosterone-fed consciousness.
Tri-five Chevy rods were everywhere. And mostly pretty ratty, with their perpetual flat primer paint, and a straight front truck axle for that “gasser” look, if its owner could muster it. Bet that made it handle well.
I got a job solo-manning a tiny two-pump Sunoco gas station on York road on Saturdays, at the tender age of fifteen and a half (try that now). Shorty, one of the weekday gas jockeys, was a genuine hillbilly recently arrived from hollers of West Virginia, and had a rough ’56 two-door sedan with rear spring shackle extensions (bought from J.C. Whitney, no doubt). He would come by on Saturdays to hang out and add another layer of flat black primer from his stash of cans rattling in the trunk.
He was a very sweet guy, obviously lonely in the big city (West Virginians then were like more recent Mexican immigrants, moving to where the jobs were). One afternoon, after his can of primer was finished, he decided to put on a little show for me on his exit down York Road. He gunned it, dumped the clutch, and the car dropped down on its haunches, listing to the right side where the cheap rear spring shackle broke apart.
Shorty was crestfallen, and I felt so bad for him as his pride and joy slowly limped down the street like a dog with a bum rear leg.
For me (like so many things), the whole hot-rod drag-racing scene stayed mostly in the realm of my drug-store-magazine-rack-fueled imaginations. I finally went to my first (and last) drag race, at Capitol Raceway, in about 1967 or 1968, and it was a mixed bag. Even though drag racing seems very simple and obvious, if one doesn’t understand the game and its subtleties, it can be less than than totally engaging (a bit like baseball).
Especially so since the line-up was hardly like the NHRA Winternationals I’d seen pictures of in Hot Rod. The majority of the racers were stock and mildly-modified cars, along with a few gassers and maybe two rails. The worst were the stockers with mufflers on: where’s the excitement in seeing a couple of cars quietly whooshing down a road off into the distance? Like with so many popular American past-times, I felt a bit like a fish out of water.
Although I always considered the ’55 to be the best looking of the bunch, for some reason ’56s seemed to keep finding their way into my life. One that really grabbed me was a ’56 210 hardtop coupe parked near the Towson courthouse that its owner had painted a monochrome dark blue, and which sported ’56 Corvette spinner wheel covers and Firestone 500 high performance tires. It was a very mild custom, accentuating the Chevy’s all-round performance capabilities, including its much better than average handling in its day. I was really drawn to that.
In the fall of 1967, I started my ill-fated high school years at Loyola. There were a few fast new cars in the parking lot, including a red ’68 GTO. But I found myself gravitating to this one kid’s ’56 Bel Air sedan, obviously a hand-me down from parents or an uncle or such. He drove it every day way down from Dundalk, on the other side of Baltimore, with a load-full of other kids that car-pooled with him.
The Bel Air V8 was now a dozen years old, which was quite a lot back then, but it just seemed so solid and…and…trustworthy? I’m grasping for the right words here. I know; it oozed with security; like a familiar bed or comfort food, or….childhood. As a low-status freshman in a preppy high school, that Chevy really spoke to me, which also occupied just about the lowest rung in the parking lot pecking order. I just wanted it in the baddest way; but I suspect I would have driven it somewhere other than to school if I had it. And I would have spent my money on gas, lots of it, and not on “fixing it up”.
My best friend’s older brother that had gotten me that job at the Sunoco station drove a nice old ’57 Bel Air four door. When he headed off to college, he needed to sell it. Although I had no license, I told him I wanted to buy it. But it was not to be (probably for the best), and instead the owner of the station, who also owned a small taxi company, snapped it up from under me. He knew a good car on the cheap when he saw it. So it became his daily driver; a bit odd, considering he owned a fleet of ’65, ’66 and ’67 Dodge Coronet taxis.
During this time, my older brother’s best friend drove a hand-me-down ’55 150 stripper, with the six and stick shift. It was called “The Beast”, and was the endless butt of their derision, as they were heavily into sports cars. Of course my brother’s MGA was perpetually breaking down, and The Beast was always called upon to get the parts needed until the next time. No matter how they abused it, physically or verbally, it never complained.
A year or so after my Sunoco job, I worked at a BP station on weekends. A kid the owner knew needed to sell his very ratty ’56 two-door that had seen all kinds of abuse. But the body was still solid; in fact, I never saw any rust on any tri-five in Baltimore back then. I almost got that one, despite still not having a license as a consequence of having been caught driving my mother’s car without one. I was just going to park it a block or two away from from home…. I can’t remember exactly why the deal wasn’t consummated, but it was probably (again) for the best. It was a heap, despite its still-solid body.
There’s little doubt that I saw ’56 Chevys as my escape pod from my unhappy Towson years, and I probably would have just headed off into the sunset in one had I snagged one, license or not. But I didn’t, so I ended up hitchhiking westward, and found myself back in Iowa City for a few years more.
And my first car turned out to be a 1963 Corvair Monza four speed, gifted to me by my brother. Quite the contrast from a ’56 Chevy at that. But I did finally get to drive a ’56 Chevrolet, thanks to the Corvair, and what a gem it was.
In the depths of the winter of 1972, I got a very part time job as a domestic helper to a couple who were well up in their eighties, and who lived in the nicest house in Manville Heights, my old neighborhood. I used to walk by it every day to grade school, and how I coveted that stately brick mansion (currently for sale at $1,495,000). Why couldn’t we live there?
Mr. Stronks had once been very successful in the encyclopedia distribution business, and built this house in 1928, at the height of the Roaring Twenties. He still walked to his office downtown every day, for a few hours, and I had to help the physically-disabled Mrs. Stronks make the beds and vacuum and such. Odd job for a long-haired kid…but she fed me lunch too.
One day she told me I needed to run some errands for her, delivering Christmas packages and cards to various friends around town. My Corvair was laid up at the time with a bad starter, and I had walked to their house. So she handed me some keys and told me their car was in the garage off the alley. I was tense with excitement: what kind of fine luxury car was waiting for me there?
I pulled up the door, and a very familiar sight greeted me. Ha! A ’56 Chevy four door, and not even a Bel Air. It was a 210 sedan, with the V8 and Powerglide. And it was in like-new condition. My first time actually driving a ’56 Chevy turned into a time warp. It ran so smoothly, and was a genuine pleasure to drive. With the V8, it felt quite lively, to the extent I could test its capabilities on my appointed errand route. And it exuded the same sense of solidity and security that the Stronk’s big brick house did. Now how could I get them to adopt me?
My story has gotten way too long, so I’m now getting off the couch to let you have your turn. What car did you really want to have as your first car? And why that particular car? And did the wishes come true?