A recent article I read posited that most car fans recall their passion arising around age eight. While I can’t speak for all the others, that timeline certainly reflects my own experience. Unfortunately, most eight-year-olds enjoy neither access to cars nor any opportunity to choose a ride for themselves. Because of that, our younger selves looked to others when it came to feeding our passion for things mechanical; in my case, my Grandfather on my Mother’s side.
On the other side of the family, my Dad’s father based his vehicle choices on practicality, not passion. As a lifelong farmer, he purchased tractors painted John Deere green and cars bearing a Blue Oval. Occasionally he’d update his fleet, albeit every time with another four-door sedan in mid-level trim and a small V8. This article was not inspired by his choices.
Instead, I recall my summer visits to Keister, Minnesota (population 750), where I would visit Grandpa G. and take in his latest automotive adventures. Grandpa owned a gravel company in that small Minnesota town, and spent his days working on a fleet of Ford dump trucks. Perhaps this daily exposure to American mainstream iron led to his eclectic fleet of vehicles; instead, I like to think he just naturally gravitated to the road less traveled, a path I, too, have chosen from time to time. For me, it was Grandfather G. who lit my automotive imagination, through both his chosen avocation and his many interesting vehicles.
I know about some of Grandpa’s cars only through my mother’s memories. In the late ’50s, Grandpa owned a couple of Volkswagen Beetles, and once he shared a memory of driving one on narrow, two-lane roads populated with slow moving trucks. The Bug could maintain a higher overall speed than the trucks, but not by much. Thus did each pass required a mighty struggle, with many attempts thwarted by oncoming cars. Its head of steam built up so slowly as to necessitate at least a half-mile’s worth of open passing lane. I remember the disgust in Mom’s voice as she recalled that “Not ONE of those trucks EVER slowed down to let me by.”
The first car that really inspired me was Grandpa G.’s pink 1956 Cadillac. I loved to go out in the driveway and pretend to drive this mighty steed. Before each adventure, I had to get permission from both Grandpa and Mother, and success was never assured. Mom believed I might damage the Cadillac, or perhaps knock it out of gear and roll down some deadly hill. Grandpa, however, was generally supportive, and from time to time I secured his permission. Rushing out to the driveway, I sat behind the wheel and dreamed of open roads and crossing the next crest.
Perhaps a ’56 Cadillac was not all that unusual in the biggest US cities, but it definitely was unique in Grandpa’s small farming community. Grandpa G. probably devoted a higher percentage of his income to automotive purchases than my Dad did, and I was always a little envious. Nowadays I’m facing four years of college costs and understand the fiscal choices my dad made, but at the time I wished he’d take a hint from Grandpa G. and live a little!
Grandpa’s wife was an automotive fan as well. When Studebaker brought out the Avanti, Grandpa G. purchased one for Grandma; she loved it so much that she drove it for almost 20 years. I didn’t know much about R-2 V-8 power back then, but I loved its bucket seats, aircraft inspired overhead switch gear, and cool trunk pass-through, which was mounted on the package shelf.
In fact, the Avanti affected several members of my family–my sister loved it so much that she always said she was going to buy one. While she has not yet acquired an Avanti, fate has placed her current home five blocks from the original site of the Studebaker factory, in South Bend, Indiana.
Image: The Classic Rover Forum
Throughout the late sixties and early seventies, my folks used to drive us from Michigan to Iowa, and we’d meet my Grandfolks at a rest stop on I-80. The trip took a full day for everyone. My folks and grandparents arrived back at their starting points as we kids went the full distance from Michigan to Minnesota. It was during this time that Grandpa acquired a Rover 2000 TC.
Once again I was fascinated by a unique automotive cockpit. Riding in the passenger’s seat, I would ask Grandpa what all the toggle switches did, and what all the strange international gauge icons meant.
Grandpa also owned a Mini Cooper, maybe my favorite car. At that age I couldn’t sample a car’s driving dynamics, so unique vehicle features tended to catch my eye. The Mini, with its sliding door glass and dual fuel fillers, provided many such automotive oddities. My Mom’s younger sister still lived at home when I was a kid, and she delighted in giving us wild rides in that rolling phone booth. The car’s small size and limited sound deadening gave us the feel of “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” every time we clambered in.
Of course, as a working mechanic Grandpa also had a pickup. Yet even in this realm he stepped away from the conventional, eschewing Ford, Chevy, and Dodge in favor of an International KB-1. I don’t remember ever riding in it, but every time I see that classic International grille I’m transported back to his shop on Highway 22, watching him as he worked on a gravel truck while patiently answering my every question.
Grandpa also traveled throughout the country. In the early ’30s, he kept a journal describing a West coast trip. Together with his brother-in-law and his wife, he and Grandma, then newlyweds, traveled west through the Black Hills, across Wyoming, Utah and Nevada, and into San Francisco. In the journal, he wrote about roadside repairs and scouring junkyards for parts to keep his car and trailer in serviceable condition.
Forty years later, I remember him preparing a Dodge A-100 van for another lengthy trip. He trimmed and paneled the interior to build a home-made camper for an Alaskan trip. I didn’t make that Alaska trip, but did cover many miles on Minnesota highways while perched on a jump seat bolted to the A-100’s engine cover. The seat kept my butt very warm, provided me with a panoramic view out the windshield, and also placed me right next to my Grandpa. Despite the engine heat, it was very cool place.
Grandma and Grandpa were snowbirds who departed Minnesota at first snowfall to winter near Tampa Bay, Florida. To provide protection from the warm Florida sun, Grandpa had a small Airstream trailer. In 1974, he picked up a new car to pull it: an AMC Gremlin, equipped with a 304 V8! He owned that car for a few years. Shortly after I got my license, in 1977, I got a chance to make a solo drive to the grocery store. The driving dynamics were very one-dimensional, but my 16-year old brain REALLY liked that one dimension of acceleration, followed by more of the same.
Around the same time, Grandma sold her Avanti and picked up a very unusual replacement–a Renault Dauphine. Looking for economy in her retirement years, she enjoyed the size and frugality of that little car. I remember riding back home with her from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and recall the delight she expressed while fueling the car. The Dauphine’s fuel tank held about 4.5 gallons, and you had to open the (rear) engine cover to access it. Grandma enjoyed both the unusual filler location and small fill capacity. I think both she and Grandpa preferred to choose the less traveled road.
After Grandpa’s Dodge van wore out, he acquired a second-generation Volkswagen Van with a Westfalia Camper conversion. Grandma worked for Winnebago Industries, and may have been eligible for an employee discount on a new RV, but Grandpa valued the frugality and dimensions of the Volkswagen over the products of Forest City, Iowa. Once more the iconoclast, Grandpa covered many miles in this camper, returning once again to Alaska. Frankly, I wasn’t a big fan of the Westfalia. While it wasn’t the mainstream choice, it was the poster car for automotive rebellion, and thus too common for my taste.
In his final purchase, Grandpa finally left behind the unusual, and acquired an early-’80s Dodge Omni. Perhaps Dodge’s choice of a Volkswagen engine led Grandpa to buy this mass-produced appliance, but I always felt a tang of disappointment when Grandma and Grandpa pulled up in that little penalty box. While the Omni gave Grandpa great service, it was a practical rather than passionate choice. That little Omni represented the passing of an era–an era that launched me on a path of automotive passion.
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