From the time I was 5 ’til about the age of 16, one of my favorite “free time” activities was riding my bicycle (either by myself or with a friend or two) around my hometown. I was always looking for new streets and interesting hidden places to explore, and yes that included old cars as well! In 1977, I had gotten my copy of Tad Burness’ American Car Spotter’s Guide 1940-65 so I could identify anything from that era due to many hours of studying that beautifully organized scrapbook. My favorite model years were 1955-62, and even at this time, finding a car of that vintage was something of a rarity.
I lived on Cross Road in Hanover Township, N.J. which is about 30 miles west of New York City. The Township consists of three “Communities”: Morris Plains, Cedar Knolls, and Whippany. Because I also had a Hanover Township map, I knew nearly all of the streets and had explored most of them.
The following account is intended to show what kind of old cars were still around and within biking distance in the late ’70s as I recall them. So come, let’s do some exploring! Mom says to be home by 5 p.m. What will we see?
First stop: “Trailwood”, a.k.a. “The Big Woods”. This was a large wooded area of about 100 acres between Horse Hill Road and the end of Countrywood Drive. It was a maze of winding dirt trails, with dozens of stripped, abandoned cars of the ’40s and ’50s scattered throughout: Chevys, Fords, Pontiacs, Plymouths, Dodges, and who knows what else. Most of them were peppered with bullet holes, and shell casings were everywhere. Let’s pick up a few and bring them home–red…yellow…green. Besides the cars there were stoves, washing machines, mattresses, 55 gallon drums, and other interesting castoffs. Who dumped all this junk here? Didn’t these people listen to Woodsy Owl on TV? (“Give a hoot, don’t pollute! Never be a dirty bird…”)
In the early ’80s, the woods were bulldozed for a housing development, christened “Trailwood”. What happened to all the junk cars? The story I heard was the developer simply dug holes and buried the cars in future back yards. I hope the homeowners don’t dig too deep or they’ll hit a rusty hot water heater or the roof of a ’53 Chevy.
1959 Edsel. On Pine Boulevard there was a beat-up ’59 Edsel sedan that never seemed to move. One day I was at the small Foodtown on Ridgedale Avenue, and I saw this white, battered hulk pull in. It was the Edsel, and I was happy to see that it actually ran. I went up the elderly man who was getting out of the driver’s seat, and told him I liked his car. He asked me if I knew what it was, and I replied with some authority, “A ’59 Edsel Ranger.” His jaw dropped wide open. He couldn’t believe that a kid like me would know what an Edsel was, let alone the correct year!
Renault Caravelle. I went to a garage sale in town with my parents, and you never know what’s hidden behind garage doors! The typical merchandise was laid out in the driveway, but in the garage was a strange looking car. My father identified it as a Renault Caravelle from the early ’60s. He knew this because he always thought the Caravelle was a beautiful car, and he had considered buying one new, but purchased an MG 1100 instead. I said to Dad, “Here’s your chance! Let’s buy this car and restore it, and we’ll have a Caravelle like you always wanted!” Dad said he wasn’t interested. I haven’t seen a Renault Caravelle since.
1961 Dodge Lancer. On Mountain Avenue, there was another old bomb that didn’t move. I identified it as a 1961 Lancer, Dodge’s version of the Plymouth Valiant–a real odd duck. I saw a man in the yard, so I got off my bike and asked him about the car. The Lancer had heavy front-end damage on the passenger’s side. I asked the man what happened and he said, and I quote, “I was driving down the road and a telephone pole ran into me.” That’s the last time I saw a Dodge Lancer.
Really Old Trucks. On a dead end off South Jefferson Road (an industrial thoroughfare), there were these very old trucks that looked like they were from the 1920s. On the radiator cover it says in fine script, “White”. They have solid rubber tires and what I believe are spark advance controls on the steering wheel hub. I had never seen anything like them. Maybe someone on CC can tell us more about these trucks.
1955 Packard Clipper. Eden Lane was a winding road that passed by the sprawling Whippany Paper Board Company factories–a hellscape of sooty, irregularly spaced industrial buildings, smokestacks, and sheds that were erected helter-skelter as needs arose beginning in the 19th century. On the other side of Eden, up a long, mysterious driveway was the Whippany Soap Company. This place stunk up the whole area with an odor that I can only describe as smelling like boiling dog food. So of course my friend and I had to ride our bikes up the driveway and see what was there. When we got to the top, there was a rather plain industrial building, but what I especially noticed was a worn looking black sedan from the 1950s of a kind I had never seen before. What was perplexing were the chrome identification scripts on the hood and fenders: “Clipper”. Also there was a ship’s wheel emblem, like on Gilligan’s Island. This was before I had gotten my “Spotter’s Guide”, and I had never heard of a car called a “Clipper”, nor did I know that it was made by Packard. While we were checking out this weathered artifact from another time, a black man dressed in what appeared to be janitor’s clothes came up to us. It was his car, and he was rather amused and surprised that we were taking such an interest in it.
Now you may be asking, “Steve, all these cars and places you describe are long gone now. Is there anything left? Are there any old cars that you saw then that are still around?” Yes–yes there are!
My next door neighbor at the time, Don, had an interesting collection of cars. These included a copper colored ’59 Corvette that always sat in the garage, and a very nice ’69 Camaro, light green with black racing stripes (although a ’69 wasn’t considered a really old car at that time). He also had a rusty blue ’62 Chevy Bel Air wagon parked outside, which also sat for years, not moving. (We used to call that one “Super Blue ’62”). Well, I am happy to report that in recent years, Don (who still lives in the same house) has made great progress restoring his Corvette, and while it is not a completed project, it is roadworthy and very fast. Super Blue got junked, but donated its engine to someone restoring a ’56 Chevy. The Camaro still looks great and is very original.
Now I have questions for the CC audience: Are there any young boys or teens today doing what my friends and I did then? Are they riding their bikes long distances without adult supervision, exploring secluded and shady locations looking for old cars? Do they have their Tad Burness Spotter’s Guides? Do they know the difference between a Dodge and a De Soto or how to tell a ’57 from a ’58? And do they even care?