Father-son relationships can be complicated. Sons naturally want to exert their ever-growing prowess, which is a good thing when it’s channeled properly, but when it comes to telling Dad what to do, it gets tricky. Taking advice from their sons does not come easy, at least in my family.
It’s not just a matter of giving up control, but also whether it’s good and useful advice. Needless to say, we all gave my dad lots of advice, behind his back. He was especially touchy about telling him anything, because he was pretty cock-sure he knew it all better. And on a huge range of subjects that was the case, as he had an exceptional memory and was highly intelligent. But he had his blind spots, and as far as I was concerned, cars were one of his biggest ones.
I’ve shared the stories of my father’s car-buying here a few times, but here’s the quick summary in case you’re new.
The first car he bought shortly after we arrived in the US in 1960 was an elderly but solid baby-blue ’54 Ford four door sedan. It had the new Y block V8 and automatic. Although I was a bit disappointed that it wasn’t a new 1960 Pontiac, I rather approved. It was very roomy in the back seat, which was a good thing as there were four of us kids. It took us on many outings to explore our new surroundings in Iowa, and then in the summer of 1961, it really expanded our horizons by taking us to the first of a number of wonderful summer vacations in the Rockies.
A doctor at the university my dad met was also a mountaineer, and he and his family owned a couple of venerable old cabins way up on a ridge within walking distance of the boundary of the Rocky Mountain National Park. Having left Innsbruck, in the heart of the Alps, for the endless flatland of Iowa was a painful transition in a number of ways, so heading west on old hwy 30 and/or 6 across the plains until the Rockies appeared in the far distance was exhilarating. Just the drive alone, as the landscape changed from lush farms in Iowa to dry range land in Western Nebraska, and the number of Indian/Western curio shops increased. It was all charged with growing excitement, at least for me. I won’t mention the very unpleasant night in a motel in Holdridge, Nebraska thanks to my dad, because it will spoil the positive mood I’m beginning to generate here.
Being in the Rockies each of those summers of 1961-1965 were the best times of those years. The superb beauty, the smell of sage and pine, the crisp, dry air, the afternoon thunderstorms, and of course getting up into the mountains for hikes.
I’m afraid I rather deeply disappointed my dad that first summer when he took me and my older brother on our first mountain peak hike, the goals being Flattop Mt. (on right) and then on to the taller and decidedly more mountain-peak looking Hallet Peak, on the left. After the 3.5 miles up to the non-peak of Flattop, I said I couldn’t go on. I so remember the look on my father’s face as he looked across the gorge of Tyndall Glacier, which separated the two, over to Hallet’s Peak.
But he was actually pretty good about, and given that I was all of eight, I guess he didn’t have much choice. How many times I’ve made that hike since, and thought about how he must have felt. But then how many mountain peaks did I give up trying to climb during all of the years we had our little kids. For what it’s worth, it’s about the only sacrifice like that he had to ever make.
But I treasure the fact that he imbued the love of the mountains in me, but how could he not? It’s what he wanted to do, so it’s not like we would have had any other choice for vacation. How I pined for Disneyland…
In 1962, my father left one day in the old Ford and came back a couple of hours later with this black Fairlane, seen here with my mom and my younger brother. Hmm. Well, it was new, but it was decidedly smaller inside than the big, tall old Ford with its sofa of a back seat. And now us kids were decidedly bigger, and getting bigger by the day. I would have recommended a Pontiac 8 passenger wagon.
I won’t go into a lot of detail as I’ve documented it here, but the innocence of childhood I experienced in the ’54 Ford quickly evaporated in the ever-more tense atmosphere of the Fairlane. My father was quite unhappy with certain political aspects of his job in Iowa, and that combined with his intensity, defensiveness, control issues and anger mis-management made for an increasingly unhappy atmosphere at home. And that was only highly intensified when we were all cooped up with him in the little Fairlane for several days at a time. The relief of arriving in the Rockies, or back home, after these trips was overwhelming.
In the spring of 1965, he finally relented and bought a Dodge Coronet 8-passenger wagon. I just wrote about that recently here. Not surprisingly, I once again would have recommended a big Pontiac wagon.
In 1965 he was recruited by Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and he needed a second car for his commute in addition to the Coronet wagon that now became Mom’s car (and the vacation-mobile). I have yet to write this chapter of the Auto-Biography, as I’ve yet to find an Opel Kadett A, but one of these times I will with a stand-in. I recommended a VW Beetle. The Opel was rather fragile, and after three years was showing it. A VW would have been barely broken in. Oh well.
So he went off one day and came back later with a gold ’68 Dart stripper two door sedan, with the little 170 slant six and three-on-the tree. A wee bit modest for a professor of Neurology and head of the EEG Clinic at Johns Hopkins, but hey, if you want to sweat on the black vinyl seats with no air conditioning 45 minutes twice a day on the brutal commute through the surface streets of Baltimore, help yourself. You must need the penance. I would have recommended a BMW 2002, although that was hardly realistic. At least a GM A Body coupe with a V8, automatic and air conditioning. Oh, and an AM/FM radio might have been nice too, so you could listen to the new classical music station instead of straining your ears on that little tinny $5 transistor radio you put in the dashboard.
You should never have started listening to talk radio anyway on the drive; it turned you from fairly reasonable moderate into an increasingly hard-core conservative. Thanks, Rush! Now politics was taboo too, never mind sex or money. Of course, I was long gone by then, having flown the coop by hitchhiking west a week after I turned 18.
Although the Dart lived up to its rep and was still hale and hearty, in 1978 or so my father finally succumbed to the venial sin of air conditioning, having had a taste of it in my Mom’s ’73 Coronet wagon on their vacation trips. It arrived in the form of a red Mercury Zephyr, and was powered by the base 2.3 L four and a four speed stick shift. It was a bit of a surprise when I first saw it on a trip home. And it was a bit of a mixed bag. There was a decided dorky aspect, but once I drove it, my respect increased. With the four and a stick shift, it was light on its feet, and handled surprisingly well. Truly the closest thing to an American Volvo.
In about 1986 or so, my father came to LA for a conference in Palm Springs. He flew out a day or two early and stayed with us, and then I drove him out to Palm Springs in my new 300E. In Europe in the 50s, a Mercedes 300 was of course the legendary “Adenauer” 300, a only fit for royalty, top politicians, the pope or the very wealthy. A product of the very class-structured Austrian/German social order, my father would never have dreamed of having a Mercedes 300. Even though he knew that in the 60s and 70s, that magic number was now increasingly affordable, and there were a growing number of them to be found down at the Johns Hopkins Hospital parking tower, for him it was something that he couldn’t be comfortable in. He sought status and prestige through his career, which turned out to be very successful (if not exactly lucrative, as a professor), and not through overt symbols of success like a Mercedes, never mind a 300!
Yet I could just see how much he liked the ride out to Palm Springs in it, and was proud of/for me for having achieved the financial success at age 33 or so to have one as well. Or was he a bit jealous? Or did he think I was a show-off? I couldn’t really tell; it’s not like he would have actually used his words to share his feelings. One had to read his body language, especially the set of his mouth and the most of all his lips.
That’s not to say he was ever really happy about the fact that none of us followed his footsteps into academia; in fact only the youngest of us five children ever got a college degree. Maybe we were sending him a message: Doctor, heal thyself!
Not that he took that advice: In fact, he told my younger brother on his deathbed that he was disappointed in all of us kids. Oh well; not really a surprise.
By the mid 1980s, he had mellowed out some, given that he was now in his 60s. And perhaps the most extreme example of that in regard to me and his cars is that one day in 1986 or 1987 he called me out of the blue (which he never did before or after) and asked my for a recommendation for a new car. That was easy:
The new Ford Taurus. Here was the perfect car for him. It was American, which was essential after the disappointment of the Opel. But it was as European as an American car ever was. Not in trying too hard, like wearing those ridiculous “Eurosport” badges or such. The Taurus was the first American car to really properly synthesize all the qualities that made for a really good, all-round balanced car for the times.
It handled very competently without one having to order a harsh sports suspension like on GM cars. Did BMW or Audi or Mercedes offer ‘sports suspensions”? No. They mastered the art of finding a happy compromise through a proper four wheel independent suspension, good shocks and careful tuning, all of it attached to a rigid body structure. And yet it had avery comfortable ride.
My father was very happy, even if he could no longer shift his own gears (fortunately he didn’t get the MT-5 version with the dreadful four cylinder and manual). And now my mom could actually drive it in a pinch! The Taurus was treated to a steady diet of super gasoline, even though it had no use for it. But in my dad’s mind it made a difference.
I only recommended the Taurus from what I’d read about it, in all of the gushing reviews. But on our next trip home, I borrowed it for a day’s outing with Stephanie and the kids, and it lived up to its lofty billing. No, it wasn’t a Mercedes W124; it was decidedly softer and cushier, but in a good way, for the more leisurely driving style Maryland mostly required compared to my frequent high speed runs in the deserts and mountains of California. Very nice, Dad! I approve!
The back seat was very accommodating too, a bit more so than the rather cozy one in the Benz. And I can still feel that distinctive low-cut velour-ish fabric all the Taurii back then used. Again, no Benz, but it felt decidedly nicer and better quality than comparable cars from GM or Chrysler. Well done, Ford!
The Taurus was of course a huge hit, because for just about the first time ever, it was really done right. Yes, many of the better American cars of the 60s and early 70s had very redeeming features, but they lacked the poise and handling competence and the feeling of being of a piece that was typically a Mercedes quality. The Taurus synthesized just the right amount of that to work just right and still be an American car, which it was.
And as such, it turned the market on its ear and set a standard. Every sedan on the market today has been deeply influenced by the original Taurus. They all carry its DNA.
It’s way past bedtime, so this needs to end. Let’s just say his asking my advice for a car was a one time event; my father eventually replaced the Taurus with a Buick Skylark, a very modest GM rental-mobile. And a few years later he drove off one day in my mom’s beloved Honda Civic, which she had bought on my advice, and returned with a craptrastic green Saturn Ion. She was really steamed about that; about as mad at him as I ever saw her in their later years. Oh well, the golden era of when the Taurus and Civic shared the Niedermeyer garage was well over. Maybe it was because he didn’t approve of me ditching my career and moving to Oregon?
Who knows; I had given up trying to understand him a long time ago, especially when it came to certain subjects like cars, for which he had no affinity whatsoever. But who was going to tell him that? Not me.