The interesting article Paul wrote recently on the demise of American full size cars was excellent food for thought for me. His follow up QOTD’s on picking a big car to buy if you had a time machine have been neat to ponder as well. On the 50’s question, Paul’s ode to the ’55 Chevy tripped a memory for me about one of my favorite people. My grandfather had one and that recollection made me realize his story fits in with the saga of the full size car rather well. So allow me to tell you about my grandfather and his cars.
Burt Curry is my maternal grandfather. He was born in 1909. I always remember that it was 100 years after Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Whether my grandpa’s birth year helps me remember Lincoln’s or vice versa, I’m not sure, but that is the weird way I remember dates. He grew up on a farm in New Jersey. He was academically gifted and graduated high school two years early, enrolling in college at Princeton, which of course is in New Jersey and I have a feeling may not have been quite as hard to get into, nor as expensive, back in the 20’s as it became later.
He told me that he bought his first car shortly after graduating college: a 1930 Plymouth roadster. It was brand new and he said he never bought a used car in his life. That struck me as pretty interesting and hard to fathom. He told me that story before I was of driving age and I thought that would be a cool goal to have to only buy new cars. Fast forward a couple of years as a car-crazed kid in the suburbs in the 80’s, I wasn’t going to wait until after college to get a car nor was buying a new car in high school even a remote possibility, so that goal went out the window around age 15!
He majored in French, with the plan to be a teacher. He was able to get teaching jobs around the east coast and rode out the Depression without any serious unemployment problems. One position took him to Massachusetts, where he met my grandmother and got married in 1936.
I honestly don’t remember, if I was ever told, what cars my grandparents had in the 30’s and 40’s. My mom, who lives in a different state, has all the old family photo albums where I know there are a few pics with cars in them. I remember a dark colored mid 30’s coupe, probably a Plymouth but I’d have to look at the albums to confirm. They have some photos of their pre-parenthood period in parks (including a couple with cars) as well as a trip to France. My mom came along in 1941.
Grandpa Burt volunteered for the Navy in 1942. That’s his wartime portrait. Being a college educated teacher, he went into the officer corps and was tracked into unglamorous administrative and educational jobs. Somebody had to do them. I was a little disappointed as a kid that he didn’t have dramatic war stories, which for some reason I have a little guilt about feeling that way now. I know that when he entered the Navy, they sold their car and my grandma and mom spent the war years carless. I wish I knew more about how they got a car when he returned home after the war. Getting a new car in 1945-47 was not easy. I asked my mom, but she doesn’t remember anything about their vehicles.
In 1938, my grandfather got a job as the French instructor at Culver Military Academy, which is in northern Indiana. Except for his time on active duty in the Navy, he spent the rest of his career there. They lived in the small town of Culver where my mom, and her younger brother who came along in 1946, grew up. My mom was the first girl to ever graduate from Culver in 1959.
My grandmother had a driver’s license since before they were married, but my grandparents were always a strictly one car family. My grandma was an RN and had jobs at the hospital near Culver, but mainly at the doctor’s office in town. Living close to campus, they would always get by with just the one car.
Besides the 30 Plymouth, the first car my grandpa talked to me about specifically was the 1955 Chevrolet sedan, probably BelAir, but I’m not sure. It had the V8 and automatic and he said he liked that car a lot. They kept it for seven years, so he must have been pretty satisfied with it.
As we know, there was no such thing as a “full-sized car” up to that point because most car makers had just one size of car. As Paul has pointed out, many people considered the 55 Chevy to be the “right” size and were perfectly content with it sizewise. There wasn’t a huge demand from the masses for small cars, beyond small-volume alternatives like some U.S. independents and the initial ripple wave of Volkswagens.
Something unique about my grandfather’s car story is that in 1953-1954, just before buying the Chevy, he took a sabbatical and spent six months in France. The whole family went and lived there while my grandpa took courses at the University. While living there, they had use of a Volkswagen. I don’t know if they bought it, leased it or what, but they used that to go all over France touring sites. I was told the story of how my uncle would like to ride in the well behind the rear seat.
It’s conjecture, but I think that VW colored my grandparent’s ideas on what size car was right for them. They must not have loved it too much, because they didn’t go out and buy a Bug from wherever the nearest place to buy one to Culver, Indiana in the mid 50’s would have been. After spending months behind the wheel of a Volkswagen on European roads, my grandfather bought a standard size American car with one of the powerful new OHV V8’s and an automatic transmission. God Bless America!
Where I think the VW may have influenced my grandpa was when it came time to replace the Chevy. Standard sized cars had grown in that time and a whole new crop of smaller sized cars from the major car makers had come out. My grandfather bypassed the big cars and went compact with a 62 Buick Special. For someone who had spent time in a VW, the Corvair’s aircooled rear engine would not have seemed so radical, but he choose instead the small car from a more premium brand that had a V8 and automatic available. How did the VW experience play in? I believe he didn’t feel he needed the biggest size car, but also didn’t love the economy car experience so much that he wanted to actually buy a VW or other very small car.
What I can’t say is how much role my grandmother had in their choice of cars. I suspect it may have been substantial. Of course, whenever they went anywhere together, my grandfather always drove. However, she spent a fair amount of time driving their cars since she worked and did the shopping. He was the sort of guy who while not afraid to be the leader in their relationship, would still listen to the preferences of his wife.
So if you’re thinking that my grandfather loved his “right size” 55 Chevy and forevermore eschewed anything bigger, the next car throws a wrinkle in that narrative. He bought a 1969 Ford LTD with air conditioning, again riding the cutting edge trends of the day by going full Brougham with the Broughamyest low-priced car available. I wish I could know what the thinking was on that car. My theory is that my grandpa figured he’d be retiring before too long and with plans to do more traveling they needed a good road car. As far as I know, he had never owned a Ford before so it really was out of character.
Grandpa Burt retired in 1974, probably mandated by Culver at 65 years old but I’m not sure. I know they put some miles on the Ford and following the usual 7-8 year interval, bought their next car which again was right where the industry was headed. I am impressed that my grandfather managed to hit two of the historical GM sweet spots in 1955 and again in 1977 with his choice of a Pontiac Catalina. I don’t know if it was wisdom or luck, but knowing my grandfather, I suspect it was the former.
We’ve talked a lot on CC about GM’s first downsizing of their full sized cars and what a Greatest Hit that was, recalibrating their cars to a more rational size and putting the full engineering weight of the corporation into a quality design. As one of Bill Mitchell’s last big jobs, the cars were good looking, especially for the times. The Pontiac was the less common choice, but a good one as they had V8’s which were still all Pontiac-made. The dash and steering wheel were substantially nicer than the Chevy’s, so I think the slight premium was money well spent.
I was around with the LTD, but the Catalina is the first of their cars that I have strong memories of. It had the 301cid V8 engine and air conditioning but not many other options. Straight bench seat with no armrest. As far as I know, that was a really good car for them with very few problems. In the late 70’s they started going to Florida for the winters with my grandpa’s brother and his wife. They bought a condo and moved there full time in 1983. This lifestyle kept the Catalina from getting any significant rust, but they still decided to replace it after nine years, pushing their usual ownership time a little higher since the Catalina was such a good car.
In 1985/86 GM again downsized their full-sized cars. You might expect my grandpa would have hit the automotive trend wave again by getting an 86 Taurus or maybe at least a downsized LeSabre. My grandparents did want to downsize, but at this point my grandpa was too much of a traditionalist to give up his V8 and go front wheel drive, so they went with the badge-engineered “downsized” 86 Bonneville. Perhaps he was so spoiled by that 55 Chevy that he never wanted to go without a V8 again! This was the first car that my grandfather special ordered and he had a specific strategy. He wanted the car to have all the options available on the inside and under the hood, but be as plain as possible on the outside. They got the very unflashy light green metallic paint, no two tone and no vinyl top. He intentionally specified black wall tires with standard hubcaps. Inside had green cloth seats with AC, power windows, locks, seats, tape deck, etc. Underhood had the optional 305cid (not Pontiac!) V8 and I don’t know if they had any suspension upgrade.
This was not as reliable of a car as the Catalina had been. I don’t remember exactly the issues, but it had to go back to the dealer a number of times. Their condo didn’t have carports, so the Florida sun did a number on the paint and it had to be repainted after 5 years.
When the Bonneville was getting on in years, my grandparents weren’t driving as much. If I recall correctly it only had 40-something k miles, but whether it was the habit of replacing cars every 7-9 years or that the wonky Bonneville was unloved, my grandfather decided for the first time in his life to buy a used car. Somebody in their condo development had stopped driving and was selling their two-year old 92 Ford Crown Victoria. I remember my grandma didn’t feel they needed it but my grandpa thought it was too good of a deal to pass up and insisted on getting it. I think my grandma also didn’t want to get a bigger car, but Grandpa Burt prevailed.
He didn’t drive the Crown Vic for long. A year or so later he came down with prostate cancer, which spread and caused a couple years of declining health. He had to quit driving and eventually move into assisted living. I know he missed driving. When we visited one time, he was staying in the assisted living building in their development and we were going to drive over to the big dining room in their regular condo building. I suggested he drive, since he still had his license, it was not on public roads and he was feeling relatively good. He thought that sounded like a good idea until someone pointed out that he wasn’t on the insurance. My grandfather, being the unfailingly responsible guy that he was, averred and said of course that would be wrong then. I don’t know how disappointed he was, but I was disappointed because I thought that would have been good for his spirits and he never did get to drive again.
He passed away at 88 and I lost one of my favorite relatives. I admired him for lots of reasons, but one was his wise financial stewardship, which his car choices were a part of. Being a teacher at a boarding school allowed him and his family to have a good life in Culver. It was by no means a lucrative profession but he made the most of their money. After the war, he stayed in the Naval Reserve and retired with a 20 year pension, later also getting a modest Culver pension. He invested their savings well. He bought reasonably priced cars, maintained them well and kept them for longer than average at the time. All this allowed him and my grandmother to put two kids through college, give large amounts to their church and charities, to have 20-30 years of financially comfortable retirement and still give their kids a substantial inheritance.
My grandmother lived for 10 more years. In 2000, after multiple near miss road incidents, she was coaxed into reluctantly giving up her keys. I drove the Crown Vic to my home out of state and sold it for her. She offered to let me have it. It was a really nice, loaded, low mile car and I wouldn’t have minded driving that car at all. However, I had two cars I liked already and let that one go.
I miss my grandparents. I always enjoyed visiting them and I thought even at the time that my grandfather had good taste in cars. In hindsight, it’s remarkable how he hit some of the most significant cars in American auto trends and had mostly good experiences.