Auto-Biography: The Cars of My Mother

It’s Mother’s Day, and since I lost my mom this past year (not to Covid) I thought I’d pay her a little automotive tribute.

My mother would never have imagined herself driving back in Austria. We used trams, trains, buses to get wherever we wanted to get to. And if we really needed a car, like this confirmation outing for my sister and cousin, we hired a taxi, like this 1949 Olds. Room for the whole extended family.

After we moved to the US in 1960 it was essentially forced on her, along with the English language, Wonder Bread, lowfat milk, root beer, and certain other aspects of American life she didn’t take too very well, at least initially. Actually, she took to driving better than those others.

My father had gotten his driver’s license in Vienna back in 1939. I never knew this until more recent years, but it explains why he had a several automotive books and journals from that year. I used to love to read them as a kid, especially “Mit…zig Sachen”. Unfortunately they’re lost, but looks like there’s several copies available online. I’ll have to get one. The brand new KDF Wagen (VW) was featured in great detail, and that’s where I first became familiar with its insides.

My father bought an elderly but solid 1954 Ford Customline V8 four door within a month or two of our arrival in Iowa City. He walked to the hospital for work, but for weekend outings, like this one above near the Mississippi River, as well as shopping and such, a car was a basic staple. And he took my mom down to the quiet little roads in the city park and taught her to drive the big Ford, which fortunately was equipped with both the Fordomatic as well as power steering.

She was somewhat resistant, but quickly got the hang of it. And we all came to prefer her driving to my dad’s, which was always anxiety-producing. She was a relaxed, natural and smooth driver. I’d like to think I got her driving genes—along with a few others—from her.

My father shot Ektachrome slides in large quantities until he abruptly stopped around 1969 or so. There were numerous large slide chests with hundreds of them, and I liked to time-travel with them on trips back home. They ended up with my older younger brother, pictured here with my mom and the ’62 Fairlane that replaced the ’54 Ford. He threw them all out some years back when he had a rather intense turn against his first family, shortly after he divorced and remarried, and not long before he passed away from cancer, three and a half years ago.

So there’s very few pictures of us and our cars from this era, unless they had been taken by someone else, like this one above. Oh well. Families can be very complicated and difficult. As a kid, I couldn’t see whey my parents had fallen out with some of their siblings. Now the same thing has happened with me and my siblings.

There’s just this one picture of the ’65 Coronet wagon that (thankfully) replaced the crowded Fairlane. Here it is in about 1967, when my grandmother came to visit us in Towson. She’s there with my mom on the far side, and that’s me on the near side. My two younger brothers are on the tailgate. My older brother must have taken the picture with his camera.

My dad bought a 1965 Opel Kadett as soon as we moved to Towson that year, as he needed a commuter for the 45 minute drive into downtown Baltimore where Johns Hopkins Hospital is. So the Coronet was now mainly my mom’s car, except for vacations and weekend outings, a common occurrence, typically to go hiking or such.

The Coronet was the first car I ever drove (illicitly, at age 15), and I drove it legally quite a bit too, including a three-day drive home from Colorado in 1970, when my father wasn’t feeling well. It was a rather dull thing with numb power steering, and the extra weight of the wagon in back made it virtually impossible to burn rubber no matter how hard I tried. But I made a lot of memories in it and it never complained.

The ’65 Coronet was a rugged and reliable beast of burden, except for the notorious Chrysler poor idle and stalling in wet weather. It was replaced in 1973 by another Coronet three-row wagon, also with a 318 and TF, exactly like this one down to the color. Given that there were only two kids at home now (I left in 1971), it seems a bit unnecessarily large, but that was common in the times before the energy crisis. The ’65 was sold to neighbors, who used it as a second car for quite a few more years.

I drove the ’73 a few times on return visits home, and it handled and steered somewhat better than the ’65, and the LA 318 seemed a bit perkier than the poly 318 in the ’65, despite its emission devices.

The second energy crisis prompted a lot of downsizing by so many Americans, and the Coronet was traded in on a red 1981 Escort wagon. My mom loved it; it was so much easier to maneuver and park. But I rather hated it; these first year (or two) Escorts had very queasy and tippy handling, the engine was gutless, and the odd torque-split automatic reminded me of an old Hydramatic. Strange sounds and jerky shifts.

The next one was the best car she ever had, thanks to me. In a surprising turn of events, my father actually listened to my recommendation as to a replacement for the Escort, although he wouldn’t touch a Japanese car for himself. It was a red four door base Civic sedan, with an automatic, of course. But it was a ball to drive, out on the narrow, curvy and hilly country roads north of Towson. And she absolutely adored it, calling it her “sports car”.  She would have kept it forever.

Except for the fact that one day my father drove off with it and returned with this green Saturn Ion coupe, sitting here in the garage next to his beloved Skylark (Ja Paul, it’s a very fast car!) . She was quite unhappy about that; in fact, decidedly angry. Not just because she didn’t care for the Ion, but because he did it without any input on her part whatsoever. It really was inappropriate, and she held a grudge about it for some time.

The Ion was they last car they drove, also rather inappropriately at the end. He had to finally stop driving due to vision issues, and a circulation issue had caused some cognitive impairment that affected certain memory functions in my mom. So he navigated and she drove, and the Ion accumulated some colorful scars in the process.

That finally ended with my father’s cancer and a move into assisted living. He passed away in 2012, and here I am with Mom after his funeral, the last time I’ll ever have been seen wearing a suit and tie. Like all the women in her side of the family she just kept on going, until one day this past summer when she called my sister in law, with whom she was very close, and told her “I’m going to die very soon”. Four hours later she had a stroke. She passed away peacefully two weeks later on the morning of her 97th birthday, with my niece and nephew holding her hands. She blew me a farewell kiss via Facetime a day or two earlier.

Not a lot of cars for so many decades. But then we Niedermeyers tend to keep our cars for a long time. And hopefully our bodies too.