The holidays are swiftly approaching, and I remembered this recently while on a walk to the local, neighborhood Target department store on the evening I spotted our featured van. It’s not that there were Thanksgiving or Christmas decorations on display at the store, but this is the time of year when it’s probably not a bad idea to start thinking about what gifts to buy for the recipients deserving of your good will and generosity. Also, Target is one of those stores where it’s a good practice to have a list of exactly what one needs, and to stick to just the items on that list. It is entirely too easy to overspend at Target, even at their generally great prices. I needed two things, left with only those two things, and still managed to spend $30. At least they should last for a while.
Getting back to the holidays, I’m thrilled to be getting to spend Thanksgiving this month with my older brother and his family. I’ve been doing some limited amounts of nonessential travel, having been fully vaccinated and not averse to often wearing various face masks on which I get to feature and promote my own photography. Families of origin can be tricky spaces to navigate in adulthood, which I’ve alluded to in some of my musings here at Curbside. My brother was that much older than me that we never attended any of the same schools simultaneously, but that probably played out into how neither one of us really felt like we were in direct competition with one another. Six years or so is a pretty large gap between siblings, and I spent much of my childhood idolizing him and attempting to ape his tastes in clothing, music, and even cars, citing the second-generation Toyota Celica Supra (A60) as just one example of the latter. For much of my youth, he seemed more like somewhere between a sibling and an adult.
Playland Fun Center. (Flint suburb) Grand Blanc, Michigan. Friday, May 18, 2012.
The motor skill set between, say, a second grader and an eight grader, are pretty vast. Still, this didn’t keep me from trying to keep up with my brother while playing tag, Atari, or on the go-kart track, with me crashing into the tires on one occasion in spectacular fashion. I was actually banned by the teenaged attendant from returning to Playland Fun Center in Grand Blanc, Michigan as a result of that accident, and was afraid to ride the go-karts there again until I was a teenager for fear of that guy. If I was a parent, I wouldn’t have let him talk to my kid the way he talked to the young me. I suppose I could thank my brother for being such an impossible benchmark for me to try to measure up against when I was growing up, since it gave me a hunger to push myself hard, but now in healthy ways as an adult, with good boundaries and expectations I’ve learned to set for myself.
One other activity I really enjoyed with my brother was playing with his treasured Aurora AFX slot car track and set. At some point, he had “graduated” from the school of Matchbox and Hot Wheels and had bequeathed those cars to our younger brother and me. Racing slot cars was his new jam. Much to-do was made on those days when we’d all be making a trip to the Toys-R-Us near the Genesee Valley Mall, where the oldest Dennis brother would have some large chunk of money he had saved to spend on a new slot car. What would it be this time? Two of my favorite cars were the baby blue, early second-generation Chevrolet Camaro and the red and orange IMSA Chevy Monza that came with the AFX set, both of which had “working” headlights! They were so exciting to play with at night on the linoleum floor of the otherwise dark and quiet laundry room on the bottom floor of our split-level house.
My brother was very guarded about his slot car set, and generally speaking, his two younger siblings weren’t allowed anywhere near his cars or track, unsupervised. This extended to any of his new slot car purchases. One day he came home with this little blue and white Ford van identical to the one pictured above, and was all excited because it had “Magnatraction”. I remember looking at this miniature van, holding it my palm, and asking, “What is this heap?” Why did he get a van, when the rest of the Aurora AFX cars under our roof (including my blue Plymouth Satellite) were either sports- or sporty cars? “Dude… it has Magnatraction! You see these magnets at the bottom of the chassis? Those help it grip the track and corner better.” “Didn’t they have anything else with Magnatraction? Like even a Pinto or something?” “Fine. You don’t have to race it. Just don’t ask to use it. Ever.” Of course I’d race with the van later.
I’ll never see this generation of Ford E-Series van and not think of my brother’s Magnatraction Econoline. When I saw this example outside of Target, the first thing that struck me is how it even also had two-tone paint like my brother’s slot car (“slot van”?), even if it was instead brown and beige and looked a little like a giant frosted brownie on wheels. I was unable to confirm the model year of this particular example through a license plate search, but I can tell from the front grille that it’s from one of the first four model years of this generation, which was introduced for 1975 and lasted through ’91. This example is riding on the 138″ wheelbase (a shorter 124″ wheelbase was also available), with the E150 capable of carrying payloads of between 2,000 and 2,200 pounds, according to the 1975 factory brochure. Three different engines were available that year, ranging from the standard 300 cubic inch six, and two optional V8s displacing 351 and 460 cubes.
So, did my brother’s Aurora AFX Magnatraction van handle better than the other slot cars? One thing I remember was that the magnets, while they helped this relatively tall “vehicle” stay flatter than it otherwise would have in the curves, seemed to slow it down a bit in a straight line compared to the other cars. And it was still unwieldly in corners, made only slightly less so by the presence of the extra magnetic grip, or “gription” as we called it. In fact, one of my favorite things was to be on the inside track with the van and suddenly accelerate into a corner and knock a competing vehicle off the track with the sheer mass and heft of the van swinging outward from the back. This would often send the Camaro, Monza, or Satellite in the outer lane off the track, skidding across the floor on its roof until it smacked against the leg of my dad’s wooden study table or the washing machine, with its detachable plastic body then popping off the chassis and spinning around until it came to rest.
My current Carrera Evolution slot car set. Sunday, February 22, 2015.
Slot cars seemed like a natural progression from Matchbox cars as I was becoming more curious about the inner workings of how vehicles operated versus being interested only in how they looked, with an increased awareness of the intricate mechanisms inside of a car, truck or van that made it go. The rubber tires and various accessories available for purchase for slot cars could make you feel like a mechanic, as you sought to soup-up the performance of your favorite car, or even its sound, with my Satellite having an attachment that clicked in an attempt to replicate the sound of glasspack mufflers! We called that one the “Satel-heap Special” because that attachment made it sound like the car badly needed a tune-up.
The driver of this brown Ford van looked a little nonplussed when I started snapping a few photos of her navigating this Econoline in Friday rush hour traffic in my neighborhood, but I hope she either didn’t mind or that she understood that I didn’t mean any disrespect. This is the old, American architecture of van that basically doesn’t exist in this form anymore, and running examples are getting only thinner on the ground. I hope that on the off chance the driver reads this essay that she understands just what a big smile she brought to my face as the sight of her brown, two-tone Ford made me recall yet another step in my journey of becoming interested in all things automotive. I also hope I’ll always have it in me to appreciate the joys of racing slot cars.
Rogers Park, Chicago, Illinois.
Friday, October 15, 2021.
All other images and print materials were sourced from the internet.