I’ve been debating this essay for a while, but now seems as good a time as any. With my grandmother Violet (referred to previously as Iris) having passed away in February, and my grandfather “Albert” no longer driving, their automotive story has wound down.
For perspective, my grandfather was born in March 1924; my grandmother in February 1927.
While you will notice a distinct commonality in most of their vehicles, there are also a few relative outliers. So let’s get started.
Ford Model A, year unknown
Uncle Sam knew how much every outgoing soldier had earned during their stint in the military and he was making darn sure what they were taking home didn’t exceed that amount. Gambling and other fun, related activities could quickly grow that amount. During Grandpa’s dismissal in St. Louis, there was a line where every serviceman had to present how much cash they had.
Figuring it up quickly, Grandpa knew he was in a bind. He’d discovered the fringes of the black market in Europe and cigarettes had proven to be lucrative.
It seems at that time a person could get a carton of cigarettes for $5 and a pack for $0.50 (he’s quoted those prices for over 20 years); he sold each pack to some poor soul in Axis territory for $5. In turn, he’d discovered each carton was the right size and weight to contain a chunk of 2×4 pine board. The refilled and resealed carton got sold for $50, but only at a train station and only when the train was starting to move. That way a person would be in the clear and could reap the rewards of witnessing their customer making the discovery.
As Grandpa told me recently, “when Adolf wasn’t (screwing) those poor Germans, we sure were.”
All this relates to his having too much money. Knowing his limit, and what he had, he turned to the soldier behind him who was nearly broke. Handing the broke soldier his overage, then giving a cut on the other side of the line, Grandpa left the service with $1,400 in his pocket. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that is comparable to $19,142 in 2018.
That gave him enough to pay $400 for a house, furniture for said house, a 0.22 rifle, get married, and have something to live off for a while. It’s just sometime between April 1946, when he and Grandma got married, and February 1947 when my mother was born (on Grandma’s twentieth birthday) a Ford Model A entered the picture.
I know nothing about the Model A. In fact, when I spent the night with them returning from the 2016 CC Meetup in Nashville, I asked about their Model A. A debate ensued about what body style it was.
She was saying coupe; he was saying two-door.
Annoyed, she said “how the hell do you get a rumble seat on a two-door?”. Being contrary, he said “what makes you think it had a rumble seat?”
So their first car was a Ford Model A. Beyond that your guess is as good as mine, although I suspect it had a rumble seat.
1953 Chevrolet Two-Ten
Was there a car between the Model A and this? I rather doubt there was. Here’s why…
They purchased another house (for $2,900) around 1948 or 1949; their first house was on the banks of the Mississippi River. Grandma woke up one morning and got out of bed to find herself knee-deep in water due to the river having risen overnight. From all accounts – primarily hers – she grabbed my mother and told Grandpa she was not setting foot in that house again.
So the subsequent purchase of a house on dry ground, along with my Aunt Connie being born in 1950, likely precluded any car purchase until this one.
Part of what prompted the purchase of this 1953 Chevrolet were my great-grandparents. They lived in Houston, Texas, and were within 90 minutes of my grandparents house when they were involved in a nearly fatal head-on collision in their Studebaker pickup (seen here); the other party was two gentlemen in a Buick who both perished. My great-grandparents convalesced with my grandparents for nine months before being capable of heading back home.
The Two-Ten was needed to haul them to various doctors appointments, which reinforces my theory about this car succeeding the Model A. All I know is this Chevrolet was a two-door and it had an automatic transmission.
1957 Chevrolet Bel-Air
This Chevrolet was a milestone for my grandparents in many ways. In addition to being both their first V8 and four-door, it was also the car in which they taught my mother to drive and the car in which they brought home their youngest, my uncle who was born in 1958.
My grandfather still talks about this Bel-Air and his fondness for it is evident, even bragging about having purchased it off the showroom floor. From his description of the car having an automatic, that meant it possessed a 283 as the 265 had been relegated to manual transmissions only for 1957. He also talks about its passing power, which makes me suspicious it had a four-barrel carburetor.
With their mutual fondness of the car, the number of recollections of this ’57 are more than anything else they owned – as are pictures of it. However, it could simply be the timeframe given their three children were all at home and the eleven year spread in their ages made this window rather small.
One of their favorite mutual stories involved their annual trip to visit my grandmother’s family near Houston. While alluded to here, my grandfather drove to and from Texas like his butt was on fire. My mother still talks about how the only stops were for fuel and you better use the bathroom then because there were no other stops. Except once.
With my uncle being the youngest, my grandmother was more experienced in children’s behavior by that point. She said paying close attention meant never changing a dirty diaper after the time he was about three or four months old. She’d simply take him to the bathroom once he got a little fussy and the problems worked themselves out.
During a trip to Texas, most likely in 1959, my grandmother noticed my uncle squirming and grunting while sitting on her lap (remember, nobody used child seats back then). She told Grandpa to stop alongside the road. Grandpa didn’t care to as, in his words, “I’d finally passed all the drag-asses and was starting to make good time.”
My grandmother countered that he could either stop or he could smell it. So as grandpa once said “I had to stop so Ron could crap. Then I had to pass everybody again.”
There’s nothing quite as memorable as family road trips.
The Bel-Air went away in 1964. My mother had had a mild confab with a ditch which prompted my grandparents to no longer trust this Chevrolet. My grandfather was an acquaintance of the new owner and soon learned the Bel-Air had been stolen by a couple of teens. The joyriders were going too fast for conditions when they lost control and hit a tree, killing both of them.
1964 Chevrolet Bel-Air
My father once remarked about this ’64 Chevrolet’s austereness by saying he’d seen more luxurious telephone booths. Thinking about this, I’ve developed a theory.
The ’57 had been purchased sometime after my grandparents paid off their second house. A move to their third, and final, house in 1961 likely prompted the plainer car.
Regardless, their 1964 Bel-Air was white with the 230 six-cylinder and a Powerglide transmission. My father, who drove the car on numerous occasions, said it was uncomfortable and painfully slow. Considering he had purchased a new 1962 Ford Falcon with the 144 six-cylinder, that’s quite the statement.
Oddly, not much is ever said about this Bel-Air. On that, I also have a theory.
In 1966, my Aunt Connie became quite ill with a condition that would ultimately be fatal. There were many trips to medical facilities in St. Louis, so this Bel-Air likely had a lot of miles put on it, all associated with Connie’s illness. Nobody likes to talk about unpleasantries or anything associated with them, which this car would have been.
Of the bunch, this has always been the forgotten car. Such happens with all of us.
1938 Ford truck
I know nothing about this truck other than what my father has told me. He and my mother started dating in late 1964 and this was the vehicle my grandfather drove to work. Having to park where there was a lot of dust, he didn’t like driving a “good” vehicle.
My father said seeing this parked in the driveway alongside the ’64 Bel-Air was quite the contrast.
1970 Chevrolet Impala
This was the first car of my grandparents that I can remember, as I come along when the car was two years old. Powered by a 350, it was green inside and out. Somewhere along the way I was told it had been a demonstrator by the dealer.
My grandmother once told an acquaintance who had stopped by their house a story that involved this Impala. While the story should have surprised me, for some reason it didn’t. While this quote isn’t verbatim, it’s certainly in keeping with how she told stories. It’s one of those sitting-on-the-patio-on-a-warm-summer-night stories, told by a 60 year old woman.
“I was out shopping in Cape one day and had started back home. I found a few pairs of shoes and some slacks that were on sale at Buckner-Ragsdale’s. Driving down South Kingshighway, I saw some kids were weaving around cars behind me, honking their horn and being real smart-alecks.
“I got stopped at William Street. Those kids came up beside me and just kept honking their horn. I turned to look at them and they gave me the finger! That wasn’t very nice. I would imagine their mother’s wouldn’t be very happy with their behavior.
“When the light turned green, I honked at them. When they looked my way, I gave them the finger right back. I was in that green Chevrolet, I figured I could outrun them if I needed to.”
That was my grandmother.
Another time, when I was about three, I accompanied her and my mother somewhere. Not wanting to ride in my parent’s 1973 Ford Torino that day (probably because I had already done so), I threw a fit as I wanted to ride in the ’70 Impala. My grandmother, a quick thinker for the ages, calmly told me her Impala was broken down because one of my grandfather’s hunting dogs had wet on the tire.
Naive me, I bought that story. Even forty-odd years later, I still think of that story after seeing where an animal has wet on a car tire. What sticks with a person is hard to explain.
The Impala stuck around until 1977 when it developed a noise in the transmission. Seven years had always been about how long they kept a car anyway, so off it went.
1972 Chevrolet pickup
Perhaps there was another pickup between the ancient old ’38 Ford and this one, but I rather doubt there was. My mom and her sister had been out of the house since 1968, so things were looking better for another new vehicle.
I’ve always had a soft spot for these Chevrolet pickups, thinking these are the best looking ones ever. The one my grandfather purchased was red inside and out; by this time he was less concerned about exposing his pickup to the blowing dust where he worked as improvements in parking conditions had been made.
His pickup had an automatic but I’m not sure what engine. He said he almost sold it soon after purchase do to getting a ridiculously reliable seven miles per gallon. His trip to work was ten to twelve miles of highway, so it wasn’t like it was all short trips in town. Taking it back to the dealer, no doubt accompanied by a few pointed observations, the fuel mileage suddenly got a lot better.
Grandpa said he intended to treat this pickup with kid gloves but that lasted about two days. He said he had worked a double shift the first time he drove it to work and was bone tired when he left to head home. He discovered somebody had filled the bed full of small rock, making the load perfectly level with the bed rails. His trip home never exceeded 25 miles per hour as he was concerned about the tires blowing out. He jacked up the rear end to take some weight off the suspension before going in the house and heading to bed.
It seems the rock worked really well to fill in a few soft spots in the driveway, so it wasn’t for naught.
As a very small child, I loved this pickup. It had a friendly face and it was fun to ride in.
1977 Chevrolet Impala
By swapping off the 1970 Impala, my grandparents took a decided step backwards by purchasing a new ’77 Impala. This car was a real turkey.
Of all their cars, I rode in this one the most. The one thing I remember about it was the sound it made taking off from a stop and shifting into second gear. It was a melodic whirring sound that I’ve never heard fully replicated anywhere else. I can hear it while sitting here typing this.
The car was brown with a tan steel roof. While nothing visually spectacular, I’ve never seen a duplicate of it. The interior was a tan cloth and it was moderately equipped. Perhaps most unusual, and something I didn’t know for quite a while, was this Impala was powered by the 250 straight-six. My Uncle “Ron” told me he had trouble coaxing it past 80 mph.
So how was it a turkey? For starters, my grandmother, the primary driver, wasn’t happy with how it never tracked straight despite repeated trips to the dealer. The paint quickly oxidized and nothing could revive it. There were a few other build issues such as the trunk that doubled as a cistern. This car proved my grandfather’s theory about how one should never purchase the first year of any car. This scenario would repeat itself.
This vehicle propelled them away from General Motors. It’s also a reason why I have stunted enthusiasm for the 1977 and up GM B-bodies.
1979 Chevrolet Scottsdale
My grandfather bought this pickup shortly before he retired; he recently quipped about drawing a pension for 38 years after working for 32. Equipped with a 305, automatic transmission, tilt steering, and air conditioning, this was a fairly nice, moderately trimmed pickup for the times.
Like his ’72 Chevrolet, his attempts to treat it with kid gloves were quickly squashed. Driving through his brother-in-law’s yard to load something now forgotten, he encountered some soft ground. Goosing the throttle to maintain his momentum, the rear-end fishtailed and the right rear of the pickup slapped a decorative steel wagon wheel. Those creases stayed there until the end.
This was the pickup I used to haul furniture four hours to my college apartment in 1992 where I discovered the 305 to be deceptively potent. While merging onto I-44 I was in a tight jam and nailed the throttle on that Chevrolet. Once past the crisis, I was delightfully shocked to see the speedometer was pushing it’s registered top speed of 100 mph.
In November of that year, on Thanksgiving Day, the pickup died 14 times (I counted it since I witnessed it) upon being started cold and put in gear. Within a week that pickup was cast aside for a new one; it was later sold to my uncle.
1985 Dodge Aries LE
How do you follow up a crappy 1977 Impala? You jump onto the Lido Ship! Other than an initial water problem in the trunk identical to their last Impala (which was fixed quickly on the Aries after my grandmother verbally pounded the service manager), this Aries was a well built car that served them well.
However, it was much smaller than anything they had recently experienced. And, in a grievous sin, the air conditioning would cut out any time the engine was under excessive load. Given some of the hills near their house, this meant the a/c was cutting out just enough to royally aggravate them.
It was also the a/c that may have been the final straw for the Aries, but it was nothing due to build quality. My grandmother’s oldest sister Wanda and her husband Bob came to visit from Houston. They were heavy smokers, with Bob once telling my grandfather they smoked twenty cartons (that’s 4,000 cigarettes) per month between the two of them. My grandparents mistakenly let Bob and Wanda smoke in the car and the smokey menthol scent was present nearly a year later whenever the a/c was turned on.
The Aries stuck around for three years. I suspect the cigarette smoke, along with my former smoker grandfather having become heavily anti-cigarette, was a prime factor.
The Aries was subsequently purchased from the dealer by my grandfather’s former brother-in-law, Otto, and his wife Ethel. Ethel soon returned the Aries to the dealer, saying it had no power. Ethel’s previous car was a 1971 Pontiac LeMans coupe.
1988 Dodge Dynasty
Only about three times in my life have I seen that certain look on my grandfather’s face. One of those was when fifteen year old me innocently told him the 3.0 V6 in his new Dynasty had been built by Mitsubishi.
He apparently got over it rather quickly as they drove the Dynasty more than they did the Aries. This Dynasty was also more their thing in terms of interior size. It suited them quite well.
The downfall of this car was the air conditioning. Having learned the behavior of the a/c in the Aries, whenever a hill was approaching my grandfather would reach over and turn the a/c off despite the Dynasty having much less need to self-regulate. Then, he’d turn it back on. The switch was treated like a faucet until suddenly the a/c quit working.
They had worn the switch out. Then, rather than pay to replace the switch, they decided having a/c wasn’t necessary as they had not had it in many previous vehicles. A summer trip to see ill family in Texas finally convinced them to replace the switch.
1992 Buick Roadmaster
In what must have been a rare moment of weakness, they traded the Dynasty for a slightly used first-year Roadmaster in November 1992.
Problems arose soon enough but suffice it to say this Buick required two engines, three transmissions, and five torque convertors during their ownership. This Buick was a supremely comfortable, and frighteningly quiet, pile. I will give it credit for something; the engine only turned about 1,100 rpm at 70 mph and this allowed them to get nearly 30 mpg on a trip from Scott City, Missouri, to Houston.
For a 5.7 liter Buick that was no small accomplishment. They did keep this car longer than typical, with it being their first car to accumulate 100,000 miles. Despite the problems, they liked the car.
This Buick also provided the largest cognitive dissonance I had experienced up to that point. In 1997, when my sister graduated college, I drove this Roadmaster to a celebration and then promptly drove a Mazda Miata that belonged to a friend of my father. Let’s just say there was little in common.
1992 Ford F-150 XLT
At this time, there were only three full-sized pickup manufacturers in the U.S. When a person has ruled one out (GM) and found a second to have a product whose lineage dates back to 1972 (Dodge), you buy a Ford.
Grandpa bought this new, leftover F-150 about ten days after he bought the Buick. The family rumor mill was thick for a while as “Albert” had bought two new vehicles within ten days! How can he do that? Easy. He got mad and wrote a check.
This pickup has been a good one and it’s still around. Since Grandpa never treated it with kid gloves like his prior two pickups, the body remained unblemished. Other than fuel pump that crapped out after twenty years, this pickup was flawless.
Grandpa gave it to my Uncle “Ron” last fall. I wrote it up here.
2001 or 2002 Lincoln Town Car
This replaced the Buick and there is little I can say as I never rode in it. It went away after a relatively short time due to a water leak.
The water leak cannot be laid at Ford’s feet as my grandparents never had a garage. Where they parked was near a maple tree and, by this time, the maple tree had branched out to providing a canopy over the Lincoln.
As washing a car was no longer a top priority for a couple pushing their 80s, maple leaves accumulated around the cowl of the Lincoln with some plugging drain holes in the firewall. Some rain followed by a few freeze-thaw cycles ensured a ruptured drain hole that allowed water to infiltrate onto the passenger side floor.
Upon a spell of dry weather my grandfather went car shopping. Part of me has always wondered if this car wound up being a taxi in St. Louis.
2007 Chevrolet Equinox
My grandparents were early adopters of CUVs, having purchased one of the first Equinii available. This rig was ideal for a couple now in their early to mid-80s. It saw them through to the end of their driving days.
This past spring my mother and uncle sold the silver Equinox to a consignment dealer as they didn’t want the hassle of placing an ad and farting around with tire kickers. It had just over 60,000 miles.
These were the vehicles owned by my grandparents. GM is overly represented and any loyalty to them was obviously questioned and had grown quite weak over time. Chrysler was appreciated although it had a minor quirk that made itself known. Ford was there at the beginning and at the end. All known problems with these vehicles, with those since 1975 being within my memory, were highlighted.
This has been a tough synopsis to write, but it was one that needed to be told.