Greeting Curbophiles! My name is Steve Crutchfield, and I’m starting a new Cars of a Lifetime series.
By way of introduction, I’m a 70 year old retiree living in Seattle. I’ve been a car guy as long as I can remember, and I first really got into it when Dad gave me a magazine called “The New Cars 1961”. I read it over and over. I subscribed to Motor Trend and kept every issue. I constantly drew pictures of cars for fun, even though I have absolutely zero skills as an artist.
My mom said when I was three years old I would stand on the transmission tunnel of our 1951 Buick and point out all the cars I recognized: “Dere Buick! Not a Buick! Dere Buick! Not a Buick!” She later told me it go REALLY tiresome, so they were happy enough when I learned to recognize other makes. And in the years since 1982 I’ve had the joy of owning three miniature schnauzers: I named them Packard Patrician, Bentley Continental, and Nash Metropolitan. I guess that says something about me and my interests.
The first car I remember was the family’s 1941 Buick (No, that’s not me in the picture – it’s my grandmother Helen Crutchfield and her namesake my big sis Helen). This is probably the car that took me home from the hospital. I have a vague memory of riding on top of the package shelf under the back window as a kid. Dad yelled at me to get down. No doubt the already limited rear vision in that sedanette body style wasn’t helped by the presence of a toddler.
Here’s a full shot of that model of Buick. The car was rather intimidating to three-year old me… very VERY big and VERY black. Dad was a Buick man from way, way back. He always bought two- or three-year old used Buicks, or got one passed down to him by his mother. I don’t know the car’s provenance, he may have bought it in Southern California before the family moved up to Seattle in 1949.
Next up….. the first car I really remember: our 1951 Buick Special.
Our was this rather nauseating green, just like in the picture. It was a four door sedan. I don’t recall if it had DynaFlow drive or not. I suspect it did, because by then although three-on-the-tree was standard for Buick Specials the take rate must have been fairly low.
The car had a nifty feature: You could turn the key to the “off” position, remove the key, and still turn the car on and drive. I recall one time Grandmama Helen took us somewhere in that car and she drove without the key. That worried me a bit….. would the cops come looking for us thinking she had stolen the car? She laughed at my 3 year old naïveté.
Here’s that glorious 1950’s chrome dash. That dazzling radio and speaker is a real eye-catcher. And also a head-banger. At one point I was standing in the middle atop the transmission hump with my older brother on my right and Mom driving on my left. She hit the brakes and I hit my head on the radio. I was OK, but after that Mom wouldn’t let me stand on the transmission hump anymore.
This ’51 Buick was the source of a famous tale in the Crutchfield family. We lived in a modest house in north Seattle that had a detached garage. The garage was on a gentle downhill slope from the street away from the house, so my folks would park the car in the driveway if they had to unload the car rather than parking in the garage. I don’t remember this, but Dad swore that when I was four years old I got into the car, released the brake, and “drove” the car down the driveway to the garage where it smashed through the garage doors. I was supposedly pretty shake up (though unhurt), so I wasn’t unduly punished. Six weeks later the car and the garage doors had been fixed. So I got into the car, released the brake, and “drove” the car down the driveway to the garage where it smashed through the garage doors. Again. Dad gave me a good whomping after that.
I’m going to step sideways in chronological order and next present to you: Our 1955 Buick Special sedan.
This was my Grandmama Helen’s car in the late 1950’s. She later gave it to Dad in 1962, and this pic was taken after he took it over. (It’s parked behind our 1958 Plymouth, of which I’ll have more to say later). Dad only kept this car a couple of years, but it’s significant because it was the first time we had TWO CARS! We’d always had just one, and when Mom needed the car for shopping or whatever she would pack me into the car when we’d “Drive Dad to the University”. (Dad was an economics professor at the University of Washington). I enjoyed those trips, because I could sit in the big cushy back seat and watch all the Buicks and Not-A-Buicks go by.
Our particular car had a vent window in the rear door like this one (which is a Roadmaster, not a Special). The window would make a loud CLICK when you opened it or closed it and latched it. I would do that over and over, resulting in a very irritating CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK CLICK. Mom was something of a nervous driver, and she’d tell me to CUT THAT OUT STEPHEN! I knew I was in trouble when she called me STEPHEN instead of Steve or Stevie.
Again, this is from the Internet, and is not a pic of our actual car. But isn’t this a gorgeous dash? And oh the fun I had sitting in the middle of the front seat and playing with those levers, thus having fun AND annoying my parents.
So far I’ve discussed the cars I spent my early years in. Before we continue, we’ll take a quick detour to Africa.
In 1957 Dad took leave from his University job to spend 15 months in Uganda working for the United Nations on a development project. We all went with him, and here I am with my brother Jim (who got to stand in the middle because he was the oldest), sister Helen, and Mom.
It was a long trip. We flew from Seattle to Gander, Newfoundland to refuel, then on to London, then on to Rome where we stayed for a few weeks (the UN Agency Dad worked for was headquartered there).
We rented a Fiat 500, and with three kids aged 4, 6, and 8 we drove all over Italy. Again, being the smallest I got stuck between my siblings in the middle seat. My parents were terrified by the crazy Italian drivers who drove like maniacs and considered stop lights and directional signs mere suggestions. Mom refused to drive, so Dad did it all. From Rome we flew to Greece, then Libya, and finally arrived in Entebbe, Uganda where we made our home for 15 months.
Dad had a 1953 Pontiac given to him for use as a family car. It was this deep shade of green, and was blazing hot in the equatorial sun. Midway through our stay there the top got painted white to help with the heat. I recall Dad complaining bitterly that the Pontiac was always breaking down. He also bought me my favorite toy – a steering wheel and column that stuck to the metal dashboard with a suction cup. I’d ride along steering and shifting along with Dad. The Pontiac was a rare model with a manual shift instead of Hydra-Matic.
In the fall of 1958 we returned to Seattle. That was when Dad bought his first NEW car, and the car that started me off on my appreciation of all things automotive. More on that in my next installment.
Steve, You sound more like a younger brother to me than my actual younger brother.
And one of my earliest favorite cars was my mother’s 1950 dark green over light green Buick Riviera two door hardtop (with Dynaflow).
I love early Dynaflow Buicks; they’re like having both a car and a boat at the same time.
I could identify most post war USA car makes and models (plus MGs and Jags) from a great distance, although the occasional “foreign” sedan quieted my call outs until I got help from my father.
I got my driver’s license in 1960 when USA automotive designs were at their peak (or nadir depending on one’s opinion). Now-a-days, when I occasionally get to drive a new car, I find the all the new technical tricks and nannies fascinating; learning to use them is a job of joy.
Welcome to the COAL cohort Steve, and what a great start.
Steve, welcome! You’re off to a great start. I really like your photo choices (of course including good photos of your actual family and glimpses of their cars).
Rumor has it, and I can recall a bit of this myself, that I was like you with “Buick! Buick! Not a Buick!” when I was about that age. And it wasn’t just Buicks, but whatever make I chose for the day. All throughout my youth, I was able to identify nearly every car by make and year (+/-) I could see. That trick kind of wore out at some point in my 20s and my skills are no where near as sharp in that regard nowadays. Perhaps that’s one reason through why I love CC reading. There’s still interest deep down in my brain somewhere looking at a whole range of different things (cars) that I can actually tell apart uniquely. Maybe that’s why many of us are here. Good on you for capturing the roots of that.
The steering wheel on the suction cup … yeah, I remember those things. Plus how kids used to ride in the front seat.
Looking forward to more!
Let me add to the chorus of welcomes. I am a little younger than you are, but not by too awfully much. Your description of being a kid of 9 or 10 in a great big chome-laden boat of a car hits home as I got the experience in my grandma’s 55 DeSoto sedan. Somehow I was never allowed to stand on the transmission tunnel of any of the family cars, and I certainly never got my own steering wheel.
I love the idea of a world divided into “Buicks” and “Not-Buicks”. I can see how easy Buicks would have been to ID back then, with those big toothy grilles. I am really looking forward to next week. I have read many stories of people buying late 50’s Mopars. They are usually more like something from Stephen King than from Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Thanks, JP! I appreciate the kind words from all the readers! Y’all set a very high standard to live up to. I’ll do my best!
Re: late 50’s Mopar cars….. I’m working on the next COAL now, which involves a 1958 Plymouth Custom Suburban. I won’t post any spoilers here, but I will say that 40 years later Dad lost his marbles when I told him I had purchased a new Chrysler vehicle. “ARE YOU NUTS?” was a kind version of his response.
Wow, interesting stuff! Welcome!
Very interesting start, good work! Looking forward to your next installment. 🙂
I never had a suction cup steering wheel tho… 🙁 OTOH I did slam my head into my dad’s 48 (9?) Jeep windshield during a panic stop one time. Seatbelt……what’s that? I flew off the seat and hit the glass, but fortunately for me it was Winter in Wisconsin and I had on HEAVY Winter gear. That included one of those faux leather “aviator” caps with a heavy “fur” band over the front: that did some energy absorbtion versus my bare head!
Were the Buick heaters any better than my dads’ Jeeps, his ’52 DeSoto or my Van Nuys, California built ’56 Chevy?? As I recall they all were about as useful as a zippo lighter for providing heat! DFO
See!! I knew there was a reason why we wore those things back in the day!
Dear Steve, when I was about eight, in 1961, I identified myself as a “carsmetist.” Yes, my madeup word. Am I enjoying your writing? YOU BET I AM! Wonderful family and auto history. One of my favorite Buicks belonged to a neighbor on the sixth floor of our apartment building in The Bronx. Mr. Foster has a deep blue 1940 or 1939 sedan, top of the line model, with dual spare wheels in the fenders, which tells you which year it really was because they were discontinued as an option after the 1939 or 1940 model. Mr. Foster kept that car into the early 1950’s and would keep it well polished and clean. I thrilled to riding in a church member’s 1950 Buick Super when I got older. In 1959, she traded it in on a Buick Invicta. These were downright fine cars. So, the ad from the 1960’s with jingle is correct, “Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick?”
Welcome Steve! I’m a bit younger than you, but I have very distinct memories of riding in the back of a family friend’s 1951-ish Buick, big and black on the outside and similarly cavernous inside compared to our family’s Volvo 544. And your tale of going through the garage door … I had a similar though less damaging incident. I’ll just say that after mine, my Mom wouldn’t leave the key in the car in the driveway with it in 1st gear. No clutch interlock switches in those days! Looking forward to future posts with photos.
Hi Steve! I’ll look forward to your installments!
It seems I was not as worried about makes as a toddler. But my kid, at 2/3 y/o, would stop at every car to see the brand. If it was an Audi, he was happy. A Nissan, OK. Others, he’d have to memorize it.
Let’s have a look at that ’58
I enjoyed the first installment of your new COAL series. I’m not quite 70 yet, I’ll make that milestone in June. I could also name the cars from the fifties. My dad would ask me, “What is that car?” And I would tell him.
I can also relate to your mishap in your family’s Buick; I was standing on the front seat when my Dad hit the brakes to avoid a driver who ran a stop sign … I hit the dashboard of a ’52 Chrysler Saratoga.
Welcome to the club, Steve! I think you’re off to a great start! Your surname is uncommon to me. I wonder if you’re related to Bill, the car stereo guy.
Exactly my first thought – the automobile stereo company!
Evan: To the best of my knowledge I am related somehow to Bill Crutchfield, but I’m not sure quite how. My other half is a genealogy nut, and with the help of what little I DO know about my ancestors he’s traced Dad’s side of the family back through Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia, yet we haven’t figured out how I relate to Bill Crutchfield.
True story: In a future COAL I’ll talk about a 1987 Jeep Cherokee I once owned. We used it to get from DC (where we lived) to our cabin in the mountains of WV. When I bought it the radio wasn’t working, so I went down to Harrisonburg, VA and shopped at the Crutchfield retail store for a plug-in stereo unit. When I bought it I lay down my American Express card and waited for the response. The clerk saw my name and said “Oh wow! Are you related to our owner?” I answered truthfully that I did not know, but would I get a discount? No discount, but I did get a nifty ball cap with my last name on it for free.
Another true story: In a future COAL I’ll talk about my 87 Taurus, which I inherited from my dear friend Chip after he passed away from HIV/AIDS. One time I was at the hospital where he died sorting out his bill (I was executor of the estate). I was told a “Miss Crutchfield” will help you in a moment. Out came Ms. Paula Crutchfield. She was African-American. When I introduced myself we both chuckled about our common last name. After we did our biz, she asked about my family background, since the name is so rare. I said it stretched back through Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia. She said “When Roots was popular in the 70’s I did my family history. We took the name of Crutchfield when our owner of that name emancipated us in Tennessee.” It made for a VERY awkward moment when we both realized my ancestors had enslaved hers. I stood up, offered my hand, and said “I hereby apologize on the behalf of my family for the injustices we wreaked on yours.” She shook my hand, and then we hugged. And smiled. She said “I admire your side of the family for taking care of people like Chip.”
Welcome Steve; off to a great start. You remind me of myself at that young age. My early trick was to recognize the sound of any VW as they drove by on the street below our apartment when the window was open. VW! VW! VW!
It must have been quite the experience to go to Uganda at that age.
Welcome Steve, great story! I’m looking forward to future installments
Since we are the same age it will be interesting in seeing cars from our same time frame but which attracted you. Have always liked cars but unlike you I never drew them as pictures when young only built them as models. The car bug didn’t really hit me hard until I was 13. The pictures I drew, as a 6 year old, were of battleships and aircraft carriers. Today I finally have an aircraft carrier which hasn’t been driven since 1970. I wonder what it is worth. Definitely not low mileage.
Welcome, Steve! I’m about a decade younger but also a car fan at an early age, and could recognize most of the major US makes of the 1960s and 70s. Loved to draw the various car models (using magazine ads as a guide)! Looking forward to your next post!
tmb3fan: I build a LOT of models as a kid, mostly AMT cars. After I moved out o the house for college they got lost somehow during the big cleanup after Dad remarried in 1975. Last Christmas my best friends gave me an AMT model of a 1959 Imperial as a gift. I was 14 years old again as I painstakingly painted and assembled the model.
Out of the house for college. I know what you talk about especially my Navy planes. I rebuilt them all 40 years later from better kits.
Welcome to the Curbivore team, Steve!
Some great tales in there, some I can relate to if you read Morris Minor or Hillman Minx for Buick.
Though I didn’t drive either of them through a garage door at the age of 4!
A warm welcome Steve, you sound a little like me, Im younger but one of my first words was car so I’m told, I learned car brands from riding around with my dad, we had a 54 Vauxhall Velox but he would often show up in various cars from the used lot where he worked Occasionally in the ancient 3 ton Fargo dropsider they carted tractors with if he had something big to collect or a company CA Bedford van and once or twice in the A3 Bedford tow truck so my Dad is to blame for me being car mad. Looking forward to future installments.
Very enjoyable post Steve – Welcome to the Curbside Club…
I’m looking forward to your COAL series!
I chuckled at the story of 4-year-old you “driving” the Buick into the garage doors. I had a similar experience several decades later with my mom’s Subaru wagon. At that age (I was a bit older than 4) I loved to “pretend” driving, and I realized that releasing the emergency brake slightly would get the car to move. One day, the car was parked on relatively level ground, I played around in the car, and then forgot to reset the parking brake.
An hour later, dad came home and saw the Subaru in the bushes next to the house. Oops. That was the end of my pretending to drive.
Welcome Steve, your two time crash up derby story was quite funny. We’re all looking forward to reading about your adventures. I don’t know your a lifelong Seattleite but I really dig the city.
DoA: I was born and raised here in Seattle. I moved east to go to graduate school in 1975, returned for a year to finish my dissertation, and then moved east for my career in 1980. We always wanted to come home, and we visited my folks every summer for years. In 2016 my Dad passed away at the ripe old age of 96 and left me the family home. The thought of having no mortgage to pay decided us: we sold our home in DC and our cabin in WV and moved back here. As I type I’m sitting in my old bedroom, which is now my office/study/recording studio. Imagine what I could say to eight year old Me about what cars would be like in sixty years!
Fun read here! Liked seeing your old family photos. Such a great time in America.
Enjoyed this article a lot, but in the photo of the 2 1951 Buicks the dark colored top picture is a Buick Super, not a Special – the Specials all.had less of a dip in the rear fender line like the red Special shown, even the 4 door models.
Greatly enjoyed your reminiscences: thank you so much for sharing them. I’m a bit older than you, and grew up on the other side of the Atlantic, but have very similar memories. Identifying as many cars as possible was a favourite pastime, but in my case they were mainly Austins, Vauxhalls, British Fords, Hillmans, etc. I recall once sitting on the backseat of our car behind my Dad, and doing an imitation of car brakes screeching just as we came up to an intersection. Must have been quite realistic, because I remember my Dad being totally startled and appalled, thinking we were about to be hit from behind. Took him a minute to realise it was me, but he had the good humour to congratulate me on a neat trick!
Oh yes? Whereabouts?
Great story and cars .
Having a poor Mechanic when you’re not able to maintain things your own self is miserable, I feel for your Dad .
I’m sorry, but I think that the“sea-mist green” 1955 Buick described as a Roadmaster is in fact a Century.