COAL: Buicks Aplenty; a Fiat, and a Pontiac • The Early Years

Me as a wee lad… my first vehicle! And it got GREAT gas mileage!

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.

1941 Buick Sedan

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.