COAL 2: Being American and Picking a Car Company

(Chapter 1 was awhile ago; it is here.)

My birthday would come on October 17 and I looked forward to my first set of wheels in America while mother and I were still living with the Aastrand family…and here are those wheels with me perched atop them in the middle of this photo:

The best part of those first five months was learning to speak English properly. I’m ever grateful to my 4th-grade teacher for that.

As the months passed, my father came and went as his ship came and went. In December we moved into our own home in another part of town. I would live here until 1966 when I had to find a place for me and my first wife:

It was a long walk to any grocery store, so when my dad was home from one of his trips to South America, he purchased a car for my mother to use—a 1940 Dodge. Here I am sitting on the fender next to dad:

And here it is in the driveway:

My mother had quite a time learning to drive this car, and a lot of smoke came from the clutch, but after a time she managed it well.

Around 1954, when I was pumping gas at George’s Amoco station, I came across a wrecked six-year-old 1948 Dodge four-door sedan. George allowed me to have it brought to his gas station, and let me work on it in my spare time…

…until it was sufficiently roadworthy to be driven to my home. So this became my first car and the cornerstone of my involvement in DPCD (Dodge, Plymouth, Chrysler, DeSoto) vehicles.

My Dodge had Fluid Drive, and was much easier for mother to drive; here she is with that car:

Fluid Drive is just a fluid coupling, looking like a torque converter, between the engine and a standard 3-speed manual transmission you shift by hand like any other stick-shift car. So when my ’48 was repaired, we started making trips in that car rather than the ’40.

After my father and I were in a rear-ender accident on the highway with the ’40 and smashed in the front end, it was time to consider another car for mother. I did my due diligence, riding around on my bicycle all over town checking out used car lots for an appropriate car that struck my fancy. I have to laugh now thinking about a 15-year-old kid out shopping his parents’ next car. At the Cadillac dealer in Hackensack, I found the perfect one: a 1952 Dodge Coronet 4-door with Gyro-Matic drive. That was a semi-automatic setup with a fluid coupling in front of a 2-speed transmission with an electric underdrive attached to give four forward speeds. The folks purchased the Coronet and the ’40 Dodge was sold after patching it up sufficiently to be legal. Here is mother in our Gypsy Green Coronet with my Grade school in the background; little did I know at the time that this car would have some inner influence on the next car I would purchase many years later.

1955 brought Chrysler Corporation’s new “Forward Look,” and in September, as the 1956 models were announced, I was there checking out the showrooms and spotted a yellow and black Belvedere 2 door sedan. I began honing my salesman skills again, pitching the benefits of a brand new car with a V8 engine and push button PowerFlite fully automatic transmission. Dad had a good year at Aqueduct racetrack that year; he was accommodating and mother had herself a brand new car:

When I finally reached my 17th birthday in October of ‘56, on that very day, I got my learner’s permit and could finally drive my own car. As soon as possible I drove to the DMV with my mother in my Dodge and passed the tests and got my NJ License. So now I could drive myself to school rather than my mother driving me in bad weather or riding my bicycle all the way to Hackensack where I was enrolled in the Auto Shop at Bergen County Vocational and Technical High School.

The other guys had hot Mercurys and Oldsmobiles and other hot cars, and they kidded me about my Fluid Drive 6-cylinder Dodge that couldn’t peel rubber. I didn’t care, I had made the honor roll and had my name engraved forever on a placque with past and future honor roll students right there at the entrance to the school.

I made friends with a guy whose father operated a gas station in Wyckoff, some distance from my home—he was my classmate in auto shop from the 10th grade through graduation (and I still call him friend, though I haven’t seen him in many years). I traveled a road that had me pass a Chrysler dealership along the way. One day, I spotted a car that really caught my eye; it was a used light blue 1951 Imperial 4 door sedan and I stopped to look at it and get the price. With my mother’s help, I got a loan at the bank to purchase it. This 1951 car was the first year for the Hemi V8 engine in the Chrysler line alone, a 331-cubic-inch engine with what they called Gyro-Torque drive: a semi-automatic M6 transmission behind a self-contained torque converter.

It was a heavy car, yet very fast if you could master the shift points of that M6 transmission. I drove that car to the end of my school days, June 1958, and on to my first dealership job at a DeSoto-Plymouth Dealer, about which more eventually.

During my Senior year at Bergen Tech, the two top students in Auto Shop were chosen to attend 8 weeks at the GM Training Center in Union, NJ. I was one of the two, so I got to commute daily in my Imperial. Another student, attending from another school, had a new white 1958 Chevrolet Impala convertible with a Tri-Power 348 and a Muncie 4-speed. So we alternated taking a car full of guys to Union. The drive in the Impala was a lot more exciting, yet I enjoyed driving there in the Imperial more. As with most young guys with a new car and a bunch of horsepower, he beat that Chevy; I doubt it lasted long.