(Please welcome our newest Sunday COALer)
According to my parents, my first spoken word was “Buick”, in spite of the fact that my family never owned that make of car. One of my most vivid early automotive memories is standing up in the rear-seat footwell of my folks’ 1951 DeSoto sedan and craning my neck to watch the odometer roll over the 100,000-mile mark. The DeSoto was replaced by a ’58 Plymouth Suburban two-door station wagon, a car I chiefly recall because, as I was bouncing around in the rear seat one day, my mom accidentally closed the passenger-side door on my fingers. Subsequent family cars were mostly Ford products, including a ’62 Falcon Tudor, a ‘64 Galaxie 500, a ’64 Thunderbird, and a ’69 Torino GT.
My first car, in the spring of 1970, was a slightly used 1966 Mercury Comet Caliente convertible, light blue with a white vinyl bucket-seat interior, powered by Ford’s ubiquitous 289 V8. It survived several cross-country odysseys from my northern NJ home to the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, and back again. In particular, two of these coast-to-coast trips stand out in my mind:
Driving solo and heading for “somewhere west of Laramie” at the ripe old age of 17, I was so enthralled by my new-found freedom behind the wheel that by the end of my first day on the road, I had clocked nearly 800 miles. The following days’ mileages never equaled that mark, but I found myself endlessly fascinated by the ever-changing vistas beyond my windshield as I headed west. So much so, that after failing to find the “Los Angeles exit” on the freeway, I suddenly ended up in Thousand Oaks and had to backtrack to my rented room on LA’s Westside.
At the beginning of one three-week break between Art Center semesters, two of my fellow Transportation Design students and I made a manic cross-country drive (in the trusty Comet) that started in LA at 7:00 PM on a Friday evening and ended up in northern New Jersey at about 3:00 PM the following Sunday. It worked this way: the front seat passenger would try to keep the driver awake (and help navigate if needed), while the back seat functioned as makeshift sleeping quarters for the remaining passenger. Rotate as necessary. We stopped only for fuel and a home-cooked dinner in Illinois, a welcome change from our usual on-the-road provisions, sandwiches made of white bread with ranch dressing.
The Comet was replaced by a used ’69 Mustang SportsRoof, a great car until it suffered a low-speed rear-end collision on Wilshire Boulevard during my Art Center days. When the body shop began repairs, they discovered that the car had been involved in a previous serious accident, as both rear quarters had been creatively “fixed” with copious quantities of Bondo. Of course, the dealership I’d purchased the car from had neglected to mention that small detail.
Graduating from Art Center as a newly-minted car designer at a time when the Detroit Big Three were shrinking their styling staffs, I then learned that Volvo was planning a U.S. car assembly plant in Chesapeake, Virginia. I must have impressed them with my combination of naiveté and enthusiasm, because shortly thereafter, I began a thirty-two-year product planning career that took me from northern New Jersey to Gothenburg, Sweden, and finally to Irvine, California. I was fortunate enough to have put my “fingerprints” on virtually every production Volvo from the early 240-Series through the first XC60 (and more than a few concepts that didn’t get that far). Having successfully avoided designing any landau vinyl roof coverings, opera windows, or stand-up hood ornaments, I retired in late 2008 with fond memories of a great ride.
You might suppose that working in the auto industry would be enough “car exposure” for anyone, but much of my spare time has been devoted to cars as well. I’ve owned and driven a variety of Ford Mustangs as well as Sunbeam Alpines and Tigers for the last forty-six years now (currently a BRG ’66 Tiger Mark 1A). Luckily, my wife shares my automotive appreciation gene, and we have enjoyed driving the Tiger in vintage sports car rallies such as the New England 1000. There’s really nothing like sharing some springtime, top-down, winding-road drive time with like-minded enthusiasts who don’t mind getting more than a few well-earned bug splatters on their sporting machinery at the end of each day.
As I join the ranks of CC, my hope is that these vehicular vignettes might elicit a nod, a smile, or a chuckle along the way, though I can’t promise that as in any coal mining effort, there won’t be an occasional clinker or two…