COAL: 1961 Plymouth Suburban — It Means “Car” to Me

For this first installment in my COAL, I’m going to set the table for what will ultimately be a discussion of the cars that I personally have owned and driven. But since none of us make the car decisions we make divorced from context, I think it makes sense to start off writing a bit about the experiences that form our attitudes and beliefs related to cars. At least for me, much of that comes from early childhood. And from experiences related to this one-year only Plymouth wagon.


That’s me. Behind the wheel. All revved up at the 1964 – 1965 World’s Fair. I was 4 at the time and pretty much everything about the Fair impressed me. As an event, and the destination for a trip, it forms some of my earliest memories.

Sometimes I did get out to take a few pictures of my own. Not bad for a preschooler with a plastic fixed lens camera. But even if I did get out and walk from time to time, the “car” – a miniature red Corvette…Let HERTZ put you in the driver’s seat! — was never far away.

In fact, cars and all things transportation-related were never far from sight at the NY World’s Fair. The whole enterprise was built astride a highway (the Grand Central Parkway) and some of the most memorable exhibits – at least I’m sure for most CC readers who were fortunate enough to have attended — were in the transportation area. The Ford Pavilion, Sinclair Dinoland, the Chrysler and GM Pavilions and the US Rubber giant tire-themed Ferris wheel.

Behind me, in that first picture stands the NY State Pavilion – a building where the entire floor was devoted to a giant road map of NY state.  Sponsored by Texaco. This poor child’s mom probably got to the Hertz stroller rental station after all of the good RED Corvettes were gone.

To me, the whole fair, and so therefore the whole world – after all, it was the WORLD’S fair — was about transportation.

And waffles. The signature strawberry-covered food from the mysterious (yet obviously well-fed) land of Belgium. Belgium at the Fair, that is, which was entirely reachable (in replica) via my parent-powered rental Corvette. It made perfect sense to me that we could drive to Belgium. We’d driven to NYC, I figured, so why not Belgium?

Half a century later, I’ve still not managed to make it to (the actual) Belgium, but I’ve had a lot of cars. This series is going to be about those cars as well as the on-going romance that I’ve had with the various transports associated with the act of “going places”. For me, the journey has always been the better part of getting wherever I might be headed. That’s proven true whether or not there’s waffles at the end of the trip.

My first trip, the one home from the hospital, was in a car that I have no recollection of beyond this photo. This was my parents’ first car, and it’s the only one they had – once I came along — that I cannot specifically remember.

Likely CC some readers can identify the car’s make and model, and I’ll have to take your word for it since unfortunately neither of my parents are around to verify what they were driving in 1961. Guaranteed, it was well-used whatever it was. (We don’t get to my parents’ first new car until next week.)

They didn’t have whatever that was for very long, as by the time I can start remembering things they’d replaced it for the car that took me on that World’s Fair trip.

Oh, and also the various trips to chase down the Sinclair dinos as they made their way down the east coast (by barge!) after the Fair. Here I am – clearly pumped – having dragged my family to a cold rainy shopping center parking lot in Baltimore for yet another Dinoland replay. (Who can identify the small blue car there in front of the Trachodon?) For years after the Fair, I tried to persuade my parents to stop at Sinclair stations so that I could check if there was a mold-a-rama machine that produced plastic dinosaurs.

Just like this one, that still graces my desk. So if there are any ad execs for 1960s Sinclair account still around and reading this, yes, your strategy worked.

But on to the car…which was what was being filled up at all those Sinclair stations.

Or if you’d prefer an image that doesn’t show the car buried in Baltimore’s record-setting snow of 1966

Also purchased used, the one-year-only 1961 Plymouth Suburban wagon arrived in my family at just the right moment in my consciousness to become the archetype of “car”.

Much has been written here and elsewhere about the controversial Exner styling of 1961 Mopar products, so I won’t go there right now. Regardless, for the kid who grew up with this as his family’s first car there’s little controversy.

To me was – and still is – beautiful. It had a face, and therefore personality. It also reminded me of the cat-eye glasses that were fashionable, and actually rather sexy. For a time.

See? Well I guess it helps if Marilyn is wearing them.

I bonded with the ’61 Plymouth wagon for all of the reasons why any of us if we really stop and think about it bond with cars. I loved all of the little fascinating stuff that had little to do with our wagon’s overall mechanical value as a machine. I remember what I thought were amazing features such as the dash-mounted mirror, the “teleview” speedometer mounted in its own dash pod and the push-button transmission (red letters on white keys…like some kind of musical instrument). And as much as I loved the car’s face, the rear was great too. There, the rubber bump stops on the gate that matched those on the bumper were quite something, along with the protruding cylindrical tail lights. Inside, I remember the weird slippery yet nubby texture of the “nylon-viscose” (so say the brochures) upholstery. For some reason, that stuff had an amazing ability to grab on to the hangnails of small children which resulted in injury to people and the seats as well. My parents eventually employed plastic seat covers, which were a marginal improvement (less ripping of nails and skin, more summer stickiness).

But mostly, it was the first car that I can remember at all, so in that sense the details hardly matter. It was what transported us away from home, to wherever we could get. I fell in love with the whole thing and idea.

Speaking of summer stickiness, while the brochure touts the “dual unit” Airtemp air conditioning, this clearly was an option that ours did not have (it would be nearly another 10 years before I ever rode in a car “fancy enough” to have air conditioning). It’s likely that our wagon may have had the slant 6 instead of one of the V8 engines. Air conditioning was apparently a dealer-installed option on the 6 cylinder cars, thereby making it more likely that the original owner of our car had decided to forego ac. I’ve tried to explain to my own kids that back then, many cars had no air conditioning. They look at me as if I had just told them that cars also came with doors that didn’t open…and square wheels. Whatever… I’m quite sure that neither of my parents had ever ridden in a car that was air conditioned. So not knowing what we might have been missing, we set out most summers on sticky, lengthy, trips. These were journeys that took us over the stitched-together state turnpikes (that would ultimately become I-95) from Maryland or Virginia up to relatives in New York City (including the trips to the Worlds’ Fair), New England or even farther to Canada.

Here, we are on a stop at an uncle’s house in Central Massachusetts (about 30 miles from where I live now). The large wood box on the roof of the Plymouth indicates that we were ultimately headed to Maine, for camping. Wood box? Yes. This was before nylon was commonly used in things like family tents (much of the world’s nylon production having apparently been commandeered by the Chrysler Corporation for use in combination with viscose to torture children and dogs). Thus, our family tent was made of about 150 pounds of canvas and had a large collection of aluminum poles. Combine that with the cotton sleeping bags, air mattresses, Coleman stove, lantern, cookware, etc.…and there was no way all of that was fitting in the back of the Plymouth. Particularly not if the family dog – a St. Bernard (you can see him sweating there in the way back if you zoom in on that picture) – was along; and of course he came along on week-long camping trips to Maine.

My dad had the idea that a roof-top box would solve our cargo problems. And not being one to simply “go out and buy” a solution — something else that I’ve found difficult to explain to his grandchildren — he made a thing out of plywood that was kind of like a double-wide coffin with brass hinges. It sat on some manner of cargo bars that were affixed to the car top with suction cups and straps. He wood-stained the box, but it was beyond him how to effectively waterproof it. Well, tents were designed to get wet, right? No problem. It’s also probably the case that driving with that thing on top cut our gas mileage for sure into the single digits, but it would of course be quite a few years before anyone worried about something like that. Even my parents.

What else can I say about the 1961 Plymouth? Well, I can mention its propensity for vapor lock. At that age, I really had no idea what “vapor lock” was. But I learned the term because I definitely knew that it wasn’t something good if it regularly left you stranded in the parking lots of various New Jersey Turnpike rest areas. A person has time to develop such opinions while slowly turning over in your mind the question of whether it was better to be sweating on the nylon-viscose inside the car versus standing outside the car on a 95 degree day with a heavily panting 200 pound dog watching your father swear at clothes pins that apparently offered no solution to the non-starting car. That’s the kind of stuff that sticks with you as a child. (The correct answer turns out to be the one about the clothes pins)

But what that Plymouth mostly taught me was that suffering mechanical and comfort-related foibles just came with the territory of having a car. It was the price paid for being able to get from one location to another on the roads that crisscrossed all parts of my childhood existence. One simply made do. Sometimes making-do included learning how to fix it (despite failures such as the aforementioned clothes pins…or the time my dad attempted new spark plugs, and learned that actually tightening them down was a good way to avoid several of them shooting out of the block dozens of miles from home). Sometimes that involved fabricating a car-top carrier when buying one would be money-wasted that could be spent elsewhere (such as on the actual gas-station garage tune up that I imagine my mom suggested after the aforementioned spark plug incident). Transportation was an adventure, and it required sacrifices to occur in order to have the adventure.

We made the Plymouth last nearly 8 years…which in retrospect seems like a pretty good run for a car that clearly had some issues. I was about 10 when we finally gave it up. Its non-shifting transmission doomed it to being towed literally out to pasture at my grandmother’s house. I think that the hope was that “someone” someday might fix it, and until then it could sit at the edge of the field, almost but not quite in the woods. I know that I was hoping that someone might be me, because after all, something that big, and full of cool parts, and still beautiful with cat-eye headlights…something that much a part of enabling the family’s adventures really couldn’t just be “done”. This line of thinking is something that we’ll ultimately see come up again and again with me and cars.

But first, there’s another bit of stage-setting that we’ll need to get to. That’s about the other car that inhabited the driveway next to the 61 Plymouth. Next time.