(»This is Cars of a Lifetime, so I’m gonna tell the whole story, back to the first roots and shoots of my awareness of cars. There’ll be some chronological turbulence in this post, folks, so keep that seatbelt fastened.«)
When I entered this world, my parents had a 1970 Dodge Dart, a butter-yellow (officially “Cream”) Custom 4-door with a tan interior, 225 engine, automatic transmission, air conditioning, and a probably-AM-only radio, which I saw from the infant carrier tethered into the back seat. How do I know it had the big six and not the 198? Because it had factory A/C, and you couldn’t get the air with the small six.
They were neither of them a car enthusiast; they bought the Dart as a transport appliance, guided by favourable Consumer Reports ratings and generally positive prior experience. That being so, few pictures were taken of the car, and I’ve never found any of just the car. But I did have some results by goldpanning through the family photos and Super-8s I digitised over the years. Here’s a clip made shortly after my mother broke her leg; that’s her parents helping out, and I guess my father’s the cameraman:
How do I know it had the 225 and not the 318? Because I remember, very clearly and at age-old depth, what it sounded like. One of the first sounds I remember in this world was one I heard on one of my first few days in it: the gear-reduction starter cranking the Slant-6 engine. That and the growls peculiar to the 225, and the first-gear whirring acceleration windup and deceleration spindown of the Torqueflite transmission—these sounds carved canyon-deep impressions in my mind. Here’s three of us four (dad behind the Pentax) on July 4, 1976. The American Bicentennial was an especially big deal there in Philadelphia, but I didn’t really care on account of being only five months old:
And here’s a pic from 1977, with mother and sister looking for all the world as though they’re living in 1977:
I spent my first few years trippin’ balls; my early childhood was just fantastically psychedelic. The boundaries were weak or nonexistent among my senses, which resonated and ricocheted and echoed off one another in ways that made their own beauty, humour, and/or internally-coherent sense. I regularly saw patterns and got jokes and laughed at what outside observers would have perceived as noise, nonsense, and non-sequitur; that’s probably why Lewis Padgett’s short story “Mimsy Were the Borogroves” makes my socks roll up and down (it starts on page 52 of the February 1943 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, which can be had for the clicking here).
All to say I was very perceptually open and attuned, and cars seemed to offer what felt like the highest concentration of fascinating shapes and smells and contours and textures and sounds (especially sounds), not even counting any scenery—though of course there was that, too.
So: 1970 Dodge Dart. When we’d arrive home from somewhere, mother would unstrap me and put me over her shoulder as she walked toward the front door. From this vantage point I could see dad closing up the car. The last thing he did after closing the driver’s door was to push the vent wing window closed from the outside. The vent wing window and its part of the doorframe were triangular and curved, and the way the curves and angles went from all disjoint while open to perfectly lined up as it pivoted closed struck me as just uproariously funny. It was one of the first things I laughed about.
The car’s concave backglass delighted me; it made me smile because of its shape and how it distorted the reflections off its outside surface. I really liked the rear bumper’s combination of angles and lines, and the shape of that round chrome remote-control sideview miror Chrysler put on everything. Inside, there was a rearview mirror bracket that looked nothing like any container of fingerpaint I ever saw, but I could see its intrinsic fingerpaintness, plain as day. It had a sort of word-sound about it, too; it sat there up there going “press-press”. I’m sure my folks thought it was just random toddler-babble when I said “Dip your finger in the press-press”—yes, I remember saying it, and it made perfect sense to me.
The dome light went “most” and the shoulder belt clip went “much-much”. The head restraints went “Bome-ba-da-dome”. The concave backglass had a complicated word-sound association of its own, but it wasn’t really pronounceable. Same with the contour of the stamped steel doorframe below the glass/above the trim panel, and the folds in the vinyl near the seat’s mounts. The door lock knobs didn’t look or (I’m assuming) taste anything like blueberries, but they went “Thurston” and had an intrinsic blueberryness.
And the window crank knobs (they went “neighbour”) and the gearshift knob were collectively really cool; they sang like a choir in a manner I could mimic by bringing my thumb and first two fingertips on one hand together in a triangular formation.
In retrospect it was all very trippy; these weren’t just pleasing shapes, they sounded, tasted, and/or smelt good, and they talked and sang! It’s called synaesthesia, and I rather wish I’d got to keep more of it.
Now, grandpa (mother’s father) also had a Dart, a very nicely equipped 1972 Custom, also butter yellow—a different one that year, called Sun Fire Yellow—with a froggy lime green vinyl interior. It was “desirably equipped”, as Consumer Reports might have said; it had the 225 engine, automatic transmission, power steering, power disc brakes, air, and a bunch of comfort and convenience options. Grandma and grandpa lived a few states south, and so over the years I got to ride in grandpa’s Dart on the occasion of a visit. Many of the same elements were present—the “much-much” shoulder belt clips, the “press-press” fingerpainty rearview mirror bracket, the “most” dome light, the blueberryish “Thurston” door lock knobs, the window crank/gearshift knob chorus, the doorframe and backglass contours, and of course the starter, engine, and transmission sounds.
Part of my attunement was an eye for minute differences, and there were plenty of them to notice. The green versus tan interior was a gimme. The head restraints were shaped differently; from the back these ones said “Pome”. From the side they went “green bean”—one of the closer connections to consensus reality; if you’ve ever opened a pack of frozen cut green beans, you’ve probably seen the curved, pointy little end piece, which looks strikingly like the side panel of those head restraints—especially in that froggy lime green colour. This metallic-green one is the closest I could find a good pic of:
Another relatively accessible reach: the windshield wipers said “drink-drunk, drink-drunk, drink-drunk”, one word at each end of their travel. The ’72 rearview mirror, though, when set at just such an angle, went “Something”, and the seatbelts’ chrome tongues said “Mimsy”(!).
The turn signals on grandpa’s Dart merit special mention, because they sounded unusual—to everyone inside the car, I mean; this wasn’t a synaesthetic thing. They went “tick-DIZZzz! tick-DIZZzz! tick-DIZZzz! tick-DIZZzz!” Later, as a teenager with my own car, I spent years chasing that turn signal sound. I tried every flasher I could get my hands on at parts stores and NOS parts vendors and in wrecking yards—no luck. I put a want ad in the Slant-6 News magazine, but nothing came of it. Maybe it was because the ad was taken out by phone, and my sound effects weren’t correctly transcribed!
Eventually I gave up, which wasn’t the end of the line. Telling more about the tick-DIZZzz! turn signals right now would be getting ahead of myself, though, so I’ll head back to the main road by a bit of a circuitous route; what came before the ’70 Dart? Well, on my father’s side, the Dart’s immediate predecessor was his ’62 Plymouth Savoy, his first car, bought in ’64 or so when he was in his early twenties. 225 engine, pushbutton automatic. Here are my folks, just married in December ’68, about to leave in it with my uncle (mother’s sister’s husband) driving:
Before we all worried about mercury in fish, dad’s father concerned himself with fish in a Mercury; specifically this ’63 Meteor:
Dad sometimes used it:
And before that came the ’56 Plymouth my dad learned to drive on:
Like father, like son…
…on multiple occasions:
I think it had an automatic transmission, the Stern family’s first, probably inspired by expensive transmission repairs necessitated by my aunt’s difficulty learning to drive the previous hand-shift car.
Again working backwards from the wedding, my mother had a Ford Fairlane of one description or another; it suffered a cracked engine block. If I understand the history correctly, by that time she and my father were enough of an item to go on just the one car, the ’62 Plymouth. Prior to the Fairlane, mother had a VW Beetle named Blau Hilde, a blue nineteen-fiftysomething model her folks had bought new. The Beetle suffered a cracked engine block (um, mother, dearest, what were you doing to them?) which led to the Fairlane. And she learned to drive on her folks’ 1950 Ford, which was dubbed “Screwloose” on account of the whole car seemed to perk up when grandpa retightened the screw holding the turn signal lever.
Her father had tended to favour Buicks and Oldsmobiles, as I understand it—that looks like a ’62 Buick in this brief clip from around 1972 or ’73, though I don’t know if that car was his or grandma’s:
Now, my mother’s father was about average height, about 5’9″, and the Dart was his car. My mother’s mother, on the other hand, was barely five feet tall and drove a great big ’71 Cadillac Calais 4-door hardtop, gold with golden brocade upholstery—the car in which I first encountered power locks and windows. Even this base model was still a Cadillac, designed and intended as a feast for the senses of a buttoned-down grownup; it really went to eleven for a sensorily-emphatic kid such as myself. The front end wasn’t just massive, it was at least three miles wide and two miles tall, with all kinds of textures and details and word-sounds. I loved the full-height taillights at the ends of the fins. I can’t find any pics of her actual car, so this publicity shot of a fancier model will have to stand in. Right colour, but grandma’s did not have a vinyl roof (and was the better-looking for it, I think):
Grandma drove the Cadillac in the stereotypical manner: passersby could see only a little wisp of grey hair in the driver’s seat; she looked out at the world through the crescent formed by the top of the steering wheel with the dashboard. I have no idea how she managed not to hit anything, but her Cadillac was undinged when it got badly traded in on an ’87ish Town Car.
In 1985 when grandpa was 72, my sister was 14, and I was 11, my grandparents offered my parents the Dart. It was in lovely condition, but it needed a heater core—the smell of coolant inside the car told the tale. My mother threw ice and lightning: “NO! ABSOLUTELY NOT!”, she hollered at the top of her lungs. Drawing on her vast automotive knowledge gained by experience with the Beetle and the Fairlane, she proclaimed “IF THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE HEATER IT MEANS THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG WITH THE EXHAUST SYSTEM AND THE ENGINE’S GOING TO CRACK! IT’S NOT SAFE AND WE AREN’T HAVING IT!” My sister was disappointed because it was a car and she was within yearning distance of a learner’s permit. Me, I was bitterly disappointed because I had always really liked Slant-6 Darts—especially yellow ones, in accord with Scripture; particularly that yellow one. Thanks heaps, mother.
Not long after the rebuffed offer, grandpa ran a red light. The Dart got knocked 30 feet down the road. Grandpa walked away, but it was the end of the Dart—and, I think, the end of his driving days.
Alright, enough begats; now back to my folks’ ’70 Dart: that car got replaced during the 1978 model year. The new car was a built-to-order ’78 Chev Caprice Classic in metallic carmine red. I’m saving the pics of it for next week, but here’s the one from the brochure:
Yack! What?! No! Wrong colours, wrong shapes, wrong lines everywhere, it sounded wrong…I was inconsolable about it, grieving at all of about 2½ years old. “Where did the yellow Dodge go?” I asked my parents. “Somebody drove it away”, mother said. “Why?” I asked. “The air conditioning stopped working and we decided it was time for a new car”, dad said. “Why not a new yellow Dodge?” I asked. Mother explained to me, in that matter-of-fact way grownups sometimes do when they think there’s no chance the child will understand, that a Dodge wasn’t a good kind of car to buy any more. Years later they told me they had in fact first gone back to the Dodge dealer, and the salesman kept apologising as parts were falling off the Aspen while they tried to test drive it.
This close attachment of mine to the Dart provided fodder for clever conversation at a few dinner parties; mother would quip that they “should have kept the Dart so Daniel could take the motor apart someday”. Good for a polite chuckle. Careful about the jokes you make, though; the gods are listening. I didn’t get to take apart that particular Dart, but years thence I filled up my folks’ garage and basement with parts of many other Darts. Things that make you go “h’mm”; perhaps the physicists grappling with the nature of time are right with their conjecture that all moments happen simultaneously; perhaps time’s walls are thinner when one hasn’t yet learnt how thick they are supposed to be.
That’s not the only story that makes me think so, either. One day when I was very small, certainly less than two years old, one of the orbital adults (parent of a daycare “classmate”, I guess) came to pick me up for some entirely legitimate reason. A play date, a group outing to the zoo or something, or maybe just a ride to the daycare centre, something like that. My mother picked me up and carried me out the house, and as soon as I saw the other adult’s car in the driveway I freaked out and melted down. It was a sky-blue VW Type 3 wagon:
For reasons I can’t articulate now—and certainly couldn’t then—it terrified me. I knew, certainly, that I must not get into that car. Any other car, but not that one. As a toddler I had the customary zero say in what happens, and only one tool, so I used it: I kicked and screamed and cried and howled at top maximum volume. I viscerally remember feeling like that car was an unspeakably horrifying threat. The grownups’ tone cycled fruitlessly through reassurance, bafflement, cajoling, annoyance, and finally, in the end, resignation: whatever trip was cancelled; the other grownup got in the wagon and drove off, and with the threat gone I was immediately fine.
Anyhow. Eventually I came to grips with the Dart’s departure and found the Caprice Classic had some interesting elements of its own, with word-sounds and other fascinations. From an adult retrospective, that car was a big technological leap: their first with electronic ignition and a catalytic converter, first with unitised lap/shoulder belts in front, first with rectangular headlamps, probably first with disc brakes, first with side-impact guard beams in the doors.
A couple years later we moved to Denver in it, and I’ll pick up next week with that story.
Oh, one other thing: I did get to keep a faint shadow of my childhood synaesthesia; perhaps someday one of my nieces or someone will ask what it was like to ride around in big American cars of the 1970s, and then I’ll play this for them:
The violins are the first-gear windup and spindown of a Torqueflite or a Turbo Hydramatic. The bass guitar is the engine growl. The cymbals are those rattles in the dashboard and doors. The kick drum, that’s what happens when you’re cruising at a steady speed on one one of those roads with transverse expansion joints spaced exactly at the car’s wheelbase. In my head, at least!