COAL: 1970 Dodge Dart and Associates • Earliest Influences

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(»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 days in this world: 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.

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