COAL: 1970 Dodge Dart and Associates • Earliest Influences

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:

I don’t recall hearing about any other Chrysler products, so the ’72 Dart was an unusual choice. My folks probably expressed satisfaction with theirs, and that might have influenced him.

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.

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