We’re going just a bit out of strict chronological order here, for which I apologize. This COAL deals with the first “foreign” car I was ever exposed to, a car that, as I look back on it, may have had a longer-lingering effect on me than many of my subsequent daily drivers. In the late spring of 1964, Mom was working from our Morris Plains, New Jersey home, instead of in her office at Silver Burdett.
Mother had been diagnosed with lymphocytic leukemia, an insidious form of blood cancer that starts in the bone marrow blood cells, eventually spreading through one’s bloodstream and affecting other organs in the body. She had decided not to share the seriousness of the situation with either my father or with eleven-year-old me, presumably realizing there was little that could be done to change the inevitable outcome.
In those days, she was copy-editing from home when her condition permitted. Thick Manila folders were filled with double- or triple-spaced typewritten galleys, which Mother would carefully annotate in colored pencil, surrounded by the specialized reference books and dictionaries she used for research and fact-checking. During those times, her periodic rustling of paper and flipping of pages became a faint but satisfying life-measuring tempo.
Now and then, one of Mother’s work colleagues, Peggy, would arrive to ferry the edited galleys back to the office or to drop off another tranche of the familiar yellow onion-skin pages for her editorial attention. Once, probably as much to get me out of the house as anything else, Peggy invited me to accompany her on the short drive to the office and back.
Her car was like nothing else I had ever seen until then, a white Volvo PV544 with a red/white interior, probably a ’62 or ’63 model. Getting into the Volvo, I remember being pleasantly struck by a variety of olfactory sensations. The rubber floor mats, the coconut fiber upholstery filling, the barely-detectable undertones of vinyl, all combined to create an ambience very unlike the typical Detroit “new car smell.” I was mesmerized.
At one point, Peggy, knowing my obsessive automotive enthusiasm, asked me if I wanted to “help drive”. Nervously placing my hand on the gearshift lever, I managed to execute a series of up-shifts from a stop, eventually engaging all four gears successfully (with some assistance, of course).
The 544 wasn’t what you’d consider a particularly quiet vehicle, but its mechanical symphony gave the impression that it was a soundly-engineered piece of machinery. Its ribbon speedometer and long shift throws, among other characteristics, were outside the norm of my then-limited automotive worldview, as was the experience of wearing a seat belt for the first time.
That little Volvo made an enduring, if subliminal impression on me in the late spring of 1964. It would take another decade or so to learn how…