When Paul put out the call for COAL submissions, CCer CJC replied that he would only have three weeks worth of cars to write about.
Ah youth, so few cars behind them – so many cars yet to experience.
Or, as a curmudgeon in his 70s might say: “whippersnappers – all of you. Now get off my lawn.”
Well, I resemble the latter remark.
Scientists tell us that the human brain most clearly recalls old memories; it’s the more recent memories that fade quickly. Recent memories such as where I put my car keys, where I parked the car, and the ever more frightening: what car did I park and where is it?
But cars can be memory joggers. If I am asked what I was doing in a specific year, say, 1970, I’d first have to recall where I worked, where I lived, and what car I drove. Maybe also, to whom I was married (more on that later). Once I had those data points, I could determine all the other details of my life.
I clearly remember the old cars that I first started driving (on private property) when I was 12 or 13 years old. And for half of those distances, I drove them in reverse.
Cars, boats, and airplanes have always been fascinating to me. This was facilitated by a family that drove interesting cars, maintained old wooden boats, and by one adventurous brother-in-law who owned a 1969 V-tail Bonanza (more on that much later). The way Curbside Classic focuses on vehicles that were – or could be – normal daily drivers makes this web site more relevant to me than sites that focus on exotic super cars and 0 to 60 times that now reach impossibly low numbers. I’m looking at you Tesla!
I learned to drive cars (especially in reverse) long before I reached the legal age in 1960 for a learner’s permit. Our house had a long gravel driveway with a midpoint squeeze of a brick chimney. My father, who we all called Doc (he was not a doctor), insisted that all cars destined for the back of the driveway and the garage had to be backed in. To this day I always back my current cars into their parking spots or the garage.
His rule made sense. Backing in put the chimney on the driver’s side, which we could easily see and narrowly avoid, by looking backwards through the open window. Pulling into the driveway would have put the chimney on the wrong side endangering the car, the chimney, and worse of all, driving privileges.
By age 12, I could drive the two family cars out to the street end of the driveway and then back them up perfectly past the dreaded chimney and directly into either of the two garage bays. And these cars were big; one was a 1953 Packard 4 door sedan (straight 8 with Ultramatic – 2 speeds plus lockup) and the other was a 1950 Buick 2 door no post Riviera Hardtop (straight 8 with Dynaflow – 1 speed plus a very definitive low gear). Note – Pictures are all from the internet; the pictured Buick is identical to one we had in the 1950s.
Special note for old car techies – Both the Packard and Buick activated the engine starter using the gas pedal. To start, press the gas pedal to the floor (which primed the carburetor) and then press even harder to engage the starter motor. Once the engine was running, engine vacuum positioned a small ball or other object to prevent the starter from engaging if the gas pedal was floored.
As I was always willing to wash either car and could do that job to the satisfaction of my father, getting the cars out of the garage for the wash and dry, and then back in – with a few runs to the street end and back just for the shear joy of it – was a cherished ritual for me. Car washing included the interior, especially the inside of the windows which was accomplished with old chamois cloths my father kept on a drying rack under an old bathroom medicine cabinet fastened to the garage wall. That may explain why at the age of 71, I have an old medicine cabinet in my condo’s garage. But I use micro fiber towels instead of chamois. Progress, sort of.
Backing up a car is easier if one has experience with tiller steered boats or outboards with manual steering (meaning no steering wheel). A backing car steers like most boats, with the stern swinging out away from the desired direction so that the bow ends up pointing in the desired direction. As a youngster, I had a small planning hull dinghy with a 1958 5 ½ horsepower Johnson outboard; it could do 20 mph. Not fast you say? With only a quarter of an inch of plywood between you and the water, 20 mph felt fast. It probably holds a spot in my heart not unlike that of Charles Foster Kane’s “Rosebud”.
It also helped me learn to drive backwards and avoid the dreaded chimney.
My family had boats starting in 1952, but the one boat that lasted from 1955 to 1978 was “The Elco”, a 1948 27 foot sport cruiser with a single, salt water cooled L-head Chris Craft engine. Anyone who had tried to maintain an aging wooden boat in a saltwater environment is probably intimate with the smells of marine oil based paints, varnish, gasoline, and mildew. And sandpaper. And paint scrapers. And clogged up exhaust manifolds. I also suspect most people who grew up actually working by hand on aging wooden boats in a saltwater environment with a saltwater cooled engine would never think of getting into boating again, unless the boat was made of fiberglass and had fresh water engine cooling. Or was a sailboat (fiberglass of course). Most would just move too far inland to make boating feasible. Like me.
I was very proud of the Elco because it was a direct descendant of WWII PT boats. Elco PT boats were made in Bayonne NJ, tested in the Hudson River, and then transported to wide ranging military locations. They had three 12 cylinder 1200 hp Packard engines that powered them to glamorously rapid speeds (for that time) and JFK made one boat’s designation “PT109” famous in 1960. The center engine faced the stern and drove the prop directly; the port and starboard engines were mounted backwards and used V-drives to send the power to the stern.
During the war John Ford made a movie called “They Were Expendable” and used actual 80 foot Elco PTs to represent earlier 77 foot models based in the Philippines just before and right after Pearl Harbor. If you can get a copy of that B&W movie I think you will enjoy it. Donna Reed was beautiful in it. Frankly, Donna Reed was beautiful in everything.
(11/16/2020 Link edit below)
Before we get to the to actual COALs, let me take a tangent on parental behavior with respect to driving. Doc was a careful driver. As the guy responsible for the care and feeding of these cars, he knew careful driving meant less need for repairs. On the other hand, my mother liked to go fast. If she had lived long enough to see Talladega Nights she would have loved Will Ferrell’s Ricky Bobby.
One night we found ourselves traveling home in separate cars. Mom and my brother Jeff in her Buick; Doc and me in his Packard. Doc told me the Packard was faster in the long run with more horsepower (150 versus 120) but that “damn Dynaflow low” felt faster off the line. “She will not let up if we race and who knows what will happen if we do” he told me as we came up to a red light that night, side by side on Long Island’s Sunrise Highway. He saw mom put the stubby chrome Dynaflow lever into “L”. At the green one of the Buick’s tires squealed and it sprang forward. Doc slowly accelerated from the light and made no attempt to engage. The Buick owner’s manual (which he read from first page to last) did not recommend the use of low on a regular basis and I am sure Doc wondered how long that transmission would be able to handle those kind of starts. But, to the best of my knowledge, we never had any problems with that Buick.
And neither did the man we sold it to a few years later.
We’re talking about 0-60 times in the mid-teens, maybe more. But in the mid 1950s, it felt fast. Today, 4 cylinder economy cars can cut those times in half. Progress, sort of.
In the late 1950s my father lost his job and started working in retail at a lower salary, so my mother took the training for and became a real estate agent. My definition of real estate sales: A business where people, mostly women, must make appointments to meet strangers at night in empty houses.
For this job in real estate mom needed a 4 door car right away, so she sold the Buick and
too quickly got a three year old black 1957 Chrysler Windsor single headlight model. Later 57s would have dual headlights – all the rage at that time. Good bye slow dependable Buick, hello fast, sexy, fun-to-drive, and completely unreliable Chrysler.
Special note for old car techies – To start the 1957 Chrysler, push the torqueflight neutral button (see picture). At least one garage attendant had to call us back as we walked away to ask us how to start the car. Oddly enough, my friend’s 1957 Desoto Fireflite, with the identical push button pattern, started with a twist of the key.
I know what you’re thinking. These cars are not really COALs; I never owned them. Well, you’re right.
My first COAL, which I bought in 1960 and helped pay for by selling my beloved Rosebud dinghy and outboard motor, still shows up in my nightmares dreams to this day.
The photo at the top of the story is my first genuine COAL. Let’s get started next week.