COAL: Prologue – Variety Is The Spice Of Life (If You Like Oldsmobiles)

I have planned to write my COAL series for a long time.  I have put it off because that is what I do.  Actually that is not the reason.  A big reason is that for quite awhile my stash of car photos (you know, the ones taken on film and picked up from the drugstore in one of those bright yellow envelopes) went – – somewhere.  By the time I found them, life had gotten busier and I just never found the time.  But here I am, in a fitting way to celebrate 10 years as a contributor/editor at this august site.  If this doesn’t interest you, you will find that it’s going to be a long six months of Sunday mornings.

I have always been crazy about cars.  This is a malady that I inherited from . . . I have no idea.  My father liked cars, but as a way to project an image and get him where he needed to go, all at the same time.  The cars of my father’s youth are kind of a mystery.  I know that his first one was a 1947 Mercury convertible, which was quite snazzy.  Later on there was a bullet nosed Studebaker Starlight Coupe that got wrecked during a period of time he was living in California.  I remember looking at photos of the three cars in that wreck, and Dad clearly came out of it the best.  I have no idea about any others, and now see that I should have tried to pin him down on this.  I know that when he and my mother got married in 1958 he had just bought a 1957 Buick.  My mother said she never liked it much because it swilled gas like nothing before or since, and it was quickly jettisoned.

My mother liked cars probably more than my father did, at least she seemed to get more enthusiastic over them.  She got her first car when she went to nursing school, a 1941 Chevrolet that was a hand-me-down from her cousin.  Upon her 1954 graduation she bought a ’53 Chevy sedan.  I know it was green, had 4 doors and did not have the PowerGlide like the baby blue 54 Chevy of her roommate.  This was the state of things in 1958 when Jim and Edith began a nine year marriage in which maybe 4 or 5 of those years were good ones.  Or maybe not.

The 53 Chevy got the axe pretty quickly too, something that peeved my mother.  They were young up-and-comers of the Silent Generation who left their first home in Fort Wayne, Indiana for Ypsilanti, Michigan for Dad’s job as a sales engineer for a company whose main products were made from Teflon.  By the time I came along in June of 1959, the Cavanaugh fleet had turned over completely.  My parents contributed heavily to the first Import Boom with two purchases – a red Karmann Ghia and a Ford Anglia.  They would have been either 1958 or 1959 models.  My mother loved the Ghia – it was fun and seemed to suit her personality.

She despised the Anglia, which she described as “tinny”.  Dad recalled it as one of those “It seemed like a good idea at the time” cars.  How my father chose those two cars to call on industrial customers in the Detroit area is a mystery.  Both would be gone by 1961.

There is a mystery car in there – a station wagon.  I know it was used and if my father picked it out, it was probably a Ford – I have always guessed that it might have been a 59 or 60?  It was probably purchased in early 1961 when they learned that the family would be increasing from 3 to 4 members.  Mom’s version was that she wanted a wagon for our growing family and that Dad didn’t, and that he petulantly picked the first wagon he saw in Detroit, the epicenter of crooked car dealers.  Dad’s version was that Mom wanted that wagon and wanted it now, never mind that he was jammed up at work and had to go out of town.  “She wanted a wagon, I got her a wagon.”  That station wagon (whatever it was) would kind of define their relationship, which was two people who were seemingly unable to be the person that the other one needed.

The Mystery Wagon went away and was replaced by a new 1961 Oldsmobile F-85 station wagon – and somehow my parents went from a two car family to a one car family.  Mom loved that one, maroon with a white top just like this example (if we were to ditch the chrome wheels and replace them with a dog dish hubcap and whitewalls combo).  That is the first car I remember, and I remember it quite well.  One of my earliest car memories is of sitting in the steering wheel and swinging my butt from side to side as I hung on for the fun ride.  That one took us back to Fort Wayne not long after my little sister was born.

I remember riding in the “way back” and being warned to stay away from the lift gate because it could pop open.  I remember my sister sliding down into the crack between the folded rear seat and the back of the front seat – a gap that opened up because of Mom’s short stature and need to reach the pedals.  And I remember many times sitting on the side of the road with the hood open on hot summer days while it cooled down after overheating.  That was the car that cemented the rule in our family – never buy a first year model.  The aluminum 215 cid V8’s cooling system was a persistent problem.  The “fix” (which helped but did not solve the problem) had been to run anti-freeze as coolant all year around (not common at the time.)  Mom remembered spending about 3 hours in a gas station during a trip to Florida, necessitated by a gas station attendant who went to check the radiator and experienced an Old Faithful moment.  Obtaining fresh anti-freeze in Florida in the early 1960’s was evidently something of a chore.

Dad scored a company car, a 1963 Chevy Bel Air wagon.  Like so many of his cars, that one would be white, but with a bright red interior.  I remember thinking it odd that we were a two station wagon family.  The Chevy was my favorite because it was Dad’s and because we didn’t drive it as often on family trips.  As an adult I can understand because those early 60s Chevrolets were miserable things with poor seats, a worse driving position and power steering with all of the precision found in the pilot house of an ocean liner.  The photo above is our car.

I remember the F-85’s replacement purchased in the summer of 1964 – an Oldsmobile Cutlass hardtop.  It had all of the “wow” options like bucket seats, a console, the optional wheel covers (usually seen on Ninety-Eights) and the most elegant, nearly black, shade of dark green paint I have ever seen.  Apparently the choice at the dealer was between the bucket seats and air conditioning – and they went with the buckets.  The Cutlass would become legendary in the family as one of the best cars ever.  My mother loved, loved, loved that Cutlass – the best picture we have of it is this one, taken at a motel on a road trip to California in 1965.  I would say that more than any other, it was this Cutlass that I associate with my childhood.

Dad finally got to pick his own company car in December of 1965 when he brought home a white (of course) 66 Country Squire.  It lacked a/c too, but made up for it with black vinyl seats that would sear patterns into our young legs when we sat in back in shorts.  Dad wasn’t one to photograph cars, and this is the best I have.

This was the state of our driveway when my parents separated in late 1966, with their car lives going their separate ways.  I have written about Dad’s succession of a 69 LTD and a pair of Lincolns, a Mark III (1970) and a Mark IV (1972). Dad re-married in 1968 and my stepmom (who grew up one county away from my mother) got – – – a dark green Cutlass hardtop with no air, only this one was a 68 and had no console.  That car was memorable for two things – first, I didn’t like it as well as the 64.

Not ours, which had a black vinyl roof and plain Jane wheelcovers

It was the wrong color of dark green and had a dash that was so high it was hard to see over when I was a front seat passenger.  The other memorable thing was how I drove Dad’s Toro riding mower into the passenger door.  Why my father let a 9 year old kid drive a riding mower for fun is a puzzler.  It probably would not have happened if I had not been popping the clutch in high gear and making a fast turn at the same time.  The door got fixed but was painted badly, so as to display rust spots and cracked paint until the car was replaced with a 74 Cutlass Supreme coupe.

The new Cutlass was resplendent in white outside and in, with light blue for the landau roof and for the dash/carpets.  A color combination that does not seem to exist on the internet.

Mom’s choices were decidedly more down to earth than what Dad chose for himself.  The 64 Cutlass was finally replaced with a 72 Cutlass Supreme 2 door hardtop, almost exactly like the one in the photo.  Light green this time (which I didn’t like at all), it still had the buckets and console, but upped the ante with both air conditioning and (decadence itself) power windows.  Its 4 bbl 350 was probably not as quick as the high compression, premium gas 4 bbl 330 in the 64, but allowances must be made.

The ’72 was the first car I was allowed to drive. Mom had been a farm girl and did for me what her father had done for her – pull over on desolate country roads and let the kid have some practice behind the wheel.  I was, of course, in heaven.  At least after figuring out that trick of knowing that half the hood appearing off the road was normal.  That would have been a pretty good car for my impending drivers ed, but it was not to be.  Mom discovered the error in her thought process when she bought that car: two doors had been fine up to then, so 2 doors would be fine going forward.  Bzzzzzt – Wrong.  Kids in high school trying to get in and out of the back seat of a 2 door car on a 112 inch wheelbase was sub-optimal.

Where my father tended to buy cars in November or December to get the new model year, Mom’s method was to wait until summer and save some money when dealers are trying to thin their inventories.  That was a problem in the summer of 1974 when there were no Cutlass sedans to be had in our areas.  Plan B was a Pontiac.  A Luxury LeMans in Honduras Maroon – a color that had been quite close to the 61 Oldsmobile of my early childhood – complete with fender skirts and white vinyl seats.

The Pontiac would be my primary driver upon getting my license.  The 2 bbl Pontiac 350 was a dog that stalled and hesitated during warm-up and that sucked gas like a GTO.  It did not have the good parts of a GTO because I never, ever got that car up to 100 mph, despite more than one effort.  Maybe if I had picked places with longer roads.

I didn’t love the Pontiac.  But it did handle well compared to the 1975 Marquis that was my driver’s ed car or the highly loaded 76 Mercury Monarch Dad had chosen to replace the Mark IV.  I did not get much wheel time in Dad’s Monarch (probably a good thing given the 351 V8 in that lightweight body), but sure did in the Pontiac.  I did some really, really stupid things with that Pontiac.  Like the time I slid the left rear quarter panel into a fire hydrant.  “Wouldn’t it be cool” I thought “if I could make the speedometer read 100 mph on this snow-packed street.”  It was really cool, right up until the car started to fishtail uncontrollably.  Oops.  When asked what happened, I told the truth: “I accelerated and it started to fishtail and got away from me.”  As a card–carrying teenager I was not, of course, foolish enough to spill the entire truth – I knew my mother, and she would have lit up like an Atlas rocket had she known the whole story (and not without reason).  Mom should probably also have wondered why the Uniroyal bias ply tires were bald on the outside edges, but she never brought it up.

The lessons I had taken in up to this point were that 1) Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs were for mothers, aunts and grandmothers (a pattern that held all through both sides of my extended family), 2) that Fords were for men and 3) Mopars and AMCs were sheer exotica that were seen mostly on television.  Thanks to one neighbor down the street, there were more Studebakers on our street than there were Mopars.  European and Japanese cars (other than VWs)?  We were in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and what the hell were those?

I had begged and pleaded for permission to buy my own car, and came up with every reason I could possibly think of.  But nope, nope, nope.  Mom had a job that allowed her to take the bus to and from work so the Pontiac was usually sitting in the garage, freely available for my (ab)use.  But things would soon change.