COAL: The Cars of My Father

(welcome our new Sunday COAL series contributor Adam Dixon)     Unfortunately, none of you know me because my job and life are not conducive to commenting. I usually don’t get to the posts that interest me until well after they’re posted, and by that time there’s not much point to leaving a comment as everyone has moved on to more recent posts. However, I have been lurking on this site for many years, and it is one of my favorites since it covers all kinds of automobiles, from the common to the curious. Not only that, but the comments always contain a treasure trove of information and nostalgia, and opinions are far more respected here than on most other sites. May it always be this way.

I was born an automotive enthusiast, with no real explanation as to why as there really aren’t any others in my family. My parents recounted a story from when I was two or three years old and we found an emblem from someone’s car on the driveway. Nobody else was sure what make of car it was from, but I looked at it, picked it up and said, “Pontiac.” At daycare, I used to sit at the window and let the other kids know whose parent had arrived based on the car that pulled up.

I had a large collection of Matchbox and Hot Wheels (many of which I still have), subscribed to all the major magazines when I got older, and frequently purchased Autotrader from the Mr. Grocer on the corner and fantasized about which of those gems might someday be mine. In other words, pretty much the same story as most every Gen-Xer reading this post.

1946 Hudson Commodore Eight Sedan from the Internet, which is virtually identical to the Commodore Six except for the engine


One of my fondest childhood memories is climbing into my parents’ bed on Sunday morning and asking my dad to tell me about all the cars he owned. Being a member of the Silent Generation from Brooklyn, he had no need for a car until he went away to college on the G.I. Bill after serving in Korea. That car was a 1946 Hudson Commodore Six purchased for a relatively low sum. He didn’t have much to say about the car other than the torquey 212 CID engine with three-on-the-tree had excellent take off, even after first gear failed at some point during his brief ownership.

He transferred to Brooklyn College after one semester and sold the Hudson to his mother’s husband, Jack, a wonderful man who later had a string of Cadillacs. He used to bring me around to all the local dealerships to collect brochures when we went to visit him and my grandmother in Miami Beach. Jack had first gear repaired on the Hudson, which my father felt was a waste of money.


Dad and his 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook – Notice how he’s sucking in his gut to try to look thin!


In 1958, after meeting and marrying my mother, he purchased a 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook Club (two-door) sedan so he and my mother could venture beyond the New York subway system. My father did not like this car, noting that the whole structure just felt loose.

By 1961, they were ready for their first new car and wanted a convertible. Dad was unimpressed with the majority of the available convertibles with their thin tops, whose ribs were visible from inside the car, and plastic rear windows. This is how they ended up with a Beetle — its thick fabric roof made the car so airtight they had to open the windows a crack to shut the doors. It also had an actual glass rear window.

Mom and their 1961 VW Beetle Convertible – Mom likes to note how she looks like a movie star in this picture.

(Editor’s note: and back then movie stars actually did drive red VW convertibles)

As you can see, in red with a black top and wide white-wall tires, this was a stunning car, and one they kept for many years until Dad lent it to one of the employees of his AAMCO shop, and the guy just took off with it. Fortunately, he left behind his red tool chest and tools, which Dad said was worth more than the car. It’s still in my mother’s garage.

The only picture we have of my mother’s 1967 Mustang


As I mentioned above, Dad purchased a half-interest in an AAMCO shop in Kentucky just across the river from Cincinnati. Business was good, and he surprised my mother with a new 1967 Mustang 289 in Clearwater Aqua with a black vinyl top, which to this day remains her favorite car.

Internet photo of a 1967 Chrysler Newport


He also leased himself a 1967 Chrysler Newport (“You’re rich,” said his partner. “You should drive a big shot car.”)

Unfortunately, shortly after buying into the franchise, the State of Minnesota filed a lawsuit against AAMCO and 14 franchise operators for fraudulent business practices, which ended with the FTC filing an order against the entire company. To maximize visual impact, WCPO’s Al Schottelkotte chose to report on the story right in front of Dad’s store. Business fell off precipitously after that, and Dad, who really wasn’t enjoying himself anyway, chose to cash out. My parents took the money and invested it in several “silent partner”-type business opportunities, all of which failed. So, bye-bye Chrysler, hello…

Internet photo of 1969 VW Squareback that looks very similar to Dad’s after he had it painted


I’m not sure of the year, but it was definitely a pre-1970 model and a couple of years old when he bought it. This and the Mustang are the first cars I remember us having, but just barely.

My parents rented a house in Cincinnati, and Dad found various jobs in sales while Mom went back to work. On a cold night in early 1974, not long after having the car painted a pretty light blue (it was originally white), the engine in the Squareback seized. From what I understand, this was not an unusual event for a Type III. On the bright side, finances were better, and off we went to the VW dealer for our third air-cooled Volkswagen.

The author and his grandmother with Dad’s 1974 VW Super Beetle


We all loved this car, although my mother didn’t like the Sunshine Yellow color. My favorite memory is coming out of Superbug, the Craziest Car in the World and having all the other kids excitedly pointing at us and the car, thinking we were driving the real Dudu.

While that purchase ended up being a good decision, the next one…uh…not so much. The Mustang was starting to rust, and its thirsty V8 engine was at odds with the gas climate in 1974. Since the Squareback was gone, they wanted another small, economical wagon for family vacations and hauling bulky items.

Internet photo of a 1974 Pinto Wagon identical to Mom’s down to the rear spoiler


Why? Just why? Could they not tell how abysmally slow the car was during the test drive? How heavy the steering was? The cruel irony was that it was so under powered that, according to Dad, the gas mileage was no better than the Mustang. My mother hated this car. She hated it so much that they traded it in before it was paid off.

For all its faults, however, the Pinto was at least reliable. The same could not be said for the next car.

Mom’s 1978 Plymouth Horizon in front of our new house in Florida


They had considered a Pacer wagon, but AMC’s future was in doubt in 1978. They also liked the Rabbit but found that they could get a fairly loaded Plymouth Horizon for about the same money as a low-end Rabbit. Unlike the Pinto, however, they really liked the Horizon. When it was running.

But, hey, these are just first year bugs, right? When the Super Beetle reached 80,000 miles, and the engine was in need of a rebuild, Dad decided he would just rather get a new car and was open to another L-body. They’ll most assuredly have things worked out by the second year, right? Wrong!

Dad’s 1979 Dodge Omni


The Omni was just as unreliable as the Horizon – maybe more so. But, damn, is this not one of the sharpest non-Shelby Omni’s you’ve seen? Black over silver with a red interior is, in my opinion, one of the nicest color combinations. Even a third-generation Seville looks good in this combo. If I could find this car out there somewhere, I’d buy it in a heartbeat (especially since it, like the Horizon, was custom ordered), but I’m sure it’s disappeared along with the other 99.99% of 1979 Omnis. Please see the AdamD comment under Paul’s excellent take on the Horizon/Omni for more details on our experience.

Surprisingly, my parents suffered through this for five full years, but both cars, thankfully, made the trek to South Florida when we moved down there. Ultimately, however, like many who were screwed by the Big Three in the Seventies and Eighties, they were done with American cars. Both cars gave way to Nissans, and what a revelation they were. I’ll write about those in a later installment.

This is where I came of age. I got my restricted license, and shortly thereafter, Allstate called to check if there were any other licensed drivers in the house. Upon learning that I had my restricted license, my mother was informed that they’d be raising our rates a full $1,000, and I was forced to surrender it. Seriously, how many accidents actually happen with restricted-licensed drivers? To this day, I will never consider Allstate no matter how much Dennis Haysbert tries to convince me otherwise. I quietly got my restricted back a few months before my sixteenth birthday.

So, armed with extensive automotive knowledge, having vigorously studied the Autotrader and all the major magazines, and with $3,000 in the bank – a tidy sum for a first car in 1985 – I was ready to buy. How could I possibly f**k this up?