COAL: When Does The First COAL Count?

My “first car” wasn’t this sharp, but one can put on the rose-colored glasses.

There can be different definitions of one’s “first car”.  It can be the first one you actually purchased, or maybe it was bought for you.  It can be your first daily driver, perhaps handed down from an older sibling or extended family member.  It can be a daily driver you borrowed for an extended period.  But for a lifelong “car guy”, who inexplicably was completely obsessed with cars from the first vague memories and impressions of early childhood, the first family car or the first car you rode in a lot or was parked nearby, the one that actually left significant distinct impressions in your memory, well, that’s your “first car”.

My parents’ carport held two cars in the early ‘60s, and being a “Ford family”, they owned a small Ford sedan and a Ford station wagon.  Mom drove a 1960 Falcon two door, three-speed, in white.  I spent a lot of time in that car, but true to McNamara’s goal to produce basic, boring transportation, I have few specific memories of the thing, other than the basic look of it.  No vivid impressions or significant moments.

This car left no impression on me at all.

The other car, however, made many memories.  It was a cream and tan 1958 Ranch Wagon, two-door, V-8, and three-on-the-tree.  Cars are large things to tiny people, but the Ranch Wagon was a behemoth, dominating the garage, next to the puny Falcon.  It was long, wide, and high.  Now, for a young little person, things like road manners, performance figures, economy and repair items, the “hard core” part of the magazine road test, they are not part of the picture.  Instead, it is the odd impressions and observations on the margins of the magazine road test that make up the entirety of a little person’s perception of cars.  That, and the intoxicating sensations of motion and speed, while riding in cars, that’s what captivates “car guys” in their larval stages.

There were all sorts of visual cues to note on the Ranch Wagon, and a lot of them weren’t all that good, even in the eyes of a little car guy whelp.  The rear, in particular, had a lot going on that seemed odd.  The twin taillight assemblies on each side were elaborate things, sort of stuck on, way up there above a ton of curved sheet metal.  The way the taillight assemblies split in half, when Dad lowered the tailgate (it was too heavy for Mom to do it), was sort of intriguing.  So, too was a large, ornate crest on the tailgate latch.  That sort of thing was for kings and castles (and later, I realized, on Cadillacs), and having one stuck on this car, in particular, grew to seem a bit odd, in later evaluation.  Especially as the car was obviously basic, with what we now call dog dish hubcaps, with a couple of “Ford”s on them, in block letters on a white painted circle.  Also little chrome trim, and rubber floor mats in the interior.

Do stripper cars get heraldic crests?

The way the top half of the tailgate swung up to open, with the bottom half turned down, it looked like the car was hungry and wanted to eat something.

No way Mom was going to lift that heavy tailgate. It looks like a giant squid trying to eat small children.

The long side windows, without a metal break from the rear of the front door frame to the rear of the vehicle, somehow looked odd to me.  The neighbors had a white Pontiac wagon, four doors and a real beauty.  The windows were more regularly spaced and were framed with chrome, and looked a whole lot nicer than ours.  The vertical curve of the taillights was gorgeous.  The Ford looked very dumpy, next to that Pontiac.  Another neighbor had a top-of-the-line Chrysler wagon.  It was stylish and swanky in some rather weird ways, but it, too, seemed much nicer than the Ford.

The neighbors had a much cooler station wagon.


So did the other neighbors.

Not all was bad on the Ford.  The arch of the speedometer sweep was nice.  There was a ton of room for us kids to dive and climb around in it.  As a two-door, diving over the front seat back, to get in or out of the back seat, was the preferred method, and a lot of fun.  Mom and Dad did not worry about us “hurting” the car.  In fact, when it was time to go to 31 Flavors for ice cream, we always went in the wagon.  That’s because we could spill our desserts and make a mess, and no one cared.  We never went for ice cream in the “good” car.

Nice but minimal dashboard. The steering wheel, not so much.

Both of our cars were two-doors, while the friends’ and neighbors’ wagons were all four-doors.  Mom explained that they didn’t want us “falling out the door”.  That’s a great way to make a little kid anxious!  Every time I rode in the second seat of a neighbor’s four-door, I pushed myself as far to the center of the car as the seat belt and the other passengers would let me.  I was sure I was due to be a statistic, at any moment!

A bit too rusty and missing its hubcaps. The sedans didn’t have that big vertical gap between the taillights and the bumper.

The wagon was a bit scruffy, as the tan and cream paint had faded, with the tan part taking on a particularly pinkish hue.  I could wipe my hands on it, and get pink dust all over them (along with a dangerous helping of lead particles, most likely).  The three-on-the-tree shifter was a bit odd, to my eyes, as the neighbors’ cars had automatics, which appeared to be such a more logical way to go.  The shifting looked awkward in action, specifically the “back and up” one (first to second, or second to third?).  Mom explained that shift cars had “more power” and didn’t use “slush boxes”.   Mmm, sounds like discussion material for conversations with the other “car guys” in school.

No, you are not getting fuzzy eyes from too much station wagoning. That fuzzy shot is exactly the condition and look, being solid and complete, but just a bit faded and scruffy around the edges. 55 year old memories should be allowed to get a bit blurry.

Dad was also a “car guy” of sorts.  Not one who worked much on cars, or modified them.  Instead, he liked to drive distinctive or interesting cars.  Before he married up and had me, he drove a ‘57 T-Bird.  The wagon had the “T-Bird engine” (a Y-block of some size or another?).  We lived at the top of a steep hill at the ragged edge of San Diego suburbia.  The neighborhood was still mostly empty graded lots, as Convair, the big local employer, had cancelled its commercial passenger jet production, soon after the neighborhood had been started, and the builder went bankrupt as people stopped buying houses.  Mostly empty lots meant that there was little danger of kids darting out into the street unseen.  Racing the wagon downhill would have been suicide, given the skinny tires and drum brakes.  But flooring the throttle up the hill was quite fun, and don’t tell Mom, OK?

Dad sold this car when he started a family. That was a sacrifice! Can there be such a thing as a COAL drawn from prior to your own conception?

One other moment of anxiety surrounded that car.  Dad decided to drive up into the empty hills behind the neighborhood, on rough dirt Jeep trails, to collect some large rocks, with which he could landscape our empty, flat yard.  He took me along, probably to separate me from my little sister, and give Mom a break from the incessant fighting.  On the way out, we saw an inverted Square-Bird, full of bullet holes, and it was only a few years old.  I was sure we would roll over and join it, or vigilantes would hijack us, dump the car in the canyon, and shoot us.  In the real world, the car was likely either stolen and dumped, or wrecked by the owner, dumped, and then reported stolen.  In any case, I was distraught until we were back  down on hard asphalt roads again.

As a “car guy”, the wagon was a bit off-spec.  Our Falcon and wagon were not going to do for long, if we were going to keep up with the neighbors.  Time to trade in the cars for “nicer” ones.  Thus sets the stage for one of the three essential COALs of my life.  The wagon was sold, for peanuts, to a neighbor kid who put curtains in the back and made a hippie-mobile out of it.  He moved away or went off to college or something, and that was the last we saw of it.