Father’s Day Special: My Dad’s Family Car Upgrades Through the Decades

Our family was loyal to GM – given what GM had done for us.  My dad’s Father started his career with Charles H Chesney’s Studebaker, Chevrolet, and Oldsmobile dealership in Meriden, CT.   He spent his entire career selling Chevrolets, and eventually Chevrolets and Cadillacs, to the Irish communities of Central Connecticut – from the ‘20’s until the ‘60’s.   He was an early driver, and was able to have his initials on his license plate, by working it out with the Department of Motor Vehicles.  My family kept the EO65 license plate on our cars continuously until the 2000’s.

The family heirloom

My grandfather is in this photograph as a member of the Chevrolet 72 Car Club.  I could do a whole post on this sales regimen put together by GM, but basically any salesman in 1926-1928 who sold more than 72 cars in a year was sent to a celebratory event on the company.  These events occurred in Boston, Portland, Oregon, and this banquet pictured above took place at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.  The year or so after this, the threshold was raised and the club was upgraded to the “100 Car Club”.


He was successful, and for years he and my grandmother had a new Cadillac in their driveway every other year, until he died in 1967 – at which point my grandmother retained a pristine, white, 1966 Coupe DeVille for ten years – long enough so that its grandeur was seared into my memory as a young child in the mid-seventies.

My grandmother’s car was in better shape.


At some point my grandmother traded it in for a 1973 Pontiac Grand Ville hardtop with the biggest engine possible and the best brakes, because “that’s what he taught me to get”.

My grandmother’s car was a hardtop like this, but in the gorgeous metallic blue used that year.

This is that blue.

She was an impressive woman, with a nursing degree from Yale – from what I can tell, it appears that she anglicized her Irish name to get in, and she ran her own 20 bed nursing home in the south end of Hartford until she decided it was time to retire.

My grandmother’s graduating class, Yale School of Nursing, 1929.

That Grand Ville was her last car, when she chose to stop driving, I eventually inherited that beast of a car (with only 12,000 miles on it.).  Actually, I inherited cars from both grandmothers, but that is a story for another time…

Even though I was very allergic to her dogs and cats, I willingly suffered the visit to my grandmother’s every weekend, because she always had Dunkin Donuts waiting and, starting from an age of 5 or 6, started a lifelong addiction for me by complementing the Donuts with coffee sweetened with sugar and half&half, served in blue Wedgewood china.   That was really yummy and went well with a honey-dew donut, my favorite (glazed for most of the rest of America).  She would also have a tray of her amazing lasagna ready for us to take home to have for dinner that night. (A little secret – ALWAYS use hot Italian sausage instead of hamburger in the recipe.)

My family, from the left, my grandmother, my dad’s dad, my mom and my dad in 1962 in West Hartford, CT, after going to a restaurant.  All have passed on now.


My dad, an only child, always went to see his mom every Saturday, or occasionally Sunday if he had a conflict.  He moved us to the town next to her to ensure that he would be nearby in her widowhood.  He was very intelligent; a member of Mensa, and later into community theater.

He never finished college, and was annoyed at the beatniks who took for granted the opportunities they were given in the late sixties, and vowed his kids wouldn’t go (I rebelled, and followed in my grandmother’s footsteps).  Nonetheless, he graduated from an accounting school when that was still a thing and became a successful accountant, and a vice president of a local holding company that analyzed, bought and dismantled failing businesses.


As a young car nut, I asked my dad multiple times what his favorite car was, and without hesitation he would say it was his convertible 1964 Pontiac Catalina convertible – midnight blue with a baby blue top – that he bought new before I was born.

This is the only car on the web that I can find that remotely resembles the car my dad described.  He would swear that the car had a baby blue top over a midnight [nocturne] blue body, but I cannot find any evidence that they made them that way.  The boot for the top certainly came in blue, but I can only find white and black tops in images.


Old, now lost photos, showed me being brought home in a white 1962 Catalina.  I never remembered this car.

Closest car from the web that I could find.


The first cars I remember are my Dad’s 1967 Buick LeSabre coupe, in a color that I remember as closely resembling 1970’s “Burnished Saddle”…..

I thought the LeSabre looked really cool, its clean lines unadorned with extraneous ornament, and liked the subtle efforts at differentiation between the LeSabre, Electra, and Wildcat.  The rear windows rolled down too.

….and my mom’s 1969 metallic green Catalina Wagon – with the tail gate that could swing to the side or down.  I was absolutely seduced by their graceful design, and could tell from day one that they, and all the other GM products of that era, were just a little bit more refined – more artfully conceived – than the competition.

My mother’s car was a similar size and color to this one, but it was a Catalina without the vinyl roof, nor the third seat.  I loved the rear gate that could flip down or to the side – I thought that was cool.  This photo is taken at the Fall Rockville, MD Annual Car show.

My son is reenacting a family story about me (to send to my father at the time the photo was taken), from when I was a little younger than my son’s age in the photo.  In the early seventies we were coming back from the beach with another family on the highway, kids piled in back, and I decided to take my uncomfortable sandals off, which I hated, and throw them out the window at the car behind us, before anyone knew what I was doing, they were gone.


That wagon was great for a growing family in the late sixties, but it didn’t have air conditioning, so eventually my dad traded it in for my mom, and got her a 1974 Brown Buick Electra 225 hardtop with black vinyl seats and a black vinyl roof – theoretically perfect for the kids.  Oh, those black vinyl seats would sear our exposed legs in the summertime when we were wearing shorts, but the AC blew impressive amounts of frigid air and it only took a minute or two for the temperature to become perfect.

Another picture from the Rockville, MD car show, this time of a ’74 Buick Electra coupe, of the exact same color as my mom’s car.

This Electra hardtop is similar to my mom’s, although hers was a darker brown (see above) with a black vinyl top.

My dad had long gotten rid of the ’67 Buick, and was fortunate to receive a series of very nice company cars.  He had a ’70 baby blue Buick Riviera which he loved, which he had to give up when he switched jobs to a new, more lucrative employer who had more interesting work…..

….As part of the negotiations, he negotiated a car – a perk no one else had – but to make a point the new boss got him a tan 1976 Chevrolet Chevette.

I could tell this was a downgrade – both for my dad, but for GM as well – with Rubbermaid door panels – instead of the old soft padded doors and a perforated cardboard ceiling – instead of the tailored fabric and soft vinyl all earlier GM cars had.  However, I have fond memories of this car – he taught me how to work a manual in this car from the passenger seat at age 10 or 11 when he pressed the clutch, and I rowed the shifter.  My dad stoically soldiered on, and eventually his work cars upgraded every two years to a Dodge Omni (I shifted that one too!), an ’86 Chrysler LeBaron (auto), and then eventually to an ‘86 Buick Century Wagon.  We all knew he enjoyed the intellectual challenges of his job, and I was proud of him, and his boss more and more relied on him.

The savings on not having to buy a second car allowed my dad to upgrade my mom to a newer car.  Just like his dad, he wanted to get her a Cadillac.  Without telling any of us, he went and negotiated a deal at the local Pontiac/Cadillac dealer for a few years’ old 1979 salmon colored Sedan De’Ville (I’m guessing the color was ‘Western Saddle’)

I could tell he was proud when we arrived at the dealership – the whole family – my younger sister, my mom and twelve year old I, were led to the new Caddy in the front of the lot – we all sat in the new car with its warm orangy-red interior.  My sister and I piled into the back seat of the luxurious car.

This seat is very similar to my recollection of the back of that salmon Cadillac.

My mom was good with it, and I could tell a little pleased that my dad was treating her – we were all along for the ride, and this was my dad’s deal.  The salesman showing us the car, seeing all the smiles, could tell that he had a sale that day.  I noticed that he had a deformity in his right arm where he was missing his hand where it was oddly misshapen, but I surmised from seeing his proto-fingers that his deformity was a birth defect and not a result of service in Vietnam or some other mishap.  I thought, cruelly as a thirteen year old, that he probably had a job that suited him and I guessed, probably improperly, that the deformity probably got him some sympathy sales and aided his ability to negotiate.

The Pontiac/Cadillac dealership building after it closed, but a year before it was demolished.  It is a very impressive building design with a wafer-thin roof – must have been frigid in the winter.


Off to his office we went, to finish the deal.  We all sat around his desk, in a cheap wood paneled office after being led through an otherwise a lovely dealership with an Hexadecagon (16 sided) showroom with floor to ceiling plate glass windows, pine ceilings,  and glulam composite wood beams/columns, with all the new Pontiacs in the center of the showroom.  Workers were directed to transfer the plates from the old Buick to the new Sedan DeVille.  My dad had rotated the keys for the Electra off of his key ring, placing them on the salesman’s desk, and was transferring the keys for the Cadillac onto his key ring while reviewing the three-layer form contract white over yellow over pink.  I recalling the salesman fumbling with pens and paperwork – using both arms, but really only able to grasp things with his left hand – holding papers with his right forearm against his chest.  This was a big purchase for us – I think the car was over $11-12K at the time.


“What’s this $27.34 for?”

“That’s for the required insurance”

“I said I didn’t want the insurance”

“It’s required”

“If it’s required why is there a box that I can check to say that I do not want it?”

“Well we’re required by our bank”

“Who’s your bank?”


“Let’s call them.  I know a vice-president over there.”

“Listen, for $27 I’ll pay it out of my own pocket.”

“I do not want you to pay it out of your pocket.  It’s not fair to you, and it is not fair to me.  I want the deal we agreed upon.”

Out of nowhere, the general manager for the dealer shows up.  This was very odd – my Dad’s voice was never raised, and there was no outward sign of trouble or difficulty.  I was prompted to look under the desk/table – and being a kid, this goes unnoticed.  There is a white wire running up the leg of the desk leading to what looks like a microphone.  Now I couldn’t say for sure that it was a microphone, but I was a big fan of James Bond and Spy vs Spy at the time…

Where my thoughts went…


The General Manager repeats the story that they are required by the bank to include the $27 insurance.  The exact same conversation that happened with the salesman then repeats with the General Manager.

I still to this day do not know exactly when the point of no return was crossed for my father, but it was clearly before I realized that the deal was dead.  The realization for me that the deal was over was when my dad began sliding the keys of the Cadillac off of his key chain and putting the keys for the Buick back on.  My mother gave him a surprised look, but did not challenge him.  I should say, at home, she ruled the roost, but here, again, this was his deal.


“We already transferred the plates.”

“Transfer them back.”

And that was it.  We all drove back home in the Buick.

The ride was silent at first, but then slowly my dad and mom opened up.  “Did you see how quickly the manager came – I bet the place was bugged!! – my dad said.”  And then I happily described what I saw under the table, to which my mom and dad laughed.  “Glad we didn’t do business with those people.”




My dad was so perturbed at the experience that he called his vice-president friend at Liberty Bank the following day, and told him his story.  He was informed that there was no requirement for insurance.  Hah!

Within the month he took us to a different dealership.  It had Lincoln, Mercury, and a few other odd foreign makes.  I still remember the bright orange-yellow Fiat spider in the lobby, along with the Mercurys – Cougars, Zephyrs, a Mustang based Capri, and an uninspiring Escort based Lynx, which was very new at the time.  My twelve year old self was not impressed (although in a few years – once I was driving –  I’d have reason to experience a few of these vehicles).

This time, we didn’t even sit in an office to close the deal – just switched cars.  My dad dealt directly with the owner, who was very professional, personable, and I could tell that he was a civic leader.  He might have even been connected to my Dad through the banker.  The Buick was gone, and we upgraded to Ford’s 1980 version of luxury.

Our Car’s doppelganger, White, with the turbine wheels.

We all agreed this car was way better than the Cadillac.  It had a Moonroof that would slide with the press of a button!  And a killer ‘Premium sound system’ that could be cranked up loudly with all the windows open.

The interior we had was a similar red.

And keyless entry buttons and a plush red velour interior.  Courtesy lights for every seat!  It even came with a cassette from the Ford Motor Company with pre-programmed music – “Stereo for the ‘80s!”.  It didn’t have the LED dashboard with the ‘trip computers’, but it wasn’t long before I realized that analog was way better.  My Dad popped into the player that Ford tape cassette and cranked up the ‘Theme from Peter Gunn’ on the way home – with all the windows down and the moonroof open  – back in the day he always had wanted a Mark – those Mark III’s were really nice – and now that they had a 4 door version, this year-old one – looking like the new ones did for the next 3 years – would do just fine for his family.

Ford’s great family album of the early ’80s