Sociologists and historians have written at length about the impact that widespread access to automobiles has had on American society. In the time of prosperity following World War II the access to automobiles now enjoyed by millions of average Americans changed completely the patterns of life of men and women in countless ways, too many to record here and it is not the purpose of this author to record them anyway. I am writing not a history but a story and this story revolves around the influence that the automobile had on one group of American society and that group is teenage children, and within group one child in particular: Me.
It is not an overstatement to write that ownership of a car of one’s own was the holy grail of teenage boys in the 1950’s and first half of the 1960s. Actual ownership of a car by a kid was still something of a novelty then, but the movies in the 50s and the music of the 60s set that ownership as the apex of desire for any American teen. “Rebel Without A Cause” was a movie which was released in 1955, and James Dean driving a stolen 1949 Mercury towards a cliff in a game of ‘chicken’ made every kid who watched it long for a ride of his own to go with his leather jacket, his comb for that hair held perfectly in place by some brand of pomade, and Old Spice after shave that would make him irresistibly cool.
Brad, my brother, is four years older than me and was deeply influenced by “Rebel”. The first car which Brad owned was a 49 Merc, the car that James Dean was driving in the movie. Brad was somewhat boisterous in his youth and he and the car fit into the rebel picture very nicely. Brad’s Merc was not nice and new and shiny like James Dean’s was however. The car, which was affectionately nicknamed the ‘Taco Wagon’, had a lot of hard miles on it and needed a good deal of maintenance to keep it running. Brad was up to the task. I frequently found Brad in the old wooden garage behind our house with parts of that car spread out all over the concrete floor. I was amazed then that Brad could keep track of all of those parts, knew how they worked and where they went, and could put them there.
Not only could Brad manage that feat of auto mechanics magic but so could nearly all of Brad’s friends. It was expected of a teenage boy that he should be able to maintain a car, even if he didn’t personally own one since many didn’t, and the road to any kind of status ran through a greasy pair of hands. I was twelve years old the summer that Brad had that car, and technically was not yet a teen. That was small comfort however since my friends Wes and Larry and Hank were my age and already doing tune-ups and oil changes and stuff like that for their brothers or fathers or other older kids in the neighborhood. I had neither the ability to screw with cars nor interest in learning how to do so, but I could feel the pressure to conform even then.
That pressure ratcheted up one day when Brad and four or five of his friends had the Taco Wagon torn apart and were planning to grill some hot dogs or something when they were finished. The price for a dinner of whatever they were going to cook was a pair of greasy hands, and just grabbing ahold of a crankshaft or sticking one’s hands into the oil pan was not what the older guys had in mind. I stood by the front fender and looked over it into the yawning cavity that was the engine compartment, then looked at the collection of metal parts and wires and hoses which littered the concrete floor, and knew that there was absolutely nothing I could do that would add in any way to the project at hand. Brad was not all that keen on a little brother getting under foot anyway, so I made a lame excuse and then quit the building, trying not to hear the chuckles and snickers as I left, and climbed into the tall pine tree in our front yard. That tree was a place where I hid from the unpleasantness of the world on many occasions in my young life, and it was to that refuge I fled on that day.
A few years passed and the status of the car in teen life changed but became on weaker. Music was now the medium by which youth culture expressed and defined itself and that culture was filled with cars. “Little Deuce Coupe”, “I’ve got a thirty Ford wagon and they call it a woody—“,”She’ll have fun, fun, fun, ’till her daddy takes the T Bird away—“. Even some little old lade from Pasadena had a muscle car of her own, but what could I do? Not much. I loved beach sound music but the Beach Boys sang of their car which had a flat head mill and was ported and relieved and stroked and bored and had a competition clutch with four on the floor and even had lake pipes. Out of all that stuff I knew what ‘four on the floor’ meant, but to this day I don’t know what all of that other crap was.
But most of the other guys did. Peter had a Chevy Malibu with a lot of that high performance stuff. Gabby had a 55 Chevy and Bruce, of all things, had a slightly beat up but still extremely impressive Corvette. This gave Peter and Gabby a considerable leg up with the ladies at school and in our neighborhood, and also their closer friends who knew what all of those contraptions were and what they did. Bruce was such a worm and a loser that he could have had a Ferrari and it would have done him no good.
There was one thing in life that I could count on, and that was that I would never own a car as a teen. My father would not let me work to earn the money for a car unless I received straight ‘A’s in the academic classes at my high school, and that was going to happen, like, never. My consolation prize was that I had a fair amount of access to Dad’s 1963 Mercury Meteor. That Meteor did not have a competition clutch or any of that other stuff but the little car with the little engine and the automatic transmission gave me mobility, and that was worth gold. But status, real status, depended upon one’s ability to race, to burn rubber in all four gears, and all of that. That was not going to happen in Dad’s Meteor. I did get a microscopic amount of rubber one time however. I put the shifter into neutral and revved up the engine, and then dropped the shifter into drive. The little bit of sound which the tires made as they broke traction with the pavement was only slightly more audible than the sound of pain coming out of the transmission. To this day I wonder why I didn’t leave a trail of broken tranny parts behind us as I rolled down the street, away from the scene of my dubious triumph.
Many of my friends had no wheels at all, and when I could get the car keys they would all climb in, somewhere away from where Dad could see them, and we would act like we were as cool as the guys with hot cars. One night we wanted to see a movie at a drive-in theater but most of the guys didn’t have the money to buy a ticket. I finally arrived at a solution to the problem. At that time guys with serious muscle cars had the front end lowered while gigantic engines which were stroked and bored and blah blah blah would hiss as they sucked in oxygen that would complete the combustion somewhere in its metal innards and make the car go like a bat out of hell. I had three or four of the guys climb into the trunk of the car, which lowered the rear end instead of the front, and removed the air cleaner which made the car hiss like Gollum cursing hobbitses as he searched for his precious. The guy at the ticket booth either didn’t notice or couldn’t believe the idiocy of this obvious bit of subterfuge, but we got into the movie and had a good laugh about the whole thing.
The teenage love affair with cars had changed by the time I returned home from the Army. The 60s were bleeding, literally, into the 70s and music was pretty much all about peace, love, revolution and getting high. Cars were not even on the list of accessories needed to achieve coolness. In fact, the older and more beat up your car, the more pizzaz it had with the trend-setting counter culture bunch that I identified with. In those days I drove my old gray 1961 Dodge Lancer with the push button transmission and the evil hiss from a leaking hose somewhere under the hood and felt like I had finally, at long last, come into my own.