By Bruce Nelson
I have always been interested in cars. The first car I remember my folks having when I was young was a '49 ford. I remember the seat covers that my dad installed, I remember the flathead 6 and the overdrive. I guess I was about 3 or 4 years old. I remember the next car my folks had much more vividly. It was a '53 Studebaker 2-door, known now as a lowboy styled by famous designer Raymond Lowey. I really remember that car. In about 1959 it started to have front end problems, it would shimmy badly and the driver would have to push the brakes and turn the wheel to stop the problem. I'm not sure why I remember this, but I looked at the operation of the front end to see how it worked just to try to understand why it did this. I was about 5 or 6 at the time. When I got a little older all I wanted to read were car magazines. All my friends were reading Mad magazine or comics. I recall at about the age of 10 on being excited as September rolled around each fall. That's when the new cars were released. I would be in town with my friends and I'd make them go with me to check out the new cars. I'd pick up all the sales pamphlets and take them home. All the cars that impressed me were seen hanging on the walls of my room for the model year.
Anyway, I guess what I'm trying to get across is that I fit into a category of people with a less than healthy interest in our basic transportation. Most people in the world find their car to be nothing more than their best choice of transportation until it requires replacement. Car people, of which I am one, find the car to be much more than that. When I read, which is a fair amount, I read about the people who molded the automotive industry. Most people would be bored to tears, but I scour the bookstores and the Internet trying to find these books to fill my need to learn as much as possible about cars and the development of the industry. Most people won't understand this fixation with a mechanical device. As I said, most drivers find that a car that is good quality, economical, stylish and ergonomically correct is the perfect car. A car person is much different. The car is an extension of his personality. As an example, I know I would be to embarrassed to drive a car that is less than what that car is supposed to represent. A convertible must be flashy, a muscle car must look and sound like one, a sports car must look like it' ready to race. I don't mind driving a car that needs to be restored, as long as it' original. I had a Datsun 240-Z a while back. It was starting to rust, needed paint and a restoration, but was a very collectable and sought after car. I showed the car and drove it in a few rallys. It had "slot mag" wheels and a spoiler on the back. Both items were dealer installed when new. If, for instance, the car had an aftermarket sunroof or fender flares, which are quite common modifications on these cars. I probably would not have even driven it. That is a difficult thing to explain to people.
When you go to most car shows, the cars that are on display are cars people drive, not just show. Most are like mine, they look good, unless you really get close, then you see the imperfections. To people who show cars, it' the surface, the first impression that is the most important. As I said, their car is an extension of their personality. So just being seen in your car that you are proud of is important to you. What possible purpose does driving a convertible provide, other than flash? The cars of the 50s and 60s made the most of this. What driver really needed a "hardtop", a "continental kit" or wide white wall tires? Nobody really needed these things to get from point a to point b, they needed these things to get there in style and be seen in a car with these things.
In the teens and 20s, the reason a customer would buy a new vehicle had to do with the engineering advancements of a new car. In the 20s and 30s General Motors figured out that it was less expensive to change the styling of a car from year to year than it was to re-engineer the mechanics. Alfred Sloan, long time president of General Motors was first to see enough importance in this idea that he hired a body designer from California named Harley Earl, you may have seen his likeness in recent Buick adds, to head up an until then non-existent styling dept. Alfred Sloan felt that it was important that all cars changed styling each year, and that the average customer should find his car to be obsolete every three years. This was most apparent during the 50s and 60s. This styling change, if nothing else, made the manufacturers very competitive. Also many styling cues came from this. Tailfins, convertibles, hardtops, dagmars (bumper extensions) and excessive chrome trim all came out of this era.
I believe, that a lot of the interest that I have in cars came from the yearly cycle of styling change. I recall when from 100 ft. away, I could tell the year, make and model of most cars. I still can with older cars. The current cars not only look rather similar, but may not have a change in styling for 10 or 15 years or more. The Honda' and Subaru' of today may be the finest quality and most sensible cars on the road. But to a car person, they don't exude the necessary flash. The car person would usually prefer a Mustang or Miata or something that makes less sense, but provides the wanted effect.
The articles I will write over the next weeks will, I hope, help people to see my views on automobiles from a car person' point. I hope we both learn something, and I can keep you interested. I would love to hear responses to my articles.
Thanks, Bruce Nelson
Last Update: 07/24/03