I have been a car nut for many years. In America this is a common enough enthusiasm, but I think I came by it in a somewhat unusual way. In the first place, I developed my interest later than most boys do, later than those who are going to develop an interest, that is. At the outset, I actually resisted cars and driving. When I took Driver Education my sophomore year, I would rather have forgone the pleasure. I did poorly in the course, and I drove little and unwillingly for nearly a year after that. In the second place, when I finally did become interested, it was primarily in old and odd cars, long before I paid much attention to the new and the glitzy.
Consider, for example, my first car. In September 1957, my dad found a 1926 Ford for sale at a price that was right and brought it home. It was nobody’s idea of practical transportation, a toy, but my dad had the family car on the road all week so I drove the old Ford a surprising number of miles. I like to brag that I am probably the only person of my generation who can claim to have learned to drive in a Model T. Sometime during the two or three years I owned the Ford and ministered unto its various mechanical infirmities, I was bitten by the bug.
I think, though, I had been “primed” some ten years earlier by the first car, an old one even then, that ever impressed me. I don’t mean the first car I remember — that distinction belongs to our green 1941 Hudson — but the first one that really impressed me.
In first and second grades I attended a private school in a large Midwestern city. The Academy, located as it was on Summit Avenue, was considered to be the city’s best, to offer advantages that no other school did. One of the main advantages was school-provided transportation for first and second graders who lived more than a mile and a half away. And that was an important advantage, for my dad (even then) had the family car on the road all week, and between our house and The Academy lay Selby Avenue, then a main arterial.
The transportation provided was in the form of The Coach. It was a Packard limousine, the kind with the extra set of folding seats rearward facing in the backseat area and a partition with roll-up window between passenger compartment and driver’s compartment. The rear seats were done with a gray ribbed wool cloth of some sort, the front with leather. I remember the inside best, its smells of hot oil and old grease in summer, of wet wool and damp dust in winter. The car must have pre-dated defrosters, for a plastic frost-shield glued to the inside if the windshield and a small fan bolted to the wood-grained art-deco dash provided all the view to the outside that the driver had in the coldest weather. The chauffeur was a small man, or else the steering wheel and floor-mounted gearshift were enormous; I think the latter.
I can’t remember its outward appearance well enough to be certain of model or year. It must certainly have been either a Super 8 or a 12. I think it was a 1937 or 1938. I know that it was “Brewster” green, a shade so dark as to appear almost black, but with deep, deep color in full sunlight. It had side mount spares.
We lived in an upstairs apartment then, and in the morning I would stand in the cold and dark at the bottom of the stairs looking around the edge of the lace curtains that always smelled of the city’s coal smoke. Pretty soon The Coach would glide up, its big headlights shining yellow in the new snow. Then off through the dark city, brick, cobblestone, and deep ice-ruts rumbling somewhere underneath the big car. Between home and school, the sun would rise and break through the winter haze, the loud orange light ringing off the red brick walls, the black slate and green copper roofs of the “failed monuments” of Summit Avenue, glaring from the blank windows of houses arrayed up and down the river hills, saturating with Kodachrome fire the iron of ornate street lamps and the icy tracery of bare trees. Sometimes in the middle of High Bridge, fog would obscure both banks, and with no trusses or cables overhead for reference, the car would seem suspended in space for a few moments. And on the coldest of mornings, there was nothing to see outside, only the frost feathers that covered all the glass of the car save for the one small hole the chauffeur peered through, sitting rigid in his grey uniform and white gloves.
And maybe twice a winter, The Coach would come in the afternoon and carry us down the long treacherous chute of Ramsey Hill to Municipal Auditorium for a matinee performance of the St. Paul Symphony. I remember on one such afternoon the thick spring snow like an explosion of feathers, The Coach waiting at the curb, the snow melting and turning to steam on that long hood that always seemed to stretch out there in perfect perspective to the vanishing point of some picture-road. Mothers brought family cars to help with the transportation on such occasions, but I always ran for The Coach. What Buick or Chrysler could compare?
It was an old car even when I knew it, so that when I got my Model T years later, old cars already had a sort of romance for me. I didn’t know anything about cars when I was in first grade, but I knew class when I saw it. The Coach was an old car then, a relic from the world of Summit Avenue, White Bear Country Club, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, not long in his grave. It was the first car, old or new, ever to impress me.