Riding in the Rear Deck

By the time my first child was born in 1986, we had already purchased a baby seat for the car. It had become law here in Arkansas a couple of years earlier that children under the age of two would be strapped in.

But go back about twenty years (from 1986, that is), and the only protection small children had going down the highway was the sheer mass of the vehicles in which they were traveling.

Many of us Boomers fondly recall gas for less than thirty cents a gallon, and consequently drive economical cars today. My ride of choice to get to work (25 miles away) is a 1992 Toyota Tercel which has a new engine and gets 35-40 MPG. Four men at each corner could probably lift it off the ground.

But go back to JFK’s era, and cars were HUGE!

Like I have mentioned in previous columns, dad was on a Plymouth kick in the 60’s and early 70’s. We would go to the same car dealership in Neosho, Missouri every other year, and would once again be treated to new car smell on the drive home.

And the Furys that dad liked all had one thing in common: that sloping rear window that allowed a kid to lay there and soak up the sunshine. Or possibly the starlight, if we were driving back to Miami from Joplin on a Saturday night after dining in Mickey Mantle’s restaurant.

I used to lay back there and periodically roll down into the expansive back seat. It was great fun. And we would be speeding down I-44 at 75 MPH the whole time. No, it wasn’t child neglect. It was life in the 60’s.

I like to go to old car shows and marvel at the sheer size of the vintage vehicles. I sat in a 1950 Pontiac coupe recently. Though the car only had two doors, the back seat was the size of a single bed. No wonder drive-ins were so popular back then! 😉 The glove compartment alone was big enough to hold a twelve-pack of beer.

Times have changed in so many ways. Cars are smaller, more fuel-efficient, and laden with passive and active restraint devices. Babies and toddlers are cocooned in their own little worlds of safety in the back seat. But we Boomers remember when a kid’s place was the rear deck!

Wing Vent Windows

1965 Ambassador wing vent window

Anybody up for a good conspiracy theory? The makers of automobile air conditioners have teamed up and made wing vent windows disappear!

Hey, it’s a little plausible. After all, I remember a dramatic difference in the interior temperature of a big Plymouth when those vent windows were opened to blast wind into your surroundings at 60 MPH.

Wing vents had all sorts of uses. I really miss them.

I don’t miss that whistling noise that would inevitably appear as your vehicle aged, though.

So, what was a vent window good for? I remember watching cigarette smoke miraculously get sucked out of the barely-cracked wing vent as mom would drive down the road. Every trace of smoke went straight for that vent window.

It was also perfect for sticking a seven-year-old foot through on a hot summer day.

And then there’s access to a locked vehicle. My first car was a 1965 Falcon. I remember leaving my keys in the ignition once with the doors locked. No prob. A strategically placed pocket knife blade pried up the vent window’s locking lever and I was able to reach in and grab the keys.

Yeesh. It’s a wonder nobody stole my $29.95 underdash eight-track player.

If your wing vent was unlockable from the outside, it was also the cheapest window to break if all else failed.

Wing vent window on a pickup

There’s no doubt about it, though. The air blast you got from wide open wing vents on a hot summer day when your thrifty Norwegian father was driving down the road with the air conditioner turned off kept you cool. And if another window was open, it also kept the interior of your car completely free of small lightweight objects.

Wing vents disappeared gradually. The 1968 Camaros and Firebirds were released without vent windows. Hey, who needed them when you had Astro Ventilation and 29 cent gas?

See, I told you it was those A/C manufacturers behind all of this! 😉

As the 70’s went on, more and more carmakers did away with the diminutive windows. My 1973 Celica didn’t have them. However, Toyota did put them in pickups until well into the 80’s.

Today, though, there is nary a vent window to be seen. Lock your keys in the car and you’re better of forking over 50 or more bucks to a locksmith than breaking a big window. And it just doesn’t seem as cool inside on a hot summer day with regular windows rolled down.

Curse that A/C manufacturing cartel!

When Food Was Delivered on Roller Skates

Carhop on skates

Going to a drive-in for a meal of burgers and fries was fun for a Boomer kid in a whole lot of ways. First of all, a hamburger, fries, and a shake tasted like heaven. Second, eating in the car was a blast. And thirdly, your food was deliverd by a cute teenaged girl on roller skates.

How much better could life get?

It all started back in 1921. Automobiles were beginning to be a ubiquitous sight in Dallas, Texas. A businessman named J.G. Kirby and a physician by the name of R.W. Jackson decided to take advantage of the fact that many people owned cars, and that many of them were also lazy, too lazy to get out of their cars to eat. They opened a restaurant called the Pig Stand.

Do you get the idea that these guys didn’t think a lot of their customers?

A&W, which began business in 1919, soon followed suit as drive-in restaurants became more and more popular. The A&W corporate website actually claims to have opened the first carhop restaurant in 1923, but Pig Stands had male carhops from their inception.

Soon, carhop-delivered food could be obtained in drive-ins all over the country. A particular hotspot was the Los Angeles area, a haven for car owners even in the early part of the century. L.A. probably had more drive-ins than any other urban location in the first half of the century.

Flash forward to the 1950’s. Drive-in restaurants had a population explosion, as fathers who fought in WWII were looking for places to take their families out to dinner that didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Drive-ins filled the bill perfectly, as moms loved getting a break from cooking, and kids, well as I mentioned before, they loved drive-ins for a variety of reasons.

Car window tray

You would pull up to the drive-in, and a carhop would come skating out to take your order. Then, she would glide back into the restaurant, beauty in motion on eight wheels. Perhaps fifteen minutes later, she would return, carrying your order on a tray that was made to fit perfectly on your father’s window rolled up about two inches. Then, dad would distribute the hot, sweetly aromatic, paper-wrapped delicacies amongst the other inhabitants of the Plymouth.

I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted anything as delicious as carhop-delivered-French fries, circa 1967.

Drive-in restaurants with carhop-delivered food have declined since that golden Eisenhower decade. But they still exist. And the ones that are still around are doing quite well, thank you.

The one with the best food, IMHO, is In-N-Out, an L.A.-based chain that stretches as far east as Vegas, whose franchise unfortunately doesn’t feature carhops. But I remember carhop service at one in Azusa, California, about 25 years ago. Other chains that are still around (and that still have carhops in at least some of their locations) include Sonic, Dog-N-Suds, and the aforementioned A&W.

Some independents still have their carhops on skates. Workman’s comp costs have put the rest on sneakers.

So here’s to a cute teenaged girl bringing you your burgers, fries, and malts on a tray to your car window. For pete’s sake, leave her a tip, would you?

When Cars Were BIG

The cavernous trunk of a 59 Chevy

It was a curious situation in the days of our youth. Roads, as a rule, were narrower than today, particularly the state two-lane highways that connected small towns. Yet the cars that traveled them were HUGE compared to today’s models.

Yet, our parents maneuvered those massive hulks around the tight curves without a second thought. And the interiors of those automobiles contained enough cubic feet of space to allow a kid tremendous freedom to move around inside on long trips.

Automobiles started out small. The Model T and Model A were basically compact cars. But as the years wore on, BIG became the trend. By the late 1930’s, cars typically weighed over 3000 pounds. They were made of thick steel that took some serious force to dent, as well.

The cars that we rode around in circa 1966 had spacious bench seats, frequently covered with clear plastic. Riding up front and sitting between your parents was no challenge at all. There was plenty of room. By the previously mentioned year, there were likely seat belts that were shoved, unused, between the seat cushions. So your freedom of movement was completely unhindered. In fact, I remember repeatedly jumping from the front seat to the back while speeding down the Interstate at 70 mph.

The back seat was large enough for seven-year-old-me to stretch out and have a couple of inches of space between my body and the armrests. It was a sweet feeling to fall asleep and wake up to find that were were a hundred and fifty miles closer to our destination.

1950 Pontiac, with a glove compartment big enough to hold a twelve-pack!

The trunks were huge, as well. There was plenty of room for a full-sized 15″ spare tire to reside beneath the trunk’s floor, and enough cubic footage was left for several full-sized suitcases to be stacked on top.

There was a tremendous amount of steel, plastic, rubber, and glass in each self-contained boat that traversed the roads of that era. They were even bigger in the 50’s. I recently sat in a 1953 Pontiac Coupe, and was astonished at the sheer size of the thing. The glove compartment alone was big enough to hold a twelve-pack. The back seat was as big as a twin bed. And, no doubt, it had probably been used for that very purpose a time or two over the last fifty years ;-).

Of course, the large size of the cars extended all the way to the rear deck, my preferred residing spot on those road trips of the Johnson era.

Cars generally stayed big through the 70’s, but began shrinking by the end of the decade. Today, it’s difficult to find a new vehicle that matches the wheelbase and weight of a typical 60’s car. In fact, I happily drive a Toyota Tercel the 25 miles I commute to work, enjoying the 35+ miles per gallon it provides. It weighs about half as much as that 54 Pontiac. My “full-size” car is a Toyota Camry that’s about the size of a 67 Chevelle, considered a small car in its time.

But we who remember JFK also recall a time when big cars were the norm, and our fathers managed to motor them down some pretty narrow highways at high rates of speed.

When Cars Had Hood Ornaments

Packard hood ornament

We Boomers saw the decline, fall, and disappearance of many things during our lifetimes. One of these once-familiar sights that has become much more rare is the hood ornament.

Once upon a time, hood ornaments graced the exposed radiator caps of cars built in the 30’s and 40’s. They were often exquisite art deco creations, and are, of course, avidly sought after by collectors.

But as radiator caps disappeared, hood ornaments continued to hold a proud position on the cars our parents drove. And we kids of the 50’s and 60’s were used to seeing twenty-year-old automobiles, complete with hood ornaments that defined the era.

For example, flying ladies typified the 30’s and 40’s. Airplanes began to appear in the 40’s, to be displaced by jets in the 50’s.

As the 60’s debuted and wore on, hood ornaments began to vanish from mainstream automobiles. Where once every model of car seemed to be graced by one, now they were by and large becoming status symbols of cars with a reputation for luxury.

The 1958 Chevy Bel-Air, beginning to show the longer, sleeker lines that would typify the 60’s, was released with a hood ornament conspicuously absent. It was a sign of things to come.

Ford Fairlane hood ornament

By the time I was around and beginning to remember things, my father’s Plymouth had nothing but smooth metal on its hood. Ornaments were found on those funny looking fat cars from the 50’s.

Buick, for one, continued to put ornaments on many of its models. So did Cadillac. The writing was on the wall: hood ornaments were no longer for the general masses. Now, they would have a home on more prestigious automobiles.

Somewhere along the line, litigation reared its hideous head. Pedestrians who were hit by cars with hood ornaments were badly injured. The few hood-mounted sculptures installed at the factory were either removed by automakers, or

Chevy hood ornament

spring-loaded.

It seems to me that if a pedestrian is hit by a car, the issue of whether or not a hood ornament is present is among the more minor worries that he has. But lawyers have gotten wealthy by exploiting the damage specifically done by the device, so things have changed as a response.

But hood ornaments have never disappeared. Of course, the Beemers, Mecedes’,and Rolls Royces of the world are still adorned, but more mundane vehicles also might spot the occasional piece of metallic art, thanks to aftermarket producers.

J.C. Whitney in particular has a large variety of affordable hood ornaments. For the more luxury-minded, you can get an ornament from mascots unlimited, the same folks who supply decorations to the automobiles that British royalty motor around in on the wrong side of the road.

But try as you might, you just can’t return to the days when cars were huge, boxy, and sported sleek, jet-shaped hood ornaments.

When Cars Had Fins

1960 Cadillac tail fins

I was born in 1959, when fins were at their peak. From the massive vertical fins of the 59 Plymouth to the low sleek ones on the 59 Chevy, fins were everywhere in this era.

The thing about fins was that they were actually more common in my childhood years of the mid to late 60’s than the late 50’s. That’s because there were lots of late 40’s-early 50’s vintage cars on the road in 1959 whose rounded shapes were in direct contrast to the knife-edged fins that ran on either side of the trunk.

The 1960’s models saw fins shrink, but they were still there. So fins could be seen all over the highways when my mind started permanently filing things away in my memory banks about the time the Beatles stopped touring.

The Plymouth Fury was introduced in 1956. Not only did it come with some beautiful fins, it also hit 149 miles an hour at Daytona! This was one mean way to get around town.

Soon, fins were seen on Caddys, Fords, Chevies, Pontiacs, and everyone else who survived the automobile industry’s reduction years of the 50’s. The rounded look was gone, not to return until the 90’s.

My dad was partial to Plymouths. Their fins were gone by the time I started remembering individual cars about 1966. But I’m sure he must have owned finned vehicles before that. Later in life, he invested in a 1961 Caddy convertible that sat in the garage. That big monster had some nicely subdued fins. I can’t remember when he sold it, it must have happened after I left home.

1959 Plymouth

Why were fins all the rage in the late 50’s-early 60’s? It was our parents’ rebellion against growing older. The WWII generation was now approaching their thirties and forties, and we all know what that does to you. So a sleeker, jet-age car did much to stave off the thought that you were getting to the age that you remembered your parents being!

The senior statesmen amongst us Baby Boomers may well have owned the beautifully finned cars in their youth. After all, a 56 Fury was quite affordable by the time 1964 had rolled around. And if the engine was in decent shape, it was also still extremely fast!

Of course, I was just a kid. My first car, a 1966 Falcon, was far from a finned speed machine. And practically everything I owned after that was either made in Japan or Germany. So, sadly, the finned era passed my by.

But if you remember JFK, I’ll bet you also remember outrageously huge cars festooned with fins that made them look more like space ships that mere mundane automobiles.

When Unleaded Gas Appeared

Sign seen on gas pumps of the 60’s

Leaded gasoline was born in 1921. GM researchers had been testing fuel blends since 1916, trying to stop engine knock. The problem was early, non-uniform detonation of fuels in the engine cylinder. Left unchecked, it could quickly ruin an engine.

So lead was added to the mixture at the refinery, knock problem solved.

Lead poisoning has been known to medical science since 100 BCE, when Greek writings described it.

Somehow, the harmful effects of spewing lead vapor into the atmosphere eluded the GM engineers. So leaded gasoline became the standard, and untold billions of gallons were burned over the years.

That process began to be reversed in 1975, when new vehicles were mandated to burn gasoline that didn’t contain lead. That year, unleaded gasoline showed up at the neighborhood gas station.

If you put leaded gas into a car that had a catalytic converter (which all unleaded vehicles possessed), it would quickly be rendered ineffective. You would be spraying pure pollutants into the atmosphere. That was bad.

So unleaded cars came with narrowed-down filler necks. Likewise, unleaded gas nozzles were narrower than their leaded-dispensing counterparts. So, the theory was, you would never put leaded gas into your vehicle by mistake.

Wrong.

First of all, a populace that didn’t like the idea of paying more for a fuel that had an ingredient LEFT OUT, and they rebelled. The most obvious solution was to rout out the restricted filler neck with a chisle or the like. Ugly, but effective. You could quickly bid adieu to your catalytic converter with a couple of fill ups of leaded gas.

Another device that was sold in numbers of thousands was a little neck-down sleeve that would fit onto the end of a leaded gas nozzle. It would allow the leaded fuel to be dispensed into an unleaded tank.

Early unleaded gas pump

Either way, a very large number of cars that would ostensibly burn cleaner were not given the chance, because of unleaded fuel’s two or three cents-per-gallon higher cost.

Hey, don’t blame ME. I had a 1973 Toyota Celica in those days. The manufacturer actually recommended burning unleaded, so I did!

However, the bypassers soon noted degraded performance of mileage and power from their doctored vehicles, so within a couple more years, everyone was burning unleaded as directed.

Leaded gas finally pretty much disappeared from the US market in 1986. It was still available for a time for off-road use, but low demand caused it to vanish. A 1994 study showed that US blood-lead levels declined by 78 percent from 1978 to 1991.

Today, the familiar “Contains lead” signs are collectors’ items. So are the neck-down “emergency” fill up aids. But we, and our kids and grandkids, have one less thing to worry about as our bodies walk around with much less lead in them than before.

The Plymouth Superbird

Lime green Plymouth Superbird

The year was 1970. The place was sleepy Bentonville, Arkansas, population 5,000 or so. I must have been sitting in our 1965 Chevy pickup which my father had purchased shortly after moving us from our house on a city block in Miami, Oklahoma to a 250-acre farm located 15 miles from Bentonville.

Ten years old, I had recently started paying attention to fast cars, thanks to getting into the brand-new phenomenon known as Mattel Hot Wheels. Thus, I was able to spot and differentiate the subtle differences between a Camaro and a Firebird, or the more obvious ones between a Barracuda and a Cougar.

But that day, so long ago, my ten-year-old jaw dropped. There, cruising up highway 71 in front of a big empty field that would one day hold a Wal-Mart Supercenter, was an unearthly-looking wonderful lime-green Plymouth Superbird.

There were a plethora of fast cars produced during Detroit’s muscle car era. Many of them concealed their horsepower under the ruse of a standard-looking vehicle, the better to avoid frequent stops by the law. But then there was the Superbird: a hedonistic thumb to the nose at conventionality. What an amazing machine for a ten-year-old kid to see tooling through the streets of a small town.

The Superbird came about because of Richard Petty and NASCAR. In 1970, NASCAR vehicles were basically souped-up versions of cars you could buy from your local dealers. Petty had begun driving a Road Runner with a streamlined nose and a big spoiler that aided greatly in keeping the rear wheels on the pavement.

Richard Petty’s Superbird

NASCAR’s rule was that at least one car be built for each manufacturer’s dealership. That meant that 1,920 Superbirds were created in 1970. And one resident of little Bentonville, Arkansas purchased one. I saw that car many times over the next year or so. Seriously cool stuff.

Petty tore up the track with the Superbird, so much so that NASCAR changed their rules. Aerodynamically enhanced cars like the Superbird would have to run on smaller engines than Petty’s 426 Hemi he used in 1970. They just weren’t fair to the other boxier cars.

1970 was the only year that the Superbird was built. It was available in three different engine configurations: a 440 with a four-barrel carb, the same engine with three two-barrel carbs, or the ultimate: the same 426 Hemi that Petty raced.

The mystified effect that the car had on me wasn’t shared by the general public. It was considered ugly and overly extreme by the masses. The aerodynamic enhancements were of no use during quarter-mile runs. In fact, their added weight caused Superbirds to get smoked by conventional Road Runners on the strip.

Plymouth Superbird

But the nosecone and spoiler weren’t meant for pedestrian short drag races. At 90 MPH, they cut drag, and also kept the car solidly attached to the road. At 150 MPH, it would have been difficult to control the machine without them.

Yes, the car would easily hit 150 MPH right off of the dealer’s lot. Its estimated stock maximum speed was 180. Holy crap.

This was the Detroit of the freewheeling days before energy crises, oil embargoes, and gas that cost more than 40 cents a gallon.

The price of the car was a reasonable $4,000. That compared favorably to other hot muscle cars of the era. But the public just couldn’t get past the look. Thus, many sat unsold, and were even converted to more conventional-looking Road Runners in order to get them off the lots.

The result is that today, original Superbirds can easily fetch high six-figure prices. Less than a thousand Hemi-equipped models were sold, obviously they reign as king. But any Superbird is worth gold.

So that anonymous Superbird owner I spotted so many years ago and I have something in common: we both appreciate the unconventional.

The Full-Service Gas Station

Full service gas station of the 60’s

I grew up with dad preferring an Apco gas station in my hometown. He would pull in, the attendant would greet him by name, fill the car, wipe the windshield, check the tire pressures, and hand me a sucker. It was a little ritual I always looked forward to.

In 1973, a bunch of angry Arabs thought they would teach the US a lesson and cut off their oil. A lot of good effects actually came from that. It became imperative that vehicles get better gas mileage. It also made us conscious of alternative energy sources (although we have since slipped back into unconsciousness).

However, it unfortunately sounded the death knell for service stations, as they used to be known.

Gas station owners quickly saw the benefit of discounting gasoline with the option of self-service. After all, we were paying the shocking price of around fifty cents a gallon for gas! We happily would pump our own gasoline to save a quarter on the fill up.

It was a common sight in the later 70’s to see stations with self-service and full-service islands. However, even these began to dwindle, and nowadays it’s rare to have an attendant offer to fill your vehicle (except for Oregon and New Jersey, where it’s actually mandated by law).

I was flustered recently by the experience of a full-service station. I pulled into a Sinclair station in Springdale, Arkansas and stepped out to fill up. An attendant walked over and said “I’ll handle that, sir.” I actually forgot what I was supposed to do. I stood off to the side foolishly, and finally remembered that I needed to just sit in the driver’s seat and relax.

So if you want to experience full-service fill ups, look around. There are still a few out there. Just remember how to act once you pull in.

The Ford Mustang Appears

1963 Ford Mustang prototype

Automobile styling changed radically during the twenty years that followed WWII’s end. Cars were big rolling boxes in 1945. By 1965, they had gotten smaller, sleeker, and faster. And one design in particular proved itself to be timeless, selling in huge numbers over thirty years after its introduction.

The Ford Mustang was the result of an in-house design contest sponsored by division manager Lee Iacoca. The winning design was the work of David Ash and John Oros.

The Mustang itself was released against a wave of opposition within Ford’s ranks. Squabbling and in-fighting almost doomed what is arguably the most successful model of car ever released.

In 1961, engineers Herb Misch and Roy Lunn designed a two seat mid-engine convertible that weighed a mere 1500 pounds and got 30 miles to the gallon while posting a respectable 10 second zero-to-sixty time.

Sports car fans both outside and inside Ford’s organization eagerly licked their chops at the idea of such a European-thinking design rolling out of Ford’s factories. But Lee Iaccoca saw a money pit instead.

1964-built 1965 Mustang

But he did see the need of a compact, sporty, albeit FOUR seat car. So he took the design of Ash and Oros and built it on existing tooling. The Mustang that was released had a reworked Falcon frame. The suspension and drivetrain came from altered parts from both the Falcon and Fairlane. But there’s no doubt that NOBODY would mix up the small, clean, slick style of the Mustang with its ancestors.

Some high-ranking powers within Ford opposed the car. But Iaccoca prevailed. And 22,000 models were sold the day it was released in 1964 (but it was a 1965 model). Within two years, a million Mustangs were on the road. The silence of the opposers was deafening.

Soon, Mustangs were seen all over television, too, and not just in Ford commercials. For instance, what Baby Boomer doesn’t remember the “Like father, like son” antismoking commercial? The car also frequently showed up in movies and TV series of the decade.

In 1965, Ford cut a deal with former Formula One driver-turned-designer Carrol Shelby to produce the Shelby Mustang, a heavily customized, expensive vehicle that was a smash hit. The engine was a modified Windsor 289, and a few models had trunk-mounted batteries. They are highly prized collectibles today.

Shelby continued customizing Mustangs until the 1970 model year. Ford and Shelby cut a deal with Hertz to produce a gold-striped Shelby that customers could rent, and that would be sold to the public after retirement. They too were a success for all involved. The only problem was that a few enterprising customers would rent the car for a weekend and spend the time in their garages swapping the Shelby motor for a standard 289. So if you get a chance to buy one, caveat emptor.

Mustangs endured bad design changes, continuing to sell well even during the Mustang II era, when purists say the car hit its artistic nadir. But sales slowed through the 80’s, and there was talk of redesigning the car as a front-wheel drive. The Mustang faithful wrote letters of protest in droves, and the redesign became the Ford Probe instead.

Today’s Mustang looks a lot like its 60’s ancestors. Even Carrol Shelby is back to customizing them, and Hertz is also renting their own models! So, in the automotive sense, in the case of a great design, what goes around sometimes does indeed come around.