Pushbutton Transmissions

1962 Dodge Dart push button shifter

An innovation that first appeared in 1956, and lasted until 1966, was the push-button transmission. I remember my oldest brother had a Plymouth from the early 60’s that had it.

The pushbutton transmission was available in two incarnations: mechanical (pretty darned reliable) and electrical (extremely unreliable).

Packard introduced it with their 1956 Caribbean. It was the electrical one, and it had problems. If you parked on a steep hill, the shifting motor would lock up trying to get the car out of Park. It would trip a breaker, and you would be stuck. To make matters worse, when Packard’s production ceased that year, the manufacturers of the shifting mechanism destroyed the tooling. Replacement parts became impossible to obtain.

The king of the boneheaded electrical shifters was the Edsel. Not only did the shifter have lots of problems, they mounted the buttons in the middle of the steering wheel! Guess what would would happen when drivers made an emergency move for the horn.

The most reliable shifters were in the Chryslers, Dodges, and Plymouths. They used mecahnical linkage to engage the various gears. In 1956, the Neutral button even started the car! You pushed it all the way in and it would engage the starter motor. A vacuum switch was supposed to disengage the motor contacts while the engine was running, but if it failed, you could grind your starter by pushing the Neutral button too hard.

The pushbuttons were like the Dallas Cowboys: people either loved them or hated them. Aficionados would make sure that the cars they bought had them, building product loyalty for Chrysler Motors.

The pushbutton option never really set the world on fire, though. In 1966 or thereabouts, the government’s General Services Administration declared that any autos for government usage would have either column- or floor-mounted shifters. Chrysler dropped pushbuttons on the spot.

Today, pushbutton transmissions and the strange problems they would have (buttons pushed all the way into the dash assembly weren’t uncommon) are a distant memory.

Push-Button AM Radios in the Car

Pushbutton AM radio in the dash

Don’t look now, Baby Boomers, this one slipped away while you weren’t looking!

The AM push-button radio, the same we used to yank out of our dashboards and throw away when we replaced it with a shiny new AM/FM/8-track player, is extinct.

Now I haven’t confirmed this, but every new car I’ve seen, even the most basic economy models, have AM/FM electronic radios or better in them. But when we were kids, and even adults just a few years ago, the push-button AM radio was what you got when you bought a new car.

The push buttons were ingenious. When I was a kid, I wondered how on earth my dad’s favorite stations would come up when he hit the buttons. I thought it was amazing that Plymouth (dad always bought Plymouths) knew ahead of time where KMOX was on the dial!

Eventually, I learned that you programmed the buttons yourself. Perhaps “programmed” isn’t the best term to use, because it very low-tech. You manually found your station, pulled the button you wanted to find it with out with a mighty yank, then push it all the way back in.

As a teenager, it was great fun to get in a friend’s car and switch his WLS or WOAI buttons to, say, the local gospel station.

Every Boomer probably threw away at least a dozen of these venerable, solid-as-a-rock receivers of static-plagued AM. Perhaps we should have stashed them away instead. No doubt vintage radios have value to collectors, as well as to people looking for authentic stuff for restorations.

I have a sweet car stereo system now. It has a subwoofer, numerous tweeters, mid-ranges, etc., and a multimedia in-dash unit that lets me load mp3’s onto a flash drive and play them. But sometimes, I tune in a scratchy AM station just to remember what it used to sound like driving down the road.

Oil Cans

Vintage oil cans

When I envision a new article for I Remember JFK, I am often surprised by the amount of information that is out there for me to research. As regular readers know, I like to ferret out the history of whatever subject I cover. In the case of the bikini, that meant going all the way back to the 4th century! But with today’s entry, the long-lost oil can, I was surprised to find very little on its past, and its subsequent replacement by plastic screw-top containers.

Fortunately, my memory banks are still in good shape. So off we go…

The oil can, as we know, excuse me, knew it, came about in the early twentieth century. It was then that a standard quantity of one quart was sold by most companies. The earliest cans had a solder seam. Collectors prize these oldest examples of oil cans.

By the early 40’s, the soldered seal was gone, replaced with a crimped version. During WWII, when metal was in short supply, oil was sold in cardboard boxes, similar to the milk cartons we drank from in grade school.

After the war, the cardboard oil boxes disappeared. But manufacturers did begin creating the oil can that most of us remember: not really a “can,” per se, but a familiar cylinder made of heavy cardboard. It was cheaper to produce, and proved just as effective as its metal counterparts.

Thus, many a garage in America had, somewhere within its midst, a stack of oil cans. These could be opened with a standard “church key” opener, or, if your dad was prone to splurge money on gadgets, you might have a genuine service station spout, which would pierce the top of the can if shoved in with a bit of force.

Oil cans were a ubiquitous part of our lives, seen everywhere and barely noticed. But in the 1960’s, the oil can’s demise began to be written.

Navin and his oil cans

Sometime around the middle of the decade, a plastic cylindrical can was created. It had a metal top, and you opened it exactly like a regular oil can.

But the early plastic cans never really took over the world. It would be the mid eighties before the twist-off cap version of the oil container would appear. It would prove so popular that the oil can would vanish by the end of the decade.

What wasn’t to love? The plastic containers were resealable. They cost next to nothing to produce. And they could be made in any size, allowing you to lug one five-quart jug out of the discount store instead of five individual quarts. You can pour your used oil into the empty container and take it back for recycling.

But another little piece of our past has disappeared. Perhaps we can blame it on Navin Johnson’s tormentor in The Jerk.

Gas Wars

Announcing a gas war, complete with searchlight!

As we drive past gas station signs that advertise prices per gallon that far exceed the hourly rates of our first jobs, we Boomers find ourselves looking longingly into our memory banks for the regular phenomenon that was experienced in the mid 1960’s: the gas war.

Gas station owners hate high gas prices as much as the rest of us. The only sure winners when prices achieve record highs are the owners of the basic asset: crude oil.

We get angry when Exxon posts high profits, but if they were posting losses, then it would have a deleterious effect on the economy and anyone who owns mutual fund shares.

At this point, I would like to state that I am no fan of Exxon, or any other gasoline producer. I suspect corruption is rampant at high levels within each corporation, and millions or billions of dollars of funds are finding their way into rich people’s pockets illicitly. But I digress. This is supposed to be about nostalgia.

The fact is that with the much more stable prices of crude oil and gasoline in the 1960’s, gas station owners were able to have gas wars amongst each other that would bring huge grins to the faces of our fathers, as they filled their big cars with gas that might be as much as 20% cheaper than it was the day before.

The gas station owners were making good livings selling fuel at 30 cents a gallon. They could afford the luxury of dropping prices periodically by such a margin for short periods of time. They would either break even, or still manage to turn a small profit. The station owners would frequently hold such wars with mutual agreement.

Unfortunately, the profit margin per gallon remains about the same today for station owners as it did in 1965. I’m not talking percentage, I’m talking cents per gallon! Ergo, gas wars are no more. When a station is selling gas three cents a gallon cheaper than the one down the street, THAT’s a modern-day gas war.

Sure, gas prices make us angry. But it’s not the gas station’s fault. When was the last time you saw a gas station that wasn’t also a convenience store? Selling two aspirin for a dollar or more is how they make a profit, not by selling regular gasoline for three bucks a gallon.

But we Boomer kids still have fond memories of when those signs would go up at local stations that would put our parents in such a cheery frame of mind for a week or two: GAS WAR.

Free Gifts for Filling Up

Free gifts at the gas station!

In the 60’s and 70’s before the Oil Crisis, gas stations would offer you cool stuff free for filling ‘er up at their places of business.

That seems strange today. Most of the time, you pay at the pump with a credit card and never see a human. Or perhaps you walk up and pay (in advance) some surly guy behind bulletproof glass.

There’s not a whole lot of hope that he’s going to give you a free dinner plate for filling up.

But go back to the 1960’s and earlier, and service stations (as they were known) tried hard to get your business. In fact, they bent over backwards.

In addition to doing all of the work of filling your car, checking your oil, and making sure your tires had sufficient air, they would give you a gift out of sheer gratitude that you honored them by purchasing their gasoline.

I guess times have changed just a tad.

I remember most of the giveaways being dishes and glasses. And they weren’t bearing the name of the station or oil company that provided them, either. These were completely generic items that you could set out for company without them ever knowing that you obtained them free of charge, well NEARLY so.

The stations that offered these tantalizing baubles usually charged two or three more cents a gallon than the ones who MERELY filled your car and checked your oil and tires.

Hey, that was quite a difference when gas was less than 30 cents a gallon.

But it was nice being viewed with gratitude when we pulled in for a fill up, instead of being glared at.

The Long-Lost Fake-Wooden-Sided Station Wagon

1956 Cadillac wagon with fake wood sides

You could always tell which homes on the street had at least three kids living there: look for a fake-wooden-sided station wagon parked out front.

It’s hard to pinpoint when the station wagon got its start. The Ford Model T resembled a station wagon in its most basic form. However, the tiny vehicle could only hold four comfortably.

In 1923, Star (a division of Durant Motors) began marketing a larger factory-built station wagon. The wagon body was made from wood.

As the decades progressed, station wagons became a common sight on American highways. The Pontiac Woodie was one of the most famous, with wooden side frames melded into a steel body. Many a California surf bum drove a restored (or not) Woodie in the 60’s.

Oldsmobile wagon

But the wood was a pain to maintain. Screws needed tightening, varnish needed periodic stripping and recoating, and the expanding and contracting lumber caused all sorts of sealing headaches.

So in 1935, Chevrolet introduced the all-steel Suburban.

But it was expensive, and sales were slow. It was considered a work vehicle, not a family-mobile. It wasn’t until after WWII ended that all-steel station wagons finally became cheap enough to produce to be successful.

Add to that the Baby Boom, and automobile manufacturers began cranking out station wagons in unheard-of numbers by the 1950’s. And most of them featured fake wood sides that brought back memories of genuine woodies.

By 1957, the wagons were common on American roads.

And most of them were full of Boomer kids.

By the 1960’s, station wagons were so common that they seemed to outnumber sedans. Wagons were a ubiquitous sight on American roadways right up until the late 1980’s.

Ford Falcon wagon

In 1984, Chrysler/Plymouth introduced the minivan. The death knell for station wagons was sounded.

Minivans allowed multiple passengers to enter the vehicle without dropping (or swinging) the tailgate. In fact, they could almost stand up! The different paradigms were an instant success, and soon practically every automaker, US and otherwise, were cranking out minivans and selling them as fast as they could make them.

Wagons continued to be manufactured, but their numbers fell each year.

In 1996, Chevrolet and Buick made their last station wagons.

We Boomer kids have fond memories of the spacious back ends of station wagons, big enough to set up miniature battlefields or road racing ovals on long vacation drives. You could also stretch WAY out and take a nap, too.

I had a 1990 Ford Taurus wagon with side-facing seats that popped up in the back area, allowing seven or eight to travel in the mid-sized vehicle! A major engineering accomplishment, to say the least. My young children loved getting to sit in the back.

Wagons are still manufactured by a few overseas car companies, and in 2005, the Dodge Magnum wagon was introduced. But long gone are the days when fake-wooden-sided wagons sat in fro

Eating on the Interstates

Howard Johnson’s

As you motor down the interstate highway these days, you are presented with a plethora of options as to what you will eat. The fast food joints have spread nationwide, and have located themselves in the middle of nowhere so that you are never more than a few miles away from a McDonalds, Burger King, or Taco Bell. There are also dozens of higher-end chains like Applebee’s, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, etc. which have located themselves in smaller towns with interstate highways passing through them.

What it amounts to is that you can get pretty much anything you want to eat, from bar-b-que to Mexican to Italian to Seafood to vegetarian, as you traverse I-40 or I-90 from the east coast to the west, and all points in between.

But jump back to the 60’s, and your choices weren’t nearly so plentiful.

Stuckey’s

What I remember were three places where dad would stop while on the road: Howard Johnson’s, Stuckey’s, and Nickerson Farms.

The restaurants were similar. They offered food and a gift shop, and sometimes gasoline. HoJo’s offered a place to sleep, in many cases, and today that is their primary focus. Nickerson Farms had no motel connections, and has slipped into oblivion. Stuckey’s is hanging on for dear life as a convenience store.

Nickerson Farms post card

I wish I could remember how delicious the food was at the familiar establishments, but with all honesty, I can’t. In all fairness to the chains, I wasn’t much of an eater in the 60’s. It seemed that most food didn’t appeal to me (except for candy, of course!). I could usually handle a hot dog under any circumstances, but I recall at least one of the three bringing me the humble frankfurter out on some sort of toasted bun that was like a rectangle, with thick squared-off edges. What a travesty!

Heck it was probably ten times better than a regular dog, but I found it unfamiliar enough to be naturally unappealing.

But the eateries were everywhere, and you could always count on finding one of the three every few miles, no matter where you were.

Today, you can hold out for sushi if you like. You’ll probably encounter an establishment offering the finest raw fish within a few miles. But go back to interstate highway travel of the 60’s, and your choices were much more limited, and quite similar to each other.

Dad’s Auto Accessories

Curb feelers

Today’s I remember JFK remembrance is the result of a conversation which took place between a coworker and myself earlier this week.

My buddy John Sorrells walked in, threw an object on my desk, and said “okay, nostalgia expert, what’s this?”

Without hesitation I said “Why, that’s a curb feeler.” John was impressed, but hey, I AM the nostalgia expert.

Curb feelers made their debut sometime in the early 50’s as an accessory added to luxury cars by Detroit. However, they were inexpensive add-ons for anyone who wanted to protect their tires from the unforgiving concrete that made up street curbs. This was particularly the case if one had big whitewalls on their sweet ride.

Whitewall tires weren’t really invented in as much as they were simply the original tires. In the automobile’s heyday of the Model T, tires were made of light-colored rubber. The rubber didn’t wear so well, so eventually, more carbon black was added to the tread area. This made for tires which were black around the circumference, but white on the sidewalls. As the entire tire began to be manufactured out of higher carbon-black rubber, consumers clamored for the look of their father’s tires. Thus, sidewalls were pigmented with a wide white stripe.

As the 50’s became the 60’s, the size of the whitewall began to shrink. By 1969, it was a narrow strip perhaps 1/2″ wide, often accompanied by a similar-sized red strip. Nowadays, of course, the whitewall is nearly extinct, as are so many of the things we remember.

Auto compass

Another disappearing accessory our fathers might have favored was the dashboard compass. Ever the focused navigators, our fathers wanted to know which way true north was. Perhaps they may have navigated B-24’s a few years earlier. Whatever the case, many a roomy sedan had a floating spherical compass mounted securely on the dash.

A 1954 ad had this to say about the trusty device: You can count on this pretested instrument, used by the armed forces, to tell you exactly where you’re headed. Used in the car, it’s a dependable companion for any motorist. Attaches with suction cup to dash or windshield. No getting lost with one of these predecessors to the GPS!

Another accessory our fathers may have preferred was the exterior window shades that kept the sun at bay.

My own father had a brand-new 1974 Audi and obtained his shades straight from the dealership. Made of shiny chrome, they clipped inside the topmost groove that contained the window. They might not have blocked a tremendous amount of sun, but look sharp they did.

Another accessory frequently spotted in Impalas and Fury’s of the 60’s was a console organizer designed to sit on the hump between the driver and passenger in front of the bench seat. The ones I remember had heavy bean bag “wings” that draped over the hump, with a box of sorts anchored to the top, where you could store drinks, road maps, ice scrapers, or any other gewgaws small enough to fit. There was a tremendous amount of unused room up there that the organizer put

Steering wheel knob

to good use. in fact, I may have been able to fit my gorgeous little 1992 Tercel that I drive to work into one of those puppies!

My dad never had a steering wheel knob, but I can recall more than one pickup of my childhood sporting them. Why pickups? I don’t know. I’ll bet many of you recall them attached to steering wheels of basic four-door land boats, but I remember spotting two or three, all in 1950’s-era Ford and Chevy pickups. Perhaps they were a factory accessory? I’m not sure. All I know is that one could really whip a steering wheel back and forth with one of those gizmos.

My own dad was obsessed with gas mileage long before the fuel crisis, and thus purchased many an attachment designed to get the very last foot out of a gallon of gas. I remember one weird device called a “Pacer Magnum” that was designed to sit on an eight-cylinder distributor cap. It consisted of little cylinders about two inches long that plugged into the holes on the distributor, and were hollow on top so the spark plugs could plug into them. There were joined together by a wire, making the whole thing look like a string of firecrackers. Did it increase mileage? Apparently not. He never bought another one.

Our fathers loved their cars. I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of accessories that were lavished upon them. So how about you, readers? What little extras can you recall that your own parents purchasing to trick out their rides?

Clear Plastic Seat Covers

Clear covers on the back seat

It was a thick, clear plastic material that had raised triangular bumps all over it (I guess to provide traction for the slippery stuff), or also seen smooth, as in the picture. It was seen on automobile seats, couches, chairs, and nearly anything else that could possibly come into contact with the human derrière.

In the 1960’s, it was everywhere.

I remember my parents taking one of their biannually-bought new Plymouths in to have this stuff put on the spacious bench seats. When mom and I went to pick up the car, we had to drive with the windows down due to the endless square yards of extremely redolent new plastic wrap.

The polyethylene artificial epidermis was ice cold in the winter, blazing hot in the summer, and quite uncomfortable to bare skin in any weather. However, it kept the upholstery, cocooned a millimeter of so beneath its surface, immaculate.

I’m still not sure why my parents would go to all that trouble to protect the already plastic seats of a car they were going to trade in in a couple of years anyway. But at least they resisted the temptation to cover the couch.

We had friends we would frequently visit in my hometown who had their furniture encased in this stuff. And while the couch no doubt looked the way it did when new, you couldn’t tell, as the plastic wrap provided a diffused view of the original upholstery.

Perhaps it was installed as a safeguard against guests who might stay too late.

Anyhow, one of the memories we enjoy as Baby Boomers was vast square footage of upholstery safely wrapped in clear plastic coverings.

Big Funky Attractions along the Highway

The famous blue whale of Catoosa

We Boomer kids spent a lot of time on the road. In our family, my grandparents lived 400 miles to the north and to the south, so we usually traveled every year to see them. Additionally, we managed to take some great vacations. In 1967, we drove up to Montreal for Expo 67, coming back home through upstate New York, where I saw Niagra Falls. And the next year, we drove down to Miami, Florida.

Dad would get on the interstate and drive 70 miles an hour to get to the grandparents’ homes. But when we went on vacation, we would set out at a much more relaxed pace, stopping along the way to take pictures and check out big, funky roadside attractions. We never had reservations at hotels. Generally, towards the end of the day, we would pull in to a little motel with a vacancy sign turned on.

It was a great, relaxing way to travel.

The big objects were everywhere. A restaurant would put up a big tepee. A gas station would have a huge dinosaur. A motel would have a VW Bug on huge tires. And kids would eat it up.

Sometimes, an object would be so outrageous that my parents would have to stop and take a picture of me standing in front of it. That was good news for the restaurant owner, because we would usually go inside and get something to eat afterwards. Mission accomplished, in his book.

Giant Paul Bunyan statue, Tucson, Arizona

Giant Paul Bunyans were seen everywhere (and still are). They are known as “Muffler Men,” because so many of them are in proximity to muffler shops. Many more of them are holding giant tires. I’ll give you three guesses as to what sort of shop THEY are standing in front of.

Historic Route 66 still has many huge attractions along its route. Who hasn’t passed by the giant blue whale which is built on a former swimming pond in Catoosa, Oklahoma and wasn’t awed by its size and sheer blueness?

On that 1968 vacation, we took small highways all the way to Florida and up and down its length. We stayed in little motels in towns like St. Augustine, Daytona Beach and Cape Canaveral. If the beach was nice, we might stay a couple of days before moving on. Then, a giant alligator would beckon us to stop and see what was in the cage alongside the gas station (and fill up the car, of course).

The wonderful thing about these giant objects is that they are probably still sitting right where they were when you saw them as a child. They are usually made of long-lasting stuff like steel, concrete, or fiberglass. Even though the establishment that erected the giant arrow, cowboy, tyrannosaurus, or whatever might be long out of business, the big customer attractor still stands there, dutifully getting people’s attention.

So why not take a leisurely drive across the country and revisit the small towns you passed through as a child. Odds are that the giant Paul Bunyan you remember so well is still standing there next to a gas station that may or may not be open for business.