STEPHEN SMITH: The Mystique Around the '59 Chevy
The American automobile, as we once knew and loved it, is a memory -- which is a shame because there was a moment when it was a profound experience that, even when amended and modified by time, can be said to have guided our lives.
I recall a late-summer evening 50 years ago in Easton, Md., when Johnny Trumpower and I pedaled our bikes from Wrightson Avenue to the intersection of Washington Street and Glebe Road where Hallowell Chevrolet was located in those days.
That was 1958, because we were on our way to check out the new 1959 Chevys that were to be unveiled the next day. It was all very hush-hush, this new car stuff, and employees of the dealership had scotch-taped pages of The Star Democrat all over the showroom windows.
A few accidental peepholes allowed us a glimpse of a tailfin or a headlight or some unidentifiable part of the new models. It reminded me then, as it does now, of the parable of the blind men and the elephant: Was the '59 Chevy more like an F-105 Thunderchief or an Atlas ICBM -- or was it just a chunk of metal?
That's the way the automobile business was in those days -- exciting and mysterious. We were all part of an America that had emerged from World War II and the Korean conflict as the greatest nation on the planet -- or at least we thought so. We lived in new spec houses and ate chuck roast on Sundays. We swam at the Elks Club pool on summer afternoons. And my ole man bought a new car, usually a Chevy, every year or two.
The Interstate highway system was crammed with American machines -- Fords, Chevys, and Plymouths mostly, but also an occasional Studebaker, Merc, T-Bird, Vette, Olds, Caddy, Chrysler, Lincoln, and once in a while a Rambler, a Henry J, or even a Willys. Every road trip was a smorgasbord of American automotive invention.
When we traveled long distances, we played "four-hole Buick," counting each high-end Roadmaster that rolled our way. If you slipped up and pointed out a three-hole Buick, you lost a point -- and the respect of your peers. And we all knew the weaknesses of each make and model -- Plymouth Cranbrooks had bad kingpins, the heater control valves on Edsels had faulty seals, etc.
America was American cars made by Americans for Americans. High school guys worked their butts off at the Tastee Freez so they could make their cars fast and flashy, and I remember stories of bad boys who outran the town cops or avoided them altogether by turning off their headlights and driving down the railroad tracks. They were heroes la James Dean, except they lived to tell about their adventures.
Apparently it was no big deal that 40,000 men, women and children died each year in traffic accidents. We were willing to accept those tragic numbers in order to tool around in big-finned, fender-skirted coffins that could accelerate from 0 to 60 in 4.5 seconds on the Weaverly Road straightaway.
What we didn't know was that we were creating an environmental dystopia, that no matter how many times we Simonized the sun-faded finish, the dream would continue to oxidize, that our mechanical fantasies would become an economic and spiritual encumbrance, a kind of technological tyranny.
At the very moment Johnny Trumpower and I peered into Hallowell's showroom, carbon dioxide was churning from smokestacks and tailpipes, and the world was changing in ways we could never imagine. Who could know that Chrysler and GM would go bankrupt and the icecaps would melt? On that long-ago September evening, it was unthinkable to think the unthinkable.
Yeah, we were like blind men. There was no way we could possibly comprehend the chronicle of the '59 Chevy.
When CEO Fritz Henderson announced GM's bankruptcy, his irony was no doubt unintentional.
"This is," he said, "the chance of a lifetime."
Stephen Smith lives in Southern Pines. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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