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"See the USA in your Chevrolet"
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At my first birthday party, my parents presented me with a shiny, ride-on, maroon Chevrolet, scaled to size and complete with appropriate 1948 chrome and accessories. Like every young family with a brand new movie camera and a relatively new child, they chronicled the event in its most embarrassing details, including a shot of me pulling down my ruffled rubber panties and delighting the moonstruck photographer. Gradually, I abandoned such flamboyant behavior (in public, anyway), but my love of cars remained undiminished. I don't know if I remember the party per se, or if it has invaded my subconscious through endless 1950's family movie nights. I have often been grateful however, that "Marcia's Birthday Party", as the reel was innocently titled, was never released to the public.

The Chevy is another story. If I had it today, I could probably use it to defray my daughter's college tuition by a considerable amount. I loved manipulating the steering wheel to keep the big round fenders away from furniture, walls, and eventually my baby sister. Somewhere between the hairpin turns and the relentless rubber horn, the Chevy disappeared, but I was at least six years old and on to better things. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, though, I retained my love of cars. Cars of the thirties had style and elegance, but cars of the fifties and sixties reflected the dynamism of our generation. The panoply of colors, the flare of the fins, and the intense brand loyalty made ownership a personal privilege.

My father always bought a Mercury, once choosing a sky blue 1960 model so long our garage had to be lengthened by a foot. Another friend's father bought a new Grand Prix each year, then a paragon of understated elegance at the high end of Pontiac's line. Each year at the same time, the new models rolled out of Detroit. I used to watch for them on the street to see if I could identify the model and maker. For middle class, suburban salaries, they were financially accessible, irresistable designs. Families actually joined each other for "rides", Sunday afternoon affairs which usually concluded with ice cream, a visit to relatives, or both.

By the seventies, though, cars had changed. The influx of foreign vehicles (once considered unAmerican to buy and now considered unAmerican to reject) changed the look of the American road. The gasoline shortage forced engineers to develop models that placed fuel economy over design. Aerodynamic fins and back seats the size of a living room made way for economy models with little to love but their economy. Unless you were buying a race car or a limousine, the car's behavior was more important than its style. Unfortunately, a similar philosophy probably applied to us as we moved inexorably from students to yuppies, to parents, to (most frightening of all) parents of new drivers.

My husband and I went to buy a car this week. We visited three dealerships, all of whom offered "the best deal in town". The cars, mostly different varieties of a standard Japanese design, were differentiated only by their colors and accessory packages. Shoppers with printed statistics and consumer guides in hand confronted and occasionally overwhelmed even salespeople seemingly trained by Richard Nixon. My father's turquoise and white '58 Mercury, a legendary blend of flashing chrome and fins, would have been as out of place as an abacus at Microsoft.

Hippie buses have made way for mini-vans, diminishing our options even as they proclaim to expand them. When we went to pick up the clone of our choice, the salesman wore a proud smile for our guided inspection. "Aren't you delighted with your new car?", he asked, beaming. I gazed at him gently but firmly. "This is just transportation," I said evenly. "When I pick up my Jaguar Sportscar, I'll show you delight." Children of the 60's, let's put some fun back on the road. Campaign for color, character, comfort, and charisma. Even if you must drive a carpool, don't contort your back into seats designed by a greedy chiropractor.
Drivers of the 90's, unite!
You have nothing to lose but your pains.

Written by Marcia Brown Rubinstien
January 20, 1998

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