Old Cars, excerpt from a memoir, "Highway 11"

Plymouth, Savoy at Savoy Automobile Museum, Cartersville, Georgia


Old Cars

1939-1968

            Growing up, we had some really cool cars. Our 1939 rag-top Buick Roadmaster looked like a bootlegger’s car that Al Capone might have driven. We saw the road moving beneath us through the rusted-out floorboard. Wayne, Valerie, and I stuck our heads through the holes in the top as we stood on the back seat. Dad drove down the street with three little heads popping out.

            Many years later, our 1956 green-and-white Ford Fairlane often broke down, stranding us on the highway.

            “Oh me, I hate this old car,” Mother said.

            At the REA company picnic, she complained, “We have the oldest car here.”

            While driving home later that day, Dad thumped his cigarette out the window, but it flew back into the car. Overnight, it smoldered and burned out the entire back seat. Dad pulled out the cushions, and we rode back there on the metal frame with the pungent odor of smoke for months. We smelled like burnt car everywhere we went before he found mismatched seats at a junk yard.

            My dad taught me how to drive our 1959 Robin's-egg-blue Plymouth Fury with big fins and push-button controls. Sometimes the buttons would push completely through the dash board, and I would be stuck in gear. Dad kept a screwdriver handy to push through the open hole and change gears. We pulled circles around the house before he let me on the street with it.

            One Sunday while I was driving out of the church parking lot, the preacher's son darted out in front me. I hit the brakes, but the pedal slid straight to the floor, only slowing the car enough for the little boy to get past.

            “Why didn’t you stop, Judy?” Dad asked.

            “I tried. I don’t think the brakes work.”

            Dad fixed the brakes, but I avoided that car for a long time.

 Wayne's first car was a black, four-speed 1955 Plymouth Belvedere with red, rolled- and-pleated, leather interior. He let me drive it one Sunday afternoon for the traditional cruise around the Brazier Burger.

            At the Brazier, everyone backed into their parking spaces so they could face the drive-through and see the parade of ’50s and ’60s muscle cars revving their V-8 engines and glass-packed mufflers. I was cool on my first go around, but on my next turn, the car stopped in the middle of the drive. I couldn’t get it cranked and stalled there blocking traffic. Wayne sat with a friend parked in another car. He jumped out and ran over. “Get out.”      

            When I climbed out, he slid into the driver’s seat, started the Plymouth, and drove off, leaving me standing there. I looked around at the sea of cars, wondering what to do. Then, with a purpose, I marched to the window and pretended to order a hamburger, till Wayne came back.

            His next car, a white 1962 Chevy Nova, had no radio. For Christmas that year, my parents ordered one from a catalog to surprise him, but it didn't arrive till the spring.

            Cousin Jimmy came over that afternoon.

            "What'd you get for Christmas?” he asked.

            "Nothing," Wayne said.

            "Nothing?"

            "Well, I got socks and underwear."

            "Le’ me see 'em."

            Wayne opened his dresser drawer and pulled out a pair of socks.

            "Those are nice." Jimmy laughed.

            Ronnie McDaniel’s 1956 Pontiac convertible was the scene of a fond summer memory during my senior year in high school. On a double date, we rode around the Brazier as I lay, sunning myself on the back seat, with my head in my boyfriend David’s lap and my feet draped out the other side, since there were no seatbelts. Mother allowed Valerie and me to date our boyfriends on Sunday, in either the afternoon or the evening, but not both. Valerie chose evenings. I chose Sunday afternoons, especially in the summer, because I loved being outdoors.

             That same year, we decorated for the prom at the American Legion. David met me there to help. He drove a brand-new, yellow 1967 Ford Galaxy with black leather interior. After a few hours of making roses out of tissue, it was time to go.

            "Meet me at the Brazier," he said and took off.

            I hopped into the Plymouth Belvedere, but it wouldn't start. I sat there for a long time before David came back looking for me.

            “What happened?”

            “The car won’t start.”

            “Get in. I’ll take you home.”

            At nineteen, I carpooled to work in Atlanta and saved enough money for a down payment on a car. Dad cosigned with me to buy a brand-new, canary-yellow 1968 MGB with black leather interior. It was the first new car in the family.

   

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Highway 11