I saw the ’56 Chevrolet sitting at a local diner, parked off to the side as if to keep it out of harm’s way. As a teen in the middle and late Sixties, the Belair was my dream car…my first unrequited love…just like Elizabeth Taylor looking wantonly at me from a picture wearing that light blue slip. Neither proved to be attainable. Both the car and Liz caused a flood of teenage hormones of Biblical proportions. My teenage libido revved like the V-8 under the Chevy’s hood.
The car brought memories of pulling into Porter’s Grill or the Wheel-In as a teenager. Sometimes with friends, occasionally with that special someone. Carhops in white paper “garrison” style hats rushing out to take our orders in hopes of a good tip…”Don’t take no wooden nickels”…Ha!
Food brought on a tray that hooked on to your car door while the “Devil’s music” played from tinny-sounding speakers hung above the covered parking places. ”One, two three o’clock, four o’clock rock….” The smell of deep-fried anything and sliced onions permeated my memories. An “American Graffiti” moment…or maybe a Shoney’s Big Boy moment.
The car I paused to lust after was a bone stock Belair in turquoise and white and reminded me of many that I saw during my teenage years in the Sixties…except this one might have been in better shape fifty years later. The car’s paint was flawlessly polished, the chrome smooth and shining in the bright sunshine, the interior clean as a whistle and only lightly worn. Wow, what a beauty. Is that a three on the tree?…nope, a two-speed PowerGlide.
My folks were Ford people for the most part right down to my Dad’s ’64 Ranchero. My father did have a momentary lapse of judgment with a ’68 Buick Skylark. Thankfully my brother wrecked it with no harm to himself. Late in my father’s life, there was an Olds Cutlass but no Chevys.
People of that day were loyal to certain car brands, especially during NASCAR races. I pulled for “Fast” Freddie Lorenzen and his Galaxie 500…the same model we drove except his didn’t have four doors. Pulled for him until he went over to the dark side driving Dodges and Plymouths. “Traitor!!!!”
People kept cars longer back then and had time to develop loyalties. There were no lease plans, people of my father’s generation just drove them until they wore them out, new technologies and designs be damned. There were still many Forties vintage sedans parked in the church parking lot on a Sunday morning in the mid-Sixties. Even a late Thirties Pontiac, headlights still on top of the fenders.
Despite our Ford loyalty, my older cousin’s Nassau Blue 55 Belair caused me to break a few of the Lord’s commandments. Coveting was assuredly one. It’s tiny two sixty-five V-8 fitted with Corvette accouterments and a racing cam put out a throaty growl as it flew low down Highway 521.
Three on the floor, I did love the white knob sitting atop the shifter. Lake pipes peaked out from under the doors and matched the chrome rims with half-moon hubcaps. Like most young teenagers I was in love.
The only Chevy I ever owned was a more rusted than blue ’72 Chevy C10 work truck I bought for a paltry one hundred and fifty dollars in the early Eighties. It had been old long before I bought it and showed near one hundred thousand miles on its broken odometer. There was still a throaty roar from rusted-out mufflers, the sucking sound associated with a Holly four-barrel, and an alternator whine you didn’t get from other brands.
I was a teenager in the muscle car era of the Sixties and drooled over ’63 Stingray Split Windows, GTOs, Cobras, Hemi powered Plymouths and the like…still do. I couldn’t wait for my monthly Hot Rod Magazine to be delivered RFD.
Briefly, in the Seventies, I owned a ’66 GTO, “Little GTO, You’re really lookin’ fine. Three deuces and a four-speed and a 389…” Yeah, the old Ronnie and the Daytona’s tune pops into my head but my Marina Turquoise ’66 would fall to the wayside, abandoned due to rising gasoline prices and the oil embargo. I wish I had had a crystal ball during those days, but single-digit gas mileages didn’t cut it.
My high school parking lot was loaded with tricked out Chevys, but few Fords. Most were for show rather than go. There was a white ’58 with the Impala badge that rocked with a type of slow lope associated with the 348 Chevy had introduced that year. Red bucket seats matching the red trim down the side…a beautiful car.
Unlike baseball, cars were no more an American creation than…well…apple pie and hot dogs, but we found a way to turn them into the American culture traits the Chevy commercial sang about.
Young men piecing together spare parts into cheap “rat rods.” Jan and Dean lamenting Dead Man’s Curve or ‘grabbing their girls and a bit of money’ heading out to Drag City. The Beach Boy’s close harmony singing about their ‘Little Duece Coupe‘. “Necking” at The Fort Roc Drive-In Theater before a milkshake at a drive-in diner, Hardee’s fifteen cent hamburgers, the suburbs. Cars cruising main streets on Saturday nights across America. The ultimate car TV show, Route 66.
I never drove across America’s highway, Route 66. The closest was the Woodpecker Trail from North Carolina through South Carolina, Georgia and Florida with its alligator farms, swamps, Spanish moss, and Magnolia trees. Small signs posted at close intervals telling me that “the…end…is…near…Repent!” Shops selling matching salt and pepper shakers to commemorate our travels.
Roadside pull-offs with picnic tables to enjoy homemade fried chicken wrapped in wax paper, Pepsi Colas iced down in old-style metal coolers. Roadside treats geared toward travelers in their automobiles. It would have been more exciting if I had made the trip in an early ‘60s Vette with either Tod or Buz instead of my family in a ’63 Ford.
Americans have a love affair with their cars, but I find that my tastes have changed. I still pause and commit a mortal sin looking at cars from the period of my youth and wouldn’t turn down a ’61 Impala Bubbletop or an Oldsmobile 442. A Jaguar XKE might be nice…hum. I wouldn’t turn down the old four-door ‘63 Galaxie.
Today my taste runs toward the more utilitarian. Four-wheel drive pickup trucks, Jeeps, or a certain Japanese vehicle quite capable of off-roading. As ugly as my Landcruiser was I still miss the ’77 FJ-40 that was stolen from my front yard. It broke my heart when it burned. It breaks my heart when I see one for sale and the price they sell for.
Despite my change in taste, I can still pause at a drive-in diner and appreciate an amazing old car. Appreciate its artistic beauty and the efforts of its owner to maintain it…Appreciate my memories of past road trips and the cars that made them possible.
Intro to Route 66
Videos are courtesy of YouTube
Don Miller’s author’s page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM
The picture of the ’56 Belair was taken from Pinterest