“I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car.”—Bruce Springsteen
“See my mom,” a Mount Pleasant friend noted about the photo she sent to my inbox in Center. “And there’s my Granny, too. She would be my great-grandmother.”
“Neat photo,” I responded. “Love that old Dodge they’re posing with. Looks like a ’37 model.”
Old family photo albums often produce as much automotive history as they do genealogy and memories. My penchant for details in old black-and-whites, trying to imagine what was happening the day the shutter was snapped, has lead me to believe that’s not always coincidental.
One explanation for including the family sedan while “striking a picture” as my Granny called it, could be the pride families once took in auto ownership during a time when not every family enjoyed motorized transportation. For most who owned vehicles prior to World War II, cars were simply basic transportation. Usually, an old Ford or Chevy was already well-worn by the time someone smiling in the photo had bought it for less than the cost of half a tank of gas today.
Aging glossies depicting more affluent families still exude pride from posing with their Packards or Cadillacs, nattily attired in the latest fashion for an afternoon at the country club.
Once automobiles debuted, they quickly infiltrated American culture becoming not just transportation, but often guideposts and references for times or events in our lives. For generations, earning a driver’s license has represented a major ritual in the passage of maturity for teenagers symbolizing mobility and personality.
Other times, they are also bookmarks for memories. “Hey,” someone asked me at a family gathering recently, “Remember that big family reunion in Kentucky when we were just kids?”
“You mean that one when Uncle Bill drove his ’51 Mercury convertible all the way from California,” I asked?
More than one article of late, however, has suggested that we currently have a generation reaching adulthood that doesn’t deem automobile ownership important. Cited as a contributor is the number of children growing up in cities where lack of parking and ease of public transportation renders automobile ownership more of a burden than a boon.
Other reasons noted include the passing of an era when distinctive designs and a keen competition among manufacturers for eye appeal drew auto enthusiasts of all ages into showrooms every fall to see the dazzle Detroit was displaying. I know it did me. As a teenager approaching the magic moment of possessing a driver’s license, I collected dealership brochures memorizing every option and color combination available. With that knowledge, I spent hours producing sketches of my favorites, adding custom touches to resemble cars featured in magazines like “Rod and Custom” and “Car Craft,” turning a kid’s artwork into a dream hanging on my bedroom wall.
Dream automobiles have dwindled in recent decades, done in by cost-cutting measures, plus safety and economy regulations that have relegated today’s car lots into little more than rows of homogeneous collections of carbon-copy shapes discernable only by the manufacturer’s nameplate on them. Hardly anything with enough identity to create a dream or excitement.
My friend’s photos last week continued to excite as she sent numerous family snapshots with beautiful examples of cars from the 20s, 30s and 40s. “By the way,” she interjected with one of her submissions. “Did you go to school with a guy named Gene?”
“Yes, I did,” I responded. “Are you talking about Gene who drove the old Chevy pickup or Gene who had the sharp looking black ’56 Chevy?”
(P.S.—Special kudos to my longtime friend in Mount Pleasant, Texas, Susan Prewitt, for remembering my addiction to photos of old cars and sharing with me some great ones from her family photos.)