Simple But Not Plain

Once, particularly in the heyday of automobiles in this country, “America’s love affair with the car.” was a common phrase. Yes, an advertising cliché, but with some merit. Can you, can I, be in love with a car? I am not  anthropomorphic when I write about having an affair with a car. A car is more than two tons of metal.

 The whole gamut of human emotions is intrinsic to owning that vehicle. Like an awkward teenager fumbling in the back seat of Dad’s Ford with a date, I began to understand about the  emotions of owning a car.  Have to start somewhere. Your start was different. Maybe granddad bought you on your 16th birthday that cute convertible you adored. Maybe you scraped up enough from serving food to buy a beater. But it was yours.  Then, what’s next? Join me, let’s see what we find. 

The lovely girl drives her convertible into the High School lot, top down naturally. Outwardly she looks for a parking place, inwardly, she wishes to be looked at.  The guy with the beater, let’s say one of those 8 cylinder torpedo body Pontiacs with a back seat vast enough to set up housekeeping. He looks for a buddies car, pulls in next to it and gets out.  His mind is on the Friday night date with his girlfriend.  He revels in the potential possibilities of all that space in his Pontiac, the largest ever built.  

October 1957, the baseball World  Series is over (remember when that was a big deal?). The leaves are gone, the sky is gray, and I am  into my 4th year of college. Did you go to college?  I hope so.  A time to segue from childhood into adulthood. Not all learning is from classes and books , much knowledge comes from life experiences.  

My short-lived fling with the Buick is over, did this teach me anything?  It taught me that events often do not go as planned.  I did not have the levers of destiny in my hands.  I did learn how much I valued the freedom of movement an automobile provides, as well as the privacy of this movement. 

Please join me in a visual diversion.  Up until 1950, most auto makes produced a model called a coupé.  There were two versions of this , the business coupé, and the club coupé.  Both were two door vehicles, but shorter than a two door sedan.  The business coupé featured a very large trunk area. Its purpose was to hold sample cases, orders to deliver, etc.  The car’s market was to travelling salesmen. Roy’s father owned one as a second car to drive to work.  He would allow us to drive around it, maybe to get us out of the house for a while.  

The coupé was a popular body style.  In 1932 Ford produced a coupé (Model B) that was available with a V8 engine.  This was very  popular and was later THE car to alter into a hot rod.  The coupé was a feature in many Film Noir movies as it was ideal for closeup shots.  High Sierra and the Big Sleep are two such examples.  Chevrolet even made a coupé with a rumble seat available as an option.  I have only seen one in my life and here is a YOU TUBE video of one. The style continued into the early 1950s until the fin era came to us.

The club coupé had a small rear seat and a  somewhat reduced trunk area.   I enclose a YOU TUBE video of a 1948 Plymouth Special Deluxe Club coupé.

A classmate of mine, Paul P. A. Kumm owned a 48 Plymouth Club Coupe.  He wanted to sell it for $100. The car was in good condition and I bought it from him.  As the video illustrates, simple but not plain, providing the privacy and freedom of movement that I craved.  I truly believe, that in its way, it too qualifies as a classic.  The car was in good condition and the price reasonable.  Multiply it by 10 for a price in today’s terms.  The budget buster was car insurance.  NY state assigned uninsured men under 25 to  a carrier from a state pool.   

I had the bad luck to draw the Allstate card.  That cost $200 for one year. Allstate was the worst insurance company I ever dealt with. I loathed, hated and despised them. Getting plates was easy and I was ready to roll.  WOW!

The Plymouth was easy to drive, and the small back seat came in handy many times.  One adult could easily sit in the rear,  two as well for a short distance.  On occasion, Roy and I took our girlfriends out for lunch or dinner such as to the New Smile restaurant.  Though far from being spacious, Roy and I could pull our seats forward to give the girls some room.  Enjoying an outing together more than made up for the limited space.  

November came and I was anxious to get my driver’s license.  Syracuse is sometimes named the Salt City due to the saline wells that produced salt long before incursion by settlers.  In winter it turned into Slush City.  Calcium chloride was a by-product of a local chemical company and was used copiously for snow removal on streets.  My first driving test was on such streets.  The test evaluator (brownies as we called them, due to their uniforms) flunked me for improper parallel parking.  I practiced this, re-took the test and passed.

The next step was to make a long trip.  My home town, Dannemora, NY is about 240 miles from Syracuse.  There were no interstates to make this trip in 1957 so it was at least a 6 hour trip.  I invited my roommate, Roy and a resident across from us, Benjamin Dizon, to come and spend Thanksgiving with me and my family.  We could share driving, it was nice to have company, and should trouble occur, there was help at hand.

There was reasonable weather then and Thanksgiving was a very pleasant experience for all. Returning to Syracuse, we did run into snow.  The wipers of cars in that vintage were vacuum operated.  When going uphill, the vacuum would drop and the wipers barely worked.  This did slow us down, but we drove carefully and returned with no real problems.

December arrives and the semester is coming to a close.  I pay no tuition because I have a scholarship.  I  have no room  charges in exchange for doing some light chores.  I do have to eat, and my parents help some there.  I now have a car, and by participating in paid drug experiments, have tax-free money for dates and gas. And, as a student, I get a draft deferment.  Life truly was sweet.  Maybe I should have become a professional student, what do you think?  

Finally, a personal retrospective, and a play on the words of the blog title today.  First we play a round of “compare and contrast.” You probably learned the concept in high school. I was born and educated in NY state,  earning two Bachelor degrees and one MS. I also have an Engineer’s license from PA where I lived for a decade.  Most of my professional life was as a manager in the electric utility industry.  I retired in 1993 and continue to live in Nevada. I enclose a photo of me taken earlier this year, and of my house where I have lived since 2000.

Bob 2015

Bob 2015

305 vista glen

Bob’s Home

Now for the other Bob, Robert Redford. We are both men born in the same year. There the similarities end.  By choice, I spent most of my working life in the utility industry.  Electricity is vital to our way of living.  During my work life, utilities, even publicly owned companies,  were state regulated. I valued my contributions in working for the public good.  Utilities were a necessity, but  not exciting.

So, I had a middle class education, worked in a middle class industry at middle class jobs.  I am now comfortably retired, and live in  a middle class development.  I have no regrets.

The other Robert (Redford)  has had a long career as an actor.  As such he is a famous person.  The movie industry itself is quite glamourous and dynamic, much more than the electric power industry.  I never even thought of being an actor, and I doubt Mr. Redford ever considered engineering as a career.  

In conclusion, my Plymouth truly was simple but not plain, and I am plain, but not simple. 









About R. F.

I am a retired Professional Engineer who spent my working life in the electric utility industry. I am now a volunteer instructor at the University Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV).
This entry was posted in Syracuse, Syracuse University and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Simple But Not Plain

  1. Allan T says:

    Wow, very neat. I unlike you, never really had that “love affair” with a car, unlike you, never was smart enough to realize that college was the way to get that comfortable life/retirement. Like you( though plain luck) I ended up working most of my work life for one “industry”; the Post Office/USPS did give me/us a fairly good retirement. I would say we both worked middle class, ended up living in a middle class neighborhood. So life is good.

    • R.J.F. says:

      Thanks Allan. I believe I had a pretty good insight into what I could do well at and what I would fail at. I was not into back-stabbing and office politicking so I was not cut out for a VP job. Also, I don’t have the drive to be an entrepeneur. To me a job is a means to an end, not an end in itself and I didn’t look forward to 16 hours a day trying to set up a business. So yes, life has been good for both of us.

  2. ingridmg2014 says:

    Enjoyed the “Simple Not Plain” video as well as the post. (And you are definitely not simple!) What is the chevron-shaped thing on the hood, just in front of the windshield? You can see it at 5:59 in the video as well as some other times as well.

    • R.J.F. says:

      It was common to have what were called “Hood Ornaments” on cars of those days. Pontiacs had an Indian Head, Plymouths a ship, etc, so without looking at the post, I will take a guess that is what you refer to. I’ll double check a bit later, and if that is not it, I will let you know. thanks for the comment.

    • R.J.F. says:

      I just took a look. The Plymouth hood itself had been modified with those louvers so it does not have an ornament on it. If you refer to the interior of the car, in those days wipers were either on or off, nothing in between. the little knob in the interior where the windows come together is the switch for controlling the wipers.

      • ingridmg2014 says:

        No, that’s not it. I’m talking about a large, wide, inverted chevron that appears to be part of the metal of the hood, just in front of the windshield, outside, but behind all the louvers (if you are looking out the windshield from inside the car). It kind of looks like it might open and close but I’m not sure.

      • R.J.F. says:

        It is an air vent to get outside air into the car when driving. It operated with a lever under the dash in about the same position.

  3. Scott Hammond says:

    Good pictures, Uncle Bob. You do such a good job with writing your blogs. I can’t wait until the next one comes!!!

    • R.J.F. says:

      Thanks for all the encouragement Scott, that is very helpful to me. When I was a boy the movies often had serials, often cowboys and each one ended in what was called a cliff hanger, so yo would come back the next week to see how the hero got out of the fix he/she was in. I got a nice Thank You note from Christina. Good luck as she goes to college.

  4. Louise says:

    Wow, the ’58 Impala sure looks a lot different than the ’71 Impala that was Grandpa’s that became my first car! And of course, mine was not a convertible. While I can’t say that I had a love affair with that car, I sure appreciated having it, and relished the independence it gave me. I guess I started driving it in ’83 and kept it until around ’87 when we sold it to a coworker in San Diego who I think took it to Mexico. Wonder if it is still around somewhere!

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