This column appeared Tuesday, February 27 in The Manhattan Mercury.
I used to think my appreciation for cars was simply a stereotype. I’m an American, a guy and I like to drive fast. Turns out I can’t help it. It’s in my blood.
For a window of time in the early ‘70s, both my grandmothers drove muscle cars. At age 15 with a learners’ permit burning a hole in my pocket, I was not exactly enamored of my parents’ vehicular decision-making. A 1970 harvest gold Chevrolet Townsman station wagon and a yellow 1973 Volkswagen beetle. I cringed at the very thought of the eye-rolling, guffawing, down-the-nose adolescent peer reviews.
“Niiiiice station wagon!”
“A VW bug?”
My parents’ mothers, however, harbored vehicular preferences that transcended their children’s mundane, neighborhood norm-fitting tastes which led to blatant grandmotherly up-sucking when they would visit.
Mom’s mom, Elizabeth Ordway, motored around Plainville, Kansas in a 1973 Pontiac GTO. High performance at the bridge club and sewing circle.
“Yo Grandma, howdja like me to run down and top off your tank for you?”
During this exact period, my father’s mother got to and from her appointed rounds as a social worker in Bakersfield, California in a metallic green 1969 Chevy Camaro.
“Running low on cigarettes? Happy to fetch you some more. Maybe swing through the car wash?”
Victoria Matson’s appreciation for wheels came naturally, too. Before the Camaro, she traversed from Point A to Point B in a 1957 Oldsmobile 88 with twin aerodynamic chrome fender ornaments up front, fashioned to look like jet-propelled rockets poised to soar into the wild blue yonder. All chrome and white outside, all red leather tuck and roll upholstery inside.
Grandma always had a six-inch magnetic statue of Jesus and an assorted saint or two positioned on the dashboard. As a little kid, I’d turn ‘em around and point them toward the broad highway and the far horizon.
Eyes front, St. Peter.
“No, no,” she would patiently counsel, turning them back around. “They’re watching over me.”
So many tendencies are embedded in the DNA of families, not all of them life-affirming. Sometimes they skip a generation.
In high school, I helped my best friend trick out his ‘69 Barracuda fastback. Back then, fledgling gearheads fell into one of two distinct mag wheel camps. Slots or spokes. Like all teenagers, I tended to make up my mind on the really crucial things like mag wheel preference based not on a host of data inputs and empirical evidence, but on something vitally more important. My best friend prefers slots? Well, me too, then.
I drove it once. Four or five of us in various stages of nodding off, returning from Yearbook Camp at Bethany College in Lindsborg. We awoke and discovered that while still southbound at Interstate speed, we were no longer on the Interstate. As though nothing had happened, with understated teenage nonchalance and aplomb, my buddy eased to a stop in the grassy right-of-way.
“Hey Matson, why don't you drive the rest of the way home?”
He didn't have to ask me twice.
When I started buying my own cars, with all this vast knowledge and experience, I tended toward the sporty. My all-time fave was a forest green ‘71 MGB two-seater ragtop with a tan interior. My chums and I had further deluded ourselves into thinking we had the chops to repair it. Our auto mechanical limitations became painfully evident at the exact moment the driveshaft dropped while doing 80 on the bypass.
Not to get all Freudian on you but a young man’s ego and pride, much of it false, it turns out, is wrapped up in his wheels.
When I met my wife, I was driving a muscle car of my own. Fire engine red, 1989 Camaro RS, two-door beauty of a machine. Because she understood Freud and me, the Camaro was soon in my rear-view mirror. Sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar. The last vestige of my wild days and mad existence. It’s been all sedans and SUV’s since. Don’t cry for me, General Motors.
These days, when the car show comes to City Park in the spring, I can scarcely contain my excitement.
Me: “Wow! There’s whole ‘nother row of sweet cars over on the east side!”
My wife (deadpan): “Yay.”
Today, as I tool around the Little Apple in my four-door 2012 Ford Escape with a piddly six-banger under the hood, the interior covered with dog hair, I’ll spot the occasional muscle car or two-seater ragtop and relive the dreams of my restless youth.
Nothing marks the passage of time quite as starkly as seeing a vehicle from those glory years on the streets, bearing an ‘antique’ license plate.