A Brief History of Cars: A Personal Perspective

In the late 19th century, American, German and British inventors made horseless carriages. Along came Daimler in Germany, some forgettable Frenchies like Renault, Jaguar in England and Henry Ford, who figured out that everyone from testosterone-inflamed teenage boys to testosterone-inflamed older boys to women who disliked horse manure and mud would buy these infernal devices. Nothing like need and greed to stimulate invention: thus was born the assembly line.

There’s only one thing sexier than women on the planet, and that’s cars. Or maybe Virgin Atlantic’s space planes.

Cars. My first one was a 1950 Buick Special coupe with a straight 8 engine and bald tires. It is a miracle that I did not kill myself and all of my friends in that car. You could stage a basketball game in the back seat of that car. It weighed as much as a Suburban. I never found out how fast it would go — I was too scared at 110 mph. The chrome pieces on the grille were 3/8-inch-thick steel.

My friend Larry had a 1953 Plymouth. Fortunately he had two of them, because I completely totaled the first one. Useful tip for readers:

If you are driving a Jeep and pulling a 1953 Plymouth out of a big mud hole (front end facing front end), when you need to put slack in the chain, don’t reach in and put your right foot on the clutch to just scootch it a little bit forward, and then, when the engine stalls, start the Jeep and put your left foot on the gas to inch it forward to slack the chain. As your left foot gases the Jeep and it goes too far and hits the Plymouth, you panic, and so you want to hit the brake, but the right foot is still over there on the clutch because you just poked that foot in to move the Jeep a few inches, and now it’s still there while a potent V6 is roaring due to the left foot on the gas, and poor Larry is leaning on his shovel next to his vintage 1953 Plymouth — thankfully out of harm’s way, but stricken with a disbelieving stare as he watches the Jeep repeatedly, over and over, slam into his gorgeous car — while confused feet keep punching the wrong pedals until the engine finally stalls. (“OMG,” say readers. “How could anyone use the word ‘sage’ in the same sentence with this guy?)

At least the Jeep was okay. And Larry was okay. The relationship was busted.

Next came a 1954 Ford coupe, which I bought from some migrant laborers who were hoeing beets in the same fields where Larry and I were moving irrigation pipe. There were a lot of Mexican laborers there, among whom were some girls very attractive to this 16-year-old irrigation pipe mover, but the folks who sold me the Ford were white folks. I made the deal and came back a few days later to find the car with sugar in the gas tank and four flat tires. We took it to the salvage yard.

My next car was a 1958 MGA convertible, a car I lustfully wish I still had. The plan was to drive this off to Minnesota for college, but I loaned it to a buddy who, trying to impress his girlfriend, blew up the engine. It sat in the front yard while I was in college until my father sold it for salvage and sent me $300. But, since I was broke during my years in college, I did not need a convertible. Who knows what my life would have been like if I had driven that car in college?

Next, my friends and I bought a totally beat-up ranch truck, a 1963 Chevrolet long-box pickup, in Big Piney, where my parents lived for several years. I totally ruined an engine rebuild, burned up stuff like rods and bearings and crankshaft, and left the truck with an actual mechanic while I flew to Texas for a family event at Christmas. Hitchhiking back from Phoenix, through Indian Country, I went to Prescott, Ariz., hoping to look up a high school friend. I got there in late December, but she was gone, on an archaeological dig in central America.  A friend of hers provided some floor space for my sleeping bag, and off I went the next day. Northern Arizona, Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, Utah, Salt Lake City… all by thumb.

Written on the guard rail on the outskirts of Salt Lake City: “Mormons Beware: Jesus Christ Is Returning By Thumb.” Honest. I didn’t write it, I just read it.

I, sans motor vehicle, stuck out my thumb and caught a ride with some Harley enthusiasts to Rock Springs, whereupon a gigantic snowstorm shut down all forms of travel (except by foot) for four days. We hiked to the grocery store through the snow for several days. A burglar broke into a nearby house and the cops followed his tracks in the snow and busted him. I discovered that the Whole Earth Catalog had a story encapsulated in the bottom of each page. Several days stranded in Rock Springs with bikers was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. We drank a lot of cheap, red wine.

The weather broke and I caught a ride to Big Piney where I waited for the crankshaft to come in. Weeks passed. I had no wheels. The 1963 Chevrolet pickup was immobilized in the shop down the street. But at least I had arrived at the house in Big Piney in late December, to find all of the plumbing frozen, so that it could be repaired before my parents returned from Arizona. Some missionaries wandered in, purportedly invited by my parents, so I put them up and allowed them to chip in for groceries.

This was a weird period in my life.

The mechanic fixed the engine and I took off for the Twin Cities. The gears in the rear end were badly worn, a problem I had tried to fix with about the same success as the engine. By the time I got to Laramie, I could not suffer the rear-end gear looseness any more. I called up a University attendee friend from high school and got a free bunk. The truck went to the Chevrolet dealer. Parts were ordered. Rear end was fixed. My partners in an insane investment scheme, awaiting my arrival in St. Paul, Minn., had been wiring money to fix the engine, buy gasoline and now, fix the rear end, and they were finally broke and disgusted. I left Laramie in a green 1963 Chevrolet pickup with a plywood shell over the box, new engine, new rear end, and about $3. Fortunately, in pre-1973 embargo days, gas was cheap. But even then, $3 was not going to get me from Laramie to St. Paul.

What do you do? Just keep driving and hoping.

Into Nebraska two inexorable forces led me to a big gas station. One was an empty fuel tank and the other was a full bladder. After emptying one and starting to fill the other, I noticed a young couple wrestling with a dead Saab. They were struggling to start it but it was gone. That car was packed to the gills, but an empty long-box Chevrolet pickup was meet to the task. Your incompetent mechanic, newly possessed of Chevrolet with new engine and new rear end, got up the moxie to make an improbable deal: I have a pickup truck with lots of room for stuff; I am on my way to St. Paul. You have a dead car full of stuff, you live in Madison Wisconsin. We have some common interests. I towed the car to a junkyard, loaded the truck, and we all drove to Madison.

They bought the gas and I provided the livery. When I finally arrived in St. Paul, my partners were pleased that they had not funded my delivery.

Stories about cars are stories about our lives. Dial the clock back 500 years, and stories about horses were stories about peoples’ lives. Dial the clock back 5,000 years — maybe it was different, maybe not.

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  1. RT, That was but the prelim to the full blown saga of your cars and your life. Aren’t we talking in the hundreds of vehicles from 1967 to present?

  2. I think it was Hermosillo Mexico, not Central America. Earlier I hitched the same route through Northern Arizona to SLC with a friend, from there to the Tetons, where we spent the night in church before skiing the next day. We parted, and she went to Pocatello Idaho and I hitched back to Buffalo … or Gillette? Would NOT recommend this for 19 year old girls. The money spent for subsequent therapy could buy a brand new car instead.