Posts Tagged ‘car’

It is Saturday, April 30, 1949. The Yanks are already in first; the Giants and Dodgers are not far back.

It’s a slow news day. There’s not much in regional papers except wire-service dispatches related to Communism and post-World War II Europe, and not particularly meaty dispatches at that. In one piquant news item, the wife of a G.I. shaves the head of her husband’s 18-year-old German girlfriend and douses her with acid.

The NATO defense alliance is roughly one month old. So is Gil Scott-Heron. The revolution is not being televised, but other things are: Arturo Toscanini has recently conducted Aida on NBC live from Rockefeller Center, while Milton Berle is three weeks away from landing on the cover of Time magazine. (Eugene Dennis, general secretary of the Communist Party of the U.S., is on this week’s cover.)

In New Canaan, Conn., a 38-year-old family man from nearby Stamford is registering himself as a firm supporter of capitalism. He’s signing papers, handing over checks, and achieving a core piece of the American dream.

His own wheels.


As shown on the receipt below, this is the payment for license plates (“markers”), not for the full car.


This was definitely my grandpa’s first new car; it may have been his first car of any kind. (You’ll note no mention of a used car on the receipt.)

Either way, I’m sure he was thrilled to take delivery.

For one thing, he had two young children, and he certainly wanted to move his family in safety and style.

For another, he’d been waiting for this car for a while. A handwritten sheet of his notes — yeah, that got saved too — suggests he’d put down a $100 deposit on his car two months before. I bet he spent plenty of time between February 5 and April 30 daydreaming about his new ride.


Some time ago, I wrote a post wondering if any examples of my grandparents’ stationery still existed. The answer: Yes.

So what did he spend, and what did he drive away in?

$1,757 in 1949 money equals roughly $17,580 in today’s money, according to online inflation calculators. That’s more or less the MSRP for a brand-new Ford Focus sedan today. So, it’s good to know that the cost of a relatively low-frills family hauler bought straight off the lot maybe hasn’t gone up that much.

But, while today’s Ford Focus makes at least an attempt to be sporty, efficient and maneuverable, its 1949 equivalent proudly advertised itself as “a living room on wheels!”

Seriously, see for yourself:


Ah, for the days when a car could be advertised as “as deep and comfortable as your sofa.”

It’s easy to jab at the styles of the past, but the Ford Fordor sedan (the coupe, inevitably, was called the Tudor) was actually a fairly exciting item in ’49. According to Wikipedia, the ’49 Ford line was the first all-new design introduced by the Big Three automakers after World War II.

Wiki goes so far as to say that the popular and attractive ’49 design saved the struggling company, and that 100,000 orders were taken on the cars’ first day of availability. I wonder if my grandpa’s order was among them.

Judging from his notes, he was torn between black, Midland Maroon and Sea Mist Green. He chose black. Based on a review of the paint chips, I would have picked the maroon, myself. But, it’s easy to jab at the styles of the past.

I also note that he sprung for a heater, but not for a radio. This is consistent with his later behavior: The car he drove 40 years later when I was in high school didn’t have a radio either. He liked music fine, but not while he was driving, apparently.

Unfortunately, he did not leave behind any notes on why he chose Ford over a number of other American automakers.

I’ve written many times about his loyalty to Fords, which continued until the early 1980s. That loyalty would have started here, in the spring of 1949, but I don’t know the reasons behind it. Maybe the brand-new style got him started as a customer and build quality kept him there.

Finally, I always enjoy Googling the landmarks of my grandpa’s time and seeing what’s going on there now.

You can’t buy a Ford at the intersection of Forest Street and Locust Avenue in New Canaan any more; but you can, if the New York Times is to be believed, dine quite nicely on brick-oven pizza and Italian nosh-plates.

An online search finds New Canaan Motor Sales carrying on into the early ’60s. I’m guessing the dealership changed its name at some point, but I don’t know what it became or how long it lasted.

(Back in the ’50s, New Canaan Motor Sales used to advertise at the Talmadge Hill commuter rail station in New Canaan — the next station up the line from Springdale, and a location my grandpa photographed some years later. Perhaps the auto ad along the platform in my grandpa’s photo is for some dealership descended from New Canaan Motor Sales. Alas, the photo gets no larger.)

Talmadge Hill station, February 1970.

Talmadge Hill station, February 1970. This seems like a good place to stop.


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Forty years ago this month, my mom set out for an appointment in the family Ford Maverick. She was running late, and put on the gas to make up time.

It didn’t work out.

Just the way it happens in driver’s-ed movies, my mom’s haste got her into a nasty accident. The car was totaled, and she got banged up pretty badly — broken ribs, bruises, that kind of thing.

Nothing life-threatening, but bad enough that she couldn’t hold her adorable almost-three-month-old son for a little while, which I’m sure seemed like a fate worse than death.

With time, my mom got over her injuries. And ever since, she’s been careful not to try to make up time on the road — a lesson she’s also tried to pass along to her kids. (One of ’em listened, more or less, usually.)

The Ford Maverick leaving Hope Street in happier times, spring 1971.

The Ford Maverick leaving Hope Street in happier times, spring 1971.

As you might imagine, my mom’s injuries immediately drew my grandparents into action. My dad had to go to work, after all. And even if he’d taken time off, he’d have been challenged to care for a two-year-old and an infant, not to mention his injured wife.

(It is an accepted part of family lore that my dad never changed a diaper, and apparently he wiggled through my mom’s downtime without breaking that streak. Well played, Seventies Dad.)

The arrival of the family cavalry made for some unusual and even touching entries on my grandpa’s calendars.

September 28, 1973.

September 28, 1973. I assume everything is squiggled out on the 27th because the plans, whatever they were, got abruptly canceled.

Corine (it was family habit to spell it “Koreen”) was my paternal grandma — the wife of the guy who kept the calendars — while Tom was my maternal grandfather.

They weren’t common travel partners, at least not without their significant others in tow.

But Corine couldn’t drive. Someone had to take her to Penfield, and I think my other grandma was already there.

So, Koreen and Tom set out on what must have been an interesting (and long) car trip.

(If you look at the entry for Sept. 29 close up, you can see the word “PENFIELD?” erased. I guess the Stamfordians must have been making their mutual assistance plans from day to day.)

Two days later, we find a poignant calendar entry:

September 30, 1973.

September 30, 1973. The Yankees play, and lose, their last game at the original, pre-renovation Yankee Stadium.

My grandparents were close throughout their married life, and I cannot imagine there were too many times over their nearly 60 years of marriage when they went to bed in different states.

I wonder what that phone call was like, and whether my grandfather let any tenderness show, or whether he kept a stiff upper lip.

They remained separated for a full week (including another phone call), until my grandpa and great-grandma made their way to Penfield to supplement the war effort.

October 5, 1973.

October 5, 1973.

I didn’t take a pic of the rest of the calendar, so I don’t know how long everyone stayed. I see weather on the calendar the following week, which suggests my grandpa was back in Stamford by then.

Eventually, life got back to normal for the Blumenau family — thanks to the sacrifices of some branches.

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This week’s post is dedicated to anyone who’s ever thought, “They don’t build ’em like they used to.”

March 1, 1965

On Monday, March 1, 1965, my grandfather proudly took possession of a brand-new Ford.

It was a Fairlane, his first car with power brakes and power steering, not to mention a smooth, powerful 289 V8 engine. Not the sexiest ride, perhaps, but a fine example of why people get nostalgic for Detroit’s vaunted Good Old Days.

The arrival of a newly purchased car is always a big deal, especially when it’s fresh off the production line, and I’m sure my grandpa looked forward to many miles of driving. His excitement practically explodes off the page.

His excitement might have started fading as early as Thursday, March 4, when he found himself back at the dealership:

March 4, 1965.

My grandfather was not a risk-taker, behind the wheel or anywhere else, so I can’t fathom him doing anything that would have blown out his shock absorbers in four days of driving. I can only assume the car came off the line with a couple of defects, and that my grandpa made a 100-mile stop just to get the first batch of bugs ironed out.

From my point of view as a nearly-forty-something, this seems absurd: A brand-new car shouldn’t need any repairs. For the extra money it costs to buy new, you should be able to count on some period of flawless operation.

But I’ve heard other stories like my grandfather’s. A co-worker once told me he bought a car (Buick, I think) in the mid-’80s and was issued a checklist of potential faults. The idea was that he would drive the car for a little while, check off all the stuff that didn’t work or didn’t fit right, then bring it back to the dealer to get those faults repaired. It was simply expected that some glitches would be found.

At any rate, my grandfather’s honeymoon with his new Fairlane lingered at least until May 25, 1965. It might have ended that day, though.

May 25, 1965.

Now, my grandpa owned two Fords at that time — the new ’65, and a ’61 that started the year with 43,000 miles on it. I was going to give the ’65 the benefit of the doubt and assume the older car had the carburetor leak.

But my dad told me the ’61 Ford was at college with him in the spring of 1965. A carburetor leak “would have been my problem, not his,” my dad said. And since my dad went to college in Troy, N.Y., the ’61 Ford would not have been towed to Stamford Motors.

So there we have it — a car less than two months old, making a second trip for repairs, this time with a show-stopping engine defect. Nice.

A few years later, Arthur Hailey’s novel “Wheels” popularized the concept of “Monday and Friday cars” — the notion that cars built immediately before or after a weekend were poorly assembled because of high absenteeism and lack of attention.

Perhaps the ’65 Fairlane was a Monday or Friday car — though in those days, American carmakers had plenty of production problems from Tuesday to Thursday, too.

Ford’s acceptance of sloppy quality control later came back to cost it dearly. Seven years to the week after my grandpa’s carburetor problem, another new Ford with a carburetor defect would cause significant financial and PR damage for the company.

On May 28, 1972, a Ford Pinto stalled out in traffic on a California freeway, was rear-ended, and burst into flames. The car — bought new the previous November — had suffered from chronic stalling and other problems that several trips to the garage had failed to repair. After the accident, the stalling problem was traced to the carburetor.

The crash was the genesis of Grimshaw vs. Ford Motor Co., the legal case that accused Ford of willfully ignoring hazardous flaws in the Pinto’s fuel-tank design. The publicity surrounding the case would forever brand the Pinto as a firetrap and FoMoCo executives as callous, though of course the company disputed both conclusions.

Ford held on to my grandfather as a customer through 1969, when he bought another Fairlane — this time a homey cream-colored sedan. He passed the ’65 down to my Aunt Elaine, who used it for several years.

(Loyal readers may remember that the ’65 Fairlane appeared in two previous posts on this blog — breaking down in Vermont in 1967, and being stolen in Boston in 1971.)

The ’69 model served him well until the early ’80s, when my grandpa broke with decades of tradition and bought a Chrysler product instead of a Ford. He would go so far as to buy a Honda before being prevailed upon to turn in his keys in the ’90s. (Edit: I have my family history wrong. See the Comments for a correction.)

I would have been interested to see how my grandfather rated the cars he owned over the decades, and where the ’65 Fairlane ranked among them. Perhaps it was one of his favorites.

But if it were, that impression would not have been based on its first two months.

Come back tomorrow for a related quick-hit post.

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If you’re new here, and most likely you are, check out the previous blog post or the About page for the background on what we’re up to.

Between 1961 and 1975, the rate of violent crime in the United States tripled.

The property crime rate almost tripled.

And the homicide rate doubled.

Visit the online cover archive of Time magazine and search it for “crime.” You’ll find only five cover stories devoted to crime topics between 1923 and 1960. Between 1961 and 1975, there were 18, including trend stories like “Crime: Why and What To Do,” “The Urban Guerrillas” and “Cops v. Crime: Ready For A Hot Summer.” (As a Time-Life employee and longtime subscriber, my grandfather would have read all these issues.)

Doubtless, some people (the very young, the very aged and the very rich) passed unaffected through this period of turbulence.

Still, the upsurge in all types of major crime suggests that many Americans — voters, taxpayers, walkers of the straight and narrow — were affected in ways they had not previously experienced.

For every high-profile political assassination or race riot seared on the national memory, there were thousands of people who had their homes burgled or their pockets picked.

All of which brings us to a spring morning in 1971, and an unpleasant discovery on a Boston street:

The number of motor vehicle thefts in the state of Massachusetts rose from 14,215 to 91,563 in our 15-year period of choice.

In 1971, 56,709 vehicles were reported stolen.

And one of them, on the morning of April 16, was a green 1965 Ford registereavater2.jpgd to my grandfather.

My Aunt Elaine was going to grad school at Boston University at the time, and using the car to get to social work internships outside the city. She left her apartment one day to head out to an internship, and was surprised to find her car missing from its parking space.

Thankfully, the Blumenau family’s contribution to Seventies crime statistics turned out to be more opera bouffe than tragedy.

The Boston police, who initially told my aunt that many stolen cars were never found, called her back the next day to tell her they’d found it in a nearby neighborhood. The car was missing its windshield, but otherwise undamaged. While no one was ever charged, the assumption on all sides was that the Ford had been stolen for its windshield — probably by a “chop shop”-style repair operation — and then ditched.

The car was repaired … perhaps, my grandfather drily suggested, with the same windshield that had been taken from it in the first place.

My aunt went back to driving to her internships.

And a year or so later, she received — and accepted — a marriage proposal from my Uncle Steve in the same ’65 Ford. The car is long gone, but they’re still together.

(A few more family notes, before we leave this calendar entry behind. My grandfather’s attention to detail, even under stress, says something about him: Note how he specifically describes the car as “65 Ford Stolen” — as though he had multiple cars in Boston to differentiate between. The notation “Phoned Boston” is also redolent of a time when long-distance calls were rarer and more expensive than they are now.)

One summer, almost 25 years later, I parked a brand-new Plymouth in a dimly lit off-street parking lot on the Boston-Brookline border, every night for three months. Each morning I walked down Commonwealth Avenue hoping to find my car in one piece. And every morning, it was.

Whether that bespeaks a shift in social mores; more effective policing; or simply a lack of interest in the windshields of ’95 Plymouth Neons, I guess I’ll never know.

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