I think about cars and trucks all the time. When I don’t go to an old car show or cruise night in person, I have innumerable reminders of all the neat vintage vehicles lingering out there, accessed through books, magazines, television programs, and online videos.
These recollections or remembrances get triggered very regularly and bring to mind memorable if not dramatic or even enhanced visions.
I recently saw a bright red 1957 Thunderbird convertible and thoughts of cruising down the palm-lined tropical southern coast, with wind blowing in my hair, came to mind. Glimpses of full-custom 1951 Mercury hardtops showing off reflections of their exotic flame paint jobs, chopped tops, Buick side trim, and Desoto grille teeth come to life beneath the white lights of vintage 1950s drive-ins. Merced had one of those drive-ins many years ago.
I will never forget the pigment-shifting DuPont Chromalusion paint jobs found on some cars which fade between greens, purples, blue and red shades. I could circle around one of those dazzling cars for hours and be intrigued all the while with the changing colors.
I can picture an “original” 1960s Ford Bronco 4X4, with its big knobby tires and heavy roll cage, climbing steep, rocky terrain in the high country, when off-roading was in its infancy.
Big construction machinery and commercial trucks are sure-fire entries into my lifetime thrill category. If it’s big, noisy and has more power than you can imagine, I am an eager spectator. The Merced Fire Department’s long ladder truck with its rear-steer tail end lumbered into our tiny cul-de-sac early one morning with its red lights flashing for what ultimately turned out to be only a malfunctioning smoke alarm. That mammoth truck acquired mainly to fight blazes in tall buildings almost couldn’t get out of our little bitty street. In just a few minutes all the excitement was over.
Massive construction equipment used in the building of skyscrapers in San Francisco and San Jose — or the demolition of these worn-out structures later — instantly earn respect, especially for the operators who deftly move gargantuan boulders and steel beams with their long “arms” and buckets. It’s like children playing with sand at the beach, just a whole lot more serious and precise. Does anyone else remember those steam-powered pile drivers and the staccato pounding noise?
Years ago, roads got paved with massive and super-wide paving machines that easily covered one lane of travel and hopefully nothing got in their way as the steaming and super-hot asphalt was laid down.
Years of commuting to college on aged GM Twin Coach buses makes me venerate those classic and rustic 1950s lines to this day.
Way before those ever-present brown-colored UPS delivery trucks came onto the scene, you could spot boxy green-colored Railway Express Agency vans with their diamond-shaped signs dropping off merchandise to stores and residential porches. Bottled milk was delivered directly to your doorstep in smaller workhorse Divco trucks with their curved hood and fender sides.
Visions of cool custom car shows at the county fairgrounds can be instantly revived through vintage magazine articles, with radical chrome-covered customs perched at odd angles over beds of white crushed rock, revolving color wheels and angel hair sticking out of their wheel wells.
Sixty-plus years ago, many car interiors had scotch cross-hatched fabric sections in the center of their seats and door panels. Those homespun, colorful designs make an endearing down home fashion statement for any vintage interior.
The power embodied in vintage race cars can still make the hairs on my arm stick out. I can remember the massive low-slung orange-colored McLaren race cars, with their super-wide tires, big block V-8 engines and tall rear airfoils sitting silently in the pits at Laguna Seca Raceway before a Can-Am race. In an instant those motors came to life and the sound could hurt unprotected ears.
Much later, this awe was revived at an open house for a brand-new auto repair center in Merced. A Chevrolet Beretta pro stock drag car was fired up in the parking lot and rumbled its way down the driveway. Such barely-harnessed power cloaked in a short fiberglass body!
Some old cars just ooze class and style that has passed from the scene now. A 1956 Ford Crown Victoria two-door hardtop has the most sculptural side trim one could imagine and some of these had clear plexiglass roof sections letting the sun shine boldly into the interior.
A decade or two earlier, the auto fancier could marvel at the intricate woodwork arrayed in woody station wagons. Their solid wooden geometric roof bracing shows the carpenter’s handiwork to dazzling effect.
Sometimes the attention-getters at a car show can’t move by themselves. I get nostalgic very quickly checking out a Shasta travel trailer with its quaint kitchen table, checkered side curtains, tiny stove top and sleeping area. And I have seen miniature super-realistic model dioramas of those classic 1950s burger joints, complete with counter stools and booths, tiny jukeboxes and a cook slaving over the griddle.
Years ago, many cars were just plain big, much larger than today’s vehicles. The principal of my elementary school had a 1953 Cadillac Sedan De Ville four-door sedan with the proportions and heft of an Army battle tank. A decade later I marveled over the vertical expanse of the hood and trunklid on a 1960 Oldsmobile 98 four-door hardtop. These vintage luxocruisers will more than fill up the tiny parking spaces drawn out in most of our contemporary parking lots.
Taking it to the other extreme, my memory banks bring to mind three tiny Nash Metropolitan two-seaters that rolled into my life 40 to 50 years ago. These Metropolitans had so much charm rolled into such a small package. One was pink and was owned by downtown champion Susie Rossi. Another green one belonged to my first city editor at the newspaper and was a familiar sight around the county courthouse. The third one belonged to a chum at the newspaper and rarely came to work with him.
Sometimes our cars became rolling fashion statements. For a little while Chrysler Corp. had paisley-covered vinyl “mod tops” on their rooflines in the late 1960s, highlighting the psychedelic-hippie era. This funky trend should have lasted longer.
People are still making these rolling memories to this day. My history is wrapped tightly around cars and trucks rarely seen in person anymore which come alive every now and then at car shows, on the Internet or in long-suppressed memories.
Doane Yawger of Merced is a semi-retired newspaper reporter and editor.