I grew up during the 60s, that transitional era when cars became more than transportation for the common person, and evolved into being a personality statement. I grew up on a farm, where driving at an early age was a given, and as the youngest in the family, I never knew a time when we didn’t have a “kids’ car”, a vehicle whose sole purpose was getting us kids to and from town, school and extracurricular events. There might have been some late-night carousing involved, too.
The 60s were also years when gasoline was dirt cheap. I had never heard the term, “miles per gallon.” The farm had fuel for the equipment so we had our own gas pumps in the front yard. Throughout my youth I never had to pay for gas for the kids’ car. Definitely a different world. At the time I thought this was normal, but now I realize how not-normal it was, even for that day and age.
The first kids’ car I can remember was a 1959 Plymouth Belvedere with big fins and a push button transmission. In my mind’s eye it was a grey-blue color with lots of chrome. My folk’s “good car” was parked in the one stall, heated garage, the Plymouth was in the first stall of the shed. That car took us kids to school most days, elevating us from being school bus kids. Since I was the littlest, I remember sitting in the front seat, watching my oldest brother or sisters push the transmission buttons that were on one side of the dash, in a V angle, the opposite side of the V had buttons for other functions.
We ran that Plymouth into the ground as only a passel of teenagers can do. One of Dad’s good friends owned the Rambler dealership in Hardin. I’m sure over a few cigars and maybe a shot of Old Grand Dad (or two) Bud Brown convinced my dad to replace the Plymouth with a 1965 Rambler Marlin. This was the newest (and only, to my knowledge) sports car from Rambler. We had to wait for the car, as it hadn’t even been released yet. Dad bought the signature red with black fastback accents. This car had the precursor to bucket seats, but there was enough foam in the seats to make us feel like the Princess and the Pea. It had a center console, and an automatic stick transmission. The engine was a V8 and I can tell you we had the hottest looking car in town. The Marlin competed with the Plymouth Barracuda and the Ford Mustang when it came out. Since today no one remembers what a Marlin is (and no one under 50 remembers what a Rambler was), and everyone knows what a Barracuda is (mostly from that popular 60s song) and the world knows what a Mustang is, I imagine our Marlin ended up in a junkyard someplace years after I graduated from high school having put on my share of miles on that dinosaur. I do know for a short period of time my brother had to use it as his farm vehicle, and had ripped out the back seats to haul irrigation tubes and shovels around.
While we kids were driving around in the “kids’ car” my folks were going through their own string of cars. Back in those days my dad traded cars every two or three years. He had friends in the car business, so there was always pressure to drive a “new” car. One night mom and I were in Billings at Bud Blair’s home waiting for the men to come back from where ever they were. Mom and Inez were having mom talks; Bruce, who was my age, and I were expected to entertain ourselves, which I imagine we did. I was about 6 years old. The afternoon faded to evening; evening faded to night. I remember the moms getting antsy. Finally, the men came back, maybe slightly inebriated, but I was too young to know for sure. And out at the curb was a brand new, straight off the showroom floor, Oldsmobile 98. Mom drove us home—she normally drove my dad around—and I explored the front and back seat, crawling over the bench seats, touching all the knobs and power window levers. Seatbelts didn’t exist yet, and I often would lie lengthwise in the back window.
Mom and Dad ran through several Olds 98s. Dad had a best friend who was a big farmer in the Santa Maria Valley of California. He had a Lincoln Continental, the model with the suicide doors. There was a lot of pressure for my dad to get a Continental, but then the Olds Toronado was introduced. The Toronado was hyped as a front wheel drive two door full sized coupe. Front wheel drive was revolutionary. People wondered if it would be safe! Of course it had a 455 horsepower V8 engine, and cushy bench seats, and because there was no drivetrain to the rear wheels, there was no big hump running down the mid-line of the interior. My folks drove it to California and left it for a few weeks while I was going to school at Stanford. I drove it down Highway 1 to Morro Bay and got into a rockslide. A rock about the size of a basketball hit the door so I couldn’t open the driver’s side door. That really ruined my time with wheels, I worried about the trouble I’d be in when they came back.
Another time my college boyfriend had flown to Montana for Christmas. My folks, my brother Harry, my boyfriend and I were driving back to Stanford from Montana after holiday break. The boyfriend was driving the Toronado across the flats of Nevada after a snowstorm. The roads were snow packed. I was sitting in the middle, my brother to my right. I remember looking at the speedometer registering 70. We hit ruts in the road and the car spun a couple 360s. Everyone was ok, and the snow cushioned us to a stop in the median. The boyfriend never drove again that trip, and our relationship didn’t last through some rough spots, either.
I spent one year at Stanford without a car. I thought I was going to die. The summer between my freshman and sophomore year I waitressed at the Purple Cow Pancake House in Hardin, but during my time off I helped my brothers on the farm. That summer, wheat prices were at $3.48/bushel, double from the previous year, 1972. I was driving truck during harvest, and as my brother Harry and I watched the grain coming out the combine auger into the truck, he said, “There’s your car for next year.” He meant that the one truckload of wheat could buy me a car. I couldn’t do that on the summer wages as a waitress.
Coming soon, Part 2, College Car, Company Cars