Left, 1949 Plymouth
Right, 1950 Monarch
I was thinking today about all the cars that I have owned since I purchased a 1949 Plymouth Coupe from Spackman Motors in St. Thomas for $450 in 1956. To the best of my recollection I have had 21 cars and one truck in a 58-year period, which I would imagine would be about average for someone in their mid to late 70s today.
Over the years I have owned Plymouth, Monarch, Dodge, Ford, Chevrolet, Buick, Meteor, Pontiac, Chrysler, and Hyundai vehicles. While I have to dig deep into the memory bank to remember some of the cars, the two that I remember most are the first two on the list -- a black 1949 Plymouth Coupe and a two-tone blue 1950 Monarch, maybe because in a way they are like your first girl friend. You just always have a soft place in your heart for them. But for me, those first two cars were unquestionably the most memorable because of the bitter-sweet stories attached to them.
I don't know what ever possessed me, but I found myself in Spackman's used car lot one day in the summer of 1956. "Hey Dick old buddy," shouted baseball friend and car salesman Al Topping as he emerged from behind a red 1954 Pontiac. "Wanna buy a car?"
"Naw, just looking Al," I responded. I was 18 years of age and didn't even have a driver's licence for crying out loud. As a matter of fact, I had never even been behind the wheel of a car let alone drive one.
"Know what? I think we've got just the car for a guy like you," enthused Al as he took my arm and ushered me over to a gleaming black two-door coupe with the driver's side door open and motor running. "I just had this little Plymouth out for a test drive and it's a beauty. It was owned previously by a Salvation Army widow in town." As Al lifted the hood to expose a motor that was completely foreign to me, I kicked one of the front tires because I'd seen others doing it and it seemed the thing to do at a time like this.
"It looks like it's in good shape...How much is it?" I made the mistake of asking. "We'll work something out for you," Al answered, rather evasively. "Come on, I'll take you out for a ride before we talk about price."
"Well, I don't have a driver's licence and I don't think I can buy a car without one, can I?" I asked sheepishly with the hope that this would let me off the hook. "Sure you can, as a matter of fact if you buy this car I'll teach you how to drive," was my persistent friend's quick response. "Look Dick, because I know you, I think that I can talk my manager into letting you have this car for a steal, maybe around $450." It just so happened that between playing semi-pro baseball with the St. Thomas Senior Intercounty baseball team and my wages from Jack Fraser Stores ($45.00 a week) that summer, I had saved up almost $500.00, so it wasn't as though the price was out of reach for me.
Long story short, 20 minutes and my signature on a dotted line later, I was the proud owner of my first car and sitting in my landlady's driveway with Al showing me how to manually shift gears and simultaneously engage the clutch with my right foot. "Think of your gear shift as the letter H. You have first and second gears, reverse and park with neutral in between," he explained. "Just keep practicing going forward and backwards in the driveway for a few days and I'll check in with you this weekend to see how you are doing," Al added as he climbed into his smiling sales manager's car as it idled at the curb.
I didn't practice driving much the rest of the day...I just sat there on the front porch very much overwhelmed and trying to replay in my mind what had just transpired. Long after dark I kept going out to check on the car to see if it was still there and to confirm that it had not been all a dream.
The next evening after supper, I ventured out to do some practice gear shifting in the driveway. I was excited on one hand, but apprehensive on the other. After a half dozen trips back and forth, I suddenly felt a sense of false courage and kept going forward out onto Horton Street where I had no choice but to make a right turn. A few hundred all-too-quick yards and I found myself at the busy intersection of the city's main street. Again, I turned right on to Talbot Street at the first opportunity, primarily because I was afraid to turn left across two lanes of traffic. Suddenly I was in a do-or-die situation...I had no choice other than to grit my teeth and keep going. And keep going I did, five miles out of town, all the way to the village of Talbotville where I was finally able to turn around in the parking lot of the landmark Wayside Inn.
Then it was back to St. Thomas and living the nightmare of six traffic lights on Talbot Street all over again. But a funny thing happened on the way back to good old Horton Street -- I began to feel pretty damn good about my new-found driving ability, to the point that I was actually quite comfortable at the controls of that little Plymouth car that had previously been so intimidating to me.
When I finally arrived home and pulled back into the driveway, my landlady (Mrs. Reid) was on the front steps literally wringing her hands. "Dick, for heaven's sake, where have you been? I've been worried sick ever since I saw you disappear on Talbot Street. I was expecting to get a call from the police at any minute. Get in the house right now and tell me all about it." The poor dear lady was like a mother to me and I was at least thankful that I would not be facing the wrath of my real mother on this occassion.
The next day I was so confident (or ignorantly stupid) that I drove back up Talbot Street again to the motor licence bureau (sans licence) where I asked if I might take a driving test. A very accommodating inspector agreed to take me out for a 10-minute test drive which I subsequently, and surprisingly, passed in spite of the fact that I parked in a no parking zone when we got back to the office. With no further questions asked, I walked away as a qualified driver, 48 hours after I had purchased my first car. A miracle?...Maybe so.
Now it was time to face the biggest hurdle of all -- my mother. That Saturday afternoon I made the 65-mile trip to my home town of Dresden, arriving just in time to pick my mother up at the drug store where she worked at the time. She was so shocked when she saw me that she flatly refused to get in the car. "You can't drive!...Do you think I've taken leave of my senses...I'm staying on the sidewalk where I know I'm safe," she yelled as she retreated in horror.
She arrived home on foot 10 minutes later and it took me another hour to calm her down and to convince her that I actually could drive and that I had a licence to prove it. In due course she did eventually get in the car with me, but it took another trip home to Dresden a few weeks later to make that significant breakthrough.
My car salesman friend Al never did show up for a second driving lesson. Guess he forgot!?
I have another story to tell about that little Plymouth coupe and how I came about my second car, the 1950 Monarch. But I'll save that for my next post.