Car Talk

There was a time when you could sit in the engine well of your Chevy to work on the engine and have enough room to invite a friend or two to join you. There is little opportunity for that now; anti pollution equipment and computer chips fill the engine compartment along with a bewildering arrangement of wires, tubes and odd looking boxes. Changes in emission standards and technology have changed the way we look at cars. Before the change, one of the first things viewed when looking at a car was the engine. The salesman was quick to pop the hood to show you the shiny engine with the chrome air cleaner sitting proudly on the carburetor, expounding on the virtues of the six or eight-cylinder power plant as interested persons stood about, nodding sagely. To not look at the engine would have been a breach of etiquette and, quite frankly, would have marked you as strange. You might as well not kick the tires either. Only after inspecting the mechanics and kicking the tires, did the prospective buyer actually sit behind the wheel. He might (as an aside, buying a car was a right of manhood; women were known to purchase cars, but the event was rare) appreciate the expanse of the bench seat (the importance of which will be explained later), but most certainly would inspect the gauges. A temperature gauge, oil pressure gauge and an ammeter were a must. If you were feeling flush and were buying the sporty model, you could opt to have a tachometer installed. Normally, what you saw is what you got. It didn’t matter if you could read the gauges, they had to be there and there was a large outcry when these gauges were replaced with “idiot” lights, since, if they lit up, the damage was already done. Otherwise, there was little in the way of color choice or interior accoutrements.

Knowing the mechanics of a car was important in the ’50s, especially in rural northern Indiana. Every teen-aged boy worth his salt was expected to be able to understand how the engine worked and just what to do in case of trouble, something most cars could be prone to. You might never have performed some of the more convoluted repairs, but, you assured everyone, you could do so if necessary. That is no longer the case unless the mechanic also has a degree in computer science. Even the simplest chore, like changing the oil, requires a dexterity and skill most owners would rather leave to someone else.

Other changes have occurred over the years, such as moving the dimmer switch from the floorboards to the steering column, depriving the driver of the satisfaction of mashing the button to blink the headlights whenever an oncoming driver had to be reminded of the common courtesy of dimming his lights. For a time, the more posh General Motors cars, not including the Chevy, installed an electric eye on the dash that would automatically dim the lights for oncoming traffic. The innovation was short lived as was the idea of the push button transmission. Shifting by having to push a button in the hub of the steering wheel was just too weird.

There were no seat belts in those’ 50s marvels, no center console and no gear shift box on the floor. This meant you could, if you wished, seat three people in the front seat although the middle seat normally was reserved for a child; the transmission hump making the seat too uncomfortable for any adult trying to sit there. But, more importantly, the bench seat and the lack of any obstructions meant you could ride with your steady sitting next you, your arm around her as you toured the countryside; something not possible in the chaste automobiles of the present. The back seat, too, easily held three people, more if you were of so a mind and no one’s knees were crunched into the back of the front seat. The old Hudsons had a back seat area quite as large as a small living room and it is the only car I can recall that you actually seemed to step down into. That these ample back seat areas were sometimes used for other activities should come as a surprise to no one.

For a time, the car was the teenagers refuge from home and parents. Party lines meant that personal conversations on the telephone could be difficult and, in those days, no one of the opposite sex was allowed in your room, whatever the reason, ever. Actual practice aside, certain standards had to be maintained and, unlike today, most aspects of one’s personal life were off limits and never discussed in public. The Everly Brothers in Wake Up, Little Suzie, could sing” … our reputation is shot … What’re we gonna tell your Momma, what’re we gonna tell your Pop, what’re are gonna tell all our friends when they say ‘Ooh La La'” to an audience that actually did care what others thought of them. The only privacy to be had was in the car and it is where one discussed the perplexities of life, and private thoughts, not meant for parental ears, were shared. It is where a first kiss might be given and where, in the darkness of a November’s eve, “I Love You” was first spoken.