“What A Long Strange ‘Drive’ It’s Been!” (E/S)

1960 Cadillac Coupe DeVille
2020 Toyota C+ Pod EV

To say that North American, especially the US, has a long-entrenched history with the automobile may seem like a “duh” statement, but it is a bit more complicated than that, as these things usually are. There have been countless words written about “America’s love affair with the automobile,” and yet countless more that have debunked that popular myth. Of course, where you “stand” on our/your collective relationship with cars in this country, depends on many factors, but for me one of the most important ones is when and where you grew up. Coming “of age” (in this case referring to when you got your first driver’s license) for example, as I did in 1967 (in Canada), the sight of the Cadillac above (which was just sitting in an alley off 2nd St. in downtown Los Angeles the other day when I took the photo) would be a fairly common occurrence. In 1967 I had no idea what a Toyota was, had never heard the word. That would be true for most people of that era; even though the first Toyotas were in the US in the late 50s, they didn’t really make a larger impression until 1965/66 when the first Toyota Corona, specifically designed for American drivers (whatever that means!) flooded the auto market. The first ones in Canada didn’t arrive until around 1969.

1965 Toyota Corona
1965 Cadillac Coupe DeVille

When I wrote above, “whatever that means,” I was referring to the fact that Americans, especially in those days, preferred their cars had “style,” were bigger, much bigger, and did not look so utilitarian! As you can see by the two photos of the Cadillacs (1960/1965), there are many stylistic changes that have taken place, which would be true of the models of this car for the years in between as well. However, the Corona pictured above, was exactly the same in 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970! In 1971, it finally received a makeover:

1971 Toyota Corona

Yeah, I know! Back in the day, the release of next year’s car models in the US was a big thing. When I was growing up, there was a family ritual that went like this: After dinner on Sunday evening, my parents and my brother and I would settle in front of the television to watch two shows: “Ed Sullivan” and then “Bonanza.” Now Bonanza was sponsored by Chevrolet, one of GMs brands, and when the new models were rolling out, usually in September, Bonanza would air, for that one Sunday, without any commercials during the show. Instead, the broadcast would begin with an extended introduction to all the new Chevrolet models for that year, in retrospect, like one long infomercial! We watched every last second, except for my mom, who at the time did not drive, and couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about! Although I didn’t know it at the time, it was also my first introduction to the “old” 6th Street bridge in Los Angeles, which is famously known for the amount of car commercials filmed on it over the years, a bridge that I have lived a block away from for the past 12 years!

There were many, many kids of that era that I am certain had similar experiences to mine, although I feel mine got an extra boost from my dad, who at the time was a travelling salesman and spent a great deal of time in his car. And he knew his cars. Boy, did he know them! I have a vivid memory of being around 5/6 years old (1955/6) and standing on the balcony of our apartment playing the game: “Name that car.” He would point to a car passing by and I would have to give him the make, model, and year. Not to brag, but I usually nailed it! Now, take that same game and have a 5/6 year-old boy in 1969/70 playing it. His dad points to a passing car and the kid proudly exclaims: “Ha, that’s a 1966 Toyota Corona! Oh, wait, maybe it’s a 1969…no, make that a 1967…shit this game is hard!” “What did you just say!” The struggle was real.

Another fond memory of my Dad and his relationship to his cars was that later in life, whenever he was recalling something from his past, an event, a particular milestone, something we had done as a family, etc., etc., his particular trigger to recall that memory was the car that he owned at the time! It was quite amazing in retrospect. A typical conversation would go like this:

“Hey Dad, remember when we had that wonderful day skiing, and then it snowed the whole way home at the end of the day?”

“Of course, I remember. I had the 65, sky blue, Pontiac, Grand Prix!”

Now, I did not own my first car until several years after getting my driver’s license (a 1965 VW Bug, which was four years old when I bought it for $350.00!), so I had to get my driving fix whenever the one car we owned as a family was available. Did I mention that my father was a travelling salesman? But I had my tricks. Just about every Sunday (my dad was usually home on the weekends), I would offer to wash the car, with the added stipulation that once I was finished, I could take it for a spin, presumably to dry it that way, after washing it and hosing it down. I didn’t say it was a great trick, did I? Better yet, in the evenings he would allow me to drive the car to a friend’s house, which may sound like a wonderful opportunity to get some miles in, except for the fact that my best three buddies at that time lived close enough for me to walk there in less that five minutes…I may have taken a circuitous route on occasion, but it still took me less than three minutes. I did eventually get my miles in. There were a couple of summers, when I was done with school, that my dad took me with him on some of his extended sales trips, as his “assistant,” but also to help with the driving. His territory at the time was all of Quebec and Ontario, and if you consider that Ontario itself is 1,200 miles long from east to west, not to mention going north and south, there was a great deal of ground to cover.

I would be remiss if I did not mention Hollywood’s contribution to our fascination with the automobile and the celebration of it. Movies such as “Thunder Road” (1958), “Thunder in California” (1960), “Red Line 7000” (1965), “Hot Rods to Hell” (1967), and perhaps the one with the best title: “The Daring Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies: Monte Carlo or Bust” (1969). Probably the most celebratory car movie, and one that also treats the car as a kind of “rite of passage” for young men, was “American Graffiti” (1973). This would actually be the last movie for a time that “celebrated” the car, as by 1973 the United States, and much of the Western world were in the throes of the 70s “Oil Crisis,” as it was known at the time (1970-1980). And seemingly just like that, Hollywood shifted from “celebrating” cars to “demonizing” them. Some of you will remember that cult classic, “The Car” (1977), about a possessed Lincoln Continental, travelling the backroads of rural America (the heartland) indiscriminately killing people. Or, “Christine” (1983), based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, about a 1958 Plymouth Fury, a car that appeared to have a mind of its own, as well as a jealous and possessive personality. All this because, as we know, not only were there oil shortages, but gas prices jumped 35 % (1973/4) or, $0.39 a gallon…wait for it…to a staggering $0.53 per gallon! Even adjusted for inflation and in 2023 dollars, that represents an increase from $2.28 – $2.82 a gallon, or half the amount I just paid per gallon to fill up! Yeah, wake me up when there’s a real “crisis!”

All of which brings me back to the second photo at the top: The 2022 Toyota C+ Pod EV, which can just about fit in the trunk of the 1960 Cadillac beside it. For the curious, I provide the following:

SPECIFICATIONSToyota C+ Pod EV-2020Cadillac Coupe DeVille-1960
Wheelbase70.1 inches130.0 inches
Length98.0 inches225.0 inches
Width50.8 inches79.9 inches
Weight1400-1500 lbs.4,820 lbs.
Miles per Gallon93 miles per charge15

The Toyota seats two people, while the Cadillac seats six, but if you were hard-pressed, you could probably squeeze another two or three. So, is this what we can expect the future of automobiles to be, like the C+ Pod? It is, as you know, already happening, as more and more hybrid and all electric cars make their way into the North American market. It has, of course, been happening for decades in Europe and other parts of the world. And as I write, I can imagine that Hollywood is trying to figure out how to stylize that oft-repeated scene in so many movies. You know, the one where the intrepid hero travelling across rural America pulls into a two-pump gas station with tumbleweeds blowing along the road, and a crusty old, bearded attendant with overalls, a rag sticking out of his back pocket, and a mouth full of chewing tobacco, walks up to the car, discharges a wad of tobacco sputum, and says: “Filler-up?”  I don’t know about you, but I am having trouble getting my head around re-imagining that scene with an electric charging station and no engine noise!

Los Angeles 2023

7 thoughts on ““What A Long Strange ‘Drive’ It’s Been!” (E/S)

  1. Those fathers of ours sure loved their cars! My papa added a devotion to airplanes— he’d worked at Douglas Aircraft during WWII. When he heard a plane outside, he’d sometimes rush our entire family out to stare at the sky and then call out the model and name. It seemed a mysterious ritual to me — but I never questioned its importance!
    Nice essay, mon ami.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lots of great memories there, interesting connection with your dad and cars and also the 6th Street bridge, but is it groovy? Hollywood will really have to work on that gas station scenario for sure. Maybe heighten the tension with an extension cord?

    Liked by 1 person

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