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Inside the Brown Bag: The Cars

By Peg Brown

This is a topic about which I know almost nothing. Honestly. So, if I make some mistakes in identifying makes and models, you’ve been warned before you read any further. I could rarely identify a car by its outward appearance or grill logo, unless it was something I could never afford; I have consistently cared only about cars that started when you turned the key; and I always drove whatever car I did own—into the proverbial ground.

So why this topic? A recent headline in the Providence Journal: “Ford to Ditch Cars in North America-Focus on Trucks and SUVs.” This came at a great surprise to a North Country girl of the 1950s and 1960s, when the only pick-up trucks around were those that were rusted-out two seaters, usually red, used almost exclusively for riding around the fields of our dairy farms. The Fords of choice (one of the two car brands sold in town) were usually station wagons, the Ford Fairlane or the sexy Mustang introduced in 1964. My first thought? What would old Henry, founder of the company think? (Best informed guess at the end of the column.)

I don’t remember my parents having a car when my sister and I were toddlers, but Mother tells me that with the assistance of his parents, Dad bought an old Studebaker during his senior year at St. Lawrence while he was there on the GI Bill. I guess we walked everywhere before that acquisition—or rather my sister and I would have been pushed in some kind of stroller.

Grandpa Cordwell did have his pride and joy Studebaker (hence Dad’s affinity for this brand)—but then he commuted to a mill in DeKalb every day in his role as an accountant. The first car I do remember was a brand I can’t recall. I only remember it because it was yellow and black with large tail fins and seemed to me at the time totally out of character with the personality of my conservative father. The last family car that made any impression on me at all was a Ford Country Squire—dark green—and that only lives in my memory because I could pack it to the roof with all the essentials of life I needed to take with me to college in Pennsylvania.

I do remember that when Dad was in the market for a “new car”—(they were never new—we would call them “pre-owned” today)—the negotiation and research process could consume weeks. Dad was always one “to think about it”—and that referred to almost any purchase he ever made. The only real guide in those days to a car’s value was the infamous Blue Book which provided the parameters for the beginning point of negotiation for both buyer and seller. Dad could haggle—to the point of everyone’s frustration, especially Mother’s. I remember more than once when the deal would be sealed because the car dealer would throw in floor mats just to get Dad to sign an agreement. I began to think floor mats must be a very expensive item—and always asked that they be included when I made my car purchases as an adult.

As to our generation’s supposed obsession with cars, I really had to think about that. Very few of my classmates owned cars in high school. Proms almost always necessitated asking for the family vehicle, a request that was accompanied with at least a half-hour of admonitions about rules, regulations and curfews. Those that did own cars were in high demand for the occasional excursion to the mountains, an away game or an off-season party at someone’s camp.

I did have one classmate whose well-hidden passion for fast cars emerged in the form of a grey GTO—or ghetto as we called it. This early muscle car was popularized in Ronny & the Daytonas’ 1964 Billboard hit single “G.T.O.” “Little GTO, you’re really lookin’ fine/Three Deuces and a four-speed and a 389…” (Wilkin, 1964). My last memory of that car? A New Year’s Eve in college where one had a few too many cocktails before dinner and had to be transported home before midnight. The next morning as I pulled myself together and went down to breakfast, my father thought it was humorous to play Guy Lombard’s “Auld Lang Syne” that he had thoughtfully recorded just for me.

Ironically the same classmate later acquired a little blue rag top Triumph. And, the Daytonas just happened to have a song, “My Bucket T” in 1965. “All the girls want to take a ride with me/But there’s only one seat in my Bucket T.” Yes, that’s true—but more importantly in central New York in the winter, there was no heat! His affair with sports cars continued…at least through his twenties. I remember when he returned from Korea and stopped by to say hello to Mom and Dad. Mom, knowing his propensity, asked what he was driving. The response, “Oh, just a Chevy.” You guessed it, a bright orange corvette. He was not the only classmate enamored by fast and flashy cars. Another had a passion for Porsches which has still not ended.

My own first car was a 1966 Mustang—dark green, 289 eight cylinder engine and the Pony interior. I bought it (used) during my last year of graduate school for $1550—and still have the original bill of sale in the file cabinet. I drove that thing until the early 80s, through my first real job and the childhood of my daughter. Oh, there were memorable moments—such as the time I was driving her from Maine to RI to visit her grandparents— she was sleeping in the back seat (no seat belt). I will admit to periodically putting my hand back to check if she was still breathing—the floor was completely rusted out and the carbon dioxide fumes were, let’s just say, problematic. Bad Mother! I finally sold it for $700 (just smack me!), and bought my first Toyota. I traveled back to Ogdensburg to make the purchase—bought a stick shift, and drove it all the way to RI making sure I never had to shift into reverse—I wasn’t sure how.

Affordable models were also introduced in the 1960s—the Rambler, Ford Falcon, Chrysler Valiant, Mercury Comet, Volkswagens, and the infamous and ill-fated Corvair. (My college room-mate’s fiancé actually owned one.)

A quick scan of internet sources indicates that our generation was indeed obsessed with cars. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were well over 100 songs about cars—including “Mustang Sally” by The Young Rascals, “Little Deuce Coupe” by the Beach Boys and “Drive My Car” by the Beatles. Even more memorable were what some call the teenage tragedy song—songs about teen death that were often caused by an automobile accident: “Teen Angel” by Mark Dinning, “Tell Laura I Love Her” by Ray Peterson, and “Dead Man’s Curve” by Jan and Dean.

As to miles driven? While Americans in general may have been driving more, it would be had to prove that during our high school years. No one really commuted to a job—a few drove more than the usual 5 miles to work, but few traveled hours each day. Families did take vacations, but I can honestly say that our family never took a “road trip” much further 100 miles.

All that changed when I moved to Rhode Island in the early 1970s. It was a sea change—beach traffic, I-95 and an urban environment, where, despite the small size, distance was measured in minutes, not miles, because traffic congestion always had to be considered. I remember both my Father and Mother asking every time they visited—“how can you deal with this?” My answer: “You should try to drive in Boston.”

But back to the headline and what Henry Ford might have to say about his company’s shift in focus and plans to spend over $11 billion on electrification research and the production of hybrids over the next four years.

First a few facts that obviously drove (no pun intended) this decision:

Over a 19 year production run 16,500,000 Model T’s were sold at a base cost of $875—approximately $1,800 in today’s dollar. After all, they could reach 40 mph.
This number stood until the Volkswagen Beetle reached over 21 million sales between 1938 and 2003. The Beetle was eventually eclipsed by Toyota in 2013 at 40 million vehicles sold.
In 2015 Ford sold over 780,000 of its F Series Trucks. Today it is reported that Ford makes over 90% of its profits on its F Series, mostly thanks to the sale of 150s.
According to press releases from Detroit of that era, models designed in 1964 were focused on women, who at that time, made about 1 million purchases of automobiles annually. This is consistent with Ford’s decision to focus on SUVs which the company indicates are desired mostly by women today.
But back to what Henry might say today. Quoting from his memoires, in founding the Company, he said, “I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for… it will be low in price so that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one and enjoy with his family the blessings of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.” But he also said, “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.” Given our changing lifestyle, expectations, transportation networks and priorities, ol’ Henry might have to think about this decision—that is until he was reminded that revenues for the company in the US alone in 2017 topped 93.8 BILLION.