Nothing Smart about it


Nowadays, it’s all about mileage and doing the right thing. When I was a kid, it was all about style, or at least our dim, dumb sense of style. Kids hankered after GTOs, Vettes, Road Runners, T-birds, Bonnevilles. Some of us realized our dreams. Inexplicably, they somehow got their hands on a Vette and drove it across the country on Route 66. Others were handy enough to turn a Ford coupe into a low, noisy street rod. For some of us, the dream died aborning, as they say.

My dad believed that a car was just transportation. At least he said he did. If his heart lifted when he caught sight of a flashy sports car or a wicked street rod, he never let on. A workmanlike ride-on mower or a monster gas-powered red snow blower might give him a flutter, but cars seemed to make no music he could hear.

The first family car I remember was sporty in a limited way. It was a black DeSoto coupe, two-door, flanked with undulating Rubenesque fenders and a stand-aside-buster aura. The sportiness had to do with the two-doorness, but the automatic transmission guaranteed an utter absence of liveliness. There was no visual thrill, and the low bench seat made for an uncertain sense of the open road ahead, or anywhere around for that matter. She was smooth though.

I don’t remember the vintage, but it was old. Sunday afternoon drives had a stuffy, smokey incarcerated feel, no matter the weather. It was no place for an only child to spend his Sundays.

Then there was the four-door Nash Rambler, kind of blue-gray and round, round, round. This was when swooping fins and low-slung bodies were big and getting bigger. Nash had zigged when the world zagged, and my dad zigged with them.

The Rambler was high and bulgy and slow, and it backfired. That is, it backfired if you drove it over 45. Racing to the junior prom, naturally, you wanted to go faster, so you had to accept the comparisons your friends would make between your passage and the cartoon images of rabbits, mice, and dogs toot-tootling down the road with the smoky remains of explosions in their wakes. The young are so unkind. My friends described the Rambler as an upside-down bathtub. My heart swoons at the memory.

To its eternal credit, the Rambler did have reclining seats that turned the interior into a small room with a double bed, and this one feature, especially valuable in those days of drive-in theaters, attracted the esteem of my friends.

There was, briefly, a black two-door Ford Fairlane with splurging, chrome-edged fins that went on forever, and a big round tail light at the end of each one. God, that was a car, and dad caught a bit of its rhythm. Maybe in those days he was taking his love to town, as they say, and he needed a car to take with him. Who knows? But, he spent a lot of time Simonizing it. The paint job was spectacular.

His last car was a Chevy Caprice (I think), also two-door, but this time two-tone as well, and an automatic. Automatic, indeed. Dad had only to start her up and back out of the drive, the Chevy knew the way to work and back. Basic transportation, no pretension, yeomanry on wheels.

The best car ever in my family rarely left my grandfather’s garage. It was a lime green LaSalle two-door, with big round headlights that set out in front and above the fenders. The doors were hinged at the rear, like Saabs were in the early days of their popularity. Although he adored it, my grandfather had little use for the car, and for a long time he would have it out only on Sundays each week for a run, weather permitting. In those days, the prevailing belief was that you had to take the machine, as my grandmother called it, out regularly or it would, I suppose, feel bad and disappoint you when you needed it. Occasionally, he would authorize my father to conduct the weekly constitutional, and I could go along. Wow. Heads turned. In Maine this fall walking through the neighborhood behind Prout’s Neck, I came across a tumbledown shed that garaged an almost identical LaSalle, also green. It had Sunfish sails and surfboards leaning against it, which makes me think it had not gotten its weekly spin for a very long time.

I knew cars were more than transportation. Friends had Austin-Healy 3000 sports jobs and Triumph TR-3s, even Austin-Healy Sprites, and it was easy to see what these wheels did for their spirits, not to mention their love life. One friend had a Romanian or Yugoslavian four-seater, a convertible. We double dated once, but the transmission got stuck in reverse at the A&W root beer stand, and we had to take the girls home driving backwards all the way. Tough to shake that off.

But when in my senior year at college it was time for me to have a first car, I took just a half step away from basic transportation. I marched over to Foreign Motors of Boston, on Comm. Ave., where the wildest, most exhilarating, snazziest sports cars hung out, and came away with a four-door MG Magnette, for $250.

You don’t know the Magnette? Well, the MG web site explains: In 1932, the MG Car Company built some saloon cars that had tiny Wolseley six-cylinder overhead camshaft engines. They were of 1087cc at first, and produced just 39bhp to power a quite smart looking car – oh, yes indeed – on a nine-foot wheel base, and another, shorter version. The names of the models were MG Magna, and MG Magnette. The cars were developed after a year or so into very well known MG racing cars, such as the Magnette K3 and K4 series. (These latter had nothing to do with me.) People have now forgotten that the name Magnette was first used on a small, underpowered, saloon car.

Not everything I had dreamed of. I wasn’t after a saloon car really, but it was a heck of a car. Black, with red leather seating and a wood dash of burly walnut, the Magnette had the squarish hood that speaks to MG lovers, and those cute little magic fingers that poke out of the center doorpost to offer directional guidance to nearby motorists. The word corker was invented for that car.

The Magnette ran like a top, when it did not require a mechanic’s attention to its finicky carburation system. And it loved the open road. In fact, long hauls were best because short hops were bothersome. At the end of its career with me, the car’s starter motor packed up, no replacements were obtainable, and I had to start it with a crank. It worked just fine, but in certain weather and in certain company, it was a drag.

The guy at Foreign Motors who sold me the car was a Brit, imported I suppose to dress up the sales floor. But he was about my age and a kindred spirit, except that he drove a Jaguar XKE, which was to driving what Michael Jordan was to basketball. We traded cars once in a while, and afterward the old Magnette’s charms were temporarily dimmed for me.

Of course, that was all a while ago, and although a moment’s reverie brings it all back sharp and clear, there’s no retracing the many steps between then and now. Cars are not as important anymore. They’re just transportation and a disparaged form of transportation at that.