Lame Adventure 452: Hello, Old Friend!

As usual at quitting time, I bolted The Grind seemingly jet propelled. I was meeting a friend for dinner at a restaurant near my workplace in Tribeca. To get there, I had to trudge through the biting winter cold coming in off the Hudson River. Biting winter cold is a reliable motivator to pick up the pace, but when I eyed several Sixties-era sedans parked down Franklin Street, my feet slowed to a crawl so I could ogle like it was spring. Tribeca is a very picturesque Manhattan neighborhood with quaint, cobblestone streets and buildings constructed in the 19th Century resplendent with old world charm and costing stratospheric 21st Century ransom. It’s a popular location for film and television shoots — the reason why so many vintage American cars from my youth were parked curbside. As I passed a black Chevy Impala circa 1964, I recalled my mother’s four door 1963 Chevy Belair, the one we called “the blue Chevy” that looked exactly like:

This one!

This one!

There it was, parked mere paces away from The Grind, a monster of a car from my childhood that was solid as a tank. It had a two speed automatic transmission, weighed 3,424 pounds, measured 210.4 inches long, 79.4 inches wide and stood 55.5 inches tall. The trunk capacity was 19 cubic feet, perfect for stuffing a body. Mom preferred to use it for groceries.

A family of four could almost fit in this trunk.

A family of four could fit inside this trunk.

It had a 20.1 gallon fuel tank when gas cost 30 cents a gallon. The engine was a 230 cubic-inch six-cylinder with 140 hp. Mileage on this gas-guzzler was 10.9 – 13.9 mph in the city and 12.4 – 15.8 mph on the highway. It went from 0-60 in 14.1 seconds. It had two seatbelts: one for the driver and the other for the front seat passenger. Whenever I’d sit up front with my brother, Axel, we made that passenger seatbelt communal. We shared it and buckled up together.  Gas cost 53 cents in 1974, the year my parents traded it in for a Chevy Vega.

52 year old fender.

52-year-old fender still looking good.

My dad drove the Belair for two years before upgrading to “the brown Chevy” a snazzy gold 1965 Impala four door sedan with white sidewall tires.

No flashy white sidewalls here.

No flashy white sidewalls here.

He handed down the Belair to Mom who chauffeured me to and from grade school in it. Both of my siblings, Dovima and Axel, learned how to drive off of it. It was the car I rode in when Dovima drove Axel and me all over the San Francisco Bay Area to puppy shop on the day after Christmas in 1969. Dad only allowed our dog, Mean Streak, to ride in Mom’s car. Meanie loved to hang his head out the Belair’s rear window where he’d slobber with gusto.

When an air bag was Granny yammering about the old days.

From the era when an air bag was Granny yammering about the old days.

My most memorable ride in that Belair occurred in summer 1968 when I was nine-years-old. Dad decided that we should go on a family picnic to Curry Creek, a campground near Clayton, about 33 miles and 33 hundred light years outside San Francisco. There were towering oak trees with tire swings, a swimming pool, a dusty ball field, swarms of bugs and because it was the outdoors, dirt simply everywhere. I was a scrawny, city slicker kid who was only into this affair for the car ride and the food: my grandmother’s fried chicken and potato salad.

It seemed that all the kids at this retreat moved in packs and were natural athletes glowing with golden tans. I was albino white and so painfully uncoordinated I could barely climb out of the car without falling down. There’s a home movie of me running spastically in a circle and wiping out. Furthermore, I could not swim and I despised the sweltering heat. What I excelled at most in this hellhole was reading comic books in the shade and hiking dirt paths where I’d fantasize about returning home and taking a bath.

On this family outing, my father shunned long established protocol, and we headed there in the Belair. Typically, when we went anyplace incurring any distance, we took his car, because his was the better car. But, for some inexplicable reason he decided to drive Mom’s Belair.

Distinctive twin tail lights. the Impala had triple on either side.

Distinctive twin tail lights. the Impala had triple on either side.

About two thirds of the way there, with Donovan’s hit single, Hurdy Gurdy Man, playing on the radio station, 1260 KYA, the Belair began to overheat. Our car was smoking as Donovan was singing the trance-like chorus:

“Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy gurdy” he sang
“Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy gurdy” he sang
“Hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy, hurdy gurdy gurdy” he sang

My mother, coincidentally, was smoking mad at my father. He pulled the Belair to the side of the road. He got us into this jam and it was clear that he was under a mountain of pressure to get us out. He opened the car’s hood. A massive cloud of white smoke billowed out. He used a beach towel to undo the steaming hot radiator cap. I stood near him, at the ready to do nothing, watching this family fiasco in fascination. Mom, who was always wound tight, was seething harder than our car’s engine. Dad had to think fast and improvise a miracle. He opened the trunk, took out the lemonade dispenser and poured a long drink into the radiator. Quenched, our engine cooled. We returned home where we ate the fried chicken and potato salad in the dirt-free comfort of our own kitchen.

Any mention of the song, Hurdy Gurdy Man, always guaranteed groans from my parents. But, whenever I hear that song, I recall the best picnic ever thanks to that Belair.

Ready for its closeup.

Ready for its closeup.

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41 responses to “Lame Adventure 452: Hello, Old Friend!

  1. Great story telling, and with a happy ending!

    We had a white 62 Impala with blue cloth interior. I remember on our way to Frontier Town in Ocean City MD, with my head in my mother’s lap, carsick, getting pulled over for doing 62 in a 50 mph limit. We paid the $50 fine and proceeded onward for the rare family outing.

    How was dinner?

    R.

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    • I don’t think we ever got pulled over, but my father was the king of parking yacht-sized cars and without the benefit of power steering. He had a body like Thor’s in his prime. Watching his wrestle the wheel into submission made a memorable impression on me.

      Dinner was good. We ate Vietnamese, ordered a variety of appetizers and a stew to share. The stew came with two serving spoon, but my friend didn’t like the suspicious spots on them and requested a new set. They gave us one. I groused to her about how could there be a spoon shortage in a place that was almost empty?

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  2. Excellent story! And, nice looking car.

    Isn’t it amazing the memories that surface when we see something like a vintage car? So many parts of our lives involved them…good, bad, and ugly.

    If you ever get to Cuba, I think you will see many many vintage cars. It would be a trip down memory lane.

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  3. A nice trip down memory lane. I especially like the quip about the airbag.

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  4. Great story, V! Did your dad flush the radiator to get the lemonade out?
    We had a white ’63 Bel Air for which I mostly remember sleeping on the back floorboard during road trips to Florida to see my cousins. And just like your family, we later bought a ’65 Impala, also white. But my mother drove the Impala and my dad took the Bel Air to work, I think mainly because it was a three speed on the column.

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    • Considering that that car ran for another six years, Cathy, I’m sure that my dad took it to a mechanic. My parents always drove automatics. My mother hated driving my dad’s cars, but the Belair was an exception. I’m sure that its sexy color was a hit with her, too.

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  5. This makes me happy. I miss those big ol’ cars but not my ’75 Monte Carlo, that one will never be cool.

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  6. Quite the stroll down memory lane in Tribeca, huh? I didn’t know that those cars ran on lemonade. 🙂

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  7. A little lemonade helps everything. My husband bought a related car, the 1963 Impala, original white and upholstery, and had it tricked out with hydraulics. I was from then on a second, far dimmer glimmer in his eye. He eventually sold it to Chopper and his son Little Chopper who lived in rural Utah and were the sweetest ever.

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  8. Excellent writing, V! Your posts are always a pleasure to read. And now…cars, cars! My dad loved cars. We had a few fancy ones, but there was always something wrong with them! Our first family car was a white Peugeot. All six of us (or maybe just 5 at the time) were stuffed in there like sardines. The age of no seat belts! It looked something like this:

    Cars bring back memories. I’m glad you remember a delicious picnic lunch in the comfort of your home with no bugs in sight!

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    • Awwwwwwwwww, that’s great that you enjoy my posts, Amy. It’s very true that cars bring back memories. I LOVE your first family car, but for a family of seven, it had to have been a very tight squeeze, even if you were predominantly skinny when you were small fry.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. P.S. I mean all five of us kids! So, seven all together. I do remember feeling cramped a lot.

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  10. Loved the caption about Granny being the only air bag in those days. My parents had an Oldsmobile 88 when I was little. Later they had a Corvair and then a Pinto. The former was deemed “unsafe at any speed” and the latter’s gas tank would explode in a rear-end collision. My folks knew how to pick ’em.

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    • I remember the news about Pinto’s getting rear ended and exploding! When we got our Vega, we considered getting a Pinto, but my dad preferred GM to Ford. But, I remember that Dad did not like the Corvair’s rear engine design. He didn’t like the Beetle, either, back in the day. When he grew old, he mellowed, and when he got super old, he completely ceased to give a crap.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. It’s funny how we could cram ourselves in and ” share” the seatbelt. I love those giant steering wheels and the heavy steel floating on down the highway. Great gas prices that you included. I am quite pleased gas is down to just above 2 bucks now. My first car was a giant banana yellow Chevy with a black hard top. 1970.. Bought it for 500 bucks in 1987. Great post, V. Nice memories that brought a smile.

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    • Are any news reports announcing “pleasure at the pump” these days? “Pain at the pump” has been the mantra for what seems like forever, but I noticed that lower fuel prices had no impact on holiday travel airfare. Wow, your first car was only seven years older than our Belair — and a Chevy! It sounds like they could have been car cousins.

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  12. Anything that invokes a good memory is a good thing, LA!
    So these ‘old’ cars are a regular sight around your parts then? I’d be constantly looking to see what (and who…!) was being filmed if I was there

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    • Very good point about “anything that invokes a good memory is a good thing”, Tom. Old cars are not that regular a sight in Tribeca, but film, TV and photo shoots happen fairly frequently around these parts. I’m not often star struck, but I do enjoy seeing famous people in person. I’ve had some nice sightings through the years. Milton is always recognizing famous faces. It drives him crazy when he sees someone and blanks on their names. It drives him crazier when he sees someone famous and I blank on who they are, too. We’re quite a pair.

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  13. You’ve inspired the thought of Gurdy: a one-act musical, but it seems i could find any other songs (on quick search) that would qualify … but I did find 3 songs that (seemingly) have gurdy in the lyrics … I Like Your Sexy Body (Blue System), Questions (Insane Clown Posse), Same Old Song And Dance (Aerosmith).

    Glad you saw the Belair … and the recollection of of the picnic at home. Thanks for the smiles!

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  14. I bet all of you were tumbling around without seat belts too, weren’t you? How did we survive? Great story, V and that Donavan song is a weird, hippie-dippie song. Who is the hurry-gurdy man? He sounds scary. According to Wiki, it’s a “dream-like” state. YEAH. Dream-induced by psychedelic something–HA. Anyway…I’m glad lemonade saved the day. Your Dad made a lemonade out of a “lemon.”

    The steering wheel on that car! I dated a guy once who drove one of those cool Chevy cars. Bad Company comes to mind. ;).

    Thanks for sharing.

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    • We never tumbled much, Brig. Granny was rotund so her girth kept all the back set passengers securely in their places. Yeah, when I listed to Hurdy Gurdy Man, I shared the same thoughts as you. I’m sure that Donovan was tripping when he wrote that.

      My friend noted that in a crash that steering wheel is a death trap, but considering how long that Belair I saw has been around, it must have a pretty good safety record. It truly was built like a tank.

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  15. Wasn’t it outrageous how gas prices went up so much in ’74? That was when I was still flying and aviation fuel was double what it cost for a car. It effectively ended my flying days.

    I’m waiting for gas prices to get to those outrageous levels again.

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    • The Seventies was the decade that brought cheap gas to an end, Daniel, and got us to where we are today, excluding current “cheap” gas prices that surely are temporary. “Pain at the pump” will make a comeback. And don’t get me going about aviation. The airlines gouge anyone who flies commercial. Even if gas plummeted to 1963-level, the price of a round trip cross country airline ticket will still remain high and on top of that they pile on the fees and taxes. I wish the Internet offered an option that I could email myself wherever I wanted to go.

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  16. Loved the Impala, actually had one my brother and father rebuilt into prime shape. Loved that one but not as much as I loved my Fury!

    This was a great story. Always love your writing.

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  17. A great trip down memory lane! That was one cool car!

    When I was a kid, my family had a few of these behemoths. I remember that closing the trunk or the hood made a sound like a steel trap the whole neighborhood could hear.

    In one of the cars, though I forget which model it was, rolling the window down was tricky. You had to go slow so that it didn’t roll off the tracks and get stuck in the down position!

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    • That’s very true about the sound the trunk and hood made when being closed! I forgot about that. It was almost like a sensurround-type sound. We never had the problem with the windows getting stuck, but I remember that for a while in the Seventies, BatPat, my best friend from college, drove a Buick Behemoth. Not only could I not roll down the passenger side window, but at some point, we could no longer open the passenger side door.

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  18. Boy, this brought back memories. I loved the comfort of those old cars. My first vehicle was a 54 Belair with an Power Glide transmission and a 6 volt system. You could actually start this car by rolling it down hill and pulling the lever into gear. I’ve never seen an automatic before of since that could do this. I also remember a particularly good picnic we went to the Mulberry River once in my Uncle Harry’s ’50 Ford. Ah, those were the days my friend.

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    • Now that everything is computerized, quirky mechanics are a relic of the past. I highly doubt that cars produced today will be around 50+ years from now, Russell. If cars from today are needed in films (or whatever film will be 50 years from now), they migh just be recreated digitally.

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  19. I’ll bet that .53 cents a gallon was uncomfortably high for the folks in 1974. Likely during the Arab Oil Embargo. It was still well under a dollar when I started driving over a decade later.

    I’m not a car person, but that is a pretty automobile. We have like 2-3,000 car shows a year here, so I see my fill of nice-looking cars.

    I can appreciate how this car brought back fun memories of your youth & family. It is for that reason alone that I can’t hate the AMC Pacer.

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    • I remember the Pacer! The Seventies was the era when gas prices started to climb and fuel efficient cars became the rage, another reason that compelled my parents to unload our iconic Belair. It is true, it really was a very pretty car and I felt so lucky seeing it again that night! That was a very special sighing to me. I even texted some of the pictures to my sister, Dovima. I don’t think that she was as impressed.

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  20. I love your story. Since I could not be there with you, I imagined getting around the Bay Area in the 1960s in your family’s Blue Chevy. How fun that would be.

    A trip to Clayton will still leave one thinking ahead to the trip home, but as you might guess, it has its share of retail and other that makes it look more and more like every other place from SF to Clayton. But the town does have Mt. Diablo going for it. There is no denying its beauty.

    Lastly, I did catch the irony of your comment about grandma being the air bag. Funny.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bruce, it’s been about 45 years since I was last in Clayton. I completely forgot about Mt. Diablo until you mentioned it. I but was a super city-slicker kid who grew into an ultra city-slicker adult when I left San Francisco for New York City. As much as I appreciate the beauty of nature, I like it most urban-style, such as Golden Gate or Central Park. I also appreciate being near an ocean.

      I regret not seeing that ’63 Chevy in daylight! The blue was vibrant. It was surreal seeing one exactly like my mother’s parked a block away from where I work. I last saw that car in 1974. I highly doubt that I’ll be around 41 years from now to see another again in 2056.

      Thanks for visiting and for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

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