Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Family Cars, 1955-1969: Part I--The Ford

In 1955, my father bought his first car: a 1953 Ford sedan. And, of course, there's a story to that.

I've mentioned before that in the mid-1950's, we lived at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where my dad had his first assignment in the Army. He decided that he needed a car. A friend suggested that he should go to St Louis to find a good deal on a car, there not being much commerce around Fort Lost-in-the-Woods at that time. The friend said he'd accompany Dad and help out with the dealing. The friend's presence was important for another reason: Dad had never actually driven an automobile! The plan was that they'd buy the car, and on the trip back to the Army post, the buddy would educate my father in the finer points of operating an auto.

On the appointed day, Dad took the train to St Louis. His friend had gone on ahead, and they would meet at the train station. When Dad arrived, however, his pal was nowhere to be found. Dad waited quite awhile. But he had limited time and had never been in St Louis before. So after some time as his friend had not appeared, Dad got on his cell phone and (oops, this was 1955!) Dad noticed a Ford dealer across the street from the train station.

The sales manager heard Dad's story: he was 23 years old, in the Army, with a wife and two young sons. The sales manager said, "I've got the just the car for you. My wife's been driving it and it's over at the house. I'll take you there." They went to the man's home where he showed Dad a 1953 Ford sedan. The wife served lunch and Dad and the sales manager made a deal for the car: $1100, [which seems to me a bit pricey for a two year old car in 1955] financed by the Boatmen's National Bank of St Louis, and insured by the United Services Automobile Association. The car was a Ford Mainline sedan; maroon with a white top.

Dad then commenced his own drivers education on the trip back to Fort Leonard Wood.

We would have that car for the next six years. It took us many times between Fort Leonard Wood and my mother's hometown of Kansas City. In April, 1958, we travelled to visit Dad's family in Houston.

In September, 1958, Dad got orders to Germany. We would take the Ford. We had to drive to New York to meet our ship and drop off the car. We went first to see Mom's family in Kansas City, then began the 11oo mile trip to Brooklyn. Dad, as usual, had carefully plotted out the route and scheduled stops. We'd travel across Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. We'd stop just east of Cincinnati and get a good night's rest. The next day, we'd take the Pennsylvania Turnpike through Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and then enter the New York metropolitan area, and end up at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.

The first part of the trip went well. My brother and I had fun spotting different cars and license plates. My mother had my almost year old sister [and in utero brother] with her in the front seat. (This was in the days before seat belts and baby carseats). As we approached our stopping point in southeastern Ohio, the sun set and an autumn rain began to fall across the mid-Atlantic states.

By the time we got to the motel, the rain was heavy and steady. Dad got out and went to register. He was back quite quickly. He started the car and pulled back onto the highway, as my mother looked at him quizzically. Hours later through the rain, we stopped at a motel in Pittsburgh. Years later, I learned what had happened at the Ohio motel: We don't take your kind. Better keep on driving, boy. I don't care if your wife's pregnant; didn't you hear me? We don't let you people . . . .[The first and only time this happened in our extensive travels; my careful parents didn't expect it in Ohio!].

The next day we made it to Brooklyn without further incident. We stayed at the now-defunct Fort Hamilton while Dad drove the Ford to the port. Two days later, we were on a ship bound for Germany.

We went to Frankfurt, Germany, where Dad was assigned to the NATO courier service, carrying secret documents between European capitals. The Ford arrived a few weeks after we did and Dad took the train to Bremerhaven to pick it up.

My youngest brother was born in Frankfurt. After eighteen months there, Dad was transferred to Karlsruhe, Germany. We drove to the new duty station in the Ford. On the way, it began to snow and soon we were driving through a major blizzard.

Dad and the Ford got us safely to Karlsruhe. The city is near the French border and we took the car on several weekend adventures in France while we were there. My dad was in charge of special services (now called Morale, Welfare and Recreation or "MWR") in the U.S. military community around Karlsruhe. On weekends, he sometimes took us in the Ford to visit some of the facilities in the area for which he was responsible. We also visited other towns and cities in southwestern Germany.

In 1961, Dad was ordered to Albuquerque, New Mexico. He decided it was time for a new car, so before leaving Germany, he sold the Ford to another GI. In late August, 1961, we departed Germany aboard a commercial airliner and, after a refueling stop at Shannon, Ireland, landed at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey. The next day, we were on a train headed for Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the American Motors Company factory there.

This photograph is [probably] not the automobile my dad brought, but it looks exactly like it (including the colors)! This car is purportedly a 1954 model, while our car was a 1953. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Next: The Rambler


Anonymous said...

Good story! My father also bought his first car (possibly a '57 or '58 Chevy bought in 1961) without he or my mother knowing how to drive yet. In his case, he had a friend go with him to actually drive the car home. But your dad's story is funnier since he drove himself home!

Thomas MacEntee said...


I love road trip stories - and since I traveled a lot by car as a kid I have tons of my own.

Question about the Ohio motel incident: with this and similar incidents, as a child did your parents explain to you what was going on (why people did this, etc.) or did they try to shelter you and your siblings from the real meaning? I'm just curious as to how it felt for you as a young boy to see incidents of discrimination. I hope my inquiry isn't out of line.


Craig Manson said...


They did a little of both: some sheltering, some educating. If the incident happened directly to them, then they tended not talk about it until we were older. On the other hand, they taught us about things to be prepared for--some of which we didn't believe until we saw it.