A love of cars

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange has been remembering all the vehicles he owned as a young man, and finds that it provokes an ancient fantasy.

(Lange) A few months ago, Mother and I had a contest to see who could sell his used vehicle first. She won. But she was sympathetic about my defeat, and to ease my pain, asked me to list all the cars I’ve ever owned. This is a wonderful way to divert a man’s attention. I don’t know if women develop personal affection or aversion for vehicles. I know men do. They look back on their long-ago, long-lost cars with the nostalgia reserved for almost-forgotten lovers, but without the same emotional complications.

I learned to drive on my father’s 1953 Chevy, which doesn’t count. It was a blowzy green hydraulically-assisted three-speed, with a steering column shift lever. No radio; no directionals; no seat belts; they were either unheard of in those days, or add-ons you bought at Sears. It was just a car, and didn’t ascend to the spiritual level of vehicle, a word that’s both an objective description and a metaphorical reality, transporting body or soul to another place.

The first one was a 1937 Ford pickup. I bought it for $75 at Cheapskate Chandler’s in Brownwood, Texas. It was supposed to carry me back to Central New York, but managed to get only as far as Vinita, Oklahoma, where its howling rear end scared me into unloading it for $25. Can you remember the fear you felt when you reflected on the thin financial ice beneath you: that if anything went wrong with the car, it was all over? I hitchhiked as far as Harrisburg and caught a Greyhound north.

Remembering your old vehicles, can you smell their distinctive aroma? The ’37 Ford smelled of hot Texas dust and the smoking hay that trickled down through the cracked bed and caught fire on the muffler.

In 1957 in Denver I bought a 1946 Plymouth sedan. It was an oil-burner. A friend and I pulled the engine apart in Texas and replaced the rings and inserts. It was one of my great vehicles. I still have all the gasoline records, which end in a scrawled note: “Broke down at 100,700 miles, Thanksgiving weekend, south of Chestertown, New York.”

After that: a 1943 Jeep, a brand-new 1959 Beetle convertible, a Jaguar roadster with a 14-quart oil sump, a 1939 LaSalle ambulance, and then, when the kids began to come, Beetles, Squarebacks, Dashers, and Volar s. A Mercedes. And then a drab succession of sensible vans and pickup trucks.

I suppose the day is coming when we’ll have just one vehicle again. I’ll drive Mother to the market. While she’s shopping, I’ll reach under the seat for the plastic bag with my ancient copy of On the Road inside, and head once more in dreams for the mountains of Wyoming, my ears tuned to the faint knocking under the hood.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

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