Nostalgia for cars

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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange has been visiting an auto show. He can’t afford the cars he saw, but they evoked a flood of reflection.

(Lange) Between Lamar and Boise City, just north of the Oklahoma border, Sam and I realized we had a problem. The day before, in Denver, I’d plunked down 100 silver dollars for a used 1946 Plymouth sedan. Now we were headed south to Texas.

The plains of the Panhandle stretched away in every direction. This must have been where the Flat Earth Society was founded. The highway drummed by, and with a northerly tailwind, we were getting over 23 miles a gallon, which in 1957 was really good.

Sam looked out the back window. “Hmm…” he said, “let up on the gas for a few seconds, and then step on it again.”

I did. “Uh, let’s stop and check the oil,” he said. T’was dry. We dumped in a quart of oil we had and eased on down to Dumas, Texas. Took four quarts to fill it there, and another one just 50 miles farther on in Amarillo, where I bought the cheapest gas of my life – 19.9 cents – and four gallons of local-label oil. Two days later in Brownwood, a friendly mechanic sold us piston rings and crank inserts for $19.67 and let us use his garage and tools. On a hot Texas morning, we disemboweled the old girl and put her back together.

Mother and I just got back from an auto show. She went to see the RVs; she loves the space-saving layouts; I go to look at the old cars.

Many of the folks we saw this afternoon, climbing in and out of new cars, were having a great time. Others stood at respectful distances and gazed quietly, like worshipers at a shrine. The American love affair with the automobile and the open road is still in full bloom, even though the open road is disappearing.

I looked under the hood of one of the old cars, and a rush of memories came flooding back. The space was less than half full, with plenty of places to set parts, as they were removed. And there’d been many occasions to remove parts on that old Plymouth – valve guides, distributor cap, plugs. We took the pan off one night in downtown Tulsa, by the light of a Coleman lantern. The cop on the beat brought us doughnuts and coffee from a White Tower.

My current vehicle is so far superior, comparison’s impossible. Heater, electric wipers, directionals, CD, tape deck, seat belts — things hardly dreamed of 60 years ago. In over 30,000 miles, it’s never given a second’s trouble. If it ever does, I won’t be looking under the hood. The mass of tubes and wires under there is so inscrutable, all I know about it is the 800 number of the Triple-A towing service. In many ways, the evolution of the automobile is the story of American society itself.

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

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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