Goldbug Features

Tom Kiske graduated from McKinley in 1961. He is the author of numerous published articles, stories and essays. His recent book, "Time Has Its Own Terms", includes many poignant reflections on life in the old Soulard neighborhood of the fifties and sixties. Tom has written several worthwhile contributions to this web site.

Tom has written a very enjoyable article about every young boy's fascination with...automobiles. Girls would ask, "What is it with guys and cars?" but every guy knew what it took to be cool; a cool car.

Cool Cars and Competition
She’s got a competition clutch and a four on the floor

And she purrs like a kitten ‘til the Lake Pipes roar
. . . .”

“Little Deuce Coupe”
-- The Beach Boys

Cruiser skirts.
Spinners, moon wheel disks or baby moons.
Lakes pipes or glass packs.

This is but a partial list of the automotive accessories essential for coolness in the late Fifties and early Sixties. If, like most of us, you didn’t have your own car, you pleaded with the old man to let you save the family sedan from squaresville by adding something that bespoke youth, excitement and speed. Maybe he’d at least allow those chrome “eyelids” on the headlights, or permit you to paint a little blue dot in the middle of the taillights, so that at night they were transformed from mundane red to sexy purple.
My Dad, alas, would hear none of it. Even worse, our family car wasn’t even a car at all. Pop had fallen in love with Jeeps while in the Marine Corps. The closest he could come to his dream suitable for the streets of St. Louis was a 1950 Willys Jeep Station Wagon. He may have been ahead of his time in anticipating America’s later enchantment with the SUV, but the old man’s dream was a teenage boy’s nightmare.

It was bad enough for a kid to be seen riding with his hopelessly uncool parents, but at least others could slouch down in the back seat, thereby minimizing the risk they might be spotted by their peers. This was not an option with the Willys. Much like today’s Nissan Xterra, the old Jeep featured “stadium style” rear seats, plus huge, untinted windows that made it almost impossible to hide unless you laid down flat - a defensive position I assumed more than once.

With my Dad at the wheel, the little four-banger under the hood had an effective top speed of around 40 mph and its wheezing “putt-putt” was called to mind years later in my kids’ favorite movie: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. How embarrassing! I didn’t even want to borrow the thing, which, fortunately for me, spent a lot of time at Charlie’s back alley garage near 12th and Lami. Of course, my buddies weren’t a whole lot better off. Warren would sometimes get access to their family car, an older Plymouth wagon. Better, to be sure, but no station wagon was cool back then. Even riding with Warren, I was no match for Donald - my rival for the affection of The Lovely Judy. Donald got to drive his Dad’s brand new 1958 Chevy hardtop. The jerk!

Mike once commandeered a 1950 Pontiac straight-eight that carried four of us almost all the way to Fort Lauderdale one Spring Break, before the Hydra-Matic transmission gave out on a lonely, mosquito-infested stretch of Florida two-lane around Midnight - but that’s a whole different story.

Then my friend Mitch got his own car, a 1953 Chevy, black primered and fitted out with four on the floor. This was a big step in the right direction and at least made it possible to cruise the Steak-and-Shake and Chuck-a-Burger route with some sense of pride. There was just one drawback. As long as Mitch owned the car, I don’t recall the starter ever working. So, there we’d be at the Hampton Avenue “Steak” - Mitch, Warren, Mike, Bill, Bob and me - chatting up the car-hop or some girls in the car next to us, and when it came time to leave, five of us would pile out, fire-drill style, and push the thing while Mitch popped the clutch to fire it up. This detracted severely from the image we tried to convey.
The image we wanted was that of Sal, who had the coolest car anyone had ever seen. A beautiful black super-cherry 1955 Chevy convertible, kept immaculate and so shiny you could see your face in the lustrous hood. Sal cruised the streets around McKinley with the top down, sporting a canvas tonneau emblazoned with a Playboy bunny. You know, the rabbit and ears. The very definition of cool back then. More than most of us could ever hope to attain.

Eventually my Dad traded the worn-out Willys for a stripped down Chevy “Custom” that didn’t even have a radio, but which sometimes got pressed into service for dates anyway. Then came the day I’d finally saved up enough money to get my own wheels: a 1955 Ford, Earl Scheibed in powder blue with matching carpet inside, a 292 V8 Interceptor under the hood with chrome valve covers, fan and air filter. Glasspacks, appropriately hosed down while hot, provided the mandatory deep-throated growl. Baby moons set off by white walls all the way around. Hot stuff!
I remember how proud I was when I went to pick up my girlfriend in my own car for the first time. I wanted to surprise her, so I kept mum about the new wheels. I picked up Mitch and his date first, then headed over to Sexy Susan’s (Lovely Judy was “spoken for” by then). I didn’t get the reaction I’d expected. In fact, I got no reaction at all. I was determined not to say anything, but after we drove all the way out to the Manchester Drive-In, Mitch could contain himself no longer and blurted out, “Gee, Sue, don’t ya notice anything different?
She looked to see if maybe somebody had maybe gotten a new shirt or haircut or something, and only several awkward minutes later sheepishly asked, “Uh, is this a different car?” Needless to say, I was disappointed. Mitch was flabbergasted. All he could do was shake his head and mutter, “She didn’t even notice!

In Sue’s defense, I usually didn’t give her a chance to notice much about a car other than the back seat. Besides, guys were just more into cars. This was the heyday of Detroit sheet metal and any randomly chosen male between ten and thirty could instantly identify the exact model year of any reasonably current vehicle, even if the change from one year to the next was as subtle as a new grill or slightly different chrome trim. I remember being amazed that my Dad couldn’t tell a ‘56 model from a ‘55.

My semi-cherry Ford did have a few quirks. The cowl over the right headlight had a tendency to pull loose at the top at random moments, giving one of the car’s “eyes” a peculiar droopy look. Then, too, the gear shift would occasionally hang up. The proprietor of a garage down on Broadway, to his credit, instead of charging me $25 or so to fix it, said, “Son, you can do this yourself.” Sure enough, with about $2 worth of parts, I replaced the grommets in the linkage and she shifted slick as snot on a doorknob. I was a mechanic!

A few weeks after that my buddies and I were cruising the Steak & Shake by River Des Peres and a couple of guys in a ‘57 Chevy pulled up next to us at a stop light, gunned the engine, looked over and sneered at us. A challenge like that could not be ignored.

We followed them over to a stretch of I-55 not yet open to the public, lined up like the Rebels Without A Cause we thought ourselves to be, and roared off the line, tires squealing and smoking. The 292 Interceptor gave it all she had, Warren coaching me on the precise split second to shift, but the Chevy (surely muscled by a 348) pulled away. Worse, the next day I noticed the death knell of a knocking rod, far beyond my skills as a budding grease monkey.

I sold my baby and headed off to college. No matter her droopy eye, her failure to impress Susan or her drubbing on I-55, it would be many years before I owned a car I loved like that one.
And when that day finally came - when I’d graduated from college, had a “real” job and could afford a decent car, what do you suppose I chose?

What else - a shiny black Chevy convertible, just like Sal’s, only newer!

And it goes on. The wheels keep turning. When my son turned sixteen, I’m not sure which of us was more excited about finding that nice red used Mustang for him. And just last week I saw one of those new, 2004 model, 265 horsepower Nissan Maxima’s - low and sleek and lethal-looking. Cool. It made me salivate, and I found myself speculating, “Man, I wonder what that baby would look like with Lake Pipes . . . .

What is it with guys and cars?

-- Tom Kiske