It used to be that whenever someone bought a new car, part of the purchase agreement entailed the custom of visiting friends and relatives and taking them for a spin.
Even if the car was old, as long as it was new to the buyer, the obligation remained. Well, most of us Trujillos were in our teens before our parents got a “new” car, a ‘41 Plymouth. But the main drawback was that the year was 1950, and the new-to-us car already had 12,000 miles on it.
“Wow! Only 12,000 miles! Why it’s practically new,” some living today and driving 2008 Impalas might say. But wait. An odometer reading of 12,000, half the distance around the globe, simply meant that you’d better enjoy the car now, because by the time it reached 25,000 miles, bad things happened, like needing ring jobs.
What’s a ring job? Not sure, but I think it has to do with replacing ringy thingies that cling and ping when the doo-hickeys wear out. That procedure often cost as much as the car was worth. That’s one reason we still find many similar makes and models decorating people’s yards.
The plan usually is to buy another used car of the same year and model, “for parts, so I can fix my old car.” Yeah, right. Then why do you have even a third car of the same year, make and model?
But back to ancient customs:
Around 1954, Ford, Chevy and Plymouth made radical changes to their lines, adding chrome strips and fins. I was thrilled when an upperclassman from Immaculate Conception School, Carlos Sanchez, showed up for my complimentary new-car ride. His parents had bought it just that day. Now I think Carlos had intended instead to pick up my brother Severino, who was in Carlos’s grade, but as he wasn’t in, I became the surrogate.
There was nothing during that ride that could have convinced me we’d not reached the height of the technological spectrum. No matter what, the synchromesh transmission just had to be the ultimate. The ride was the smoothest I’d ever experienced. As a 14-year old, I believed that if I lived to see the 21st century, I’d never see a machine more advanced.
That conviction remained when a cousin invited me to help break in his 1955 Ford Fairlane, priced at about $1,700. That year, when my friend Beo Martinez showed up with a new Plymouth Savoy, well, I developed a great deal of admiration for Chrysler products as well.
Suddenly any new-ish car became the standard of excellence. Some may ask, “But what about the higher-priced cars, like the Olds, Buick, Mercury and DeSoto? Weren’t they even better than Fords?” I didn’t have an answer then, but now I simply say, “Living on Railroad Avenue, we didn’t see many middle- or high-class cars, or new cars, or even cars of any sort.”
My grandson and namesake, one person who seems to enjoy hearing Pompah talk about the olden days, asked how I could have considered those “rolling orange crates” of the 50s the ultimate in luxury, comfort and safety.
“Why, they didn’t have seatbelts in those days,” Arthur said. He’s right, as most of the transmissions were manual, the dashboards weren’t padded, the cars ran on leaded gas, and worst of all, they sometimes had a scratchy AM tube radio as opposed to today’s units which enable the driver to pipe the cell phone through the car’s speakers and drive hands-free. Or cars with MP3 and iPod capabilities.
The complimentary, inaugural new-car ride has gone into desuetude, whether due to time constraints, the lack of community cohesiveness, the surplus of new cars, the cost of gas or any number of reasons. I believe most people already tool around in their own late-model vehicles, making the free-ride opportunity superfluous.
And though today’s cars really are made to last longer than the 25,000-mile-maximum behemoths of yesteryear, it’s likely people today trade in their cars more frequently. And does any new car really look significantly different from any other?
When cruising Las Vegas with friends in the ‘50s, teens grokked and prided themselves on their ability to spot any friend a mile away on the basis of the model, make, year, color, fender skirt, sun visor or cracked windshield.
Today, in my family, we rely mainly on the color: That’s a grey car; then it might be our son.
A while back, as my wife left a supermarket, she noticed a man struggling to get into our car. He wrestled with the key and seemed frustrated as Bonnie asked, “What are you doing with my car?” Embarrassed, the man asked her if she could help him open it. He said something about just having bought the car and not yet being familiar with the product.
She finally convinced him that he was trying to unlock the wrong car. So he shuffled over to his own car.
But what was he thinking? Our car at the time was a bright red Ford Focus with keyless entry. The man finally unlocked and drove off in a dull grey Chevy Nova about 10 years older than ours.
And he didn’t even offer a new-car-to-me ride to Bonnie or anybody else in the parking lot.