Classic cars spark some vintage memories

"A car," I told my then-teenage daughter, "is a means of transportation. It doesn't reflect who you are or what you stand for. It's just a way to get around." I think I actually believed it when we had that conversation 20 years ago. But after a recent trip to Nevada, I'm not so sure.

The friends we were visiting in Reno suggested a visit to the National Automobile Museum. Although neither my husband nor I think of ourselves as car buffs, it sounded interesting. So, off we went.

In the first display room, we found a bewildering assortment of cars from the earliest days of automobiles, richly refinished with jewel-toned modern paints. Many had been built by car companies we'd never heard of.

"Fascinating," my husband, Bob, said.

"Testimony to the process a new industry goes through at its birth," our friend Bill added. "Analogous to computers and computer programs today."

"Well," I thought, "it may be interesting, but it's not something I'm going to spend a whole day looking at."

I moved through the room quickly. Bill's wife, Darby, was right behind me. I began thinking about what the gift shop might have for me to take to my grandchildren. Even with discussions of engines and body design, the guys were ready to move on, too.

Then came the second room. Our steps slowed.

In the third room, thoughts of the gift shop disappeared. By the fourth room, we were lingering at each display, laughing and talking.

What we found in those rooms was a different story from the first room. Lots of different stories, to be accurate. In the second, third, and fourth rooms, the stories of our lives were on exhibit. Cars from the 1940s, 5Os, and 60s gleamed as shiny and new as the day we'd first seen them - as children, as teenagers, as adults. The smell of leather seats, the curve of a tail fin, the design of a door, all prompted memories. Stories flowed as smoothly as a new car travels on a freshly paved road.

The story about Bob purchasing a Porsche in Germany as a new second lieutenant led to one about Bill's life as a bachelor airline pilot, complete with the obligatory sports car left at the airport from which he flew. My memory of a high school steady's '57 Chevy led to Darby's telling us about a boyfriend whose car (make and model long forgotten, until spotted in the museum) had gull-wing doors years before DeLoreans did.

I related how red cars had always meant freedom to me. My first red car was a Volkswagen Squareback station wagon. It was the first car that was mine alone. In it, I was the quintessential suburbanite with a husband, a daughter, a cat and a dog, a job and a busy social life. I hauled kids, animals, groceries, firewood, friends, and furniture in and out of the city and round and round the suburbs. All in my red Squareback.

Many years later, it was a rose-red VW Rabbit convertible. That car took me to the beach to walk and sort out my life. It took me all over the Northwest for my new job. And it caused conflict between me and my teenage daughter, who believed that a red convertible fit her image better than it did mine. (It was, of course, during this period that we had our "cars are only transportation" conversation.)

Then there was the story of the convertible and the Christmas tree. One Christmas, hauling the tree home by myself, I put the top down so I wouldn't have to tie it onto the roof. I drove along feeling - well, jaunty is the only word that describes it.

Then I got home. Christmas-tree branches, it turns out, go into the back seat (and behind the roll bar) of a convertible more easily than they come out. I was picking evergreen needles out of the back seat for years.

All four of us remembered when we'd seen our first Edsel. Studebaker design came in for some abuse, too. Fifty-seven Chevies and old Thunderbirds, on the other hand, got nothing but praise.

The smell of the leather in my grandfather's new Chrysler and my embarrassment about the old Ford my soon-to-be stepfather drove told more about the changes in my childhood than anything else I could have said. The same was true of the guys' wistful stories about shifting from sports cars to station wagons as they married and had children.

We talked about going to drive-in movies in high school. Our first car date was as burned into our memories as our first kiss, which may not be coincidental.

In the Automobile Museum that day, I had to admit that, to Americans, at least cars are more than transportation. Jeeps and Jaguars, Plymouths and Porsches, Fords and Ferraris. Say the names of the vehicles, and images of the people driving them come to mind. Cars can represent who we are, as individuals and as a society. The automobile drove (forgive the expression) the suburbanization of our cities and changed society by providing almost everyone with a means of personal transportation. In a country where we pride ourselves on our individuality and our ability to stand on our own two feet, our cars are an extension of that independence.

I spent an afternoon ostensibly looking at cars, but really looking at the lives of the people I was with. Now that I know what they drove, I know more about who they are. For in the United States we record both the passage of time and the milestones of our lives by noting the car we were driving at the time.

I think I owe my daughter an apology.

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