FIFTY YEAR ROMANCE
by Bob Hagin
The year 1946 was a memorable one in the automotive world in many ways. World War II had ended the year before and '46 marked the first post-war running of the Indy 500. All of the auto makers were swinging into the production of civilian cars to fill a four-year void and there were even a couple of new makes (albeit short-lived) that were planning to get a piece of the newfound action. Production was good, employment on the assembly lines was high and the Big 3 had no trouble selling their products, even though they were really just slightly face-lifted '42 models.
But there was one other totally unnoticed automotive happening that occurred that changed my life completely, and set me on a lifelong course of action.
In was in 1946 that I became a self-certified and totally devoted Car Guy.
I vividly remember the moment it happened to me although it was 50 years ago. I was 13 at the time and was standing in front of Edy's Ice Cream (a combination soda fountain and short order restaurant of the type that was popular then) when Bill Aboumrad drove up and parked his new '46 Buick Sedanet fastback two-door sedan at the curb to the "oohs" and "ahhs" of an admiring crowd. It was big and black with just enough chrome trim to set off its sleek design. Needless to say, I was very impressed and decided on the spot that from that moment on, I would consider myself an enthusiast.
After 50 years of reflection, I've come to the conclusion that there must be something in our genetic makeup that makes Car Guys what they are. My dad was one but had long since been separated from the family. On those few occasions when he and I would bond on a father/son excursion, it took the form of a "ride around the block" (usually a two hour excursion that culminated with a stop for an ice cream cone), during which time he would point out unusual cars he would spot parked in the streets of Berkeley and Piedmont, and exclusive and rich area adjacent to Oakland.
The trips always included a tour past the home of a U.C. Berkeley professor who owned a French Bugatti race car. To my dad, it was like stopping at a shrine.
My brother Don, on the other hand, must have gotten his genetic programming from my mother and was not a Car Guy. He had recently been discharged from the Navy and had used his mustering out pay to buy his first car, a war-weary '37 Ford Deluxe. Being amechanical, he therefore had to depend on his baby brother for any home maintenance that was needed to keep the little five-window coupe on the road and looking as sharp as possible. His idea of sharpening up the scroungy maroon paint job was to wipe it down on the night of a big date with a rag soaked with 3-In-One sewing machine oil. It looked great in the early evening but by the next morning it would acquire a coat of dust so thick that the color was indiscernible. It was my job then to remove the oil and dirt, preparing it for his next romantic encounter. It was a job that I actually enjoyed.
It was also 1946 when my mother finally decided to become a motorist for the first time and commissioned me, her automotive son, to investigate buying a car for her to drive. There were no automobile consumer magazines to refer to in those days and I had no driver's license so I was dependent on transportation provided by my brother (unreliable and unwilling) or our local public transportation (unglamorous but punctual). I finally settled on the minuscule Crosley (also a newcomer to the auto business) and cajoled my mother to journey by street car to view the tiny machine at our local fly-by-night Crosley dealership. Mom found it almost impossible to climb inside the 1000- pound micro-midget much less find the clutch, brake and gas pedals and so we missed our chance to go down in history as one of the few families that owned a Crosley.
In the middle of '46, my then-brother-in-law (not a popular family member at the time) decided to participate in my automotive education and began to squire me around to various car lots to see what used cars were available. We finally settled on a very used Dodge for which my mother paid the then-handsome sum of $700.
But during those shopping trips an incident occurred that is still etched in my mind 50 years later. We came across a lot that specialized in huge vintage luxury cars. Among them was an enormous blood-red coupe that had ash-can sized head lights and a gearshift lever as thick as my grandfather's cane. "You ought to buy that car," said my brother-in-law. "At $700 it's a great buy." "No," was my reply. "I don't want a darn German car. And besides, I've never even heard of a Duesenberg."
Today a Dodge like the one we bought is worth perhaps $10,000 in as-new condition while the least expensive Duesenberg I've seen advertised (a rather dull Judkins four-door sedan) was recently listed at $375,000. Car Guy lessons learned a half century ago turned out to be very expensive.