Thursday, July 28, 2011

Gross Old Station Wagon Competition

I received a request from a commenter on Maxminimus to turn this into a larger post.

Where we spent our summers, the matriarchs had an overt and ongoing competition to see who could drive the nastiest station wagon.  Grandmothers and Grand Dames and matriarchs competed for the title of most wet-dog/cigarette/seaweed/mildew smell in the car.  Their cars were nearly always American, and were usually station wagons.  Occasionally a diesel Mercedes wagon would appear, and there was the rare Volvo wagon.  One wealthy old dame drove a 1970's Datsun pickup truck to better facilitate her love of buying fresh lobster and fish directly from fishermen.  In those days, children were allowed to ride in the bed of pick-ups, and we all called it the "sardine tin" because of the smell, shape, and construction.  She would drive us all to Four Seas for a few cones, and we would eat them on the drive back, the salty air and late summer sun, the wind from the truck's movement, and the ice cream all came together to become childhood bliss.

 The majority of the old gals had American wagons, though.  These cars would spend 9 months in a garage during the off-season, where the festering stench of wet dog, seaweed, vinyl seats, and general grime would ferment, and be barely tolerable the following year. One old gal, who was married to Mr. Largest US Chemical Company, drove a wooden-paneled wagon with a muffler that dragged for almost 8 years. She would replace the muffler when it would finally grind down to nothing, but the replacement would magically drag on the ground within a day or so.  Liquor stores all had accounts (still do, actually) as did grocers and hardware stores, which we all abused mercilessly as children with bags of  candies and cap-gun caps.  If you were lucky, an old grandmother would give you her wagon to drive into the village to pick up a large liquor order for one of her parties:

"Do you drive, Dear?" She would ask.

"No, I'm only fourteen, Mrs. Sutton."

"Well, go slowly and there won't be a problem." She would say.

My father says that this was to avoid having to tip the kid at the liquor store who loaded up the car.  He wasn't going to ask a 14 year old for a buck or two.  My grandmother was the opposite.  She saw generous tipping as investments, and was afforded the better selections from shops because of it... better bottles, unsanctioned discounts, and priority "dibbs" from affectionate business owners.

Grandmother had a white Ford wagon that smelled of all the previously-mentioned stinks, and after the summer of 1982, her grandsons added the smell of sour milk, cheap beer, and fire-works-melted seat cushions to the bouquet.  The old station wagons often had rotting pillows or sections of ruined rug in them.  If one were to lift the floor mats, the car would reveal nearly an inch of thick sand and garden soil.  Nearly all of the matriarchs smoked (the fun ones, at least), and their ashtrays were packed with butts and ash.  As well-off as most of them were, they were still Yankees, so finding a stray coin under the seats was extremely rare, but since they all were Depression-era ladies, children always looted the glove box for a tightly-packed coin purse that provided soda money.  During college, I rolled up a large sun-room rug of hers and took it to my off-campus apartment during the winter, and nobody ever said anything to me about the shameless theft.  Still have it.

One old gal drove a Peugeot wagon, which she felt complimented her proud Hugeunot lineage, and she donated some legacy silver to the local Episcopal church to be used during services.  Like the Jaguars, her Peugeot rarely ran properly, when it ran at all.  Luxury cars were rarely seen, and were viewed differently than expected.  Nobody had chauffeurs (unless health problems prevented them from driving), and the president of a large East Coast bank drove himself around in a Dodge sedan, with a State trooper following closely behind.  


Few had electric windows, and fewer had anything other than a radio.  Air conditioning?  No chance.  The engines were always impressive with imposingly large black air-filter covers over the carburetors, and  the oil was changed with regularity and on schedule.  Dog hair and ratty beach blankets were always in the back, but not in the charming and picturesque way.  All depression-era women it seemed, kept these items in their cars:

-Rubber raincoat
-Jug of coolant
-Bungee cords
-Nasty beach blanket
-Assortment of half-pencils (from the golf course) or pens
-Binoculars in the glovebox
-Trip mileage booklets and mini-logs
-Flattened cardboard liquor box as a liner for the seatless "way back"

One summer, before ATMs were used, Grandmother had to call around to all of her friends to collect a few hundred dollars in cash.  It was Sunday, and no bank was open.  The bank president was away.  She never used cash, preferring checks and store accounts for absolutely everything.  She sat at her phone table dialing a series of memorized numbers... four digits in the early 1980's.  

"Hello, Patty, it's XXXXX.  How much cash do you have on hand?... I see...  Yes... That would be fine... I need about $400, but I only have about $60 in the whole house.  Yes, I called Alice as well... she sent over about $90.  I'll send one of the boys over right away."

What the hell was going on?  As it turned out, the South Carolinian from whom she had arranged to purchase an impressive cache of illegal fireworks was waiting somewhere near Rt. 6, and did not, would not, could not accept a check.  Getting cash from a Yankee on a Sunday was nearly impossible once they had dropped their set-aside $1 or $2 into the collection plate.

Photo source

Grandmother went by herself to complete the black-market transaction.  In her knee-length khaki skirt, navy blue sweater, wavy brown/silver hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and yellow golf shirt, she returned about 30 minutes later with her cigarette that somehow miraculously failed to detonate the styrofoam coolers packed with explosives in the stern of her Ford wagon.  It was July 3rd, and she intended to have a "nice little party".

They were self-reliant in spirit, and thought that children should be responsible for themselves.  They protected but never coddled, they guided but never hovered, and they they were unimpressed with any sort of expensive or showy car.  The gross-but-mechanically-sound cars usually outlasted the old gals themselves and were occasionally given to grandchildren as first cars.  The last of the grandmothers from that childhood circle died last summer, and at least two of the cars are still in garages: cosmetically fine, low mileage, nearly fifty years old, and un-nostalgically resented by the Baby-Boomer parents who can't get rid of them fast enough.


  1. That's really wonderful. I knew a few old ladies like that when I grew up (same era,different coast)and they were fun. Those Country Squires were built like tanks and I almost bought one once in the 80s. I suppose the nostalgia stops at the gas pump,though. Great post,sir.

  2. Great, great story.

    I don't have memories of a stinkwagon contest, but I do have vivid recollections of rollicking playfully in the back of a moving station wagon through many of my young years. The same thing would get a parent a solid ticket or arrested these days. My parents were by no means bad, by the way, I'm just an old enough fellow to have grown up in the days when free-roaming children within cars was the norm and not the exception.

  3. Excellent. I well remember those cars from the 1970s and early 1980s driving us around to lacrosse games and movie nights. It was a treat to ride in one of the fold-back 'jumper seats' (?) in the back.

  4. I just love your description of your grandmother, both her spirit as well her outfit. When I was little we had a dark green Ford Country Squire, complete with the fake wood. We kept it long past its "use-by date" as an extra car. Although I loved driving it as a teenager, it too made some horrendous noises. I remember feeling mortified by it one day in the bank parking lot when, on one of its noisier days, my dashing headmaster drove up next to me in his little 240 with the top down. Now, of course, I look back at that fondly. (And so true about the Baby-Boomers.)

  5. I loved this post! Brought back a lot of memories of those old gals of that generation. Here's an exchange I recall vividly: "Why on Earth should I get a new car when this one runs just fine? So what if there's a plywood board on the floor of the passenger side to cover the hole--that way you won't put your foot through it by mistake, which knowing you, you'd be fool enough to do. Money doesn't grow on trees, young man, a lesson you'd best learn earlier rather than later!"

  6. *Stock: They would be oppressively expensive to run these days, with their large V8's and steel construction.

    *Mr.Middy: I spent many years of my childhood jumping around in the "way-back" as well. Like pick-up trucks, it was not even considered an issue.

    *LBF: good call on movie nights. At the end of the flick, the station wagon fleet would be lined up, unless you had a 16-year old cousin who could drive you (as I had when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in the theater).

    *Lady Aldrich: You've landed on a perfectly excellent point that I omitted... the eventual humiliation of poorly-timed sputters of smoke, back-fires, or creaking struts. Thankfully, the seats were so deep, one could slide down to avoid eye-contact when needed. I'll tell you a particularly cringing tale of a first date and an old car, but I'll tell it off-line.

    *Reggie: That line must have been distributed in a handbook to all old gals from that era, because I can remember it being issued repeatedly by mothers and grandmothers up and down the East Coast.

  7. ... I forgot to mention screeching alternator belts and the piercing whine/hiss of power-steering.

  8. I just read this post yesterday afternoon and have been thinking about it since. You know, this piece really reflects the values of a true WASP - thrift, family, etc.

    As I was on the way to pick-up my daughter from tennis practice yesterday, I passed car after car of late-model imported lineage. It was actually sort of revolting. I live in a "self-congratlatory eco-friendly city on the East Coast" and all of the people here *think* that they have one-upped the competition with their car choices. Please spare me and give me an old Country Squire!

    I also have a slight matriarchal complex (I'm a mom of 4) and this article pushed all of the right buttons. I've already told my children to expect me to be sitting on the front porch in my rocker - hopefully with a G&T - poking the grandkiddos with my cane, saying "straighten up ______, WE (royal) don't do that"!

    Anyway, thanks for the great post.

    And congratulations on the rug!

    P.S. Loved the Peugeot/Hugeunot line! *snort*

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