Many thanks to Michael Lamm for permission to post these excerpts.
Hemmings Blog has been posting installments of Michael Lamm’s Auto Biography. His fascinating account of his fixation with the automobile took Michael from Texas, to Portland, to New York and eventually to California. Few examples from the automotive spectrum of the day escaped his gravitational field.
This post features an excerpt, photo, and a link to the full stories found on Hemmings Blog. You’re going to want to collect the entire set.
Chapter One was featured on Dean’s Garage. It told the story of why hot rodding a ’32 Chevy wasn’t the greatest idea.
You have to understand that I ran something like an automotive orphanage during those four years, 1950-’54, and while I know this sounds naïve and slightly crazy, my motivation had to do with rescuing cars whose fates were one step away from the wrecking yard. Without me, they would, each and every one, have been parted out and lost forever. So I was saving—or at least trying to save—these cars the way a missionary saves souls. It became something of a crusade. I realized early on that if I didn’t rescue these cars, no one else would. And to save them, I had to own them.
One of my absolute all-time favorite cars was a hot rod I somehow lucked into in 1951, when I was 15. One day it just showed up like a stray puppy: this real, genuine hot rod, not the botched job I’d made of my 1932 Chevy coupe. When I got it, the car consisted of a 1931 Model A roadster body mounted on a 1932 Ford frame. The owner/builder had Z’d the frame just ahead of the rear kickup. Fortunately for me, the car did come with 1940 Ford hydraulic brakes, 1934 Ford 17-inch wire wheels and a 1932 grille shell (but no radiator). The gas tank and battery stood in the trunk. The instrument panel came out of a 1941 Ford pickup, the steering wheel from a 1949 Nash and the veed windshield from a motor-boat.
Whenever my auto buddy J.D. Cole and I drove over to the next town, Harlingen, Texas, we’d always go by Elliff Motors, a used-car lot whose back row recycled a steady stream of older, slightly offbeat makes and models. Mr. Elliff had an interest in scruffy cars, and he occasionally picked up strays that weren’t running but that he felt were too nice to part out. Those he’d park behind the back-row fence, out of sight to casual passersby but not to hardened car lookie-loos like J.D. and me.
One day I happened to be driving past Elliff’s alone. I stopped and walked onto the lot, checked out the back row and then strolled past the fence to revisit a homemade Model A boattail speedster that had been there the last time I’d visited. Sure enough, the speedster was still hunkered down in the weeds, but what caught my eye was a new addition, an apparition that, for an instant, I couldn’t believe I was seeing. Here, also knee deep in weeds, stood this huge, magnificent, extremely graceful sedan with long clamshell fenders and dull black paint and, thanks to the ads I’d razored out of old Fortune magazines, I immediately recognized it as a 1932 Cadillac. And there on the radiator stood this deal-changing emblem that proclaimed V-16!
The Buick intrigued me. It was basically all there and, beneath that mantle of dust, looked good. I asked James whether he thought his dad might want to sell it. James had no idea, but he suggested we ask. So we walked directly from the shed into J.C. Dunn’s private office in the main building. I don’t believe Mr. Dunn had a secretary, but the man himself generously invited James and me to come in, and what impressed me was the size of his office and the fact that it looked so uncluttered and modern, totally unlike the Dunn junkyard and hodgepodge storage sheds.
I came to the point straightaway and asked Mr. Dunn whether he’d consider selling me the Buick. He drew a blank at first, but then he remembered the car, and he drawled, very slowly, “No, I won’t sell it to you, Mike, but I’ll give it to you if you can make it run. I put it in there during the war, and if you can drive the Buick out of that shed, you can have it.”
Then one sunny afternoon in early September 1953, about a week before new-car announcement time, my high-school buddy, Larry Myers, came to me in study hall and told me he’d already seen next year’s Hudson, the 1954 model. “This one really is all new and different,” Larry assured me. Larry was Lloyd Lafond’s nephew, so he had the inside track.
I asked him, “Where’d you see it?” Behind Lloyd Lafond’s house, came the answer, in Lloyd’s private garage. “Okay, let’s go check it out right now,” I pleaded. This was serious, jumping-up-and-down business.
So after school, Larry and I went to Lloyd Lafond’s home, walked around back, and Larry flung open the garage doors. There it stood, this big, blue-and-cream, brand-new sedan, facing inward. My first view was of the rear. So far not so good. The car looked fat and finless. Fins were important in 1954. This new model had wimpy, after-thought fins on a broad-beamed backside, with a Ford-like, squared-off bustle.
Larry and I walked around to the front of the car. Ohmigosh, the front was even uglier than the rear. Hudson had again tried to copy Oldsmobile’s “fishmouth” grille, but this time it lacked any semblance of grace. It looked amateurish. And on each side of the new car, the stainless-steel fender slashes had Ford written all over them. If I hadn’t been such a macho, stoic high-school senior, I would have burst out in tears.
I loved my Beetle, partly because it was so totally different from anything I’d owned before: air-cooled aluminum engine in the rear, four-speed transaxle, all-independent torsion suspension, quick steering, responsive handling, good gas mileage, and what I really admired was how well it was put together. Build quality was every bit as good as Cadillac’s, this at a time when Cadillac really was the standard of the world. Okay, so the Veedub had only 36 horsepower, but it was so willing and maneuverable that it actually felt peppy. I named my car Gregor Samsa, after the large bug in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (see how literary I’d become?).
Another thing that appealed to me was that the VW radiated the Reedian sort of anti-establishment counterculture. One thing Reed tried to pour into our spongy brains was not to accept the status quo; to question authority and society and to come to our own conclusions—not a bad pursuit even today.
Driving a VW in the late 1950s meant you were countercultural at best and a hippie degenerate at worst, and yet we owners observed a certain etiquette. For example, we’d wave to each other out on the road, a symbolic gesture that acknowledged a fellow counterculturalist. By waving, we were also congratulating ourselves for being, we thought, ahead of the curve – trendy, smart, cool, correct in our choice of automobiles and going a bit against the establishment grain. We were a cult, a self-selected select group, and being part of that group made us feel superior… I think there’s no other word for it.
I occasionally tuck my business card under the wiper blade of a car I’d like to buy. On the back of the card, I’ll scribble something like, “When you get ready to sell this car, please give me first dibs. Hang onto this card.”
Over the years, I’ve had three owners respond, one of whom was a little old lady here in Stockton. She’d bought a cranberry-colored 1953 Plymouth Cranbrook convertible new, and she’d taken meticulously good care of it until her nephew challenged a lamp pole at a local mall parking lot.
I’d left my card on her windshield five years earlier, in 1970. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have given a 1953 Plymouth a second thought, but this convertible was so nice. It had the continental kit and just about every other option and accessory available that year, so I thought, What the heck; I’ll leave my card. Can’t hurt.
Nothing for five years, and then one Sunday morning in 1975, she called. “Do you remember that Plymouth convertible you left your card on some years back?” (No.) “Well, you wanted to buy the car back then, and now I’m ready to sell it, but there’s a slight problem. The car hit a lamp pole and crumpled the front end. Would you still be interested?”
My first problem with the Nash-Healey was the lean misfire. The twin Carter YH sidedraft carburetors just didn’t want to accept a lot of gas. So I had to get up as much speed as possible on downgrades and then feather the accelerator on the other side. Traffic behind me wasn’t thrilled.
That’s when I started to smell coolant. The temp needle hadn’t budged, which, to me, meant the gauge wasn’t working. But no matter, the engine was definitely heating up. About halfway between Fairfield and Rio Vista, the engine started to sputter, and then it simply quit. I knew there was plenty of gas in the tank.
I settled onto the shoulder just where Route 113 crosses Highway 12 and sat there for a few minutes, listening. I could hear steam rumbling inside the block, but no hissing. I got out and lifted the hood, and it was like opening an oven. The heat slapped me right in the face.
It was then that I noticed, for the first time, the wooden clothespin attached to the fuel line. That made it obvious that the Nash-Healey had suffered vapor lock before. Why people put clothespins on fuel lines to ward off vapor lock I have no idea, but it’s a common “cure” that’s never worked for me. Nothing to do, but sit with the hood open and wait for things to cool.
Read the rest of the excerpts on Hemmings Blog. Courtesy of Michael Lamm.