Published October 18, 2017 in Warp & Woof
One Family’s Car Culture, GM Style – 1950-1970
(Sundwick Automotive Photo Library, Part IV)
We were not a typical family, even for Dearborn or Flint. Dad was a committed General Motors “lifer” – a salaried engineer, destined by the end of his career to be at the top rungs of “plant-level” management. We were required to own GM products; it was a moral responsibility.
And, we had to change them frequently – advertising, of sorts. The family corporate discount on new cars probably didn’t exceed 20%. So, my dad took a bath when he traded every year. Surely, his salary wouldn’t compensate for that. He felt he had the civic obligation to visibly promote the General’s products.
My earliest car memory dates from the summer I turned three. I have a distinct image imprinted in
my deepest consciousness, unsupported by a family photograph, but reinforced by my father when I described the scene as an adult. It’s an image of a sunny day, me walking out the kitchen door to see a new shiny green 1950 Chevrolet in the driveway. I remember the detail of the chrome grille and bumpers, I remember that it was a trunk-back “Styleline” two-door sedan (as opposed to the “Fleetline” fastback body style). Yes!” exclaimed my dad, “that was our ’50 Chevy!” Why do I remember it? Mysteries of early cognitive development, I guess.
Perhaps the reason it was not recorded in the family photo album is because it was not a particularly remarkable event. It was just another new car – even then, when Dad was a relatively junior engineer at the Detroit Ternstedt plant (GM’s “hardware” division), he traded cars every year. Each was indelibly recorded in my mind’s eye, even as they were just routine for my parents.
I remember our upgrade from Chevrolet to Oldsmobile in 1952. The rationale was that we were planning an ambitious road trip to the Rocky Mountains that summer. Dad felt he needed V8 power to climb the mountains in Wyoming, where we had plans to stay at a “dude ranch” there (a popular tourist destination in those days). That ’52 Olds 88 was the least expensive V8 in the GM line, a two-door sedan like the previous Chevys (no sporty “hardtops,” or even white sidewalls, for my father’s spartan taste).
Moving from Dearborn to Flint in the Summer of 1953, shortly after the F5 Beecher tornado laid waste to a big swath of the latter, I found myself in alien territory. It felt like the “frontier.” Our new construction house was in a development on the edge of town, lacking sidewalks or even paved streets at first. We packed our belongings into another spartan two-door, a 1953 Chevy “210” series. It was two-tone brown, and would be my mother’s car for an unprecedented seven years. In Flint, we needed two cars for the first time. My mom needed to get out into our new community. We had relatives there – but, Mom had bigger plans. She was going to college! The local junior college (now called Mott College) expanded to become the Flint branch of the University of Michigan. She would be in its first graduating class, 1960. As a part-time student she needed a car. That ’53 Chevy was it for the duration, nearly six years.
Dad meanwhile was assuming increased responsibility at the new Ternstedt plant on Coldwater Road. It would join many other GM manufacturing centers around the city. There were Buick “city” on the North side, and old “Chevrolet No. 1” on Chevrolet Avenue (dating back to the very first Chevys, in the teens). Fisher Body No. 1, almost as old, and scene of the famous 1936-37 sit-down strikes which gave birth to the UAW, and the halcyon days of the American labor movement. There was AC Spark Plug on the eastern edge of town, where my uncle worked in sales (also the workplace of Flintoid Michael Moore’s father).
But, GM was engaged in massive expansion in fifties Flint – in addition to Ternstedt, there was the Van Slyke Chevrolet complex, which doubled or tripled Chevrolet capacity over old No. 1. It included the legendary “V8 engine plant” – hallowed ground for American car buffs.
Flint was rapidly becoming a “real city” – at first, the explosive population growth seemed to have no limits, but eventually dark clouds began to gather. By high school my entire cohort vowed never to return to Flint after college. We thought it a city without a soul.
Climbing the GM corporate ladder – even at the plant level – required symbols of authority, so my
father bought a succession of five Cadillacs in the mid-fifties. Their main purpose was to park in his reserved space in the plant’s lot – “Mr. Sundwick, Process Engng.” But, they were also comfortable fun for our annual summer road trips. We traveled to Wisconsin (Mom’s family), New England, the Upper Peninsula (more Sundwick relatives); and ultimately, California in 1958, the last Cadillac.
To emphasize the utilitarian nature of these otherwise ostentatious rides, Dad selected entry level “62 Coupes” – they had whitewall tires by this time, but little else. There were roll-up windows, no A/C, no automatic headlight dimmers on the dash. The one exception was a 1956 Sedan de Ville, a four-door “hardtop” with power windows and power seat. Still no air (it was Michigan, after all).
At age 49, Dad suffered a serious heart attack, in the fall of 1956. His career path was truncated, since he was now a health risk for the corporation. He accepted the lowered aspirations by figuratively raising his middle finger – no more Cadillacs after 1958 (though he claimed reliability problems with that ’58 disenchanted him). Indeed, we sold that last Caddy, and replaced it before the end of the model year with the very lowest priced, “stripped down” Chevy one could buy – a back-to-basics 1958 Delray two-door. He drove it to work and parked in that same reserved space. What did people think? My mother registered embarrassment at neighbors’ inquiries. I was mortified, too. In 6thgrade, however, few classmates knew much of our family.
When we visited Washington, D.C. for our next summer road trip, we had already upgraded to a new ’59 Impala 4-door hardtop (called a “Sport Sedan”). And, it did have whitewalls!
Frugality was becoming a theme in our family. College savings may have begun to weigh on my parents, despite Mom’s new job as a high school English teacher in Flint’s “suburbs.” We kept the ’59 Impala for another year, and a trip to New York. Finally, now that my mom was supplementing our income, we replaced her old ’53 Chevy — with a funky little black Corvair sedan. This was a truly curious car. 1960 was the first year for Corvair, it had an air-cooled “pancake” rear engine like a VW! It did have white sidewalls. That low bar seems to have finally been crossed.
As I approached driver’s license age, both Mom and I wanted to recover some neighborhood social status. The result: my dad reluctantly agreed that our next car would be an Impala convertible – our only convertible ever! With my learner’s permit in the glovebox, it bothered me only slightly that it was my mom in the passenger seat when I tooled around the neighborhood with top down. The bright yellow ’61 had a white top, camel interior, and
not only whitewalls, but full wheel covers, rear antenna, and bumper guards! Yes, my dad was weakening. I even convinced him that power windows were a practical necessity with convertibles.
My dad drove the Corvair to work.
As the sixties progressed, we gradually moved up the GM product line again, but no more Cadillacs until my parents retired and moved to Florida following Dad’s second coronary. In 1962, it was another Olds, ten years after the previous example, then a Buick LeSabre, and a 1964 Pontiac Star Chief (our first car with air conditioning, despite summer road trip that year planned for Toronto and the New York World’s Fair).
In 1965, we bought a truly sporty bright red Corvair Monza coupe with white vinyl interior (we were a two Corvair family for one year – Mom’s 1963 beige Monza was my high school choice for dates).
By the time I graduated from Flint Central High School in 1965, I had acquired a used 1956 Pontiac Chieftan 4-door hardtop, justified by my job as managing editor of “The Arrowhead,” the high school newspaper. I needed to zip around town during the day collecting advertising copy from local businesses. Mom needed her car for school in the “burbs.”
It was off to college in Kalamazoo the following fall. No car (not allowed for freshmen). My parents bought a pair of 1966 Buicks to celebrate my leaving. One for my dad (a stately Electra 225 sedan) and one for my mom (a midsize Skylark coupe). I enjoyed the Skylark when home on break – its
diminutive 300 cu. In. 2-bbl. V8 seemed surprisingly peppy (worth one speeding ticket).
That would be my final Flint fling, except I came back to visit Flint once as a college senior, with my girlfriend, in the graduation present from my parents — a ’69 Opel Rallye Kadett (yellow with black bumblebee stripes and interior, flat black hood panels, husky 4-speed manual transmission, tachometer, and fairly potent 1.9- liter overhead cam four).
During their Florida retirement, the parents had drifted back to Cadillac. Coming full circle with a gold 1968 Coupe de Ville. It was huge. I drove it once or twice on errands. Giant 472 cu. In. V8, but I could hardly see the end of the hood in front of me when driving. I wondered if you could land aircraft on its deck!
For me, my parents’ life in Florida was increasingly remote. I moved to the Washington area in 1971 for grad school at College Park. I stayed here; they stayed there. Until I brought my mom up here, to a nursing home, when she was in the terminal stages of Parkinsons. She died here in 2007.
I have no recollection of driving any of their succession of Cadillacs and Buicks (there were several) after 1970. And, my choices in transportation were governed more by practicality than advertising or social status.