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Sunday, April 05, 2015

LEARNING TO DRIVE IN 1951

I remember the year 1957 very well.  I was a junior in high school and had the “hots” for a lot of girls who wouldn’t give me the time of day. On March 30 of that year I turned the magical age of 16 which meant that I could finally get my driver’s license.   What a moment that was as I would now have the gift of instant mobility; no more begging rides from other guys, taking buses, hitch hiking, or worst of all: walking!

My dad was cool about such things as me knowing how to drive at an early age.  He was strictly “old school” and felt that when I went to take my driver’s test at 16, I should be an experienced driver.  Hence, at age 11 he gave me my first lesson on our 1940 Buick.  If you Google “1940 Buick” you will see a very large car so you can imagine what it was like for a kid of 11 to handle such a beast.

It was a three speed stick shift or as they said in those days, a “conventional shift.”  For my first lesson we went to a large parking area near a park where we lived in Cincinnati, Ohio.  If one was taking a driving lesson it was a pretty good place as it was wide open and no matter how bad I drove the car I couldn’t kill anyone.

A 1940 Buick exactly like the one I learned to drive on.
When I got in the driver’s seat I noticed that I had to really crane my neck to see out the windshield since I was basically just a little kid. Plus, I had to look through the steering wheel, not over it.  So, there I was:  not even a teenager yet but learning to drive a 10 year old Buick stick shift.  Luckily, I rolled with the flow pretty good and within a few months I was a pretty experienced driver for an 11 year old kid.  We used to vacation for a couple weeks in Atlantic City in the summer so I logged a lot of miles behind  the wheel long before I ever turned 16.  I may be the only kid from Cincinnati in those days who drove the Pennsylvania Turnpike before age 13!

When I finally turned 16, I got my driver’s license a few days later.   I was six feet four inches tall by then and could easily look above the steering wheel of any car so that was no big deal.   There was some humor though as the officer who gave the test was a bit concerned that a kid who supposedly just learned to drive at 16 could be so good at it.  I didn’t dare tell him that I had driven about  6,000 miles between  the ages of 11 and 16.

The 1950’s were a fun time to be a kid.  There weren’t so many people around like today so driving was the way to go anywhere.  Cars were different too; a lot more powerful than today.  Plus, with a car there was always a chance to take a date to a drive-in movie:  a place where movies were seldom watched.  Today, I don’t know of any drive in movies that still exist.

It’s a different world now.  I don’t see kids caring anything about driving or the classic cars like the hot rodders of the past.  When is the last time you heard a great car song like “Little Deuce Coupe” or “Hot Rod Lincoln”?  Driving has become boring and expensive to many as the period from 2000 to 2009 shows that the number of miles driven by 16 to 34 year olds dropped by 23 percent.

One of the great cars of the 1950's.  A '57 Chevy convertible.
Some of that may be because of the Recession and part may be the desire of some to live in an urban environment where walking is a viable and cheaper option.  Downtown Scottsdale has become a mecca for Millennials with its tall apartments housing 800 to 1,000 square foot units that can cheaply accommodate several of the younger crowd.  Bars and restaurants are within walking distance so savings can be made by eliminating the cost of leaving the area.  In recent years public transit has also eased the expense of driving a car.

Dylan once sang that “…the times they are a-changin’” and he was right; they always will change.  Hopefully enough that the younger gang will someday realize how great it would be to put the top down on a convertible and get out of the madness of living stacked on top of each other in a tiny downtown apartment.  If you have been around a while you know it can happen as everything is cyclical.

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19 comments:

Jim McAllister said...

Thanks for leaving a comment. All comments will be posted.

JM

nativekentuckian said...

Hi Jim!.....Did the '40 Chevy have a "town & country"horn???....I remember some of the old chevys had them....Depending on whether you were in town...or out in the country....you had a choice of loudness by flipping a switch....Sonny

John Bamberl said...

Jim
I always look forward to your blogs because I relate to them so well. I also learned to drive at an an early age driving my dad's 1949 Packard up and down the driveway. Unlike you I didn't venture into the street.
I also remember sitting on my front porch with my brother naming all the beautiful cars with their chrome as they came by. Now they all look alike.
My first car was a 1955 Chevrolet coupe. I really wish I had it today

Joe Finnerty said...

At age 19, in the winter of 1946, I taught myself to drive a double clutch Dodge truck in the dead of night while stationed at an army air force base in Fairbanks, Alaska. I failed to inform the army of my nightly rides around the frozen tundra. On one of my first joy rides, I narrowly avoided colliding with a train. The incident scared the wits out of me, but a week later, I continued to leave my office, sneak out to the truck, and take off. In that cold winter, all vehicles that had to be parked outside were left with their motors idling.
Cars never held my interest. I purchased a worn out 1939 Plymouth coupe in the summer of 1949 that died three months later. A year or so after graduating from college, I bought a brand new Studebaker Champion in 1951, and used it to advantage while attending drive-in movies. I am happy to report that I sold in for fifty bucks thirteen years later, replacing it with a VW bug. My wife and I carted our six kids around in it. When we got out, we looked like those circus clowns.

Arizona Dave said...

Great article for us old folks...remember the 50s well, a wonderful time with my Red & White 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 which was nicknamed the 'Coca Cola' machine...oh what fun times, girlfriends and all, and of course, made time for the all important game of golf which has meant so much to me over the past 65 years...and going to the movie with a guy named Elvis.
The 50s were the best, then followed by the 60s which were know as the Hippie time.

Always enjoy your articles old friend.

Glo said...

Hi Jim.

Ah, the days of learning how to drive! I was 14 and we lived in public housing in Hartford. That was 1968, and the days of the “Blue Laws” where stores were closed on Sundays. That was a good thing for a teenage driver-wannabe. My mom would take me up to north Hartford to the Topps parking lot (Topps was a store similar to K-Mart), and I would get behind the wheel of our 1966 aqua green Pontiac Tempest station wagon. No power steering, the car was the size of Yemen, and not easily maneuverable. I learned how to drive, park, back up, etc. Then, Mom would take me out on the roads over the next year. Now that was scary, especially when we’d get onto the highway.

My most vivid memory of learning was when she’d take me up to the Mohawk Trail in northwestern Massachusetts: many miles of one lane each way over the mountains and around curves to reach the infamous “Hairpin Turn” at the top. Trust me: turning that steering wheel was not an easy proposition, and if I had screwed it up badly enough, we would have tumbled down the Berkshires! The single most frightening memory of learning to drive was when we were at a bridge over the river, one lane, and when I started over the bridge I froze and couldn’t move. People in cars on both sides were blowing their horns and yelling and gesticulating and I was terrified. I finally managed to press the accelerator and make it across. I passed the driving test in 1969 on my first try. Also, I nearly had a nervous breakdown and learned the hard way: NEVER let your mother teach you how to drive! And, the downside was that after that, 99% of the fights Mom and I had were about my driving. The good old days …

Mike Slater said...

Hi Jim, I wasn't born til 1951 so I didn't learn how to drive until the mid 60's in my dad's 63 Rambler. I got my DL in 67.

Jim McAllister said...

Jim, you were probably the only kid,anywhere, and not just Cincinnati, who drove the Pennslyvania Turnpike before the age of 13 - Really cute article.

Thanks.
Joy

Jim McAllister said...

Native (Sonny)

Wow! That's a new one on me but it sounds logical for the era that there would be a town and country horn. Those were the days when a lot of country still existed.

Jim McAllister said...

Dr. John,

Thanks for the comment, Doc. Packard had great cars in the 1947 plus years up to about '56 with the Caribbean which was a nice competitor to the Caddy El Dorado. Yes, lots of chrome on the old cars especially the side molding and bumpers with the big bumper guards.

1955 was the beginning of the great 55, 56, 57 Chevys, a great era for them. I never liked the '58s.

Jim McAllister said...

Joe,

Great story. I can picture you at 19 in 1946 plowing through the tundra of Fairbanks in that truck. Those are great times to remember for you and I'm sure you remember them fondly. We are only young once and doing crazy things are part of the life experience. I'm glad you didn't hit that train or we would have never known!

I loved those old Plymouth coupes like you mentioned. Bogie drove one just like that in "The Big Sleep" (1946). A childhood friend also had one and I loved driving it with the 3 speed floor shift and that little fan with rubber blades that blew on the windshield for a defroster.

The old carsa were great. No need for oil changes since they burned or leaked most of the oil. Just buy a 5 gallon can of oil at Sears and add as needed. LOL

Jim McAllister said...

Thanks, Dave.

The '55, '56, and '57 were nice Fords and the T-Bird coming along in '55 was a nice addition. Ford outsold Chevy in '57 which was unusual but well deserved. The '57 you had was a great car of it's time.

Yeah, the 50s were kind of a last gap for a lot of us before we got drafted or joined the military. I did the USAF from 1961-65 and never regretted it; a great experience and I probably would never have seen Germany otherwise.

That's cool that you knew Elvis. Who would have thought in those early days that he would have become the star he was. He did his Army hitch and never bitched. Can you imagine the young guys of today doing that?

Jim McAllister said...

Glo,

The '66 Pontiac: Now there was a car just like the photo you sent. All the GMs were huge then with plenty of chrome and big V8 engines.

Pontiacs were such great cars. It's a shame GM stopped making them and the Olds. The Pontiacs were great performance cars too with the GTO.

I can imagine you driving on a icy road in that Tempest!

Jim McAllister said...

Mike,

Ramblers were neat little cars. Do you remember the Nash Metropolitan? It was a neat little convertible.

I remember the big Nash of the 1950s. They were referred to as bathtubs because of their shape or bedmobiles because the inside converted to a bed.

I got my license in 1957 driving a 1954 Ford mainliner 6 banger business coupe.

Mike Slater said...

Jim, the best thing about the 63 Rambler was it was the first car we had with factory A/C in it.Living in Phoenix it was a blessing to say the least.

Jim McAllister said...

Mike,

I can only imagine living here without AC in the car. I guess it was one of those cases where you just toughed it out but I'm sure that anyone who had AC in the car then lost it knew all about the misery of hot weather.

Traci Via said...

Jim,
As the mother of a daughter who just turned 16, I can so relate! On a side note, I am an alum of Central Missouri like you. I am headed to AZ on Sunday and would love to buy you a cup of coffee if you are up for it.

Traci Via
via@ucmo.edu

CJinPhoenix said...

Kinda like you, Jim, I basically taught myself to drive. My parents tried, but neither one had the required patience. So I probably had some of the basics but, the strange thing was, I did better on my own without having someone next to me that was shouting at me when I didn't do something just right ... So my friend's mom had a big old clunky 3-on-the-tree van that we used to sneak out & that is how I really learned to drive, especially the clutch.

My first real car was a 63 Chevy Biscayne. 3-on-the-tree again & no ac. It was already 15yrs old when I got it.

Jim McAllister said...

CJ,

I used to think that someone should have to be able to drive a "stick shift" before they can get a license.

I've backed off that a bit now since almost every car is now automatic but in a way I still believe in the stick since emergencies do happen where a stick may be the only available vehicle in an emergency situation.

The '83 Chevy was a nice car; a real throwback to the days when even Chevys were big. My brother had a 63 Impala that was a nice car. I still sometimes miss my '61 Bel Air. It had the smoothest little V8 of any car I ever had.