Chevy of Yesteryear

A 1957 Chevrolet Nomad station wagon.
A 1957 Chevrolet Nomad station wagon. (Wieck Media Services Inc.)
By Jeanne McManus
Wednesday, February 18, 2009

If ever there was a good idea gone bad, an American icon destroyed, a trust betrayed, it has to be Chevrolet. It took only one 1951 Ford to make my father a Chevy man for life. One summer day in 1952 Dad went off to Chevy Chase Chevrolet, unannounced, and traded in the Ford for a Chevrolet "tin woodie" station wagon, dark brown with a tailgate that flapped down, a rear window that sprang up and a third seat in the back that folded flat, though the car was so often filled with kids that it was rarely in that position. That day, my mother cried in front of her four children for the first time any of us could remember.

Mom thought the car was an extravagance, and it probably was, with a fresh mortgage on a three-bedroom, one-bath house in Northwest. Though Dad was in many ways infinitely practical, not in need of luxury, he had his weaknesses, and a new Chevy was at the top of the list.

How could the company that once forged Dad's dreams from metal become the same General Motors that is now begging for billions in government assistance?

That first Chevy station wagon, most often with Mom behind the wheel, hauled us off to daily obligations -- school, church, Boy Scouts, Brownies -- but never was it more valuable than on our annual trek to Bethany Beach. Into the back of that car Dad managed to stuff the sheets, towels, bathing suits, coolers, beach umbrella and summer clothes that Mom had packed for our two- or sometimes four-week stay. It was a badge of pride to Dad that he not resort to tying suitcases to the roof. To his pleasure, the Chevy could absorb the load.

That brown station wagon disappeared as suddenly as it arrived. This time, Mom, sensing a pattern, did not cry when Dad drove up in the 1957 Chevrolet station wagon, a kind of creamy yellow with white tail fins. None of us liked the color. But this was back when families were benign dictatorships, not democracies, and so we kept our mouths shut.

By then my older sister and I were in the Girl Scouts, and every Saturday we took ice skating lessons at Uline Arena in Northeast Washington. Mom volunteered too often to be one of the carpool drivers hauling half of a troop down North Capitol Street, and another mother, in another station wagon, took the other half. One Saturday morning when the inevitable happened -- a girl fell and split her lip -- the other mother took the injured girl to the hospital and Mom took home the entire troop in the '57 wagon -- 17 of us, all in circular skirts, with skates, coats, hats and mittens.

Looking back now, I see that the next Chevy was clearly Dad's midlife-crisis car, though I don't think the term had been invented yet. By 1961, he had three teenagers, and that's enough to make any man trade in the station wagon for a 1961 Impala convertible -- white with a red interior and a red stripe on the more modified fin. Again, the color: Dad? White?

Still, though I was not yet old enough to drive, I couldn't wait to get my hands on that car. Neither could my girlfriends. While Mom and Dad were at a Redskins game one brilliant autumn afternoon, my gang of friends and I, headed by Peggy, the only one of us who had a license, took the Impala for a joy ride, all the while listening to the game to make sure we got the car back in time. (Sorry, Mom!)

Second cars soon joined the family car. We had not one but two Corvairs (one of the darlings of Ralph Nader's "Unsafe at Any Speed") and a Malibu. One year, Dad went off radar and bought a little Renault, but it always sounded like a whirring fan, the turn signals were the opposite of the Chevy ("left is up and right is down," we sang to remind Mom), and it rusted out pretty quickly.

When in 1972 I finally had enough money to buy my own car, I knew it was going to be a VW bug. Dad insisted that we test-drive one. Of course, according to him, everything about it was wrong. To be honest, my dad, a veteran of World War II, found it hard to see his daughter in a German car.

Inexorably, we wound up at Chevy Chase Chevrolet with me driving off the lot in a 1972 Chevrolet Vega.

That thing overheated on a lonely mountain road in Vermont at 5 in the morning. It overheated on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on a Sunday afternoon in July. At one point, the only way I could ensure that it would start in the morning was to set my alarm for 3 a.m., go outside in my pajamas, turn it over, warm it up, turn it off, then go back to bed. When in 1979 I bought a Honda Civic, the dealer wouldn't even take the Vega in a trade.

A year later my husband and I drove it into a gas station in Rappahannock County, parked it over to the side where cars awaited servicing, took off the license plates and quietly drove off in the Civic. We saw it there for a while afterward; eventually it disappeared.

Jeanne McManus, a former Post editor, is an occasional contributor to the op-ed page.

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