Dad and Mom came up to visit this weekend. The husband and I had initially hoped that the weather would be good and we could take a day-trip up to Paradise to admire the mountain in the snow. No dice. Overcast skies would have prevented us from seeing Mt. Rainier, and I think we would have gotten wet due to a steady mixture of snow and rain.
Instead, we went to Tacoma and visit America’s Car Museum. The museum opened a few years ago, but we had not visited, but I knew Dad would really like it. And, I can appreciate spending a couple of hours with very shiny cars from many different decades.
This is not just a piddly little museum. ACM spans three or four floors (I lost count) and includes over 300 cars, trucks and motorcycles from private owners, corporations and the LeMay collection. Around here, LeMay means garbage. The company hauls our garbage weekly and our recycling bi-monthly. Their huge trucks pull up in front of the office and shred sensitive documents on-site. It’s a big business.
Harold LeMay, founder of the refuse business, was an avid car collector, amassing over 3000 vehicles. Before the car museum, he and his wife would open their estate for the annual LeMay Car Show. In 1996 they began working on plans to open a non-profit museum. Harold wanted to ensure that his collection was not broken up and sold off after his death. While he didn’t live to see the museum open (he died in 2000 and the museum opened in 2012. It was delayed, in part, due to the economy tanking), his wife, Nancy, shared his passion and remains alive today.
The museum is impressive, even from a non-car person’s perspective. They have really old cars (1910s), they have muscle cars, they have European cars, they have beautiful, curvy, boat-sized cars in sherbet colors from the 1950’s and 1960’s. All glossed to a high shine.
I knew, immediately, that I didn’t have a wide enough lens to capture whole cars, so I quickly abandoned that idea. Instead, I focused on bits and pieces of cars, which actually turned into some pretty cool photos. As I was snapping away I heard Dad in the background, commenting about this car or that car. I began to formulate a way to share about the museum and capture a little family history at the same time, so when we got home I asked him about his car history.
Dad grew up in Toledo, OR. With the exception of leaving for a few years to attend what was then Oregon Technical Institute in Klamath Falls, Dad has lived in Toledo his entire life. His parents were business-owners, owning the local Dairy Dream (they later sold the Dairy Dream and bought a service station, which Dad worked at and later owned), but that didn’t mean that Dad was just handed things.
When Dad was 15, about to turn 16, his Dad purchased a grey 1948 Plymouth. My Dad had to pay him back for the car, which he did by working at a service station pumping gas (his parents did not own it at the time). However, Dad only kept that Plymouth for about a year because he wanted a car that went fast and wasn’t old. It was 1961.
His next purchase was a 1950 Ford, Flathead V8 four door, 3 speed on the column, “kinda grey-white”. I pulled up a picture and said it didn’t look like it would go very fast. He said it went plenty fast and related a time when he raced it through town against a friend who had a 1949 Ford, Flathead. He said they were neck-and-neck, but his buddy had to back off because there was another car coming along in the same lane.
He had that car for a couple of years, then purchased a 1958 Ford, Galaxie 500, white. He relates that he bought that car because it went faster than the 1950 Ford. But, he didn’t have that one very long (do you sense a youthful theme?). And, he actually broke the drive line on that car between Toledo and Newport. I looked at him suspiciously and asked how it happened. He said he was headed to Newport and a car was going to pass him and, “there was no way in heck they were going to pass me, so I floored it…” “And you broke your car?” “Yeah…but that was easy to fix.” And fix it he did, but then he wanted something that went faster.
At this point, Mom inserted, “That’s why he had no money when we got married. He spent it all on pizza, cars and fast women.” Me: “Were you one of those fast women?” All-around laughter. “No, he had to clean up his act before I would date him.”
Next up: a 1963 Pontiac Grand Prix, 2 door hardtop. Mom: “Big old boat of a car.” Dad: “It was a big blue boat. It went fast, but the police didn’t pay any attention because it looked like an old man’s car.” That car went with him to Klamath Falls. It broke down while there (not because of speeding) and he rebuilt the engine (because he was there studying auto technology). He shared a story about a time he was coming home: he called his Dad and said he was leaving K Falls. Normally, that’s a 4 1/2-5 hour trip. He made it in 4 and his Dad told him if he ever did that again he would no longer have a car. Dad said that from then on he’d call and say he was leaving K Falls, headed for Toledo, but he’d stop and visit Mom for an hour or so (she was a senior in high school at the time and still lived with my Grandparents in Toledo) before going on to his parent’s house.
Dad pimped out his Grand Prix, installing and an eight-track system so he could ride around town blasting the stereo. Good stuff…like the Beach Boys. Mom commented, “That’s why he can’t hear today.”
In 1967 Mom bought a 1964 Ford Fairlane. She reports that it didn’t go very fast, but she wasn’t into fast cars like Dad. She just needed a car that would get her to and from work. She said that one day her Dad came home and said that he had found a car with low miles and in good condition. The problem? It was red. Now, Mom has never been a fan of red. Not then, not now. But, it was a car. And she needed one. I’d like to note that she paid for her own car, too. So did my brother and I, when we got old enough to buy our first cars.
Dad and Mom married in 1968. He still had the Grand Prix, she the Ford Fairlane, making them a two-car family, which was a pretty big deal at the time. Dad and his Dad had joined forces and were running the service station together. Mom was working at the welfare office in Newport.
My brother was born in 1970, which cramped the style of a 2-door Grand Prix. They ordered a brand new Ford station wagon. Mom said it was such a pretty green. But when it came in it was $100 more than they had originally negotiated, and the car guy wouldn’t budge, so they didn’t buy it. Instead, they bought a brand new 2-door Dodge Dart with a sun roof. Not sure how that was kid-friendly, but they both spoke very fondly of that Dart. Dad: “And it went fast.” Me: “With the kids in the back seat?” Dad and Mom: “Yeah.”
I came on the scene in 1972 and actually remember that car (they had it for quite a while). Actually, I think I remember getting my fingers shut in the door of that car. By that time, there was a pick-up, too.
They had the Dart for quite a few years, then bought….of all things, a Suburban. A big, old Suburban. Tan. I remember that Suburban. It was massive. With a huge engine (which pleased Dad, though that thing probably got 6 miles a gallon). Then there was a blue Suburban. A big, old blue suburban. And a mint green Ford. I remember that Ford, parked on the hill next to our house. It was mint green. That was worth repeating. Needless to say, I learned to drive using my Grandparent’s car…not the Suburban or the Ford.
These days, Dad’s car aspirations are a bit…tamer. He and Mom have had the same Nissan Altima for many years. And he has a Ford pick-up, too. But, at the car museum I saw a glimmer of the need for speed as he admired car after car.
So, I asked him what car he would have, if price was no object, from any time period. He responded,”It would have to be a 1962-1965 Chevy Impala with a 327, put 3 deuces on it…mmm-hmmm…you could go fast.” It was like Ralphie and his Red Rider bb gun.
Love you, Dad. Thanks for sharing your memories. And to Mom for being the peanut gallery.