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I REMEMBER WHEN . . . : In the 1920s every red-blooded boy knew the name of every make he saw and could identify it in an instant.

March 13, 1988|JACK SMITH | Smith is a Times columnist.

When I was a small boy my father bought a Wills Sainte Claire touring car.

In this day of consumer glut, when almost everyone has almost everything, it is hard to imagine the prestige that my father's Wills Sainte Claire conferred on me. I was the envy of every boy on the block.

It was not the most expensive car on the road, or the fastest; it wasn't a sex symbol like the Stutz Bearcat; but it had speed, dash and a modest class.

It had been designed by Childe Harold Wills, who had designed the Model T for Henry Ford but never received any public credit; the Wills Sainte Claire was Wills' dream. It was an engineering marvel with a straight-six engine, overhead cams and hydraulic brakes. It developed 66 horsepower and could cruise, as I remember, at 80. Between 1921 and 1926, Wills built and sold 12,107 cars. The last Wills was turned out early in 1927.

That, to my mind, was the Golden Age of the American automobile. When the Model A Ford came out on Dec. 2, 1927, 1 million people (according to the Herald-Tribune) tried to get into the Ford showrooms in New York to see it.

Some great models appeared in the early 1930s, but the Depression killed off the independent companies like flies, and by World War II, when production stop- ped, that exhilarating age of individuality was over, except for a few die-hard mavericks.

Today, when every car in sight is the product of the American Big Three or perhaps a dozen Japanese, French and German companies, it may be hard to believe that in 1917 there were as many as 160 different makes of automobiles in this country.

A directory published by Everybody's Magazine in that year lists such long-forgotten cars as the Apperson Roadaplane, the Ben Hur, the Dixie Flyer, the Pathfinder, the Pilot and the Wonder.

In the 1920s every red-blooded boy knew the name of every make he saw and could identify it in an instant. Many of those cars didn't last very long, but their names and their profiles are etched in my memory.

When we went to a public event, like an air show at Mines Field, I used to feast on the parked cars, identifying almost every one and looking eagerly for strangers. I believe I could still identify a Moon if one turned up; also a Kissel, a Maxwell, an Auburn, a Jordan, an Essex, certainly a Pierce-Arrow and a Packard.

The names were romantic; they sometimes honored heroes, like Rickenbacker and Grant, or immortalized their makers, like Ford, Dodge and Studebaker, or exploited the qualities of some natural phenomenon, like Comet, Eagle, Star and Sun.

True, sedans often betrayed their lineage, with boxy lines like those of carriages; but the roadsters and phaetons and touring cars were works of art. They were like sculptures by Bernini. Fenders swooped gracefully into running boards. Radiators and headlights were nickel plated. Figures of naked women often stood on their radiator caps.

A boat-tailed Duesenberg Speedster, parked at a curb in a slum, could elevate the image of the whole neighborhood. When a Cord rolled down the street, or a boat-tailed Auburn, or a LaSalle convertible, every head turned with admiration. A 16-cylinder Cadillac roadster with a rumble seat inspired awe.

It is often said that "you are what you drive." That was more true then than now. If you said of a man, "He's the kind of a man who drives an Oakland," you were saying something. It meant he was prudent, unadventurous and very probably sexually inhibited.

A man who drove a Wills Sainte Claire liked fast cars, clear Havana cigars, good whiskey and beautiful women. I suspect that in buying a Wills, my father was expressing his nature.

A man who owned a Pierce-Arrow was rich. He might as well have worn his bank statement on his lapel. You knew the car was his. It wasn't on a lease or a three-year contract. He wore dark-gray pinstripe suits and imported silk neckties with diamond stickpins in them. His wife wore chiffon and was helped into the car by a chauffeur. She might have a poodle. There were cut-glass vases in the back seat with rosebuds in them.

A man who owned a Cord was young and a little bit wild and had probably spent more money for it than he could afford. He lived dangerously. He liked to tinker with the engine. He wore gabardine slacks and polo shirts and seemed to have a string of daring young women in short skirts who wore kerchiefs over their hair. How I envied him.

The Dodge was a solid, reliable, plain-looking car whose owner was almost sure to be the same type. They were middle-aged businessmen or professionals who cared more about service than style. They could rely on their cars and you could rely on them. A Dodge owner wouldn't give you a bad root-canal job or sell you worthless stock, and he wouldn't run off with your wife.

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