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Did the EPA Kill the Golden Era of Car Songs?

March 25, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition. T. Jefferson Parker's column resumes in this spot next week.

My dad told me recently that the only things in life that make a man feel good are a new suit and a new car. Not much of a ladies man, old dad.

I will admit to feeling pretty swell, though, since I picked up the new Saturn I wrote about last week. For that matter, I'm going to keep writing about it until it pays for itself. I'm going to gush so much that the Saturn people are going to be embarrassed they didn't just up and give me one.

I felt like I actually bought two cars last Tuesday, the one the salesman told me about, made to run like a demon for 200,000 miles with nary a ding in its high-tech finish, and the car the finance guy told me about that was "just a machine after all," naked without an extended service contract and the dealer's mystical finish protectant.

Though the finance fellow was anything but hard-sell, the process did get a bit wearing. It was like having a bike 'n' Bible missionary at your door and you have to keep listening because he has your car keys! What a relief it was to finally take possession, start 'er up, let that sunroof slide, shoot up the Edinger on-ramp and come to a dead halt on the 55, which was moving at its usual late-afternoon glacial rate.

I didn't get away from the dealership, by the way, without the sales staff gathering around to give me that Saturn cheer we mentioned last week. What they actually shout, for some reason I haven't yet fathomed, is "I say, I say, I say (your name here)."

So far, I really like the thing (the car, I mean, not the cheer, which sounded like some weird cross between Foghorn Leghorn and Japanese calisthenic noises). The car is peppy and smart--when you're fast-forwarding a tape the radio comes on! I've waited years for this!--and later that first night I actually got to use the anti-lock brakes when someone in the fast lane ahead of me decided to stop and have a little think. It took several of my passengers' polite "Uh. . . uh, Jim!!!!!" comments to get me to notice and slam on the brakes, as I was drunk with New Car Smell.

Sure, it could be fatal PCBs, but that car smell always gets me misty-eyed and reflective, and just in the mood to tell you about:


Early on, I think I was a major influence on my parents' decision to buy station wagons, since I was incapable of going on a car ride without vomiting a wide arc of Corn Nuts all over the place. By getting wagons, they could just sit me in the back, roll down the power window and trust the motorist behind us had good wipers.

Even station wagons then could be real monsters. We had a red '65 Plymouth Fury III that came with a dual-carb 383 Police Interceptor engine, which Plymouth brochures actually referred to as the Golden Sonoramic Commando engine. I later inherited this car, and though it was the size of a Helms truck, I could get it to 120 without even coming close to flooring the pedal.

It was easier to love your car then, as the '60s were the golden era of car songs. Everybody sang them. I believe Bob Dylan wrote this one:

There must be some way outta here ,

So I'm burnin' rubber in all four gears.

Take the checkered flag away from my face.

Now ain't the time for your tears.

"Hey Little Cobra," "Little GTO," "409," "Little Deuce Coupe"--what a world there was in those songs. You'd hear the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean sing about Lake pipes, flat-head mills, Ram induction and "my four-speed, dual quad, Positraction 409."

These could have been terms out of the Talmud, for all I knew about car parts. But they sure sounded cool and Californian coming out of a transistor radio.

My childhood car knowledge was scarcely advanced by hanging out at Johnny's Speed and Chrome in Buena Park. Though it was chock full of headers, hemis and God knows what, my interest there was in checking out the Big Daddy Roth, Rat Fink and Weirdo decals and T-shirts. These cartoon hot-rodders, you might recall, all had wildly bloodshot eyes, teeth like saws and misanthropic arms that would be reaching up to clutch elongated stick shift levers that would be attached to chopped up "funny cars." If I'd had access to a welding torch, my dad's Imperial would have made a great funny car.

Johnny wasn't much at sharing car lore with little kids, but he was great at enlarging our vocabularies, teaching new words and contexts in which to use them. "Hey kid! Got any cash? Then get the *%"!+! outta my store!" he'd suggest, with a paternal smile.

Once when I dared a visit there, I saw the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile parked out front. And there was the diminutive wiener representative himself, Little Oscar, talking with Johnny. It must have been his day off because Oscar was one short guy in need of a shave, with a well-soaked stogie hanging out of his mouth. He sounded like he was teaching Johnny some new words.

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