Erasmus Darwin - The Botanic Garden (1789)
In 1789, when Erasmus Darwin appeared to be fortelling the future of transportation, the common man's chief method of getting around was still the feet - even if they belonged to a horse or donkey.
By the '60s, anybody who was anybody at all, either had a car of their own, access to the family wagon or a friend with one of the two. If you were concerned about your social image, you knew first and foremost that to be accepted you had to be cool - or at least not uncool.
It was sort of a mathematical or scientific question rather than one of semantics. We learned in school that heat existed and cold was the absence of heat. As a socially conscious teenager, you knew that cool was the absence of any aspect of the uncool.
The list of uncoolisms changed from day to day and was usually based on the standard set by the in-crowd, but when it came to 'getting around' the only requirement for cool was to have a set of wheels. Nobody, at least no one with a sense of social consciousness would be caught walking to their favorite hangout.
As long as it wasn't a parent or older sibling behind the wheel, any car was cool. It could have bucket seats for a sporty look or bench seats for making out. The fold down seats in Mom's Rambler were great for the drive-in and even the family station wagon had its special charm during a dull, double-feature (Do you remember double features?). They were also great for transporting the gang to a beach, ball game or party.
Coupes and convertibles were preferred status symbols, but any car, van, motorcycle, or truck that could get you and a cohort to the malt shop, pizza parlor or burger joint sans adult supervision, entitled you to membership in the elite fraternity of the "cool."
Just like a first love, first kiss or first date, we all remember the first car that was truly our own. Even if it was registered and insured in Dad's name, or if it was really a family car that we had more or less exclusive use of, we remember the little things we did to give it our own signature. Whether it was a fancy key-ring, a witty bumper sticker, a pair of fuzzy dice, a set of Mag-Wheels, a Hurst speed shifter or a custom pin-stripe paint job, it seemed that a portion of every paycheck from our after-school jobs went toward personalizing that symbol of individual freedom so prized in the '60s.
Then, as the crop of wild flowers in our meadow began to grow and multiply, their influence began to affect even our taste in transportation.
Some of us became obsessed with the colors and blooms. The highways became dotted with VW Microbuses painted in psychedelic patterns of paisley and flora. Political slogans in iridescent shades covered buses, beetles and Buicks from Greenwich Village to Haight-Ashbury.
The surfing music of the Beach Boys revived the popularity of Woodies, roadsters and antique cars and pickup trucks - chopped, channeled, raked, and powered by chromed, big-block V-8 engines - repainted in metallic base coats and topped with multiple coats of candy-apple lacquer.
Rolled and pleated or button and tufted upholstery, trip deuces, dual quads, fuel injection, hydro-stick conversions, headers, cutouts, glass-packs, Hollywoods and Thrush mufflers, lift kits, racing slicks, posi-traction rear-ends and limited slip differentials became a part of every teenage boy's vocabulary and the J.C. Whitney catalog became required reading material.
Then as the '70s grew near, a personal vehicle became a practical necessity rather than a status symbol. College, a job and often a family, demanded that the Baby Boomer be able to not only get around but get to work and school. Working parents couldn't adjust their own schedules to drive Dick or Jane to their new full time job and most colleges didn't provide school bus service. A car was now an essential tool for survival in the real world. And just as with everything else in our lives, once it became more of a necessity, it became less of a novelty.
Today, as the seeds of the wildflowers from the meadow of the '60s and '70s are carried on the winds of time into the 21st century, our tastes and standards of judgement in methods of transportation are still undergoing change.
As that generation which once valued speed, individuality and non-conformity enters middle age, the roads have been taken over by a new trend in transportation technology. Status still plays a large part in the phenomenon with the Yuppie generation preferring Volvos, BMWs, Saabs and Mercedes sedans. A four-wheel drive pickup or other off-road vehicle is also a status symbol, more so if it has a cellular phone or premium sound system.
The inexpensive Japanese compacts that gave incredible mileage when gasoline was 30 cents a gallon have become a symbol of American dissatisfaction with our own technology, and although in some circles it's akin to treason to own or drive a Japanese car, their popularity has grown to a point where some are now being assembled in the U.S.
Today I drive a 5 litre American made sports coupe which gets reasonable mileage, gives a comfortable ride and aside from replacing the tires twice in 90,000 miles, has required no major repairs since I drove it off the showroom floor.
I also have the 80 cubic inch Harley-Davidson Super Glide (which my father refused to even talk about in the '60s) that I dreamed about in my high school days and I expect I'll still have it twenty years from now.I've had more than twenty-five cars, trucks and vans since I got my drivers license in 1964 and I remember each of them well, some more fondly than others.
But there was one that I remember best of all: a spotless, pale green, 1950 Mercury 4-door with a flathead V-8 engine, three speed transmission with a column shifter, and a push button starter that always fired the first time. It took me to work, college, proms and traffic court. It won a trophy in the "M" stock division at Island Dragway in the summer of '67 and I drove it to the funeral of a friend who died in Vietnam in '68. I remember the day my Dad helped me pick it out, the day my sister had new seat covers installed for my birthday and the cop who gave me a ticket for its loud mufflers on the way home from the Jersey shore. I remember the songs I listened to on its radio, the girlfriend who spilled soda on the front seat and the buddy who threw up on the back seat. I guess I remember everything about that car except for what became of it. I still have a photo of it that I took with a Polaroid 'Swinger' camera and I find it amusing that when I look at that picture, I remember the times as much as I remember that old '50 Merc.
Just like any flower pressed between the pages of any book, it evokes memories of everything associated with it: Dad, girls, beaches, jobs, songs and the times - both good and bad. And in much the same manner that my Merc took me where I wanted to go in those memorable years, that picture serves as a dependable set of wheels to transport me back to the Meadow where I can relive days when the air was still clean, the world was still ours and life still held definite promise for the future.