I fondly remember my first ever Auto Show in 1961, held at the newly constructed Portland, Oregon Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Let me set the scene for you. I grew up on the north side of the Columbia River sorta on a farm, situated on a gravel road, with plumbing not far removed from outhouse mode. The cars we drove were third or fourth hand, still on the road because my father could fix anything, and often had to. Bluntly said, I wasn’t much of a new car aficionado.
To my credit, I did know a bit about Fords, 1946 to 1955, the cars we fixed and drove were of that vintage. We stuck with Fords cause Pa liked them and for the interchangeability of parts. Broken cars were parked behind the garage and served as our own private junkyard. Chevy parts wouldn’t help us get the ’48 Ford back on the road, so we shunned them.
And here’s a tip for you, don’t ever buy a Cornbinder to drive or as a parts car, for that matter. I don’t remember the origins of the International Harvester wagon my dad brought home one day. I do know it involved two pigs, one of which I considered my pet (but that’s a completely different story.) The Cornbinder only lasted a month before the engine blew in rather spectacular fashion about 20 miles from home in the middle of the night after Dad finished his welding swing shift.
I’ll never forget “driving” the Cornbinder while Pa towed it home. I could barely see over the steering wheel or reach the brake pedals, which I needed to reach often because father was very, very upset about the engine blowing and having to walk most of 20 miles home. At the time I sure wished we had a longer tow rope. There’s a family story that my younger siblings thought the Cornbinder was actually named the G@#D&*$# Cornbinder because Pa couldn’t mention it without swearing.
But, about my first auto show. It was kind of a combination first date and first car show. As dates go, it wasn’t much of one, but going someplace with my girlfriend, Nancy, even if we doubled with her parents, was a big deal. It helped that she asked me, because at that age, the auto show would have been long over before I got up the nerve to ask her.
She was a remarkably beautiful girl, an out-of-my-league kind of girl. I was dumbfounded that she had an interest. I spent the entire afternoon in an advanced stage of awkwardness. My tongue didn’t know what to say and the rest of me didn’t know what to do. How close should I sit to her? Should I hold her hand? How do I keep from sounding stupid when I talked with her parents? It was exhausting, yet exhilarating at the same time.
I was always full of myself, so my arrogance powered me through the afternoon. The one thing I did have going for me was walking around with the prettiest girl at the show who wasn’t trying to sell a car.
The cars of 1961 reveal some interesting details about the history of the auto industry in America. By the end of the 1950s, American automakers were reduced to “The Big 3” (Ford, Chevy and Chrysler) and two wannabes (Studebaker and American Motors).
The industry had made tremendous strides since 1945 and the end of World War II. The transition from building tanks and other war machines back to their roots of building everyday automobiles was impressive. Innovations abounded and the lessons of manufacturing learned during the war years reduced costs. Cars in 1961 had air conditioning, automatic transmissions, power steering and brakes, all fantastic improvements in safety and comfort. The mighty V-8 overhead valve engine came on the scene in the mid ’50s and introduced power to driving that more than a few car owners were excited about.
The early Sixties were a pivotal time for American automakers. Foreign cars were making it onto the highways and into garages all over America. Volkswagen, Renault and Datsun led the way. They offered smaller cars that were more economical to operate. In 1961, American auto makers were caught in the middle of the downsizing. Ford, for example, known for its full size, (emphasizing “full size”) Galaxy 500, was in its second year of production of the Falcon. With it came the descriptor we now see painted on parking lot stalls everywhere, “compact.”
American Motors was offering the Rambler, Plymouth Valiant, and the Studebaker Lark. All more or less chasing the Volkswagen bug that was “stealing” automobile sales. And then there was Chevrolet. Their answer for downsizing was the Corvair, first produced in 1960. I was smitten by the convertible coupe that was displayed at the show. Very attractive and very sporty. However, looks aren’t everything. My uncle was as smitten as I was and bought one. It left a trail of oil wherever he parked it, and he often complained the engine was so gutless it struggled to pass a fence post. Later in the decade, Ralph Nadar convinced the world that Corvairs were “unsafe at any speed.”
What I saw at the auto show didn’t impress me as much as what I didn’t see. A casualty of the automakers’ pivot to smaller cars was tailfins. The Chrysler products of the late ’50s had led the race to design some lavish tailfins. The 1959 Plymouth and Dodge stand out, but the leader of them all was the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado. It was adorned with the mother of all tailfins. By the 1961 auto show they were essentially a thing of the past.
It’s again auto show season. The Chicago Auto Show, the self proclaimed largest and longest running in the world, is being held February 9-18, 2019 at the McCormick Place Convention Complex. I encourage you to take it in, or any auto show near you. I’ll be going to Portland’s show this year for the first time since 1961. Not with Nancy this time, but in a way celebrating that visit 58 years ago, and as a bonus, I’ll get to see what’s new and exciting from automakers in 2019.