Recently, a first cousin of mine posted an old family photo on her Facebook page. It showed my mother supporting a curly-headed baby—me, of course—dressed in his corduroy jump suit. The image is more than 65 years old, but I’m not saying exactly what year it was made. I’m certain it was a snapshot from a Kodak Brownie camera. The photographer was probably one of my aunts.
What really dates the black-and-white photo (if you don’t know my actual age) is the automobile that my mother and I are pictured beside. The 1952 Pontiac Catalina two-door, two-tone coupe might have been the first new car my father ever purchased. It was our family vehicle for several years.
I can remember the huge interior and wide bench seats, the revolving knob Dad attached to the steering wheel to make turning the battleship-sized car easier, the trunk that could have held one of today’s subcompact cars and the hood ornament. I’ve never forgotten the streamlined jeweled head of Chief Pontiac, straining ahead at the foremost point of the chrome-adorned hood and grill.
Dad owned many flashy cars, but the yellow-and-cream Pontiac was the one that stood out in my mind, probably because there were so many photographs of it in old family albums. This brings me to an appreciation of the Appalachian cultural significance of rural families that finally could afford new cars.
Around the mid-20th Century after the Greatest Generation left WW II behind and got on with the business of finding jobs and starting families, the acquisition of an automobile represented more than mobility in an increasingly mobile society. It was the declaration of economic equality for millions of men and women who grew up on hardscrabble farms in the mountains and valleys of the rural South.
My father’s parents were sharecroppers. Dad and my aunts and uncles grew up hard. Hunger was a familiar companion. Everyone toiled in the cotton fields, and some of the boys were hired out to neighbors at planting and harvest times. They worked a week for payment of a pint of molasses.
So, when non-farm jobs in northern states beckoned, my father and uncles moved from the hills of Appalachia to Detroit, Chicago and other industrialized cities above the Mason Dixon Line. They were young men, military veterans, with new families to support. They hired on as employees in radio and television factories, plants that made diesel engines, the automobile-manufacturing complexes and steel mills.
Their paychecks allowed them to buy houses and—finally—new automobiles. It was only natural that the family car would become a symbol of their newfound middle-class status that photographs would be made of the family fawning over the four-wheeled conveyance. The resulting prints (two-and-a-quarter inch square) were slapped into albums or mailed to grandparents, brothers and sisters.
For some odd reason, I can remember many of those cars either from the photos or actually having ridden in them. Perhaps this explains the fascination I’ve always had with later 1940s- and 1950s-era Detroit behemoths.
Dad’s Pontiac, of course, was my favorite. Several of my uncles tried to one-up him over the years. The 1955 Ford Crown Victoria two-door hardtop was a popular choice for several of them. Chevy’s 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air and a 1959 Oldsmobile Starfire convertible joined the fleet of cars favored by maternal and paternal uncles.
I even had an uncle who purchased an Edsel Pacer, a two-door coupe, and another who tooled around in a 1954 Desoto Firedome.
(Edsel, of course, was the ill-fated division of Ford Motors in the 1950s, named after Henry Ford’s only son. My father’s side of the family is related to the Fords of Oden Ridge; thus, there is an Edsel Ford among my distant cousins.)
As families grew—my Dad and Mom’s siblings tended toward having three to five children—everyone shifted away from the sporty two-door coupes to four-door sedan models and station wagons. There was little choice in our case. No way was our five-kid clan going to squeeze in a convertible. It meant a choice had to be made similar to today’s decision to opt for a soccer mom van.
My memories of family cars in the late 1950s and early 1960s are of Buicks with portholes in the front side panels and finned four-door Chevy models. This is confirmed by vacation photos showing gaggles of sunburned but happy kids in Panama City beach parking lots, posing in front of sedans with swooping wings or rocket-like tail fins.
To put this automobile remembrance in proper perspective, it took only one generation to launch poor Appalachian families from subsistence existence on farms into middle-class home and car ownership. This is remarkable, a sea-change from the toil and discouragement of the Great Depression and rationing of food and materials during the war years.
Check the photo albums handed down by your mothers and fathers, and I bet you’ll see a parade of automobiles and proud, smiling faces in those small, faded pictures.