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Friday, 10 August 2012 01:05

Memories on Fulton

by Dan Clarke

 

Cars used to be exciting. But that was a long time ago.

Automobiles have evolved since I first began noticing them. If reliability is the standard by which you judge, then the modern products are much better. They're reliable. They get better gas mileage. They might last for 200,000 miles—maybe longer. And, if truth be told, most of them are faster than cars that seemed pretty quick when I first started driving.

All that said, there isn't much produced these days that stirs the blood. You hardly ever see a convertible and all sedans tend to resemble the ubiquitous Toyota Camry (a solid and reliable vehicle, well worth its price, but essentially a soul-less conveyance). It wasn't always thus.P8042103 PicmonkeyNot a Toyota.

Reportedly, my first words,“car keys,” were spoken as the family was about to drive away from my grandmother's house in San Mateo. It's likely the car keys referenced were for the ignition of my father's blue 1947 Dodge, purchased shortly after the war when new cars were still in short supply. Later, we moved to Sacramento and my father traded in the Dodge on a '51 Oldsmobile Rocket 88 from Foulks Motors. It was another four-door sedan, uninspiring pale green in color. But it was a powerful-for-the-time V-8. And the automatic transmission had a passing gear, so that if you really stomped on the accelerator you'd get a surge of power that might be critical in overtaking a slower car on a two-lane highway. After a couple of Volkswagens purchased in the mid-50s, Dad returned to Detroit Iron in the form of a 1959 Chevy Bel Air. Once again, it was a stodgy four-door, but it was an unusual and attractive rose color and did have a lively 283-cubic inch V-8.

As an eighteen-year-old college student with a job and moving out on his own, I accepted my father's offer to tag along when I went to slightly seedy area to check out a '53 Ford Victoria, which was about to become my own first car. Wow, a two-door hardtop, with automatic transmission and a flat-head V-8. It had a sporty black roof over body of teal green and seemed in good shape for a 10-year-old car. For my $325 I was about to start living large.

50 Ford Conv Picmonkey1950 Ford Convertible.Hearing that California Automobile Museum was to sponsor its fourth annual Sacramento CarCruise, which would mean a parade up Fulton Avenue followed by an informal car show, I began to reminisce. Fulton Avenue was a major commercial street in the post-war suburbs of my youth. I grew up in the neighborhood and have many memories.

By the time I arrive, the Highway Patrol has actually closed a half-mile stretch of this busy, four-lane road. Participating cars are already parked along the sides of the road and in lots in front of businesses and offices.

It is an all-comers event which draws proud owners of cars of no narrow definition. There are antiques, low-riders, hot rods, classics, customs and muscle cars. It is an everyman's—and everywoman's—activity.

The first car I see is a '50 Ford, a classic body design in its most Volvo 544 PicmonkeyThe 544--more function than flash.exciting convertible form. Though my '53 was a sleeker and more modern body style, they are kin. Across the street is a white Volvo 544, a bulbous design for the late 1950's and early '60s. It resembled a '46 Ford, only smaller. I'd owned a white 444, the earlier model which was nearly identical except for a split windshield. After a couple of years of good service, I traded that Volvo in on a red Triumph TR-4 at Von Housen Motors, located in those days on Fulton Ave about a couple of miles to the south.

The event organizers have hired a live band to play music of the '50s and '60s. They sound pretty good, especially since none of the musicians was alive when the tunes they are playing were popular.

Ah yes, memories are coming back. Just across from the street from the Von Housen's dealership was the Gilded Cage, a bar where a young man could hear jazz musicians of the day like Vince Guaraldi, Les McCann and Bola Sete. Less than 100 yards to the north was a Lincoln-Mercury dealer where my Dad and I had gone to see the new Lincoln Continental Mark II. Not that we could afford it, of course. We were just window shopping. The car cost $10,000—a lot of money in 1956 when you could have a new Cadillac for something less than $6,000.

There are some young people oohing and aahing over the cars of their parents' and grandparents' eras, and it is good to see them, but most of the CarCruise crowd seems considerably older. And there are a lot of smiles on their faces.

56 Nash Ambassador PicmonkeyThe Ambassador comes equipped with a bed.A 1956 Nash Ambassador with the original white, grey and pink color scheme draws considerable attention. Even sporting trendy colors of that era, a Nash would never have been on any boy's wish list in the 1950's. Not even nerds would not want to be seen in one. However, a Nash had one practical application. For years, these cars had front seats that could recline all the way so that they'd be flat and flush with the back seat, thereby making a serviceable bed. The cruise night Ambassador has the passenger side folded down to demonstrate this feature. A fellow about 25 years old stares at it for a moment, then turns to his girlfriend and says, “Hey, this would be good at the drive in.” I scan the faces around us to see if there is any concurrence from the grey-hair crowd. There is no response at the moment; perhaps I'd been the only one to hear him. But I'd like to believe that before the evening is over, a grandmother will look in the window of that Nash, smile a wistful smile and remember that yes, it was good at a drive in.58 Impala PicmonkeyImpala looks stock, but for the wheels.

There is a gorgeous 1958 Impala just like the ones I gawked at in the showroom of the Lew Williams dealership at the corner of Fulton and El Camino. There is a '59 on display, also. While it shares the same oddly-horizontal fins of our family sedan of that vintage, being a convertible, it is way cooler.

A brown '70 or '71 Coupe de Ville is parked, top down, in front of the now-defunct Buggy Whip restaurant. Many years ago I had climbed into a brown '52 or '53 Cadillac sedan in front of the Coral Reef, a popular Polynesian place which used to occupy the now-vacant lot half a block away. The restaurant's owner was one of my father's more prosperous friends and we were on the way to the Memorial Auditorium to watch Gorgeous George wrestle. A luxurious ride, sports (of a sort) and flamboyant showmanship—it all contributed to a heady and memorable night for a nine-year-old.

Crossing back to the east side of Fulton I see a cluster of Studebakers, these of the “Orphan” category, apparently Car Museum-speak for companies no longer in existence. There is a 1915, which is about a decade younger than that manufacturer's Phaeton that my grandfather bought when the family moved “down the Peninsula” from San Francisco. There is a low-mileage example of the 1963 Avanti, a Raymond Loewy-designed car that combined high performance with really great looks. It's sad that this landmark automobile wasn't enough to save a manufacturer on its way out of existence.

Chrysler 300E MB 220SE PicmonkeyChrysler 300E and Mercedes Benz 220SE.Twenty-five yards to the north are a 1959 Chrysler 300 E and a 1960 Mercedes Benz 220 SE, both gorgeous convertibles. It's possible that either could have been parked in this same spot when they were new and I was working as a busboy at Scheidel's, a German restaurant whose former parking lot they were now occupying.

I spy a '55 Buick. It's a handsome sedan and I compliment the apparent owner, a man about my age, on its appearance. He tells me it's a Century—the Buick model with the lighter body, but the bigger engine of the Super and Roadmaster models. I smile and remember that's exactly the reason I really was interested in a '55 Buick Century convertible (white body and top, with red and white leather upholstery, as I recall). Test drove it and almost bought it, but not quite (probably called for a little more money than I had at age 19 or 20). It isn't the first time this Saturday night I say to myself, “wish I had that car now.”

Almost back to Town & Country Village where my own car is parked, I notice Chevy Camaros across the street. Well, one last stop to look at some things a bit more modern while I make the transition to 2012, I decide.

Among these beautifully maintained Camaros is a handsome example of the 1969 vintage in a metallic silver-gray that catches my eye. Or maybe it is the tall blonde woman who is standing next to it. It turns out she is the owner and she tells me all about her pride and joy, even pulling out a photo album to show pictures of various stages of its restoration. In this fine Camaro, the woman has a tangible reminder of some of her own great memories and I appreciate her sharing them with me.

Getting into my own car I remember when my boyhood pal Alan returned from the South with a new red and black Camaro. It was the debut year for this GM challenger to the well established Ford Mustang. But it was better looking than the Mustang and had gobs of power. And it had an 8-track stereo. How cool were we?

Everybody who sees cars such as those at the 2012 CarCruise, sees them through his own prism. Memories will differ, but most will be happy recollections. I'll look forward to the 2013 edition of this event, but in the meantime I'll return to the museum on Sacramento's Front Street. Further information can be had at the website www.calautomuseum.org.