Biographies & Memoirs



IT IS THINKABLE that within a few years there may be no more new Chevys to drive to the levee. The manufacture of Postum has been discontinued. Meccano sets are made of plastic. Piece by piece, the American superstructure is being dismantled. Will the pulse of teenage boys quicken at the sight of the new Kia or Hyundai? Will they envy their pal because his dad drives a Camaro? That’s all over with. There will be a void in our national imagination. Let me tell you about how it used to be.

In my opinion, the narrator of “American Pie” drove a Studebaker. It’s only that “Chevy” was an easier rhyme. Since the 1950s Chevy we think of first is the ’57 Bel Air, it is reasonable to conclude that the ride of Miss Pie’s friend on the day the music died was a 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk—the sexiest American car ever manufactured, although there are those who praise the 1950s Thunderbirds and Corvettes, however slower than the Hawks they may have been.

They say that when a man reaches forty and finds some spare change in his pocket, his thoughts turn to the car he desired with all his heart in the years before he got his driver’s license. In 1955, I took a part-time job at Johnston’s Sport Shop in Champaign-Urbana. I was not a stock boy. I was a salesclerk. I got an hour for lunch. I stopped first at the Shell station across the street, run by a man who operated jukeboxes and sold his old 45s for a nickel apiece. Marty Robbins. Elvis. Teresa Brewer. Then I’d walk a block down Neil Street to the Chuck Wagon Diner, one of the first restaurants to feature Colonel Harland Sanders’s chicken on its menu. This was before the colonel had his own restaurants. I met him in person the day they started serving his chicken, and he asked me how I liked his spices. At age six I was given a penny by old J. C. Penney, so now I had met two titans of marketing.

Between the gas station and the Chuck Wagon was Maxey Motors, a Studebaker-Packard dealer. I didn’t pay it much heed. All I knew about Studebakers was that kids joked about how they looked like they were going in both directions at once. Many years later I discovered that Raymond Loewy’s design for the 1953 Starliner was proclaimed a work of art by the Museum of Modern Art. One winter day in 1956 as I bent into a chill wind on Neil Street, something caught the corner of my eye. I turned and stood transfixed. It was the new 1957 Golden Hawk. I forgot the rain. I forgot the chicken. I wanted that car. I walked inside the dealership and circled it. My eyes hungered. Before that day, cars were ordinary things like my dad’s boxy ’50 Plymouth or my mom’s ’55 Olds, designed along the lines that made a comparison to a loaf of bread seem inevitable. Now here was a Hawk that sprang from a lofty crag and circled the firmament with fierce beauty. It was supercharged and had a grille that breathed great gulps of air.

That year I got my driver’s license and was able to buy a 1954 Ford. But I was not faithful in my heart. I lusted for the Golden Hawk. I became expert at sketching it from memory. In profile, the graceful fenders curving down to the headlights. The windshield raked back in harmonious counterbalance. The slant of the roof, leading down to the uprising of the bold fins. Musical. You could sing it.

When I was forty and had a little change in my pocket, my thoughts turned again to the 1957 Golden Hawk. One day I was at Book Soup on Sunset in Los Angeles, paging through Hemmings Motor News, and found an ad for a ’57 Hawk being restored out in Santa Monica. I went to look at it, and the deal was sealed. Two months later it was dropped off six blocks from my home by an auto carrier. It was gold with white fins and its engine was mighty.

The year was 1982. I was a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. I had won a Pulitzer Prize. I was co-host of a national TV show. These credits were pleasing, but there was something missing, a hollow in my ego waiting to be filled. I turned the key in the ignition, rolled down the window, turned the radio to rock ’n’ roll on an AM oldies station, hooked my elbow out the window, and purred out of the parking lot. I was only six blocks from home, but somehow my route took me through Old Town, up and down Rush Street, and slowly through Lincoln Park. I was aware that every male I passed gave it a long look. Not so much the women. Evolution teaches us women are looking for a good provider, not an aesthete. A Volvo driver, not a Hawk man.

Inside of me, intense joy rose. It had nothing do with what I had accomplished in life. It was entirely fueled by what I drove. This is a pure joy known to teenage boys from the golden age of hot rods, who had nothing else to excite envy except their ride. Even if they were all-staters on the football team, it didn’t mean much if they were driving their dad’s 1940s Olds. What pleasure that Hawk gave me. I kept it at our summer place in Michigan, off of Red Arrow Highway, the old hard road to Detroit. The road had been built in the 1920s and looked retro. There was a roadhouse used by Capone, with a secret gambling room in the basement. A classic brick Shell station. Fruit stands. A sign for the annual Milk Bottle Show. A Frank Lloyd Wright lookalike motel. Reader, on Red Arrow I was envied. I frequented Mikey’s in Bridgman because they had carhops and I could roll down my window to hold up a tray with a burger and a shake, and Chaz could roll down her window and have her own separate tray. Life was good.

Searching my old movie reviews for the word “Studebaker,” I found these words from my review of Heavy Petting in 1989: There are a lot of adults around today who will tell you that their peak sexual experiences took place in cars, and that beds will never be the same. Not long ago, for example, I took a woman in her 40s for a drive in my 1957 Studebaker, and after sliding across the vinyl upholstery, inhaling the aroma of gasoline and oil, listening to tires spinning on the gravel and waiting for the radio tubes to warm up, she reported that all of these physical associations made her feel exactly as if someone was going to try to take her bra off.

The following summer, we participated in the annual Ride of La Porte, Indiana. In its simplicity this is an auto event superior to any other in Indiana, including the Indy 500. What you do is, you park your pre-1960 automobile in a lot at the county fairgrounds, drink a Coke, eat a hot dog, and walk around looking at the other cars. I parked my Golden Hawk next to an immaculate 1949 Hudson of the sort Miss Daisy was driven in. Now there was a car. You could raise a family in the backseat. It had less horsepower, but with such a low center of gravity it would cream them on the turns. At 1:00 p.m., “The Stars and Stripes Forever” blared from the loudspeakers, and we pulled into line and paraded out of the fairgrounds. A state cop with a whistle was directing traffic onto the street. As we passed her, she said, “Sharp car!”

“Did you hear that?” I asked Chaz.

“Yeah. Sharp car.”

“Sharp car!” I said. “She called it a sharp car! This is a sharp car!”

“Sharp car, all right,” Chaz said. She later told this story about a thousand times, apparently because it meant something special to her.

We drove up and down the streets of La Porte and people sat in lawn chairs and looked at us. No floats. No marching bands. No Sheriff Sid on his horse. Just cars. The citizens of La Porte sat and nodded pleasantly, waved a little, and poured their iced tea. The Golden Hawk was greeted with applause. Perhaps there was a sentimental connection. The Studebaker had been manufactured in South Bend, thirty miles away. Some of these people or their relatives may have worked there.

One weekend we took the car on a pilgrimage to South Bend, where I expected to see Studebakers lining the streets and backed up at traffic lights, like in a Twilight Zone episode. I saw one rusted President up on blocks in a vacant lot. We drove down by the St. Joseph River, turned right, and there before us was the Studebaker National Museum. We pulled the Hawk into a parking space right next to the entrance, posted “Studebakers Only.” My license plate read FAUCON, French for “hawk.”

The museum occupied what once had been the largest Studebaker dealership in the world. It was across the street from the original Studebaker plant, now standing forlorn. Inside were cars, fire engines, school buses, troop transports, armored cars. The station wagon with the roof that would slide back so you could bring home a totem pole standing upright. The nifty Lark. Taxis. Ambulances. Touring sedans from the 1930s. Classic Packards like Gatsby drove. Champion trucks. Conestoga wagons, because Studebaker was the only wagon maker that made the transition to cars; their wagons floated downstream to St. Louis and then journeyed overland toward John Wayne movies.

The museum had the carriage built by Studebaker in which Abraham Lincoln drove to Ford’s Theatre. The last Packard ever made, a show car from the year the Packard died. And postcards, T-shirts, visors, books, scarves, hats, jackets, signs, sweatshirts, scale models, books, mugs, jigsaw puzzles, Studebaker medallions, belt buckles, cuff links, videos, key rings, and place mats. If there was one place in the nation that understands the Studebaker, it is South Bend, Indiana. They also have a university there.

Our Michigan guests loved to drive to Mikey’s and get the super-thick shakes. One summer our good friends Gillian and Peter Catto and their children visited from London. He drove a Bentley. I took them for a spin in my Studebaker. I startled them by stepping on the gas.

“Now this is something like it,” Peter said from the backseat.

“Now tell the story,” Chaz said.

“When these cars were new,” I said, “they were a lot faster than Corvettes or T-Birds. The salesmen would put a client on the backseat, put a hundred-dollar bill on the front seat, and tell the client he could keep the money if he could overcome the force of the acceleration and lean forward and pick it up while the Hawk was doing zero to sixty.”

I treasured the Golden Hawk, but I could not give it the care it deserved. I knew nothing about auto mechanics. When it was built, everybody did. When a car stopped and you looked under the hood, you were actually looking for something, not simply performing a roadside pantomime with a car that required a computer programmer. I found the golden honey a good home with Dan Jedlicka, the automotive editor of the Sun-Times, who confessed that he must have driven half the cars in history and the ’57 Hawk was the only one he had ever wanted to own.

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