There it is, our Family Car! All 396 surging horsepower! Yes!


…Mom&Dad&Buddy&Sis in the suburbs… There they go, in the family car, a white Pontiac Bonneville sedan— the family car! —a huge crazy god-awful-powerful fantasy creature to begin with, 327-horsepower, shaped like twenty-seven nights of lubricious luxury brougham seduction— you’re already there, in Fantasyland , so why not move off your snug-harbor quilty-bed dead center and cut loose—go ahead and say it—Shazam!—juice it up to what it’s already aching to be: 327,000 horsepower, a whole superhighway long and soaring , screaming on toward…Edge City, and ultimate fantasies, current and future…Billy Batson said Shazam! And turned into Captain Marvel.

— The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

For completely unrelated reasons that actually had to do with my day job, I was trying to remember one day this week what an impala — the animal — looked like.

Of course, Google Images gave me pictures of the car. And then I realized — I can see it again! The Family Car! The best one we ever had!

I could see it in my mind’s eye, parked behind those tumbledown WWII barracks, converted into apartments, that we lived in when my Dad was stationed in New Orleans. (That moribund Navy base, technically across the river in Algiers — was almost shut down at the time, although it would be revived later.)

That was an awesome time. We had just spent two-and-a-half years — the longest I ever lived anywhere running as a kid — in Guayaquil, Ecuador. My Dad was there on quasi-diplomatic duty, advising the Ecuadorean Navy. I had a great time there, but we were somewhat outside the stream of popular American culture throughout that period. For instance, I didn’t hear of the Beatles until weeks after their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and even then I was confused. When I saw the banner, front-page headline — “Beatles hit Miami!” — in an old copy of the Herald, I thought it was about an infestation of misspelled insects.

There was one TV station that only broadcast from about 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., showing American cartoons and syndicated series, dubbed into Spanish. For that, we didn’t even bother plugging in our tube the whole time we were there, leaving it collecting dust down in our bodega. Actually, our bodega was really a one-car garage, but we used it for storage since we didn’t have a car. We got around in a battered Jeep — the WWII kind, with a canvas top and no back seats except for steel benches over the rear wheel wells, which was kind of rough on my skinny little butt — or whatever the Navy could temporarily spare. (Once, we briefly had use of a new station wagon that was on its way to some senior officer in Quito. I remember it because it had the first seatbelts I’d ever seen outside of the C-47 that used to give us rides up to Panama.)

So I lived outdoors, which was good for me — a very Tom Sawyer sort of existence. My occasional entertainment was the Variedades movie theater down the street, which cost the equivalent of two cents to get into. Tony Wessler and I would go there to sit on the wooden benches, our Keds on the sticky concrete floor, consuming Cokes from the bottle and banana chips fried right there in the back of the room (no lobby), watching Italian Hercules movies, or a French version of “The Three Musketeers” — with Spanish subtitles, of course, so we could follow along. When we left, fully charged with caffeine, grease, and cheesy movie violence, we’d grab scrap lengths of bamboo (which was lashed together to make primitive scaffolding that reached to alarming heights) from a construction site and swordfight all the way home. If we were in a hurry (or just wanted the thrill), we’d cut across blocks by tightrope-walking the high walls between homes, or climbing up and running across the flat roofs of the houses themselves (the property-boundary walls were usually only about a yard from the houses themselves at the backs and sides, and the iron gratings over windows made them easy to scale), being across and onto the next one before the residents could yell, “¿Quién es?” (Or would it be, “¿Quién está?”)

Something my parents didn’t know about.

But I digress.

My Mom and my brother and I came back to the States, through Miami, in the late spring of 1965, flying in through Miami, then to Columbia, where my grandfather picked us up and drove us to Bennettsville. The flight to Miami had been on a jet, my first. I marveled at the way it took off, at the comfort of the seats and the cabin, at how quiet it was — compared to the military Gooneybird, probably a veteran of the Normandy invasion, that I’d flown on before.

It was a foretaste of the tidal wave of mid-1960s America that was about to blow my mind.

The thing that stands out most is television. Yeah, I found plenty of time to get out and play that summer — in the backyard in B’ville, down at the beach. But until we moved to New Orleans at the end of the summer, after my Dad had joined us, I didn’t have any friends my age to hang with, so I spent a lot of time watching the Tube. I would have anyway; it overwhelmed my mind.

We could only get a couple of channels, until we moved to New Orleans (where we could get three!), so I wasn’t choosy. I watched everything. Including the commercials. Remember Funny Face drink mix, that short-lived rival to Kool-Aid? I found the commercials remarkably convincing — I persuaded my mother to buy a six-pack of Diet Pepsi because the ads made it sound so good. With that, I was deeply disappointed.

But that was an exception to the rule. I found everything else wholly satisfying, engaging, fulfilling. It was a time of James Bond, a time when the British Invasion was still surging upon our shores, and Carnaby Street was still to come. The most daring boys were growing their hair early-Beatles fashion — not actually long, but covering the forehead — and I would soon be one of them. There was Captain Ashby’s “Spaceship C-8” on WBTW out of Florence in the afternoons, and Saturday morning cartoons. And all summer, there were ads promoting the new TV season coming up in the fall, which I anticipated with a ridiculous amount of excitement. I would come running, if I happened to be out of the room, when one of those promos came on.

And the fall season of 1965 delivered with perfect satisfaction. On one night alone — Sept. 15, 1965 — I saw the debut episodes of “Lost in Space,” “Green Acres” and “I-Spy.” The rest of the schedule, which I immediately memorized, was great as well. Friday night, for instance, boasted “The Wild, Wild West” (also brand new), “Hogan’s Heroes” (or “The Addams Family” — you had to make a choice at 8:30), “The Smothers Brothers Show” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” From the perspective of an 11-year-old, I’ve seen nothing else to equal it since. Not even with hundreds of channels on cable.

Then there was The Car. Our first after years without one, the one that my parents still speak of as the best one we ever had.

My Dad had had to stay behind in Ecuador for a couple of months, and we had to get around, so my mother went shopping for a car on her own. She didn’t fool around. She didn’t opt for basic, minimal, boring transportation. She picked out a metallic green 1965 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport, with black leather bucket seats and a 396-horsepower engine. It was a hulking behemoth that thought it was a sports car. What better conveyance for boldly going forth in such a time, and such a place as America?

My own writing powers aren’t up to describing what that time was like, what the next two years were like in New Orleans, as my peers at Karr Junior High School moved rapidly through the “frat” look (sport shirts over a turtleneck dicky) and on to Mod, with the day-glo colors, paisley, huge houndstooth and bell-bottoms.

Which is why I quoted Tom Wolfe above. His superheated prose, infested with exclamation points, is exactly right for describing what that time felt like. All of it — the clothes, jet aircraft, the TV, the music on the radio, the profusion of choices in the supermarket, The Car — was all part of one surging, overwhelmingly satisfying whole.


26 thoughts on “There it is, our Family Car! All 396 surging horsepower! Yes!

  1. bud

    We owned a 1965 Ford Custom 500. That was the stripped down version of the Galaxy 500 (the Ford equivalent to Brad’s Impala). Dad never was one for high-end stuff. Eventually I started learning to drive on it. It had a 3 speed manual transmission on the column, an AM radio, a heater and not much else. Dad finally got rid of it some time in the 80s with over 200k miles. What a beast of a car.

  2. bud

    Brad I remember the 60s just a tad differently. Oh sure growing up then was fulfilling and wonderful for a kid. But it was also a time of great turmoil. The TV shows somehow failed to capture the mood of the nation. They were just a bit too sanitized compared to the visions of Vietnam and the civil rights movement on the Huntley/Brinkley report. After all Barbara Eden was not allowed to display her belly button! But perhaps that was the popular culture’s way of helping divert our attention from the serious nature of world events. That all changed with All in the Family. And frankly the change was mostly good. Watching ME TV now makes me wonder how those trite shows ever provided entertainment value to an adult.

  3. Rose

    I learned to drive in our 1978 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale. Navy blue. God, I loved that tank!
    That V8 engine roared. It’s still on the road, in New Jersey, with whitewall tires. The guy who bought it fixed it up and sent us a photo a few years ago.

  4. Mark Stewart

    My best friend had a 1965 Impala SS (his grandmothers) just like the photo but without those wheels – and an automatic to go with the big motor. I had a 1966 Mustang with a cue-ball Hurst – it looked like a scale model next to the Impala. Besides the clear advantage of the stick for high school fun (for me), his Impala, roared in a straight line when hammered. Huge and wallowing in the turns it also had the scariest knife-edge of a metal dash and no belts in back. The Mustang at least had a padded dash and four lap belts. Lot’s of kids were scared to ride in his beast, regardless of his driving skills. Both of us were lucky to have never wrecked; he especially. Even back then our friends didn’t see how that Impala could be survivable when the fun stopped.

    As much as I like those cars, they’re a bit like Jags to me now – great to see other people driving them.

    1. Ralph Hightower

      Hey Mark,
      I also drove a 66 Mustang in the 60’s. It had a straight 6 with a four speed manual.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      One of my buddies in high school in Hawaii had a Ford Fairlane. We rode around all over Oahu in it. It would stall and refuse to restart frequently. Fortunately, it had manual transmission and Oahu is all hills, so we’d just give it a good push, pop it into first gear while it was rolling, and we were off!…

  5. Kathryn Fenner

    My boyfriend circa 1979 bought and restored a 1963 Impala. Dang that car was uncomfortable!

  6. Brad Warthen Post author

    Here’s how my Mom bought that car…

    She went by the bank there in Bennettsville to ask Hugh McColl Sr., whom she knew from church (and whose son would later build the Bank of America empire), how to proceed, since she’d never taken out a car loan before.

    He told her just to pick out a car and write a check for it, and they’d set up the loan when the check got to the bank.

    So we went over to Florence, and that’s where she found the Impala SS. It cost three thousand, two hundred dollars and change. I remember looking at a Corvette Sting Ray nearby on the same lot, and seeing a price tag of over $4,000, which blew my mind.

    As for comfort — we got to talking about it over the weekend, and my parents say those huge, thick-padded bucket seats still stand as the most comfortable car seats they ever had.

  7. Brad Warthen Post author

    The car I mostly learned to drive on was less interesting than this one. It was a more sedate 1970 Impala, not an SS model.

    The first car that was “mine” (at least, during most of the time I was in Hawaii, when my Dad was at sea) was a 1958 Oldsmobile 98 that looked a lot like this one. What a monster! The chrome alone probably weighed more than a midsize car today.

    It got about five miles to the gallon, on a good day. The gas gauge didn’t work, so I had to make sure I didn’t go more than 100 miles between 20-gallon fillups. I had a little notebook for writing down the odometer reading when I got gas, but I didn’t always keep up with it, so I ran out of gas all over the island. Good thing I couldn’t go far.

    My friends used to like to ride in the back seat on some of the hillier roads, as the springs would give you this great wave motion, like a roller coaster. The back seat was so big, a family could have lived in it.

  8. Kathryn Fenner

    I learned to drive in an avocado green 1968 Chrysler 300 that you had to carefully flutter the accelerator pedal on when it was warming up, or it would stall or flood….

  9. Brad Warthen Post author

    The engine would die on my ’58 Olds every time I stopped at an intersection — unless I kept my left foot on the brake and gunned the engine the whole time I was sitting there with my right.

    That could have had something to do with the bad mileage…

    1. Dave Crockett

      Sheesh. I learned to drive in a ’63 Ford Falcon with 3-on-the-tree and a 170 cu. in. 6. And my first car was a ’72 Super Beetle with the standard 4-speed manual transmission and a top/cruising speed of 88 mph, according to the owner’s manual (but never attempted as it usually tried to get airborne past 70).

      But I’m Mr. Retired Cool now in my 2003 Mazda Miata, given to me by me as a graduation present at the ripe old age of 50. It does my self-esteem good to have some pretty young thing whisper ‘ car…’ as I get ready to leave Lowe’s with a pepper plant. :-/

        1. Mark Stewart

          If you see a Miata with a slush box you have found someone who ought not to be driving – anything.

          Unless one had a left leg amputation and could not be fitted for a prosthetic limb (or something similar), that would be the ultimate in automobile misfires…

          1. Silence

            Mark. Concur with your conclusion about automatic equipped Miatas.
            In fact, people who cannot drive a stick shift should not be granted a license. Proof of paralell parking and backing ability should also be required on the driver’s exam.

      1. Silence

        I test drove a Miata, I was especially interested in the one with the folding hard top. I liked it a lot, but it wasn’t to be…

  10. Kathryn Fenner

    Miata is a chick car.

    I test drove one, but found I was too tall to sit in it comfortably, alas….

    1. Mark Stewart

      That’s a tough call. On one hand they are diminutive (and my mom drives one), but on the other hand they are a great handling, true expression of the classic lightweight sports car. I think Dave is clear on this one, the Miata is such a great car – it just happens to resemble a bunch of poser “chick cars” that aren’t anything like this as a driver. Check these out racing at Lime Rock or Carolina Motorsports Park…

      If you want to talk chick cars you would want to look at the Beetle, the RAV4, the Pilot (clear winner), the Nissan Rogue (I hate even seeing that one on the road) and, of course, the Prius.

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        Why is a car that handles well, etc., inherently NOT a chick car? A chick car is one that reputedly more women than men buy, is all.

  11. Kathy

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane. I really enjoyed it. We Boomers did grow up during a great time. Three of my best friends (since kindergarten) and I get together a couple of times a year. We often marvel at the wonderful childhoods and teenage years that we experienced. There were some really terrible things (an alcoholic dad, a mother with an incurable illness, national social problems), but overall we had a blessed beginning. For that we are all truly thankful.

    I had forgotten there was such a thing as Funny Face drink mix. As soon as I read about it, I could see those goofy packages! You should write a book about growing up. I think it would be really interesting.

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