[Editor’s note: This “Reminiscing” story, edited by Richard Lentinello, comes to us from Jim Slater of Cleveland Heights, Ohio.]
My first car was a 1941 Chevrolet. I bought it from a neighbor back in 1966 when I was 19 years old. It was a low-mileage car in good condition, and literally almost only “driven by a little old lady to church on Sundays.”
I remember on very rare occasions seeing the car out and about when I was a kid in the ’50s. When I received the original title (I was the second owner), it had 25 Deputy Registrar stamps on it, one for each year license plates had been purchased. Back then, they would stamp your title every time you got plates, on the front, on the back, and along the margins.
The car was equipped with the famous “Stovebolt Six” engine that was made for so many years by Chevrolet. It had a vacuum-assisted three-speed column shift, and the “knee action” suspension provided a relatively smooth ride. The acceleration was adequate, and it would cruise nicely at around 60 MPH.
It also had vacuum-powered windshield wipers. The wipers worked fine, but if you were driving at full throttle, like ascending a hill for instance, the wipers would slow down and practically stop. All you had to do was take your foot off the gas for a couple of seconds and the wipers would furiously speed up and clean the window.
After driving that old Chevrolet for several months, I remember heading to work early one summer morning, and when I hit a bump the instrument panel lights came on. Wow, I was surprised! I just assumed they did not have dash lights back in 1941.
On one of my first long trips, I drove to Youngstown to meet my girlfriend’s family for the first time. Unfortunately, the car broke down on the Ohio Turnpike and I had to hitchhike the rest of the way into downtown Youngstown. I was not at all familiar with the city, so I wandered into McKelvey’s Department Store, a downtown mainstay that is now long gone. I called for a ride and then stood out in front of the store with all my worldly possessions in a shopping bag. What a first impression. We have been married 44 years, so I guess I passed my introduction to her family.
My girlfriend’s father and brother gave me a ride to where I had abandoned the car on the turnpike, bringing plenty of oil with us. I attempted to drive it very slowly the rest of the way, but never made it. After several miles the engine seized; I believe it had thrown a connecting rod. At any rate, it had to be towed to a gas station in nearby Canfield. While on the turnpike, the engine had apparently run out of oil, overheated, and permanently damaged the block. There were no warning lights in those days. The gauges hardly moved until it was too late.
I replaced the engine with a 1954 Chevrolet engine that I bought from a junkyard; it bolted right in. I remember that morning, my dad had offered to trade cars for the day. But no, I passed on his 1966 Oldsmobile Delta 88 and said the Chevrolet would be fine. Hmmm, maybe I should have accepted my dad’s offer.
I drove my Chevrolet back to college where I was a freshman. A few weeks later, my girlfriend and I were on a date and went to visit friends about 60 miles away. On the way back to campus, we got a flat tire. I changed it. After a few miles, the spare tire went flat, too. Now we were becoming nervous. We attended a small church-affiliated college in the 1960s and they had a strictly enforced curfew—time was running out. If you did not have your date back to the dorm by curfew, the housemother (an artifact from the past) would call the girl’s parents. I stopped a guy in a passing bakery truck and gave him a few bucks to drive us the remaining 15 miles. We beat the curfew with about a half-hour to spare. All this time I was concerned about finding inner tubes because most tires by the 1960s were tubeless. Fortunately, Montgomery Ward had the inner tubes that I needed.
Given the age of the car, I probably should have done a lot of preventive maintenance, such as new tires, gaskets, etc.…before driving it. However, being a teenager without resources (or much common sense), I figured the car ran fine so I just started driving it. Although my 1941 Chevrolet is now long gone, like so many others, I wish I still owned it today.