Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Would You Have Fired Rick Wagoner? Not Me. I Would Have Sent Him On a Roadtrip.

It was a Mercury. Year, model, and color: unknown.

It was 1957 and I was in fifth grade, when I really became aware of our family car. My father dropped me off at school, and a kid on the front steps remarked, “Hey, you have a Mercury. That’s a fast car.” I had a Mercury? I thought about it during the day. I had a Mercury. That’s a neat name for a car, I thought. My Mercury. A fast car, with a neat name.

A couple of years later, Dad pulled into our driveway in a new car. It was a Chevy Impala. I liked its look, and I liked the name, Impala. It wasn’t the one with the big fins. It was the newer model. A friend later asked me how I liked my new car. I told him it was a great car. “No,” he said, “Don’t you know anything? Chevys aren’t great. They’re average.” But, it’s an Impala,” I protested. “Doesn’t matter. Chevys are average.”

Well, so what? I liked it anyway.

I’m thinking this car was female.

The next car that meant anything to me was also a Chevy, but this was not your average Chevy. Lord no. My favorite TV show was Route 66. The two main characters, Buz (with one z) and Tod (with one d), drove around the country doing good things for complete strangers and getting into fistfights. They got from place to place in Tod’s 1960 (or ’61 or ’62, the car changed each season) Corvette. I was not a car nut, and I never became one, but that car was absolutely gorgeous. No, gorgeous is not too strong. Click on this link (Corvette) and check out the curves. Then, picture yourself behind the wheel, top down (of course), headed for America.

One day, my eighth grade teacher, Mr. Sullivan confided in our class that his idol was Buz Murdoch. If he were younger, that’s who he wanted to be. My first-ever male teacher, a strict disciplinarian and a manly role model, fantasized about being a younger fictional character. I was pretty certain that the car had something to do with it. In fact, I know she did.

I looked really good behind the wheel.

At sixteen, I took my drivers test in our Olds 98. It was a long, sleek convertible, and on the highway, my father kept the top down as much as possible, requiring backseat passengers (like me) to drop down onto the floor to avoid letting the 75 mph wind blow our heads off. One day, a guy who worked for my father said, “Your dad will probably be buying a new car pretty soon. He’ll probably be giving the Olds to you.” I had never considered that possibility. This was exciting. I prepared myself for the announcement. Probably at the dinner table, sometime soon. I envisioned friends saying, “Here comes Coltin (meaning me) in his ’98”. One day Dad pulled into the driveway in a new Lincoln Continental. “How do you like it?” he asked, with a proud smile. “It’s nice. What happened to the Olds?” “I traded it in.” Oh.

As a college student, George Bush did worse things. As president, well, never mind.

But, I got a lot of use out of that Lincoln. In the summer of 1969, I drove it to the Newport Jazz Festival. I pulled into Newport and met up with two groups of college friends. We had tickets to some of the concerts, and for other concerts, we staked out a spot at the top of a hill, overlooking the concert area. It was pretty far from the stage, but we could hear perfectly. Unfortunately, the festival ended in a riot. “Too many rock fans,” was the prevailing theory. Jazz fans don’t riot.

It was nighttime. Dionne Warwick was singing What the world needs now is love sweet love... (Ironic, don’t you think?) I was up in the woods, lying on my back, enjoying the night. Then, the music stopped. There were loud noises and a lot of confusion. I jumped into the Lincoln, locked the doors and fell asleep on the front seat, which was like a small sofa. Then, I felt the car shake. I jumped up. My friend, Al, was rubbing his eyes and pounding frantically on the window. I unlocked the doors. “Tear gas,” he said. He climbed in and fell asleep on the back seat.

The next day, we all went looking for food. We stopped at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. The place was packed. The chicken was barely cooked. We ate it anyway. In the parking lot, there was a large cardboard cutout of Colonel Sanders. One of the guys picked it up and put it on my back seat. Later I drove home. As I pulled into the driveway, I was surprised to see my mother and father, dressed up, standing on our back steps, like they were going to a party. Actually, they were going to a funeral and were waiting for me to arrive with their car. After hastily removing the empty beer cans, chicken bones, and of course, the Colonel, I handed Dad the keys. I will never forget the look he gave me.

My father lived his entire life without ever owning a foreign car. My wife and I have been together almost 30 years, and we’ve never owned an American car. I used to suggest that we take a look at the new Ford Something or Chevy Whatever. “No,” she would say, “American cars haven’t caught up yet.” Over the years, I’ve heard that same line dozens of times from different people. Their interiors haven’t caught up yet. Their performance hasn’t caught up yet. Their designs haven’t caught up yet.

In Detroit, Elvis has left the building. And, he won’t be coming back.

Do you remember what came to be known as Elvis’ ’68 Comeback Concert? With his career on the floor, and having not performed live in seven years, he did an NBC Christmas Special that turned out to be really special, but with little connection to Christmas. It was vintage Elvis. Lean and handsome. Dressed in black leather. The British Invasion was sweeping America and bands owned almost every bit of the stage, until that night in June when Elvis came back.

(Those who missed it got to see part of it -- the best part -- again, nineteen years later, when one of his now legendary “sit-down sessions” aired uncut. It was like getting a second comeback.)

The newer rock and roll, of course, continued to thrive, but now, in 1968, after seven years without performing live, Elvis’ stage was about to grow bigger than ever. There he was (Did I mention the black leather?), sweat dripping from his forehead, bantering with his musicians, owning his audience.

There was no deafening volume; no gymnastics; he did not end by smashing his guitar into smithereens. He combined power and elegance, Ali-like. Yes, the bands owned the era. But it was clear that he was not there to simply catch up. He was there to gently put them in their place – a very large and growing place, to be sure – with a reminder that what they were doing, they did not invent. He said, with that cocksure smile of his: “Rock and Roll is basically gospel, or rhythm and blues. It sprang from that and people have been adding to it.” And so the King set the record straight.

And he was not going to be museumized. Not yet.

It was one of the greatest comebacks in the history of comebacks. In later years, he would make some small comebacks, but that could not and did not go on indefinitely. Elvis, as we know, ended badly. For all the great ones, the comebacks finally run out -- Sinatra, Elvis, Ali, and others – and finally, the stars are eclipsed by their own legacies.

We really wanted Detroit to have its day, again. We wanted Detroit to take the stage confidently, powerfully, elegantly, and gently remind Japan of where it all started, acknowledge their contributions, and announce the design and technology breakthroughs that would put the foreign upstarts in their place.

The King’s comeback, which may have seemed so unlikely, was actually a sure thing. Elvis climbed his comeback stage, devoid of bitterness, arrogance, or condescension. If you were in his audience, he was having a special conversation with you, or with the person next to you, or with someone you knew. Are you lonesome tonight? One night with you is all I long for... Love me tender, love me true…

Look kid, what do you expect us to do with this piece of junk?

About that Lincoln. A couple of years after Newport, my father asked me to take the car to the dealership, where he bought it, for a service estimate, and while there, see what they would give him on a trade-in. After looking at the car, the sales manager brought me into his office, and with a kind of snotty grin, said: “To be honest with you, the car is worthless. If we were to buy it, we would break it up and use it for parts. I suggest you give it away.” When I reported this conversation to my father, I had expected him to be pissed, or at least very annoyed. After all, this wasn’t just a car, it was a Lincoln. Dad’s response: “Don’t worry about it. It has fifty thousand miles on it. When a car gets there, it’s pretty much used up.”

My 2001 Suburu: 165,308 miles.
My wife’s 1998 Audi: 80,816 miles.


  1. The car was definitely a "she." All cars and boats seem to be. Please check out the poem "she being brand new" by e.e. cummings. It explains everything.

  2. The car was definitely a "she." Please check out the poem "she being brand new" by e.e. cummings...it explains everything. I was born in 1968. Before you dismiss me,know that I am familiar with said Elvis comeback concert. My Dad was a huge fan and we saw the rerun together. It was a big deal. We had all his records...even Blue Hawaii which was actually made of blue vinyl.


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