Some of us have fathers that were obviously car guys. They drove the coolest car in the neighborhood, and somehow managed to convince Mom that a Shelby Cobra was in fact just the thing for a growing family. Others drove something more practical and managed to have a project or fun car as well. A third group took whatever practical machine was required and made it as sporty and entertaining as possible. My father tried all three.
We never owned a new car. New cars were just not in the realm of possibility. There was however, a steady progression from family utility to sporty garage queen. In retrospect, with five children to raise, and limited means, the existence of a hobby is in itself miraculous. Playing dominoes would have been a far more suitable passion, but there you have it. The first vehicle that I remember was a VW Transporter. It was a beautiful maroon and white 13 window breadbox. It had the same coefficient of drag (cd) as my elementary school, and then we lashed stuff to the top of it for good measure. That a machine with such aerodynamics and low power could transport 7 people on level ground, refutes several laws of physics. This probably explains my deep love for these vehicles to this day, along with my obsession for horizontally opposed air/oil cooled engines.
Next was an upgrade in power (ie: more than 40hp). It was a Ford Commer van. This was a 1950s British answer to the VW Transporter. Like the Transporter, it had variants such as a passenger version, panel van, and even a pop-top camper version. Both vans had fond memories because they were used for long road trips to the beach, camping, and holidays in general. I remember very little of the destinations, since my memory of endpoints, like England, was overcast. However, I vividly remember staring out the many windows (this was pre-seatbelts, and young children were free to roam about the cabin once Dad turned off the remain seated voice). There was an exciting procession of colorful vehicles overtaking us. Sprites, Jensens, Jaguars, Healeys, Triumphs, TVRs, Aston Martins, Loti, and much more ordinary fare were always flying around the van full of kids. We took pride in being able to discern the sporting marques. Very educational. I secretly delighted in the 2-wheeled parade as well. These fantastic machines with their leather-clad riders were like marvel comics come to life. However, I did so at my peril since according to my father, motorcycles were vehicles that had not finished being built. The smart alec in me wanted to respond with a suggestion of a sidecar, but to do so would have detoured us to the nearest hospital.
Next was a Ford Cortina. This car was the garden variety L rather than the hotted up GXL, or the earlier Lotus Cortina that I wanted him to get. However, Dad managed to find some nice wheels, s ome fog lights, and painted the rockers and roof black to make the bright yellow car look a lot more sporty. And, compared to the Commer, this thing was a Formula 1 car. It was also equipped with an 8-Track player, and I came to know the best of Simon & Garfunkle, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Beatles by heart. I believe these tapes came with the car, because these would not have been my father's first choice (Coltrane, MJQ, and Thelonius Monk were more like it). Oddly enough, music in the car was not a constant thing. The horn was the primary safety device in those days, and the ability to hear what was happening outside was critical in some areas. Accordingly, the collection only grew via donations like Aretha Franklin and Leonard Bernstein conducts The London Symphony Orchestra.
Somewhere along the way, Dad agreed to store my uncle's 1966 Ford Mustang which was in rough shape and rougher running condition. It just appeared one day in the garage. No big deal if you were in the US in the early 70s, but this was in Jamaica and it was left hand drive. It was pretty rare to see a US vehicle of any kind, much less one portrayed on TV as a hotrod ! It was certainly the coolest car in the neighborhood. I was mesmerized. It seemed gigantic in size, and I wondered how it would fit on the roads. Everything about it was strange, especially the red interior. It might as well have been a spaceship. I was only in that car twice. Once as a passenger on a test run when it finally got to decent running condition, and once when I stole it to go for a ride with 2 of my friends. Driving that car on those roads with the steering wheel on the wrong side was so terrifying, that my uncle could have handed me the keys after that and I would have said no thanks. It has heavy, it handled like the wooden carts we built as kids, it had wooden brakes, it was impossible to go fast, and impossible to overtake. I immediately understood why Eisenhower built the Interstate system. It was indeed to protect the public. The sporting pretensions of the mustang (and muscle cars in general) vanished for me with that car. A few years later, when Starsky and Hutch aired, I considered them demented maniacs, but then put the whole thing down to hollywood magic.
Fast forward a number of years and migration to the US. Dad found a Brown 1971 Chrysler New Yorker. It was in mint condition with very low miles, but you can imagine my horror ! Sitting in the back, your voice echoed when you spoke, and I needed binoculars to see my youngest sibling at the other end of the vinyl-covered back seat. We sailed paper airplanes back and forth with messages. There was no audible engine noise of any kind, it simply pinned you to the seat and whistled if you stepped on the gas, disrupting our cricket match in the back.
Fast forward more years, and Dad acquired what I considered to be a truly lustworthy vehicle. A 1978 BMW 320i. Now here, finally, was a driver's car. Dad found some BBS wheels and it was a looker as well. Despite being a home for wayward and unwanted relays, it was small, very fast, and refined. It embarassed all manner of vehicles along the B-roads and highways of New York, and you could wave goodbye through the open sunroof. It brought back all of the fun and performance of my cousin's inka (orange) Bavaria from ten years earlier. Dad was a car guy again, and I later became the proud owner of this vehicle.
Simultaneously however, Dad acquired a 70s Plymouth Baracuda slant six in rough shape. Oh boy, I thought, here we go again. He completely restored the thing. By now my mind had come to grips with relative size, having owned a series of whatever-you-can-afford college cars, which generally meant early 70s americana. These included a clapped out chevelle, a marginally better malibu, and a gremlin with a rear lift kit (A chick magnet if ever there was one!). The garden variety Baracuda was replaced by a V-8 Plum Crazy (purple) Hemi Cuda which he also restored. This thing was a beast, and restored some appreciation for muscle cars with its incredible straight line performance. If I had that one today, I would probably be in Scottsdale instead of watching Barrett-Jackson on TV.
There were other cars along the way, but the main point is that differences in taste aside, Dad was a gear head, and that is probably the greatest contributing factor to why I am.