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Cruisin' and playin' the radio


Site Administrator
Staff member
Sep 16, 2000
New Hampshire
1990 Corvette ZR-1
Cruisin' and playin' the radio

For the Napa Valley Register

Monday, December 10, 2007

Anyone who spent his or her teenage years between 1955 and 1965 will agree with me: Those were beautiful times, the best of times!

America was at peace, was adored, respected and admired by most of the world. The economy was booming. A middle-class wage earner could afford a three-bedroom house, two new cars every three to four years, health insurance was no problem, and the kids' college education was a given.
We even had a king -- his name was Elvis.

Being a teenager, the highlight of the week was the sock hop or gym dance on Saturday. The girl sported a high-teased beehive hairdo with a little bow in the front (and you wouldn't want to touch it). Lipstick was in the shade of bubble gum. The dress was slim-waisted with a wide patent leather belt and layered with petticoats. The dancing shoes were either those ever-so-beautiful saddle shoes or penny loafers with little white socks. And contrary to belief, only nerdesses wore those silly poodle skirts.

The boys wore ill-fitting sportscoats with narrow ties, or even cardigan sweaters with argyle socks. The shoes had to have tassels. And there was enough pomade in the hair to lubricate a Chevrolet. The thrill on those occasions was to steal a goodnight kiss, or even better, to be asked to go "steady." The music was timeless. The lyrics were easy to understand, the melodies were simple but intoxicating. Rock 'n' roll or doo-wop, those songs will be played 50 years from now.

Driving my 1959 Corvette, I am turning onto Silverado Trail heading north. I follow Chuck Berry's immortal lyrics: "cruisin' and playin' the radio, with no particular place to go." I'll probably head north to Calistoga, loop back on Highway 29, stop at Taylor's Refresher for a soda, and return home. Usually, after driving my Corvette for about 15 minutes, a warm blanket of nostalgia envelops me. My thoughts travel back to the "best of times."

Before I emigrated to the U.S. in 1961, I lived in my little hometown in Germany called Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The sports aficionado reading this will know that Ga-Pa hosted the 1936 Winter Olympics. That was seven years before I was born. Sonja Henie was the Swedish ice princess, and after winning the gold medal, went on to Hollywood stardom.

While I was growing up, I was exposed to the American way of life at an early age. After World War II, the American armed Forces in Europe designated my hometown as a rest-and-recreation area for all soldiers stationed in Europe. There, for little or no money, the GI could spend the vacation in Ga-Pa learning how to ski and skate, enjoy mountain climbing, water skiing or use the available facilities like a bowling alley, steak houses, American movie theaters and swimming pools.

In my early teens I adored everything American. When I saw the movie "High Noon," I was Gary Cooper for the rest of the weekend. Or after "Robin Hood" we were fencing all week long. I was also exposed to American food items, which were totally unfamiliar to us. Foods like popcorn, peanut butter, American-style hamburgers with ketchup, root beer, grape soda and much more.

We befriended many GIs and they told us everything about the states they were from. We also discovered blue jeans. But we were very picky. They had to be Levi Strauss. Sorry, Wrangler and Lee, you just wouldn't do. Right after we bought them in the PX, with GI connections, of course, we soaked them in lukewarm water and wore them that day until they dried and shrunk to the right size. We had blue-colored skin for a few days.

And then there was the music! Many local restaurants bought American jukeboxes and stocked them with the latest hits from the states. We were always in tune with the newest songs.

Across from my parents' apartment was one of those GI bars, and on a balmy night the windows were opened and I could hear all the latest hits until I fell asleep. One song especially sticks in my mind -- "Save the Last Dance for Me," by the Drifters. It was played over and over for weeks. To this day, when I hear "Save the Last Dance for Me," I travel back in time to my apartment and my little feather bed.

And how about those cars? Any soldier with rank E-5 or higher could bring his automobile along to Germany free of charge. We had a name for those big cars: "Strassenkreuzer" which means "Street battleships." We were fascinated with the evolution of the tail fins. I am a GM/Chevy man myself but I have to admit Chrysler cars had the best fins, hands down. Chevrolet didn't really know which way to go. In 1957 the fins went straight up and down, in '58 they curled inside, in '59 they went sideways, and it got worse after that. Ford never really entered the contest, they were happy with little ones here and there. The '59 Cadillac was total overkill. But those Chrysler cars!

How about America's first muscle car? The Chrysler 300 C 1957 Hemi, with cross induction. Or how about the DeSoto Adventurer convertible 1958, yellow on black with yellow/black tucked upholstery? If you are lucky enough to find one, be prepared to come up with a sum north of six figures. A 1959 New Yorker convertible will set you back even more.

Still in Germany, the day came when I saw my first Corvette! I had just left the ice arena after hockey practice when I saw the car on the parking lot. I stopped in front of it and could not believe it. "Ach du meine Guete, was ist denn das?" (loosely translated, this means "Holy Toledo, what the heck is this?").

I did not know my jaw could drop this far! I was looking into a big mouth with lots of chrome teeth, and four eyes disguised as headlights were staring at me. The speedometer went to 160 mph. The steering wheel was big and skinny, with three spokes and holes cut into it. The hood was as long as two-thirds of the whole car. After a while, still staring at the car, I noticed the owner sliding behind the wheel. Smiling at my baffled expression, he said "That's a 1959 Chevrolet Corvette. It's very fast." He fired up the engine and rumbled into the sunset!

I became an instant Corvette fanatic that very day. Little did I know, just a year and a half later, a Pan Am 707 would land in San Francisco and an 18-year-old German kid with a green-colored alien registration card in his hands would enter the United States. Being familiar with many of the American ways, it was not hard for me to adjust. After two years, I signed up and joined the Army. And guess where I was stationed? That's right -- Germany! About three hours from home.

Stationed in Germany as a German-speaking GI, that's another story altogether.

I met my wife there and we got married in July 1966. On returning to the states, we drove from New York to California in six days. I've worked in the car business since then, first as an auto electrician and tune-up specialist for a VW/Porsche dealer in Palo Alto.

I came through the ranks, becoming sales manager for a couple of other dealerships. I always thought about the old cars every time I saw one of those mean-looking Corvettes! I had to have one ... soon. The prices crept up and the cars became rarer and rarer. I wanted a '59 Corvette in original condition, but not a show car or trailer queen. I wanted a driver.

Finally in 1984, after years of looking, I bought one. But some things had to be done to the car to make it a "real" driver. Replaced were the full rubber tires with semi-white wide radials. The 283 cu. in. engine was replaced with a later model 327 with hot cam and "fuelie" cylinder heads (camel backs). The two-speed power glide had to go, too. It was replaced with a turbo 400 "kick-butt" transmission. The difference was unreal!

The car turned into a fire-belching 350-horsepower beast. I also bought a 1954 Seeburg model R jukebox and stocked it with all the old records from the '50s and '60s. So when I feel nostalgic, I just play some of my favorites. I always update my collection when I run across an oldie, which reminds me of the good times, the best of times.

Well, I just pulled into my garage and covered up my Corvette. I disconnected the battery and ignition and armed the alarm. I go into the living room and reach behind the jukebox, flipping the toggle switch. The box blinks to life and I listen to the huge vacuum tubes warming up. I scan over the selection menu. Ah! Here it is: B-1 "Save the Last Dance for Me" by the Drifters. I push the buttons, plop on my sofa, lean back and close my eyes.
It was a fall day in 1957. We were playing stickball when my friend Mike's cousin came driving down the street with his new car. There it was, a red 1958 Corvette with white coves and a red interior. That was the first Corvette that I can remember ever seeing. I don't know if we were allowed to see the engine but the sight of that red paint and all that chrome was something I will never forget.
I've wanted to get one just like it for years, but that hasn't happened yet.
I'll bet there are many of us that remember the first time they saw a Corvette. I was only 9 years old. We didn't get to see many Corvettes in the neighborhood in Brooklyn where I grew up. But every time Mike's cousin visited with the Corvette, it was a treat. :)
1960! I was 12 years old and a buddy and I were walking down to Zeffuti's "Tomato Pie" ... that's what they called a pizza in Trenton NJ ... and a white with red coves went by.

Now the big argument for weeks before had been about Schwinn bikes. Till then the only Corvette I had seen was in Bernie's Bicycle Shop and as far as I was concerned, a Corvette was a bike!

Richie, on the other hand was babbling on and on about this Corvette car and we went back and forth for weeks. Mr. Know It All just happened to have parents who worked at the GM plant in Trenton so he kept hammering me to no avail since he had seen one for real when they had an employee picinic.

As we were almost in the door of Zeffutti's he started to holler ... "there, there a Corvette, told ya, told ya ... "

I was slack jawed at that "little" two seater car .... embarassed ... and in love!


My 2000 is an OK car. My only other Vette was a 65 with a three speed that I got when I got out of the Navy in about 1972. The newer C-5 just doesn't have the magic and I give my .... proverbial left nut ... to have an older Vette.

My high school car, though not a Corvette was pretty cool and I have a lot of fond memories of that perfect time of life ... those were my own "Wonder Years", 1966/1967.

It was a black 63' Corvair Spyder, white convertible top and a few (IMHO of course), features that made it a bit on the special side. The motor had the Bill Thomas (twin carbs + turbo), a set of real Xenia wire wheels (horse traded from a scrap dealer), rally wire mesh headlight guards to protect the (slightly illegal), Lucas Flame Thrower high beam headlights and best of all .... there was Susie, she was cute, blonde and a sweet as a girl could be. The two best years of my life.
It was 1957, I was 16 years old driving my dad's old chevy pickup around the town square when I saw my first Corvette. It was a red 57 visiting our little town from Springfield, Mo, about 100 miles away. I found a parking place and drooled on the Corvette until the owner returned. I flooded him with questions until he said he had to get home and he drove away. A 1957 Corvette was my dream car. I didn't have the money in the 60's and 70's when they were cheap. I had other Corvettes over the years but still yearned for a 57. Finally, about 10 years ago, my wife and I decided if I were ever to have one I better do it.

I love my 57 and drive it; about 25,000 miles in the last five years.
First Vette

This is my first car that I fell in love with. I had others but not one that I just looked forword to fireing off and going someplace.
Memories . . .

. . . graduated high school in 1960, after a few years out of school, went into the Army as a helicopter crewchief, stationed in Kitzingen, Germany during 1965-1966. We had a small band, played a lot of the local clubs on weekends there. VietNam going on, lots of folks leaving Germany for there, so I volunteered to go myself. After 1966-1967 in VietNam, returned to the US and bought my first 'vette, a silver blue 1963, 327/340 hp convertible, two tops, 4:11 4-speed. What a ride.

Fast forward several years later to 1975, bought the 1965 coupe I still have in Ft. Collins, Colorado, while attending grad school there and employed as a Civil Engineer with the US Army Corps of Engineers. Spent a few years in Saudi Arabia with the Corps in the early 1980's and while on vacation one year took the family through Europe, including Germany, where I was previously stationed. We also made our first trip to Garmish!! Beautiful place, stayed at the Patton hotel, one of the US military hotels in the area. What great memories, just this weekend finished scanning and printing some of our old slides of places we've traveled for a wall display of photos the wife and I were doing. Hope to get back some day . . . .


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