Thursday, April 16, 2009

Vintage Cars: Seen the USA in Our Kaiser-Fray

I have loved old cars as long as I can remember. In Sacramento where I live, we have the fabulous California Auto Museum. I go there every few years, usually with visiting relatives. I drive down Memory Lane in my mind, wearing cool outfits from my hottest flashbacks.

When I was young, impressionable, and madly in love with my boyfriend Keene in the 1965-69 era of my life, we visited many a museum and old car rally in and near Milwaukee. I love that
Mel’s, my favorite spot for a burger and boomerbilia, is laden with old cars images. I can almost hear the engines rev behind the jukebox music from the ‘50s and ‘60s. What great background music with a chocolate Coke! And don’t you love those old diners that actually have a car that looks crashed into the wall, its hind end (usually finned) there for us to admire like a guy with nice buns? (See what happens when I'm transported back to my teenage, hormone-abundant past?)

Just as I have written about finding a photo of your inner child—your favorite baby or kid pic—what’s your picture of your “inner car?” Maybe it's the one that symbolizes the mobility and adventure of your childhood. For me it was my parents’ 1951 Kaiser-Frazer.

The Kaiser took us on a great road trip to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousins who lived near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. I write about this nostalgia trip in Hot Flashbacks, Cool Insights—the book. It’s one of the most laugh-out-loud chapters about an encounter with a bear, my mom’s lack of outdoor skills, and my wacky Italian-American relatives whose assimilation into the Great Melting Pot I call “Gumbo Italiano.”

What do your car memories that stand out in your mind say about you? (This is a different kind of auto recall!) The Kaiser was roomy for its time and very modern. I never thought of my parents as adventurers, but both this car and that trip defy my perception of them as somewhat conservative, suburban Midwesterners. As I remember, mom referred to the color as “maroon,” a hue we might now call burgundy. I’d love a car that color now! I have to say, though, the wine coloring concept stuck. Even though the color of my Honda is called Titanium; I think of it as Champagne.

Old cars took us to the things and people that were important in our lives. Usually, that was church, school, relatives, and friends. They were often the site of major milestones—first kiss, first sexual encounter, maybe where he “popped the question,” and often where you broke up with him. No wonder our car memories are laden with such meaning. Not to forget: Cars symbolized masculinity to most guys—testosterone on wheels! That explains why we’re turned onto them. We can’t help it. It’s glandular.

The first car I owned—well, OK, Mom and Dad bought it for me-- was a 1965 Plymouth Valiant. Pretty “plain vanilla.” My adventures in it were far from it—very colorful. I had some real “Sex in the City” type moments, shared in my memoir, that cover many of those important milestones in a mixture of pain and hilarity.

My first spiritual teacher used to say that cars, especially in dreams, are a symbol of you as a person. They represent your physical body, the vehicle your soul drives through this lifetime.

I have a lot of soul. I like that the Kaiser was big, eye-catching, and innovative in its day. It took me on adventures far from home, ones that offered many surprises and unexpected connections. Even though I only saw the USA in our Kaiser-Fray back then, I think it activated my wanderlust that ultimately took me as far from home as England, Greece, and Turkey. It was also a car to admire. When it was polished to perfection (remember
Simoniz car wax?), it could bust my shirt buttons taking a spin with Mom and Dad. I’d look to see if the neighbors were watching.

The Frazer was one of a kind, a model only produced for a short time from 1946-51. I think of it, like me, as an early baby boomer. The company had its management issues, and the car failed in the end because they weren’t properly addressed—also because it didn’t meet fast enough America’s growing lust for lots of horsepower. Still, it represented innovation, promise, and its unique design still leaves me gasping for its unusual lines that epitomize “classic car” for me.

I think the Kaiser taught me to not only be adventurous, but that it’s OK to look good, even to glean an admiring eye for it. Now I’m vintage like the Kaiser, even older than our ’51 classic! I need to use a lot of Simonize to look spiffy, but my chassis is still classy, even if wider than it should be. I’ll just consider my padding to be an innovation we all appreciate on modern cars—those rubber bumpers that cushion us from the bumps and crashes of everyday life.

As my mobile boomer icon, the Kaiser-Fray is worth keeping for what it symbolizes to me: big, bold ideas, simpler times, a roomy sense of freedom, and some of the best memories of my happy childhood.


Photo: Thanks to John MacDonald of for permission to use his photo of a 1951 Kaiser Frazer.

More on Kaiser-Frazers: To see a gorgeous close-up of the grille the Kaiser-Frazer was famous for, check out the cover of
Built to Better the Best by Jack Mueller. More Links: The Wiki, Kaiser-Frazer is Born (July 25, 1945), Frazer History.


COMMENT CAPER: Don’t forget, your comments count in a drawing for a free book, now through April 22.

DREAM DATE: Joyce’s interview on dreams is coming up this Monday, April 20 @ 9:00p PDT.


Pop Art Diva! said...

I love old cars too - Remember the collection at Harrah's? I always include a car in my Decades Art Series pieces and I have a couple of cool classic cars and Route 66 images - all at my Pop Culture Art at

I figure if I can't afford to buy one of the classics I can sure make art of them, lol!

Joyce Mason said...

From what I understand, that collection is at Harrah's in Reno. I need to go see it! We got married in Reno almost 11 years ago. We keep threatening to revisit the "scene of the crime." Considering my husband is a "classic" I first met when we were 12,that sounds like a real plan! Thanks for the tip, Pop Art!

Joyce Mason said...

Pop Art PS - I love your old car images. You're giving me an idea for a Christmas present for my sister this year. She just bought a Route 66 themed purse and tote. I figure she needs the t-shirt to go with it. Writing it on my list I keep all year, so when we hit November, I have all the gift ideas ready for shopping.

Feisty Side of Fifty said...

Hey, Joyce--

Talk about a stroll down memory lane--old cars remind me of a ride in the fast lane of the good old days. My parents bought their first new car in 1957. It was a coral and white Plymouth with such massive fins that it looked as if it could take off with enough pressure on the gas peddle. Of course, with my parents, that was never a problem.
However, the car I treasured (never owned it but forever coveted) was a 1965 Mustang. Coolness personified--maybe someday--sigh!