The Last Word

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A 4-Wheeled Love Affair

Cars and the woman who loved them

I have always loved cars. When I was 7 years old, I built one — a wooden Lincoln Town Car with me as chauffeur and my sister Joyce and her best friend, Joan Gerphreide, pushing me until mother called a halt to enforced slavery. At 11, I was eagerly backing my parents’ cars in and out of the garage.

I come by this love affair with cars naturally, it’s in my DNA.

My father used to tell the story of his early Ford cars, each named Myrtle after his mother and often driven by several of his friends because the key to Myrtle always remained in the lock, no matter where she was parked. Mother told of their early courtship days when they would come out of the Chocolate Shop and often find Myrtle gone. But Myrtle was always safely back in her garage by early morning. No questions asked.

During high school days, my brother Chick and I put a glossy brochure of a red Terraplane convertible at Dad’s place at the table each morning until he gave in and bought our first convertible. What joy! The top was not automatic, but we loved to tug it up, snap the three front fasteners securely and drive in the rain. Or occasionally we drove happily in the rain with the top down. In our college years, we begged Dad for a Chrysler convertible, and he obliged with a Chrysler Town & Country with brown plaid seats and a horn that played “The Campbells Are Coming.”

The greatest car invention, to my thinking, was the automatic transmission. This Chrysler went one better, with Fluid Drive fixed to the steering column to make shifting easier, an innovation Chrysler gave up in 1940.

My father’s real symbol of success was his new navy blue Cadillac. The day he drove home in it, my mother, a bit indifferent to cars, asked him, “Is this an Oldsmobile?”

When my husband, Tom, and I were married in 1948, he gave up his old LaSalle touring sedan for a new Pontiac coupe. The LaSalle had a reinforcing wicker seat pad on the driver’s side, and, knowing that Tom was older than I, I thought it meant he had back problems. Not so, just wires that were seeping upwards. I think they kept the driver alert.

In the early 1950s, my sister Joyce and I purchased a 1940 Chrysler sedan for $150. Friends swore it would rupture our friendship, but they were wrong. We did not complain that the driver’s side floorboards had holes that on rainy days would reveal just how wet the streets really were. We named the car Agnes after a great aunt we did not like who always whined when we saw her.

Our secret to success was to pick up our mother for a ride, letting her ride in the back seat with our seven children. We often stopped at the Quality Bakery on Westnedge Avenue so Mother could purchase a loaf of bread, and we’d mention afterward that we were nearly out of gas. Mother would gasp and demand that we pull into the nearest Standard station to fill up. She paid for it. When we dropped her at her home later, she would thank us for the afternoon and say, “That is the most expensive bread I ever bought.”

Our cousin Gene Palfrey came one summer to visit and asked, “How is Agnes?” I told her that Agnes had died. Later that week, parked in front of Gilmore’s Department Store, I heard Gene gasp, as if having a heart attack, when she looked up and there was Aunt Agnes poking her face into our car and whining, “You girls never come to see me.” Agnes, the car, had died on Riverview Drive in 1955 of internal problems.

Two years later, Tom made enough money to buy me my own car, and the day he drove into our driveway with an almost new white Mercury station wagon was ecstasy. It had red leather seats that faced backwards, so the children for years never knew where they were going. It had a chrome roof rack to hold a canoe, if we had one. We drove our boys to prep schools, with no canoe but lots of luggage piled on the rack. The car also had an optional old Ford ooogah ...ooogah horn, which I transferred to later cars until the ooogah gave out.

Now I drive a Chrysler Town & Country van. After Tom was forced to give up driving, he enjoyed sitting up high in the van and loading the rear with golf clubs and bags for our cottage on Lake Michigan. After he died, I kept the van. I have been besieged by offers to sell it and buy something else, but I find the van is just fine. The car of the future seems to be the hybrid-electric car, although electric cars are not as new as you might think. I remember as a small child seeing Mrs. Van Duesen driving her quiet electric car down Burdick Street. That was 70 years ago.

I know that sometime – I hope not soon – my children will take away the van keys and tell me I can no longer drive. When this happens, I shall disinherit them and not reveal that I have secreted away three extra sets of keys. I shall put the children back in my will if they find me a nice young student to drive for me. I plan to gently whack him on the shoulder with my cane and say, “Turn, young man, turn west. We are going to the lake.”

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About the Author

Anne, Bennett, 4-Wheeled, Love, Affair

Ann Garrett Bennett, pictured here with her late husband, Tom, is a lifelong resident of Kalamazoo. She attended Kalamazoo College and Wells College, in Aurora, N.Y. She and Tom raised four children: Kathryn Bennett Solley and Betsy, Charles and Tim Bennett. Ann, who is 91, has been a member of the Reminiscence Writing Group at the Fountains of Bronson Place for more than a decade.