Tuesday, December 9, 2008

General Motors, My Dad and Me... (Pt. 1 of 3)

I’m a “car geek” because of my father.

My father worked for General Motors. He was the embodiment of the “American Dream”. The son of German immigrants, he graduated college and started working at GM in their accounting department at their Manhattan office. 30 some-odd years later he retired an executive based out GM’s Washington, DC, office.

Growing up I got to see and hear a lot about GM’s cars. There were brochures around the house and cars in the driveway. Each year my dad would take me to the New York Auto show, held then at the old Felt Forum under Madison Square Garden. I felt like an insider when I was there. GM would be showing concept cars and my dad would explain what it was, the technology it used and whether it was ever going to be built. The rest of the crowd stood around gawking, asking each other if they knew anything about the car. I felt cool. I knew.

As a very young kid I remember going to the NY Auto Show and being blown away at my first glimpse of the 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix. It had a hood longer than my bed, a pointy chromed nose and gigantic doors. It looked mean. It was, in my young eyes, the coolest car I had ever seen. I wanted one. I wanted one badly.

I asked my dad to bring one home. My dad, practical as always, said it was not a good car for a family of five. He was right, of course, but I was still disappointed.

My dad was as loyal a GM employee as you’ll ever find. He loved the company and, as far as I could tell as a young kid, the company loved him (Why else would they give him all those cool brochures – and even a car – to bring home, right?) But deep down inside, I believe my dad was a car geek.

Another great memory of my early childhood was taking a drive every other weekend or so to a local “foreign car” (that’s what imports were called back then) dealership. This dealership, whose name I don’t remember, was the local franchise for all things British. They had Triumph, MG, Sunbeam, Jaguar, Austin Healey, Lotus and probably a few others. All I know is that I wanted one of every car on the lot. I think my dad did too, but his loyalty to GM held him back.

It’s odd how the human memory works… Ask me what I had for dinner two nights ago and I would have to think hard before telling you. But I remember like it was yesterday being at that car lot looking at a big Healey 3000. It was blue and my dad obviously liked it a lot. He checked out it and talked to the salesman, but left without it. I asked him why he didn’t buy it. He replied that it “would not be good for a GM executive to be seen in one”. Looking back, that may have been one of the few regrets he had about working for GM – He couldn’t own a Healey.

But my dad didn’t settle for driving a Chevy, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick or Cadillac. My mom had those. My dad’s car of choice was an Opel. It was probably a good compromise for him. It was “foreign”, but made by GM. The first ones I remember were Kadetts. Mundane looking, but interesting. The last one I remember him bringing home was a Manta Rallye. That was not mundane looking and with a 1.9 liter engine and a full gauge package, it was sporty as hell.

I learned to drive on one of his Opels. It was a chore. Not only did I have to learn how to make the car go where I wanted it to go, I had to learn how to use a standard transmission. I wanted to learn to drive on my mom’s Buick. It was an automatic. My dad would have no part of that, saying “Once you know how to drive a stick, you can drive anything”. He was very right, of course. For most of my car owning life my cars have had standard transmissions (by choice). I can’t begin to thank my dad enough for insisting that I learn to drive one. When my son comes of “learn to drive age”, I will teach him on one of my standard transmission cars. He’ll probably be pissed, but hopefully someday, as he’s revving the hell out of a car through winding mountain road, he will look back on me the same way I look back on my dad.

Next… My first few cars.

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