Road Trips Part 2

Field of Dreams movie set, Davenport IA

In the early auto age, road trip vacations were primarily the privilege of the rich. However, with the advent of the Model T and improved roads, writes historian James Flink, “the automobile outing and the automobile vacation became middle-class American institutions” (167). By mid-century, as cars became more affordable and roads more drivable, the road trip evolved into an experience unto itself. Families packed up station wagons with kids and cargo and headed out to summer cottages and camping sites. While twenty-first century vacationers are often in a hurry to get to a destination, traveling by the quickest means possible in order to be stationary, there remains a romanticism to spending the majority of a vacation on the road. An abundance of frequent flyer miles has made it easy for my husband and I to travel by plane to our vacation destination. But a few years ago, we decided to take an old fashioned road trip to experience an all American pastime. As we had nearly completed our bucket list of visiting all major league baseball parks, we began our journey into the world of minor league baseball, on a vacation we will forever refer to as our “Field of Dreams” tour.

Perfect Game Field, Cedar Rapids IA

The trip started out at a major league game in Chicago between the Tigers and White Sox. But the next morning we entered Iowa, traveling on back roads through corn and soybean fields from one small town to another. Minor league baseball is unlike its big league brother – the uniforms are torn, the entertainment corny, the people friendly, and the players so very, very young. Often the parks are the major gathering place of the community, with many families and groups of friends or coworkers in attendance. We scheduled our trip to visit home games in as many parks as possible, and managed to visit stadiums in Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Burlington, and Clinton. The names of the teams are often as interesting as the parks themselves – you have to root for squads known as the Quad City River Bandits, Cedar Rapids Kernels, Burlington Bees, or Clinton Lumber Kings. The main destination of the road trip was the Field of Dreams movie set, the ultimate baseball flick. It is a movie I never tire off, particularly during the off season when I am counting the hours until Opening Day. Driving from one park to another we visited a few quirky places  – the National Farm Toy Museum, the University of Iowa campus, and the best ice cream joint in the state of Iowa were a few of the more memorable stops. We were blessed with good weather and an absence of car issues; I will always remember the Field of Dreams tour as one of the best vacations of my life.

Winning the Dr Pepper raffle at Ashford University Field, Clinton IA

As COVID has put a damper on long distance traveling, I look forward to the day when we can get back on the road. While big city and warm weather destinations are certainly great experiences, nothing beats an old fashioned road trip.    

Flink, James J. The Automobile Age. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 1990.

Road Trips Part 1

A 1957 Oldsmobile Super 88 – similar to my brother’s flashy automobile.

One of the activities that has been put on hold during the COVID pandemic is the road trip. While there are plenty of articles that offer advice on how to manage a safe road vacation, many folks – myself included – have opted to keep our cars mostly parked until driving long distances is considered safe. However, that doesn’t keep travel hungry road-trippers from reminiscing about past moving vacations or planning new adventures when restrictions are lifted. A fellow SAH [Society of Automotive Historians] member recently posted a charming recounting of a road trip taken when he was just a toddler. It got me to thinking about my own past road adventures, of which there have been very few. The death of my father while I was a child – and my  mother’s lack of a driver’s license – put family vacations on hold for a number of years. However, the trip we took during the summer before my father’s death – in August 1958 – is still very fresh in my mind.

My brother, me, and my sister at our first motel stop, complete with scruffy dog.

Although our summer vacations had previously consisted of two weeks at a rented cottage in northern Michigan, the decision was made in the summer of 1958 to visit my mother’s brother in Dallas, Texas. As there was a reasonable fear that the aging family vehicle was not reliable enough for such a journey, my older, recently married brother offered us his bright red inside-and-out 1957 Oldsmobile Super 88 for the trip. Cars of that era were quite roomy, and the Olds held six of us – 3 adults and 3 children – fairly comfortably. Making the trip were my parents, my mother’s father, my 12-year-old brother, my 8-year-old sister, and 9-year old me. My mother and sister spent the entire trip in the back seat; my brother and I took turns sitting between my Camel-smoking father and cigar-smoking grandfather in front. Since these were the days before air conditioning was standard, the open windows provided some relief from the smoky [and hot] interior. But we were kids, and the conditions didn’t bother us in the least. I was settled in with a stack of library books [which I read on the way down, and reread on the way back] which kept my mind off any discomfort I might have felt driving down south without air in the month of August.

My brother Tom, mother, me, sister Margie, grandfather, Uncle Eddie, cousin Ralph, and Aunt Evanell in Dallas, Texas.

The construction of the Interstate Highway System – approved in 1956 – was just underway; thus our trip to Texas mostly took us on two lane highways and country roads. My father was not one to drive to exhaustion, and since young kids get restless easily, we made stops at various tourist attractions along the way and were at our hotel stop each afternoon by 4PM. As a working-class kid living Detroit, everything on the trip was new to me. I had never eaten in a restaurant [my brother ordered a hamburger at every meal] nor had I ever stayed in a motel. As we travelled further south, the hotels had swimming pools, which, for us city kids, was perhaps the biggest treat of all. We visited Meramec Caverns, a buffalo ranch, and were treated to an Old West rodeo show. My mother collected plates from each rest stop. I tasted my first Dr. Pepper – the unofficial soft drink of the south – and on my uncle’s prompting, exclaimed, “frosty, man, frosty!” after taking a sip. The visit with my uncle and his family was pleasant, but it was the trip itself which is ingrained in my memory.

Unfortunately, that was the last road trip we took as a family as my father passed away the following January. Many decades passed before I was to take another vacation by automobile. But I will always remember my brother’s shiny red car, the new, strange, and exciting views out the window that car made possible, and my father’s sunburned arm, perched on the window’s ledge, adeptly holding a cigarette between his browned and sturdy fingers.

A ‘Soft Spot’ for VW

After receiving her PhD [at the age of 66!], Chris Lezotte traded in her 6-year-old commuter car for a 2015 Volkswagen Golf R.

Over the course of many car projects, I often find that female car enthusiasts are loyal to a particular automotive brand. This is particularly true in my hometown of Detroit, where folks often have friends or relatives who work for an automotive manufacturer in some capacity. In fact, it is frequently said that folks in Detroit rarely pay full price for a vehicle as they can somehow someway take advantage of someone’s employee discount. I myself am guilty of this practice, having purchased a few Ford vans through my late brother-in-law’s A Plan and a friend’s Chrysler ‘Friends and Family’ discount. It is not surprising, therefore, that the majority of Southeastern Michigan women I interviewed over the years are fiercely loyal to cars from one of the Big Three – Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler. 

In talking to women in their 80s and 90s about their early automotive experiences, I discovered that those outside the Detroit area without a familial connection to a particular automaker had less compunction about switching automotive allegiance. Many started out with American cars – as that was pretty much all that was available at the time – but switched to Japanese imports for reasons that had to do with reliability, economy, trade-in value, and a size more conducive to female proportions. Once converted to Japanese models they rarely looked back. Although under some pressure from husbands to buy American, these women had decided what automotive qualities were important to them and became loyal to the brand that fulfilled them.

I recently came across an article about a gentleman who has taken brand loyalty to an extreme, having owned 42 Volkswagens over his lifetime. He has passed on his preference to the VW brand to family members. Of course, the fact that he worked as a VW Technician certainly provided access to vehicles, taking them on as project cars and then selling them afterward to fund his next project. I, too, am a Volkswagen fan, although not to the extent of this VW enthusiast. But I have always preferred German cars; their superior handling ability and performance and smaller size makes them exceptionally fun to drive. I also appreciate their aesthetics – the simple lines and clean, well-designed interiors contribute to a pleasurable driving experience. My first car was a 1970 Beetle; I currently drive a 2015 Golf R. In between – other than the Ford vans purchased as ‘dog vehicles’ previously mentioned – I have owned a Scirocco, VW Beetle Convertible, Rabbit, Audi S4 Cabriollet, and Audi A3. Living in Michigan, I have often been disparaged for my unAmerican vehicle choices. But I know what I want, and what I like to drive, and that’s a German car.

While some women, like me, tend to repeatedly purchase cars with similar qualities and monikers, others enjoy experiencing a variety of makes and models over a lifetime. Yet what is important is not what ‘camp’ a woman finds herself in, but that as purchasers of 65% of cars and influencers of over 85% of car purchases, women have the power and ability to make their own automotive decisions (Newman). Unlike the first half-century of automobility, when car choices were limited and often male-influenced, women can now look to cars not only as practical necessities, but also as vehicles that display who they are and what is important to them. 

Newman, Jennifer. “It’s True: Women Really Do Shop More for Cars.” cars.com 31 May 2019.

Padeanu, Adrian. “‘Insane’ Person Has Owned 42 Volkswagens in His Lifetime.” motor1.com 04 Sept 2020.

Convertible Summer

Ice cream run in a 1999 Miata.

During the summer months, my husband and I attend a fair amount of car shows. This year, however, most have been canceled, replaced by social distancing car meetups and unofficial cruises. I am not real keen on cruises as my classics are temperamental and I fear I may stall out or break down at some point if I have to drive a great distance. Consequently, we have replaced events with really old cars to one activity with a not-quite-classic one. When my husband worked on the Mazda account years ago he acquired a 1999 evolution orange Miata. For the past 20 years it has been stored in the garage and taken out occasionally in the summer, accumulating only 14000 miles in the interim. In years past, we have had a lot going on from May through June – baseball, concerts, road trips, plays, and walks with the dogs – so the Miata only came out occasionally. This pandemic summer, all but the dog walking has been canceled. So as a summer project we have decided to visit as many ice cream establishments as possible to determine who has the best frozen delicacies in southeastern Michigan [it’s a tough job but somebody has to do it]. And our vehicle of choice for this important endeavor is the topless Miata.

Having a convertible in Michigan is always a dicey affair. I myself have owned three – a 70s era Fiat, a metallic blue VW during the 1980s, and most recently, an Audi S4 cabriolet. Convertibles always seem like a good idea until you remember it is often too hot to drive them during the day, the tops take a beating in the winter months, and they mess up your hair and makeup on the way to an important event. However, this summer, I have absolutely nowhere to go. So ice cream runs on a hot summer night are nothing short of glorious. We live in a rural area so take our time on the back roads to reach our various destinations. As I am a runner, I always put in a few extra miles on ice cream days to avoid a few extra pounds. Thus far we have had a great summer weather wise and usually go out at least twice a week. It has helped make the concert/theatre/baseball-less summer a lot more palatable. 

As I have noted in my research, during the 1950s and 1960s – at the height of its popularity – the convertible was branded to appeal to a sense of youthful rebellion and depicted in contemporary advertisements as an emblem of upward mobility. This devil-may-care freedom was marketed specifically to the male consumer; if women appeared in advertising in was primarily in passive roles. Women were rarely considered potential customers for convertibles; the vehicle was considered too fast, sporty, unsafe, and attention-getting for the female motorist. Yet in conversation with 21 elderly women about their early automotive experiences, I discovered that “while only a few had actually owned them, almost all of the women had – at some point in time – yearned for a flashy ragtop”(Elderly 406). Although most eventually settled for a functional family vehicle, the women couldn’t help but imagine the convertible as the means to a pleasurable, desirable, and exciting escape from the practicality and sameness of their domestic existence. In my research into the chick car phenomenon, I found that women whose children were grown and out of the house often purchased convertibles such as the Miata as a reward for the minivan years. As one of the respondents exclaimed, “I went from a soccer-mom car to an empty-nest car and I love it” (Chick 524).

Although I loved my past convertibles, I let my vanity and practicality get in the way of truly enjoying and experiencing them. This summer, I don’t care. I put on my baseball cap, stick my hands out to feel the breeze, and keep on smiling all the way down the windy road.

Lezotte, Chris. “Born to Drive: Elderly Women’s Recollections of Early Automotive Experiences.” The Journal of Transport History 40.3 (2019): 516-417. 

—        “The Evolution of the ‘Chick Car’ Or: What Came First, the Chick or the Car?” The Journal of Popular Culture 45.3 (2012): 516-531.

‘My First Car’ Stories

Chris Lezotte’s 1970 VW Beetle

During the Michigan COVID-19 lockdown of 2020, with auto shows canceled and motor racing put on hold, auto journalists in the state often had little news to write about. When faced with such a predicament, many turned to their own car experiences for inspiration. While looking through a few online magazines on my auto feed recently, I discovered that one of the more popular features during this crazy time is “my first car” stories. Online automotive sites such as Hemmings and Motor Trend have collected first car tales of their respective staffers. The car stories found on these sites are entertaining, introspective, informative, and nostalgic. They tell of junkers purchased with meager paychecks, clunkers handed down by parents and grandparents, and for those without cars, tales of travel on subways, the school bus, and family cars borrowed from mom and dad. The stories know no gender; while the majority of auto writers represented are male, there are a few from female staff members as well. Motor Trend’s Alisa Priddle tells of the 1970 Chevy Impala left to her by her grandfather after his passing. As Priddle noted, “I will always wax nostalgic about the IMP-ah-la [as pronounced by her Finnish grandparents] with its 350-cubic-inch, 250-hp V-8 and three-speed transmission that I almost always drove barefoot on my way to teach swimming at the local beach; great summer job and great memories from my high school days.” Monica Gonderman, also at Motor Trend, still owns the 1999 Chevy S-10 she purchased as a sophomore in high school soon after receiving her driver’s license. Over the years, Gonderman spent many hours incorporating modifications – lowered, air-bagged, a custom flame paint job, full tweed interior and bed – to make the vehicle her own. 

In my various women-car projects, those I interviewed often had similar stories of cars from the past. These vehicles served as important touchstones in their lives; not only were they crucial means of transportation, but also represented self-sufficiency, hard work, autonomy, and freedom to the women who drove them. As for my own auto story, I grew up in Detroit without a car, as my widowed mother never learned to drive. As she was forced to rely on public transportation or the generosity of family and friends to get where she needed to go, I learned early on the importance of the automobile to women’s mobility – both figuratively and literally.

When my older brother came of driving age, the first of a series of “family cars” was purchased, shared by my younger sister and I when we turned 16. I learned to drive on a 1960 4-on-the-floor light green Corvair. I spent many an evening with my other brother –  a Detroit policeman – driving round and around a local high school parking lot learning to shift gears. In order to purchase a car in my own name, I waited until my 21st birthday to take delivery of a brand new 1970 Volkswagen Beetle. The red bug came with two options – a radio and a crank sunroof [best sunroof ever] – and cost a whopping $2293 out the door. That car saw me through my last years of college at Wayne State University in Detroit, my brief 2 year marriage to my college sweetheart, the years that followed in which I was divorced, broke and trying to make my way in the world, and my first real job. With a heater that never worked, and an undercarriage that was rusting away [typical for bugs of the time] I held onto the car for seven years until it was totaled while parked in front of my apartment building. I went on, of course, to own a variety of other vehicles –  some better than others –  but that first car, paid with the money I earned while a college student, with me for some of the highest and lowest points of my young life – will always be the vehicle I remember most.

The prevailing assumption regarding women’s car use suggests the female motorist views the automobile as a practical necessity, a means to get from point A to point B safely, efficiently, and reliably. However, in my various research projects, I have discovered that to a great number of women, a car from the past can contain special meanings that go far beyond its function as transportation. To these women drivers, whether 30 or 80, a first car can serve as a touchstone, a container of memories, and an important reminder of who she once was, and who was to become.

Editors of Motor Trend. “Throwin’ it Back: What Motor Trend Editors Drove in High School.” Motortrend.com 10 Apr 2020.

McCourt, Mark. “My First Car: Hemmings Editorial Staff Share Motoring Memories.” Hemmings.com 9 Apr 2020.