Piloting The Boat

Dad was a car dealer.  He ran a Columbus Ford dealership from 1971 until he retired in the late ’80s.  As the manager of the dealership, he had the option of driving cars with dealer plates, the better to show the Columbus driving public some of the new options that were available in the showroom.  As a result, it was not unusual to see a different car in the driveway every night when Dad came home from work.

2f8b1531b9932fa2cad0abc8ca022eb6The good news:  that meant UJ, Cath and I got to try out some new cars when we started driving.  The bad news:  they were all ’70s-era Fords.  Ford produced some of the ugliest cars, from a design and paint job standpoint, in a decade that will be forever known as the low point for American style — whether you’re talking about automobiles, haircuts, or clothing.  Every American manufacturer lost their marbles and churned out products that had none of the sleek, appealing features of cars of the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, or ’60s, and Ford, too, produced models — like the Pinto, the Maverick, and especially the box-like Granada — that were the vehicular equivalent of the leisure suit.

For the most part, UJ, Cath and I stuck with the small cars that we’d take to high school, but from time to time we’d drive one of the big luxury cars that Dad would bring home.  During that time period, Ford had taken the Thunderbird — which started out as a cool, spiffy little roadster — and turned it into a huge, grossly overpowered monstrosity.  The 1975 Thunderbird had an enormous front with a hood that covered approximately one square acre, a half-vinyl top with tiny rear windows, a big hood ornament, and front seats that were wide enough to comfortably sleep a family of 6.

We called it “the boat,” because when you took it out on the street it was like trying to steer an ocean liner.  If you took a corner at a speed exceeding 5 m.p.h., you’d see that massive front end oh-so-slowly make the turn and you’d find yourself sliding all over that sprawling front seat.  You had to wear seat belts, a recent safety innovation, just to avoid being pitched out one of the windows.  Some cars could turn on a dime; “the boat” could probably manage to turn on a $100 bill.  In short, “handling” was not one of its top selling points — and in retrospect, I’m not sure exactly what the selling points actually might have been.

I thought of “the boat” when I ran across a news article about people who rave about American autos of the ’70s.  It’s an example of nostalgia overwhelming reality.  Me?  I’ve got no desire to return to those days of vinyl and velour and gas-guzzling enormity.  I’ll take the sensible, maneuverable cars of the current era any day.

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