The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
My Backyard, Six Miles from the Cumberland River

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Royal (Auto) Affair, Part I

In my adolescent years I was painfully shy, ignorant, naive, green as locust leaf in April, and probably much too aware of all these perceived shortcomings for my own good.

But somehow, someway, 1954 was a good year for me. At the age of 14, my education and experience of the world broadened considerably. The cause of this change in my personality was at least partially related to automobiles.

The family car in early 1954 was an old, gray '47 Plymouth 4-door Deluxe Sedan. (This isn't a photo of our car; ours had a big yellow plastic bug knocker mounted on the hood ornament, but, otherwise, it looked very similar. It even had those curb feelers like this one.)

I liked the way the '47 Plym looked, even though by '54 its "fastback" style had started to look dated. (I put that in quotation marks because it really was more of a "slowback" or "roundback" when compared to the '47 Chevy for example.)

The interior of the old Plymouth was IMHOP excellent bling, especially the metal wood grain dashboard which had about 67 lbs of chrome plating on various gratings, buttons, dials, etc. Today, such hard and shiny surfaces on a car dashboard would be considered a threat to human life as we know it and would lead to lawsuits and various government committees hell bent on making the manufacturer pay for creating such a death trap.

But I liked chrome. Love the shiny. At least on cars. Still do. The more the merrier. What can I say, I'm a child of the '50s.

The old '47 Plym, although only seven years old, was, however, not very dependable. We'd bought it from a relative which is another story and one I'm not going to tell here. The car had started to smoke a lot which as we all now know can lead to cancer in people and cars. It was that bluish kind of smoke that smelled like burning oil and rubber with a slight metallic odor mixed in.

Mother fussed about the car a lot and one spring day, Dad came home from a trip (he was a long haul trucker) and said, "get ready, we're going NEW car shopping." They were wonderful words for a 14 year old to hear and totally unexpected since Dad was not known for buying NEW cars. In fact, we'd never had one. The car before the Plymouth was a dependable but ugly as sin '39 Dodge 4-door, and the one before that had been a disastrous '37 Ford coupe with no back seat and a weak, worn out V8 60 motor.

Dad had said we were "going shopping, but he must've already had his mind made up, because we didn't really shop. We went straight down to the Dodge Dealer on Murfreesboro Road. My memory tells me it was the Beaman Dodge dealership, but I'm not completely sure about that.

The car he picked out was a wine red with cream top 1954 Dodge Royal with the hemi V8 and the 2 speed powerflite transmission. The bench seats front and rear were covered in a classy gray and maroon cloth with fine detail stitching. The dash was austere by '50s standards, but clean and efficient. Dad saved $83 by not getting a radio and as  a result my high school dates were all music-less, a tragedy in the sense that without a radio I had to talk more to fill up the awkward dead air on a first date.

Virgil Exner led the Chrysler Corporation design team that created all the Chrysler models including the '53 and '54 Dodges. The '54 was a clean and responsible facelift of the 1953 model. (I didn't know it then but wiki tells me that '53 hemi powered car had set 100 land and speed records at the Bonnevile salt flats.)

By today's standards, the car would be considered small. But it didn't feel that way since comparable Cheyvs, Fords, and Mercs of that year were about the same size. The rear passenger window had a nice Jaguar sedan like curve to it and the chrome sweep spear down the side was in my mind a cleaner line than the Buick sweep spear. One other detail that I remember clearly was the very small (one inch high) chrome fins that were mounted on top of the little kick up on the rear fender. Those little dwarf fins were a harbinger of things to come -- I'm referring to the Exner inspired, gradually soaring tailfins on the '56, the '57, the '58, and the '59 Dodges. They were there in miniature on our '54.

When my brother and I got out of school for the summer in '54, the family decided to take a trip in our new Dodge to NYC. We visited my Aunt Jo (Dad's sister) and her family who lived on Long Island. The pic below shows yours truly outside my Aunt's home. You might notice the pencil thin white belt and the white mocassin loafers, which I seem to recall being very popular HS fashions of the time. You might also notice that my Aunt and her husband Leonard owned a new '54 Ford which is parked behind our Dodge.

While in NYC, we went to Coney Island and saw the statue of Liberty. But the thing that I remember most is the night uncle Leonard took us to see the Dodgers play the Cubs at Ebbets field. All those heroes I'd only heretofore read about in the newspaper were there on the field, live -- Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, and Jackie Robinson--not to mention the Cubs' great, Ernie Banks. I was amazed at how small Ebbets Field was compared to the other major league parks I'd read about. It wasn't that much bigger than Nashville's Sulphur Dell where I'd watched the Vols play many times. It even felt a little like the old Dell. But it held quite a few more fans. And it was Ebbets field and I watched a game there! Not many left who can say that today.

It was a great trip and the new '54 Dodge Royal got us there and back in comfort and high style.

more later on the Royal at the local drag strip, looking hot in Texas, and in its beater days when I was in grad school...


  1. Today, such hard and shiny surfaces on a car dashboard would be considered a threat to human life as we know it...

    It's simply amazing we survived, innit?

    I had a pencil-thin belt in high school, too... except mine was metallic silver and had two buckles, which secured a center piece with about five holes in it. A three-piece belt, in other words. I hadn't thought about that in literally YEARS (and lots of 'em) until you mentioned it. I wore that thing in high school and for at least a year after I went in the AF.

    1. I remember those two buckle belts but never wore one. Am I right in thinking these thin belts went along with the peg pants thing back in the day?

  2. Your blog really brought back memories for me, too. I remember after World War II when my dad broke ranks from the Chevys that were always his mainstay. He'd been forced by shortages to get a '48 Nash after having made do for a about a year with a horrible Hudson because his '35 Chevy (unaffectionately known as Leapin' Lena) finally played out. Then in '56 he got another Chevy, which was followed by a later one, and so forth. His cars were immaculately kept, his habit being even to wipe off the engine after use. I suppose his car was his horse, you might say, which he groomed to a fare-thee-well. Another feature of that era was how anyone could recognize the make of cars. I don't know when that uniqueness began to disappear, but with few exceptions, sedans all look alike now.

    1. I think my Dad and Mom owned a used '35 Chevy before I was born. I've know a few guys like your Dad who kept their cars, even the engines pristine. My oldest grandson Jason has a '96 Mustang and the engine is so clean that you'd feel comfortable eating off it. And you're so right about the cars in those days having very distinctive styles compared to today's bland sameness.