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Boomers Couldn’t Wait to Get Behind the Wheel

It was this time of year — springtime — when Mister Boomer, like all the teen boomers in his area, took Driver’s Education classes at his local high school. In the 1960s, personal transport trumped public transportation every time. Gas was cheap and cars affordable — so as soon as you could, you got your driver’s license.

The first driver’s education classes offered were conducted in England by a private business, in 1910. In the U.S., it was the spring of 1935 when driver’s education instruction was offered to young students in the State College Area School District in north-central Pennsylvania. One year later President Roosevelt’s New Deal had spawned the WPA, which gave the district $200 to pay for current expenses and further develop the course. By 1940 high school students in the district were required to take driver’s education. From there, the idea slowly spread across the country.

Prior to World War II, state and county roads were the major arteries, so driving was mostly a local affair. Therefore, despite Pennsylvania’s effort to standardize driver’s education and make it mandatory for its high school students, learning to drive was more often than not accomplished with family and friends. The War actually gave a good many men their first chance to drive, so many more came back having learned driving skills. By the time President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System was complete, the car was king, and boomers were about to grow into that succession.

In Mister Boomer’s neighborhood, it was just another rite of passage; something you just did as soon as you were of age. in Mister B’s case, the class was an after-hours offering on Saturdays. After a couple of weeks of classroom training on road regulations, the remaining weeks were spent practicing driving. There were four students assigned per car, with the instructor sitting in the passenger seat. He — instructors were all men — had a second brake pedal, but no steering wheel.

Mister B walked a mile-and-a-half to the high school those spring-into-summer mornings for his 7:30 a.m. class. The instructor chose the order of when each student would drive, always starting and stopping in the school’s parking lot. Mister B tended to be third or fourth in line, so he got to observe the mistakes and occasional cringe-worthy actions of his fellow students.

There were young ladies and another young man assigned to Mister B’s car. We bonded briefly by the very fact that we were all clueless and more or less like deer in the headlights. Nonetheless, the instructor was, for the most part, patient and tried not to use his brake. In all the classes, Mister B only recalls him using it once, when one of the girls was driving. In this pre-seatbelt era for back seats, Mister B and the others lurched forward when, after the instructors escalating his cries of, “Slow down … turn … NO!” went unheeded and he jammed the brakes as the car hit the curb on the side of the road.

Despite the trauma and drama of the practices, all the students made it to the end. The class was arranged to provide a state road test as its final. Pass it, and you’d get your 30-day learner’s permit, a requirement before a driver’s license. Mister B passed, and a week later, went down to the police station with his father to get his permit.

The next step would be to practice driving with his father in the car — a task more daunting than driving with an unknown instructor. Mister B only went out twice with his father, probably the minimum requirement. He didn’t want to look as tentative a driver as he was in front of his father — who was an accomplished driver, but not always the most patient of men. After observing a few episodes of gritted teeth, it was apparent to Mister B that his father wanted him to succeed very badly. They lived in a car culture and this was a skill that would be a necessity.

When the 30-day period had passed, it was his father who suggested they go to get his license. back at the police station. It was a formality at that point: turn over the learner’s permit, with his father’s signature verifying his practice, pay a few dollars and flash! a picture was taken. A new piece of cardboard was issued as a temporary license until the state-issued license would arrive in the mail a few weeks later.

Many boomers went from riding bicycles to owning their first car as soon as they got their driver’s license.

Today it is no longer unusual for a student leaving college to have never held a driver’s license. Teens don’t seem to universally regard a license as the mandatory item it was when boomers were that age. Many get their license only when it becomes a necessity. Driver’s Education courses are required now in most states, but a recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration discovered that 1 in 5 teens do not have any driver’s education prior to getting a license. The goal of Driver’s Education instruction has always been to reduce traffic fatalities, especially in the under 21 age group. The NHTSA study states, however, that there has never been conclusive evidence that formal Driver’s Education classes reduce the risk of fatalities. However, for Mister B and many boomers, those classes were his introduction to driving, and he couldn’t see it happening any other way.

What memories of Driver’s Ed do you have, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Cars,Pop Culture History,Suburbia and have Comment (1)

Boomers Boosted Snow Tire Sales

Mister Boomer no longer lives in the Midwest, but having spent the first half of his life in a Midwest state, he can’t help but check out the weather there from time to time. Besides, he still has some friends and relatives in the area.

This winter, the weather news hasn’t been stellar for a good portion of the country, but the Midwest in particular is getting more snow than in recent winters. That prompted Mister B to think of the winters of his boomer youth, when fresh snow was practically guaranteed from December through March.

As we Midwest boomers turned 16, thoughts of driving were on our minds, as personal transportation meant personal freedom. Cars and gas were cheap by today’s standards, and it was pretty easy to get a car that ran well enough for under $300. Once winter arrived, another rite of passage connected to car ownership was that we needed — as voiced by our parents — to get snow tires. In an age before the proliferation of all-season radial tires and a limited number of four-wheel drive vehicles, snow tires were a necessity of winter life if you expected to get to school, work and go on dates.

No one knows exactly when the first snow tires appeared, but pneumatic tires (i.e., filled with air) were pioneered in Germany, France and England in the mid 1890s, and there is evidence of snow tires in Switzerland as far back as 1898. Seeing as necessity is the mother of invention, it was most likely shortly after the first pneumatic tires appeared that snow tires were tested in those areas that experienced snow-laden winters.

The 1960s were the boom time for snow tires in the U.S. According to a 1965 article from Time magazine, 12.5 million snow tires were sold in 1965, a leap from the 3,850,000 sold in 1957. Part of that four-fold increase could have been due to the first phase of boomers reaching driving age and getting their own vehicles; part could very well have been that more people owned cars, and many people owned more than one car; and part may be that the new Interstate highway system meant people could live twenty miles from work in the suburbs, and so were driving more, even in winter. Nonetheless, the sales numbers show a startling increase that marks the mid-60s as the peak time for snow tires.

Mister Boomer, unlike other boomers in his area, didn’t get his first car until he was 17. When winter came, he had his father and Brother Boomer to guide him through the process of purchasing his first set of snow tires. Earlier in the year he had been schooled on the virtues of tire rotation each season — a process of transferring front and back tires to the opposite diagonal — in order to obtain even wear on the tires. This was both an economical and efficiency move. A trip to the hoist at a neighborhood gas station or tire store wasn’t an alien experience, then, as several visits a year would be expected.

For Brother Boomer, Mister B and his father, like most people of the era, snow tires were relegated only to the rear tires, as almost all vehicles were rear-wheel drive. Once the snow tires were purchased, they could last several seasons. Some people bought extra rims so the tires stayed mounted and ready to put on at the first sight of flakes, while others, like Mister B, had the current tires removed from the rims and replaced by the snow tires. Since Mister B’s family home didn’t have a garage, the snow tires were stored in the basement during the non-winter months.

Some snow tires came with little metal studs slightly protruding out from the tread as a means of improving traction. Mister B’s family stuck with the deep-tread snow tires without studs. This made them “sing” on dry roads like a truck on the interstate — which in itself was an annoyance. Mister B’s father kept snow chains in his trunk should he become inextricably stuck. His father also instructed his boomer boys to keep a shovel and a bag of sand or salt in the trunk, both for emergency use as well as adding a bit more weight on the rear wheels for better traction.

So why did the popularity of snow tires wane as the 1960s became the 1970s? It looks like a perfect storm of circumstances conspired to hasten their downfall:

• Studded tires were banned in many states, as they were destructive to roadways.
• Many states experienced milder winters in the 1970s.
• County and city governments acquired better snow removal equipment.
• The oil embargo of 1973 caused many Americans to demand more mileage from their vehicles.
• Innovations in polymers and tire manufacturing in the mid-60s were applied to tires, producing the first all-season tires.

It is this last one that many people point to as the breakthrough needed for radial-style tires to become commonly available in the U.S. The first radial tires appeared in France in 1948, and were standard on European and Japanese vehicles from then on. Since radial tires cost much more to produce, American tire manufacturers were hesitant to accept retooling their factories for a technology they didn’t think had a viable future in the consumer market. American auto makers were wary of what they might have to do to retool their suspension systems to accept the harder-driving radials, so the two industries kept the use of radials at bay for the next twenty years.

Goodrich introduced the first steel-belted radial in the U.S. 1965, but since the auto industry turned its back on radials, the product failed. Goodyear finally found the middle ground in 1967 by releasing a bias-belted tire. It was technically not a radial, but rather a hybrid — blending a bias-belted tire with a layer of fiberglass — that could be retrofitted on any vehicle, and could be made without a large increase in machinery costs. Shortly thereafter, more innovations occurred to produce the first all-season tires. How could the snow tire stand in the way of progress?

Snow tires are still sold today, of course, but sales peaked in our early boomer years, and it doesn’t look like the industry will see those kind of numbers again. Who would have thought that snow tires would be another fixture of early boomer life that would be slowly fading into history?

Did you buy snow tires for your first car, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Cars,Seasons,Technology and have Comments (2)

Boomer-Era Dashboards: Testing Our Metal

A heat wave descended on most of the country this past week (Keeping Our Collective Cool) and that got Mister Boomer thinking about the times, as young boomers, we would enter our parents’ scorching-hot car interiors. Chief among the heat-amplifying materials of the interior was the dashboard, which, more often than not, was made of metal.

Dashboards were around before there were cars. The earliest dashboard was a flat piece of wood affixed to the front of a carriage, intended to keep rocks, mud and debris from hitting the carriage passengers. When the first automobiles were being manufactured in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the interiors were either designed to mimic carriage interiors, or were contracted out and made by carriage companies. The dashboard, then, served the same purpose in a horseless carriage as on a horse-drawn carriage.

The first instrument to make it into a dashboard was a clock. Originally, the wooden dashboards had a leather holder into which a pocket watch could be placed. Next a glove compartment was added, first as a leather satchel attached to the dash with leather straps, then as a box built into the dashboard. Since cars were open to the elements, hats, gloves and goggles were a necessary part of the driving experience. The glove box allowed a driver to keep these items in the car. By the time cars became enclosed with a roof and doors, the dashboard had attained more function as the place where the steering column was affixed; then as engine performance increased, a speedometer was added around 1910. By the 1920s the dashboard began to take on more of the characteristics of what we knew as young boomers: speedometer, odometer, engine gauges, radio, clock and glove box. Dashboards were no longer just flat boards. They were being shaped and designed along with the cars, each unique to their brand. Modern materials like plastic, chrome and steel made their way into the designs.

As youngsters, boomers recall when dashboards (like the cars themselves) were so big that things could be placed on them like a table, between the dash and the windshield. Luxury cars like Cadillacs and Lincolns may have offered full- or partially-padded dashboards in the 1950s, but for Mister B, as probably most boomers, the cars of the Everyman — Fords, Chevys, Dodges and Plymouths — came equipped with dashboards of solid metal. Portions of the dash could have recessed panels emblazoned with the car’s model name, but were always painted in a color that either matched the car’s exterior or, if the interior was a contrasting color, the interior.

When hot summer days meant wearing shorts, you’d have to avoid touching even the bottom of a dash with your knees, especially as a passenger. The same held true for placing a hand on the dash while entering or exiting the car. The metal, baking all day in the sun, was just too hot to touch. This meant you couldn’t use it, in times before cup holders, as a place to set a cold drink or anything else other than a hat.

In an era before seatbelts were mandatory, the dashboard was hardly a safety feature. While it may have been the last line of defense to stop a passenger from careening through a windshield, its steel construction was not going to offer any comfort in an accident. It would be decades later before air bags were placed into dashboards.

Today dashboards are mostly made of plastic. The padding on the dash is secondary to other safety features, such as its collapsible design and air bags, intended to protect a car’s occupants in case of a collision.

In our day, the dashboard was our individual instrument panel that allowed us to take flight as soon as we could drive. We often personalized our dashboards by adding extra gauges; installing custom music options like 8-tracks; placing kinetic figures like hula dolls and animals with bobbing heads on them; adding radio station stickers, car performance products decals and specialty paint jobs. The size, shape and metal composition of boomer-era dashboards gave us that opportunity.

Dashboard styles are another indicator of the boomer era. What memories of dashboards flash through your minds, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Cars,Pop Culture History,Technology and have Comment (1)

Boomers Learned How to Fill ‘Er Up

If there was one thing that wasn’t lacking in the suburbs being created by the baby boom beginning after World War II, it was places to fill up the family car. Gas stations cropped up as quickly as the tract houses could go up.

The idea of a filling station wasn’t new. The first filling stations appeared shortly after a good number of automobiles with internal combustion engines were sold in the late 1880s to the early 1900s. Then, the fueling was accomplished at a blacksmith, hardware or general store. The proprietor would pump fuel from a barrel into a bucket, drop a funnel into the opening at the neck of the car’s gas tank and empty the bucket into the funnel.

The first dedicated filling station in the U.S. was built in St. Louis, Missouri in 1905, though some disagree. Other contenders are a California station that appeared in 1907 and one built in Altoona, Pennsylvania in 1909. Despite the historical discrepancies, most agree the first filling station constructed to allow cars to drive up to a pump was opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1913. This station, owned by the Gulf Refining Company, has the distinction of being the first architect-designed filling station.

As cities expanded to accommodate the increase in population, houses were built in what had been farmland or acres of vast open spaces, carving out new suburbs. Cars, in what now seems an effort to match the grandeur of suburban scale, were bigger than ever — streamlined modern machines, forged of steel and weighing more than ever, with powerful engines to propel the heavy metal carriages. The extra weight and higher performance took their toll on gas mileage, but no one was concerned about driving a gas guzzler. Gas was plentiful and cheap. Gas stations constructed in the 1950s and ’60s to accommodate these suburban cruisers could expand over more area, with long driveway approaches and enough concrete to allow any vehicle room to move.

Fantastical stations made of glass and steel were constructed in some parts of the country, created in the mid-century modern style that is both revered and reviled today. Uniformed men came to your car to dispense the fuel and clean your windshield — it was long before the concept of self-serve became the norm. But Mister B didn’t live in a new suburb. Therefore, the gas stations that cropped up in his neck of the woods either made use of existing buildings or were simple, cinder block boxes constructed for the utilitarian purpose of housing an office and one or two mechanics’ bays. In some cases, the stations were reincarnated from previous stations dating back to the 1920s.

Of all the businesses that grew to meet the needs of an expanding population in Mister B’s neighborhood, none were more visible than gas stations. Within a few blocks of Mister B’s home were a multitude of stations that pretty much named most of the big oil companies of the day: Sinclair, Standard, Gulf, Mobil, Pure, Sunoco, Texaco and Cities Service, to name a few. Every major intersection had at least one, and more often than not, one on each corner. There were so many stations that they were never more than a few blocks apart. With so much competition, it was no wonder the oil companies tried to get more business by providing gift incentives with a fill-up.

To the kids in Mister B’s neighborhood, gas stations weren’t the pristine-clean establishments pictured on TV commercials. Rather, they were populated with men who were perpetually dirty. Mister B recalls how kids would especially remark on the black grease that took up permanent residence under a station attendant’s fingernails. The buildings were places of grown-up commerce, and as such, as irresistible as a Tonka truck in a sandbox to boomer boys. Generally, the attendants knew that gas stations were no place for kids to play, so they kept them away from gas pumps and car lifts.

There were times that the two worlds did intersect, though. In a pinch, if a kid just couldn’t make it home and had to “go,” the nearest gas station provided the spot for needed relief. In the early 1960s, station bathrooms weren’t locked, so a quick trot around the side gained full access to the rest room door. These trips were kept to a minimum, as cleanliness standards were pretty much non-existent.

More often than not, the best chance for the kids to interact with gas station employees was when they went to purchase an ice-cold, ten-cent bottle of Coca-Cola from the station’s vending machine. Not wanting to pay a bottle deposit, the boys took their time downing the full 8 oz. bottle in order to drink in the station ambience — or lack thereof. Smelling of gas and oil, even the office had an otherworldy atmosphere. At the very least, the chance existed to get a glimpse of a girly calendar or two. To young boomer boys, gas station calendars were mysterious and fascinating, with the best being placed on the walls of the mechanic bays. By today’s standards, music videos reveal much more than 1950s and ’60s calendars ever did, but at the time, that is what passed for risqué.

As the kids in Mister B’s neighborhood started driving and owning cars of their own, the stations brought boomers into the fold, providing gas, oil and car repair to a new generation. Yet things were not to remain the same. Two things helped change gas stations in Mister Boomer’s area. The highway near his home had been the main connection to a neighboring state and a truck route, but when the Interstate highway system was constructed in the mid-’60s, the majority of the traffic was then bypassing the gas gauntlet. By the time gas prices were doubled as a result of the oil embargo in the 1970s, some oil companies had merged, while others were renamed and rebranded. One by one, stations began to disappear. A few remained, and a few of those still operate as stations in the same locations today, but the gas station heyday of Mister Boomer’s youth had ended.

What memories of filling stations come to mind from your boomer youth?

posted by Mister B in Cars,Pop Culture History,Suburbia and have Comments Off on Boomers Learned How to Fill ‘Er Up

Boomers and the Singularity: One Was the Only Number

For most baby boomers, one wasn’t the loneliest number, it was the only number when it came to several things in their lives, including cars, TVs and ONE dinner time.

Baby You Can Drive My Car — When I’m Home
After the War, even though families were started immediately — creating the Baby Boom (1946-64)– it took a while for families to get their footing financially. Possibly more important than available income was a series of social morés that did not give women equal status with men. So, even though 70% of households owned a car by 1955, it was just one car. And that car was often referred to as the family car.

With the man of the house working while the woman stayed home with the kids, she increasingly became isolated in the suburban paradise imagined after the War. Car manufacturers recognized this and began campaigns on trying to get people to buy a second car. One ad from 1958 spoke directly to this new phenomena in a country now so connected to the automobile with the headline, “Stranded by the One-Car Habit.”

Ford made a big pitch for families to own second cars in the 1950s by echoing the edict put forth by its founder, Henry Ford, back in 1913: that his cars shouldn’t cost more than what the people who built them could afford. So Ford’s commercials tried to put the bug in our moms’ ears that Fords were so affordable a family could have two. But they didn’t stop there. In the 1953-54 model season, Ford sold coats and handbags to match certain cars in an effort to link style to their models.

When the Ford Mustang was introduced in 1964, many saw it as the perfect Baby Boomer car: it was available in a sporty-yet-practical version for suburban moms and with performance-oriented packages for young boomers looking to buy their first new car.

Other manufacturers got in on the act, too. Chevy touted style, color and roominess, while Chrysler went whole hog to produce pink and white models intended solely for female drivers. For a while they, too, produced matching accessories for their cars: umbrellas, raincoats and handbags.

Despite the full-on advertising press, most families continued to own just one car. By 1960 the car companies had made some strides, but only 21 percent of households had more than car.

What’s On Tonight?
In 1945, fewer than 10,000 U.S. families owned a TV. By 1960 that number had jumped to 52 million, yet most boomers recall that their families had only one TV. It sat in the living or family room, and the head of the household got to choose what the family watched. With the possible exception of Saturday morning cartoons, the family watched TV together. Before the widespread use of the TV remote, it was often the boomer child who would change the channel when directed, by getting up off the floor and turning the dial on the TV set. It was often the boomer child who got to take the orders for adjusting the TV antenna as well, turning it left, right, up and down in an effort to clear up the snow or flipping picture. By 1970 only 35 percent of households owned more than one TV set. That number jumped to 88 percent by the year 2000.

50sfamilywatchesTVCredit: National Archives and Records Administration, Evert F. Baumgardner, ca. 1958.

Dinner Time
In most boomer homes, dinner time was directly related to the time when the head of the household got home from work. Mom would prepare the meal, timed just right so her husband could freshen up, maybe take a quick gander at the newspaper and have a drink or two before sitting down at the dinner table. It was required that all members of a family sit at the dinner table for the evening repast. Boomer children did not have a laundry list of after-school programs that might cut into the dinner hour, despite the occasional grumble about meeting a friend for a party or movie. Boomers had to sit with the family at the dinner table. In many households, dinner time was also a time when the TV was off. Since it was often in another room that had no sight lines from the dining room, having it on was tantamount to radio anyway.

Mister B’s family fit into all three of these categories. The family never had more than one car until Brother Boomer got his first car at age 16. His mother didn’t have her own car until she got Mister Boomer’s hand-me-down when he bought his second car while in college.

There was always only one TV, and it sat in the living room. It was a black-and-white set until the mid-’70s. the thought never occurred to any of us that someday each child might have a TV of their own in their bedrooms.

Dinner time was also a singular family affair. If it was summer, Mister B’s mom would call her children from the front porch when dinner was ready. Naturally we’d run home immediately and wash up for dinner. The fracturing of dinner times began a little earlier for Mister B than in some boomer households when his mother went back to work in the late 1960s. At that point the family still ate together whenever possible — especially on Sundays — but not always during the week.

The thought that prevails in the 21st century appears to be that one is never enough. For most of us growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, the thought never occurred to us that families might have more than one car, more than one TV, or more than one dinner time.

Was it “all for one and one for all” in your house, boomers?

posted by Mister B in Cars,Food & Beverage,Pop Culture History,Suburbia,TV and have Comments Off on Boomers and the Singularity: One Was the Only Number

Boomer Math Quiz

Hey, boomer buddies! Set your Wayback Machines to “fun” and put a fresh set of batteries in your calculator. Use the clues in these boomer pop culture references to get the numbers referenced, then add, subtract or multiply as indicated. You do the math, because it’s two…two…two quizzes in one!

 

Boomer Math Quiz

Progress:

1. Number of children Fred and Wilma Flintstone had PLUS the number of eyes visible on "The Jetsons'" Rosey the household robot.

2. Number of six-shooters carried by Quick Draw McGraw TIMES the number of barrels in Elmer Fudd's shotgun.

3. The Marvelette's "Beechwood (xxxxx)" PLUS The Beach Boys song in which they sing, "She's so fine my (xxx)," about a Chevy engine.

4. Number of girls Florence Henderson's character contributed to "The Brady Brunch," MINUS the number of boys Shirley Jones had in "The Partridge Family."

5. Barbara Feldon's "Get Smart" Agent No. (xx) TIMES Patrick McGoohan's character's name/number on "The Prisoner."

6. Ralph, Alice, Norton and Trixie lived at (xxx) Chauncey St., Brooklyn PLUS the number of letters in Patty Duke's identical cousin's name.

7. Year Neil Armstrong said, "that's one small step for [a] man..." MINUS the year of the Summer of Love.

8. In the musical "Hair," the Age of Aquarius states "when the moon is in the (x)th house ..." TIMES The Beatles "White Album" "Revolution" song in which a voice repeatedly speaks this number.

9. The Searcher's "Love Potion No. (x)," PLUS Ronny and the Daytonas' "(x) deuces and a four-speed and a 389," from the song, "G.T.O."

10. Efram Zimbalist, Jr. worked at (xx) Sunset Strip PLUS Martin Milner got his kicks riding Route (xx).

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posted by Mister B in Cars,Fun,Music,Pop Culture History,Space,TV and have Comments Off on Boomer Math Quiz