Boomer Boys Learned to Speak “Car”

To pre-teen and early teen boomer boys, summer was a magical time. Lazy days of 100-inning baseball games, meandering insect captures and mock army battles inevitably gave way to hanging out in a garage while an older brother or neighbor worked on their car, which in itself seemed to be a never-ending activity.

There we learned the lingo of 1960s car-speak, pretty much by osmosis. Earlier we had obtained a foundation from the rock ‘n roll music on our portable radios. Songs like Little Deuce Coupe and 409 by The Beach Boys (1963), Little Old Lady from Pasadena by Jan & Dean (1964), The Rip Chords’ Hey Little Cobra (1964) and the classic G.T.O. from Ronny and the Daytonas (1964), among others, were filled with references about fast, cool cars. Suddenly it all came together as car words and phrases crept into our own daily conversations.

Mister B recalls how, early on, he did not understand the references in car songs. One day a classmate explained that Little Old Lady from Pasadena was about an older woman who liked to challenge younger guys to a street race with her souped-up car. We came to learn that her car was described as a Super Stock Dodge, which was a limited-production Dodge Polara originally designed for drag racing.

When The Beach Boys sang, “She’s so fine my 409,” we knew exactly what they were singing about: a 409 cubic-inch engine. General Motors produced the powerhouse in the ’60s as engine blocks got bigger and more powerful, spawning what became known as “muscle cars.” Chances are, man, if your car had a 409, it would really squeal!

Likewise, everyone knew a “little deuce coupe” was a 1932 Ford Coupe, nicknamed “deuce” for the year it was released. It was a favorite car among the earliest boomers because it was so durable that many had survived until the the 1950s and ’60s, and could be purchased with available funds from part-time jobs. The car was also easily customizable. Thus, it became the quintessential hot rod. Fenders were often removed and the engine, a flathead V8, provided more lessons for us. Though V8 engines (so named for the number of cylinders it held) had been placed into cars since the early 1900s, Ford was the first to release a production model engine to the masses in an affordable car. This configuration happened to have a flat appearance to the top.

“Three deuces and a four speed,” a phrase from G.T.O. by Ronny and the Daytonas, had particular resonance with Mister B. A neighbor had a terrific turquoise Pontiac G.T.O. with a triple carburetor (tri-carb). Mister B would watch his neighbor shine every inch of his car incessantly, including the “three deuces,” which meant a triple carb, each with dual injection slots (deuces). A four speed, or four-on-the-floor as it became known, was a manual four-speed transmission with the shifter mounted in the middle of the car’s front floor within reach of the driver’s right hand. The song’s lyrics line concludes with “and a 389.” Like “409,” the reference was to the engine’s cubic-inch size, which was considered more high performance than the average family car.

Before long we’d talk about the cool T-Bird we saw with the rolled and tufted interior — a type of upholstery job where “rolls,” most often made of leather, were crafted for bucket or bench seats. The tufts were buttons sewn in at intervals that would dimple the rolls. The result was a luxurious, custom and expensive look. One neighbor who raced his old car at a local speedway installed a roll bar, which was essentially a metal tube cage built inside the car to protect the driver in case it rolled over. In movies from the fifties that portray hot rods you’ll often see the cars with a single roll bar directly behind the driver. Later an entire cage was built, which is the procedure race cars follow to this day.

The most common car phrase spoken by Mister Boomer’s boyhood friends was “peel out,” or “burn rubber.” That referred to a car accelerating so quickly that it left marks from the tires on the pavement. Kids in the neighborhood would use the newly-paved alleys at the end of the block, or occasionally the street right outside their homes, to show off the power of their machines by burning rubber. The longer the patch, the greater the oohs and ahs from the onlookers.

By the time Mister Boomer reached driving age a few years later, there wasn’t as much emphasis on high performance as there was simple transportation. The language was fading. Perhaps it was the crackdown on street racing that dampened the enthusiasm, or maybe it was part of the wave of change that enveloped us all between the mid- and late-sixties. In any case, Mister B attributes much of what he knows about cars today to those days spent watching older boomers reassembling engines and installing four-speed transmissions.

It’s too bad that the workings of the internal combustion engine no longer resemble the simplicity of our youth. The language of car speak has changed as well for a new generation. Well mothers and fathers throughout the land, I won’t criticize what I can’t understand. But it sure explains the desire among boomer men to recapture those memories with the fantastic machines of the sixties and early seventies. If Mister B had the cash, it’d be fun, fun, fun until the wife took the T-Bird away!

What part did car language play in your boomer years?