Cadillacs were my father’s Harem, and the driveway was his Seraglio. The driveway at 1590 Seven Mile Road was a thing of wonderment. It was indeed one of the seven wonders of Sam's world. He had constructed it himself, and it was truly impressive. This ribbon of smooth uninterrupted concrete that ran from the road to the garage was as smooth and flat as a sheet of glass. I can testify to that, first hand,for he had painted a shuffleboard court on its perfect surface, and I shuffled around it frequently. There was not a dimple or a ripple or any imperfection, whatsoever, to hamper ones shuffleboard strategy. And there, on its always pristine surface, like passengers on a cruise ship, about to play the game, sat my dad’s two Cadillacs.
Detroit, in the 1950s, truly was the “Motor City.” Its grossly engorged economy was artificially pumped up by the wanton need to possess a new car every year, simply because the configuration of the latest chassis was a little bit more classy than that of the year before. A voluptuous fender, a more seductive rear end, or bigger bazookas on the bumper were all that were required to make the latest models deliriously desirable. Grown men and boys, alike, passed many an idle hour, standing on the corner, watching all the cars go by. Even kids my age were walking encyclopedias of CARnal knowledge.
Everyone in town could identify every model, tell one taillight from another, and disclose the number of holes on the new Buick. Each year, the designs changed slightly, and people felt obliged to trade in their cars, frequently, to remain up to date with the latest trends. To drive a car older than three was downright embarrassing.
Detroit’s automotive industry supplied the residents of that fair city with a never ending stream of fantasies. Teen aged boys, from puberty to forty, dreamed of taking a hot date to the drive-in movie in a Nash Rambler with its notoriously reclining front seat. The spirit of the automotive industry even crept into my high school art class, where each year there was a citywide competition, sponsored by Fisher Body, to design the best looking auto body. The prize was a future job with the company. That happened to be the only art competition, in which I did not participate. But many an eager young lad in Motor City fell asleep at night, dreaming of a Fisher Body.
In this crazy city tucked in the thumb of Michigan’s mitten, to seek the meaning of success, one needed to look no farther than their driveway. And the reason anyone did anything was never free of the goals and aspirations advertised by the auto industry. Ambitions and emissions were one in the same. And the most noble of motives were often automotive.
In the Golden Age of Automobilia, General Motors led the Parade and the Cadillac was King! To many, my dad included, it was the ultimate symbol of having made it in the world. Therefore two Cadillacs rotated in our driveway, at all times. Each one would be replaced, alternately, every other year. So, there was always a new one there. And I began to perceive a curious phenomenon in the way my father related to these autos. Choosing colors became his means of self-expression. One could mix and match the top and bottom, and Sam always came up with some unconventional combination. And then, because he had chosen the colors, he felt that he had created the whole car!
One year he got a convertible, bright yellow with a black top. It was called an “El Dorado” and it had curious chrome plated strip of vertical vents, attached to the leading edge of the rear fenders, on either side. They featured a series of oblong openings, or indentations, in a line from top to bottom, and these were painted black inside, in order to create the illusion that they actually performed a function.
One afternoon, when the car was still brand new, I stepped out the back door to see my father sitting on the ground beside it, with a bottle of my mother’s red nail polish in his hand. Using the brush that was a part of the cap, he was crudely painting flames, emerging from the vents. And because the openings faced forward, the flames were going in the wrong direction. My pointing out the error did not deter him from completing the task. One side came out much better than the other. Nonetheless, he was as pleased as Picasso with the results. This hilariously hand altered auto was, indeed, a testimony to either his naiveté, or his boldness to go where no man, who paid the bucks to have a car like this, would dare.
Here’s a provocative photograph of my parents that I find both compelling and bizarre. It hints at an enigmatic story that I could never quite decipher. The feeling it conveys is both mysterious and surreal. The scene takes place in the driveway of the house on Seven Mile Road. My mother embraces the steering wheel of her latest vehicle, lovingly. Yes, it is a Cadillac. Did you really need to ask? Her ever-present cigarette is held skillfully between her fingers. She appears to be in a state of dreamlike ecstasy. The lights on the dashboard are glowing in broad daylight. My father peers, or is it leers, through the windshield admiringly, or should I say, licentiously? This photo always reminded me of Susanna and the elders, a bible theme, often painted in the Renaissance. Is it just my prurient imagination, or is this photo “Auto-erotic?”
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT