Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Cadillac Man? No, My Father Favored Buicks

Assessing the precarious market position Cadillac finds itself in these days, The New York Times Tuesday described the General Motors car brand as once “the ultimate destination as car owners prospered and moved up from Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Buick to demonstrate their success in life” (

My father was a loyal Buick customer. Every five years or so he would buy another Buick. Yet he, too, succumbed for a short while to the siren call of Cadillac (actually, it was more my mother who pined for a Caddy, but more on that later).

The first car of his I remember was a green Buick, probably a 1950 model. It had an elongated, almost torpedo-like sleek shape. I have few memories of driving in it. In 1955, when shortly before I turned six, Dad bought a blue Buick Special with a white top, a four door sedan with air vents along the front fenders, a Buick trademark. As the youngest of three, I was relegated to the middle rear seat, the one over the drive shaft hump. Many an argument over leg and fanny room broke out with my brother and sister. Dad often threatened to pull over to the side of the highway and spank us if we didn’t stop bickering.

It was in that car that our parents informed us that for the summer of 1956 we would be sent to sleepaway camp for the first time instead of vacationing at Takanassee, a Catskills resort in Fleischmanns, NY. Eight weeks away from our parents. We’d be shipped off to Camp Massad Aleph where our father’s friend’s son summered. My brother Bernie, 11, sister Lee, 9, and I, 7, howled our displeasure. To no avail, and eventual pleasure. 

That car provided Lee with an enduring memory of our father that she related in her eulogy of him. She recounted how one Sunday morning when she was in fourth grade she alone had gone to our Hebrew school’s classes as Bernie was sick and I not yet old enough to be required to attend. While she sat through classes, our father went to a Men’s Club meeting.

“At 12:00 we met and walked to the car, a big Buick. At the time that we had parked, there were no other cars on the street. However, when we returned, the car was now boxed in between two cars. My dad was recovering from a (shoulder) bursitis operation and the strength in his arm was still limited. He attempted to maneuver the non-power steering wheeled car out of the spot. For what seemed an excruciating long time he struggled, groaned, cursed and finally collapsed at the wheel. I was horrified and frightened and in my childish way thought that we would never get out. It was then that he turned to me, with a strange grin on his face, and asked me to help him turn the wheel. My first response was, no. What could I do to help him free us from this impasse? He calmly showed me what I needed to do and together we moved the resistant wheel. Our hands, reaching one over the other, worked for what seemed an eternity to move the wheels and reposition the car. When it finally happened we screamed with joy and laughed and laughed. The whole way back to our home we reviewed what had happened, how we had worked together and how funny it was.”

Dad made sure the next car he bought had power steering. It was a 1961 Buick LeSabre, desert fawn in color. In other words, light tan. Bernie learned to drive on that car. In 1965 it made way for a Buick Electra 225, green with an off-white vinyl top. The car was massive, forcing our father to work magic each night he slipped it inside our narrow garage. He would hug as close as he could to the left side of the garage, then he had to slide across the front bench seat to exit the car from the passenger door. 

I was behind the wheel of that huge Electra—18 feet, 8 inches in length—the first time I drove on the highway, along the New England Thruway as my parents and I made our way up to Orange, Mass., to visit the family of Lee’s roommate the first year she studied in Israel. I remember observing the signs prohibiting trucks and buses from using the left lane. It felt safer driving in the left lane, though my father kept telling me to drive faster. 

When it was time to get a new car, Mom prevailed upon then 58-year-old Dad to trade up to a Caddy, a car more fitting his success as an independent businessman. He settled on a 1970 blue Sedan de Ville, an inch longer than the Electra. Dad seemed self-conscious driving a Cadillac in our row house Brooklyn neighborhood. He divested himself of this dubious distinction in 1975 by returning to his roots with a blue Buick Regal, much like a LeSabre. 

Within a month he talked himself into believing the car, at exactly 18 feet, was too small. So he engineered a three way deal: He would give Gilda and me the Regal, we would hand over our 1969 Buick Skylark to Lucy, one of his loyal employees, and Dad would buy a new Electra. We hated the Regal, as well. Too big for us. We ditched it for a Datsun Sentra hatchback. 

Dad had a few more cars until he stopped driving when he was 82 in 1994, explaining that in his new home near Bernie in Rockville, MD, “the roads don’t know me here.” His last car was a blue Oldsmobile Cutlass. He gave it to our son Dan who had recently passed his driving test. Dan didn’t care that it was an old man’s car. It was wheels, freedom. We soon swapped it out for a more sporty Mazda 323. 

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