In our last issue, Brock Yates paid homage to America’s greatest automobiles. Here, an equally committed enthusiast takes us far from handrubbed lacquer and sparkling chrome to celebrate the brave derelicts that played a huge part in putting America on the road.
It stood accompanied yet sadly alone, its streamlined body gradually rotting away, balding tires slowly sinking into the mud at the back of the lot. A modest pool of oil had formed on the ground beneath.
In my eyes, she was beautiful.
You’d probably never have noticed this forlorn vehicle from the street, probably not even have been aware of the used-car lot where it sat, which was just one of dozens along a thoroughfare like the hundreds of others that have been part of the landscape of every major city since the early days of motoring.
Clearly this road was not the boulevard on which the new-car dealers erected their bright showrooms. This was the other automotive row, the gritty street where the tired, beat, worn-out japolies waited.
Not all the vehicles on display were equal, of course. There was always a cleaned-up and powdered selection to lure the motorist with high hopes but a nearly empty wallet. Lined up militarily across the front of the lot on this chilly day in 1962 stood a typical sampling of those “like new” bargain-basement beauties: a 1960 Ford Fairlane clamoring for a kinder owner; a ’58 Chevrolet Bel Air hardtop with many more dependable miles left on its clock; a seldom-driven ’61 Plymouth sedan sporting barely a trace of city-chipped paint and Midwestern salt-rusted fenders.
As usual I’d paid no attention whatever to the front row. Nor to the rows immediately behind-the second rank of sedans and station wagons aimed at the families with fewer dollars left from each week’s paycheck. Instead I trudged all the way back, to the nether land where the true delights were found: the forlorn and forgotten autos that are readily visible only when you’re doing your shopping by way of the alley that runs behind each dealership.
This time it was a 1954 Hudson that got me. A Wasp four-door sedan, Green. The dingy dark green favored by Hudson, Pontiac and a couple of other makes, causing them utterly to lack appeal for most younger drivers.
The black-wall tires would more accurately be described as brownish, but they had a bit of tread left on the casings. A fair amount of residual chrome gleamed from the rusting bumpers. Dull grayish cloth upholstery, slightly stained and dusty, but not badly torn at all. Glass intact, nearly all the trim and hardware apparently still there, and hardly a serious dent to be seen on the once-sleek body.
Who could resist?
“Good little workhorses, these Hudsons,” proclaimed the seersucker-suited salesman, arriving at a quick pace form the tiny clapboard shack at the center of the lot. This was, of course, five years after the final Hudson had come off the line, and eight years after the last real Hudson was made, this 1954 version being the very last of the famed step-down series. But a sale is a sale, and the smiling fellow did his best, immediately offering the most enticing selling point of all: an eighty-five-dollar price tag.
This was to be my third Hudson, and the highest price paid yet, but obviously well worth it, especially after I heard the six cylinders rattle into life (ignoring the mighty puffs of blue smoke from the exhaust that accompanied the burst of power). No dickering, no dallying. The deal was concluded in a matter of minutes, and the Hudson was in the hands of its next (and final) owner.
As Nelson Algren once wrote of the lady with a broken nose, “There may be lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real.”
Banacek, the television detective of a few seasons back (who happened to drive a 1940 Packard convertible), put it even more succinctly. Commenting on a ratty pickup truck that he would be buying and driving, he proclaimed with assurance, “Junkers have character.”
Many of today’s motorists have little conception of this underworld of auto ownership. Oh, they might have owned a clunker or two during their teen-age years or while beginning to raise a family. But before long most working- and middle-class Americans join the ranks of new-car owners, or at least confine their used-car purchases to later models. But not every motorist. Some people, of course, drive derelict cars as a matter of pure economics. Poverty isn’t the only reason though. There are those drivers who are simply content with unglamorous “basic transportation” and see no need to spend more than the minimum; and there are others who are utterly powerless to resist the perverse appeal of a rusting fender or crumpled chrome.
How could a pile of fallen metal, long past its prime, deliver twinges of delight rather than disgust, affection instead of annoyance?
The nicknames, which have varied with the era and region, offer a picturesque image, if not exactly an explanation. Once, these cars were jalopies . Then wrecks , junkers or rattletraps . Also heaps and crates . In the trade they might be called, simply, iron , even tired iron . Since 1970s, beater has been the term most often heard. Clunker grew popular a few years earlier, partly as a result of Allstate’s television commercial featuring an old, smoking Studebaker to illustrate the perils of driving an unsafe vehicle.
Whatever name it goes by, an authentic clunker is dirty, rusty, faded. A derelict of the highway—worn and tired, overused and abused. It has gone unwashed, unoiled, unrepaired, unloved.
A clunker is the converted Hudson the Joads drove to California in The Grapes of Wrath , as did their real-life Okie counterparts. It’s the hulk that sat in Jeeter Lester’s front yard in Tobacco Road , and the one driven north by his nonfictional cousins who sought a better life in the cities. Jalopies have served as the gateway to motoring for millions of poor Americans over the past sixty years.
Whereas generations of used-car buyers have been warned that at least two of the three basic systems—running gear, body, and interior—must be in acceptable shape, the clunker is likely to be weak in all three. Presumed to be long since dead and recycled by a succession of owners, it is still managing to perform for one more master.
Most important of all, the clunker is cheap. Dirt cheap. Although many clunkerites of the past have boasted of five- or ten-dollar purchases—even a sale for a single dollar—I never managed to find a suitable specimen for less than fifty dollars. Naturally this branded me a plutocrat among the connoisseurs of well-worn iron.
Jalopies have been around in large numbers since Henry Ford brought mobility to the masses with Model T. Fifteen million were manufactured in the United States between 1908 and 1927, and the price of a stripped-down model dropped as low as $260 in 1924. During the early 1920s, Ford produced well over half the cars sold in his country, creating new drivers from a generation of pedestrians and streetcar riders.
But that’s only part of the story. Even a $260 car was beyond the reach of most workers. Largely ignored by historians is the fact that the Tin Lizzie in its secondhand phase extended automobility to many more families. Thirdhand and beyond, further millions could sit behind the wheel for the very first time.
The Model T’s legendary longevity and durability caused much of the increase in low-budget motoring. They lasted too long! Technically simple and easy to repair, millions of Model T Fords kept on hauling long after their initial owners brought home the successor Model A or switched to pricier Chevrolets and Dodges.
Buyers of cheap used cars discovered another interesting fact during the twenties and thirties. For little more than the price of a tired Model T, it was often possible to step up to a better automotive brand (in similarly rough shape). A seven-passenger Nash, perhaps, or a big Studebaker President. Maybe a sporty Chevrolet roadster or powerful Auburn—even a La Salle, or a massive Marmon V-16. Once past their prime, big luxury cars fell sharply in value. Motorists who couldn’t even fantasize about a new Lincoln or Packard occasionally wound up in their driver’s seats, years after those marques had lost much of their allure.
That phenomenon continued into the postwar years, when a rough Buick Century or Chrysler Imperial could be found for hardly more than the cost of a modest Plymouth. Besides, a humdrum car usually looked ultra-dull when its body had grown weary, but a stylish, sporty auto tended to retain some of its flair even after the glow had faded.
Bottom-level used cars brought so many motorists into the fold that auto makers began to complain. Through the 1920s manufacturers and dealers wrung their hands over the “used-car problem,” which they interpreted as preventing the sale of enough new automobiles. They went so far as to develop various plans to destroy older cars, paying bounties to dealers who turned in a junker after receiving it in trade. Chevrolet had such a junking program around 1925, Ford soon after. The “Highway Safety Plan,” introduced by the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce in 1930, eliminated some 350,000 old cars annually during the next few years.
Junking programs were revived briefly in 1936, and again during National Used Car Exchange Week in 1938. Though mainly a media blitz to promote the sale of “good” used cars, the week’s festivities included “jalopy bonfires” across the country. Similar programs have popped up sporadically since those days, but none have succeeded in drying up the supply of clunkers.
The Great Depression, junking activities notwithstanding, was the heyday of the jalopy. Working people who couldn’t afford a Model T for $300 a few years earlier could hardly manage a new Ford V-8 at $495 in 1933, yet even the longterm unemployed could often squeeze enough out of the bare-bones family budget to cover a ten-dollar jalopy. As Helen and Robert Lynd discovered during their twin studies of “Middletown,” published in 1929 and 1937, a surprising number of dirt-poor folks chose to go without food and clothing rather than give up the car.
In 1936, with the Depression in full swing, 54 percent of families had a car- nearly the same proportion as a decade earlier. Better than 30 percent of households with an income of less than five hundred dollars a year had one. Still, Fortune magazine reported in 1938 that six out of ten car owners had never bought a new car. In fact, nearly a third of the cars then in use were worth less than forty-eight dollars at a time when the average new car was selling for close to nine hundred dollars. For millions, a jalopy was still the only real choice.
World War II brought an end to hard times, and the years that followed promised new prosperity. Old cars came to be viewed as the property of the poor- and the young. Teen-agers, barely noticed before the war, now exerted considerable influence on popular taste. Most of them gazed into new-car showrooms with the same longing as their parents, and many signed installment contracts for new models. With the rising affluence of the 1960s, the jalopies that ruled early high school parking lots quickly gave way to startling numbers of fancy one-owners.
After all, status has seldom been a selling point in the clunker market. Oh, in certain neighborhoods and periods, tolerant of eccentric behavior, a kind of reverse status has occasionally been achieved by drivers of old autos. For a time in the 1920s, jalopy touring was almost chic among certain elements of the wealthy. Rusty sports cars and brokendown Volkswagen buses played a similar role much later. Among middle-class strivers, however, clunkers never have been trendy.
New-and late-model buyers pay close attention to resale and trade-in values; clunkerites know that, barring some miracle, they will be the final owners.
For this reason “orphan” (out-ofproduction) makes, shunned by generations of late-model buyers, often have drawn fresh attention in their declining days. Uncounted Studebakers, Kaisers, Packards and the like have found a devoted final owner, long after the assembly plants disgorged their last specimens. In addition to being different, and thus special, orphan clunkers have nearly always been cheaper.
The authentic clunker is bought “as is,” for cash. Here and now, dollars in hand. Never reconditioned. No credit checks, no delays, no warranty—no assurance that the car will go farther than the curb.
Hence, every clunker buyer has relied heavily on luck. Anyone unlucky in life is sure to find similar misfortune on the dealer’s back row.
Clunker specialists, all of whose offerings appear to belong in the back row, have been around for at least half a century now. Anyone can spot them a block away. Nothing, but nothing, is done to the cars, most of which are obtained from the wholesale auctions. No cleanup, no touch-up, no tune-up, nothing. Just a wipe of the windshield and a painted-on price, plus a slogan like STEAL THIS ONE, or LOW $$$ SPECIAL , or most promising of all to serious clunkerites, ROUGH BUT READY .
It is 1962, perhaps the golden age of clunkers: from a distance a certain Dodge looks tempting, with its three-tone paint job—the epitome of fifties fashion—almost glistening in the twilight. The dealer wrenches open the driver’s door and slips inside, firing up the engine before the body can be studied in detail, motioning his wary prospect to join him.
“Ya know, it needs a little work,” he admits in a masterpiece of understatement.
The Dodge shakes. It coughs and snarls, bucks and balks. But it runs.
Of course, the engine has to turn at highway speed to keep from stalling. Yet it propels the car all the way around the city block and then back in a high-speed dash up the driveway, gas pedal floored to keep the cylinders firing.
“Sixty-five bucks,” the dealer declares.
To most owners the clunker has admittedly meant nothing more than cheap transportation, driven with little concern. Engine gives up in a strange town? Just sell it to the nearest scrap dealer and use the ten or forty dollars to go on your way by bus.
Yet clunkers can offer so much more. What has been an eyesore to some has served as nothing short of an art form for their fans.
Why, anyone can appreciate the streamlined beauty of a car when it is showroom fresh. But only a down-scale connoisseur with a well-trained uncritical eye could continue to love that car —love it even more—once its paint has thinned, its fluids leak, stray parts have dropped away, and the metallic contours flow in a sea of decay.
The prosperity of the 1960s and early 1970s thinned the clunker ranks, but recent harder times for low-income families have sparked new interest in older, cheaper autos. Today’s average used car, after all, sells for a princely five thousand dollars. The average age of cars on the road, after remaining remarkably stable (at around six years) for decades, has been creeping upward. By 1980, nearly 5 percent were more than sixteen years old—up from 2 percent through most of the seventies. Furthermore, in 1982 nearly one-third of the driving public had never bought a new car, compared with only 23 percent in 1979.
Hence, the clunkers are still around. Millions of them. As always, auto makers hate them; suburbanites reject them; insurers shun them; better dealers refuse to handle them; and the government would like each one to disappear. But clunkers need love, too, and a few of us have always been willing to give it, asking so very little in return.