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Fascination with cars was a family affair

Automakers and their suppliers are in the headlines and the subject of cable "news alerts" today. To those of us who were kids in the 1950s, the concept of American automakers being troubled is inconceivable. Cars were a never-ending fascination.

I vividly recall October skies with searchlights sweeping the horizon as Buffalo car dealers vied for your attention. The new year's car models were being introduced!

To the boys on our Cheektowaga street, this annual event was a very big deal. Unlike today, the yearly changeover was not unnoticed. The new cars were debuted on a very firm and set day in October, heavily advertised and eagerly anticipated.

For a week beforehand, car dealers -- in those days pretty much strung along Bailey Avenue -- hung thick curtains or heavy paper in their windows as they moved in the new cars. No peeking! You had to wait until "the day." Those fabulous new models even were covered with canvas on the trucks carrying them to the dealers.

Going to see the new Chevy was an annual ritual for my father and me. In our neighborhood, our fathers were either a "Chevy Man" or a "Ford Man." My father was Chevy. My friend Butch's father was Ford. Each fall, Butch and I had spirited discussions of Chevy versus Ford.

Each year on "the day," my father and I would head to Mernan Chevrolet. The showroom was always packed. Often there was a line. Once in, I would walk around the cars noting the differences -- sometimes subtle -- between the new ones and the prior year.

My father had purchased a 1955 Chevy in July of that year -- his very first brand-new car. I remember the night we went to see the new 1956s. 1955 had been a great year for Chevy, so it didn't change much, just the taillights and grill. I asked my father if he was going to get a new one. He laughed.

In 1957, Chevy added fins and made a stunning, truly amazing innovation. A section of the chrome fin above the taillight was hinged and opened to reveal the gas tank. This was fascinating and merited much discussion with Butch.

I defended it as a life-altering innovation that would forever change the American car. Butch said it was stupid, but I could tell from the look in his eyes he was dismayed that Ford didn't think of it first. Hah, I was one up that year!

In 1958, Chevy was radically restyled. I remember saying to my father, "it doesn't look like a Chevy." I was dismayed because now our '55 had passed from "old car" to "antique." Everyone on the road could easily tell the difference between a '55 and a '58 and secretly snicker.

But the '55 and '57 Chevrolets have become icons, tangible symbols of mid-20th century American style and avidly collected. Nobody collects the 1958 model. I think it's because it doesn't look like a Chevy.

As the years passed into adolescence, the trip to the dealer on "the day" fell by the wayside. The next visit to a car dealer with my father was in 1969. I had graduated from college and was in my first job. He guided me as I bought a new Camaro. That same year, Butch and his dad went to a Ford dealer and Butch bought a Mustang. Some things are just in your blood.

Butch and I were very complimentary to each other about our respective choices, and praised each other's cars profusely. We had grown up.

Charles K. Dick, of Depew, is a communications and marketing practitioner for higher education.

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