No more auto secrets

It was an autumn afternoon in September, a one-time-a-month filled with excitement because the new cars would appear in the showrooms, their re-designed fender lines, grills and light configurations hidden by canvas covers as they languished in lots so that nobody could see until the big day came.

It was like that once, when GM, Ford and Chrysler were the big three and imports on U.S. streets were novelties. That made it easier for a schoolboy walking to church in order to serve Mass to recognize exactly what year the autos were, parked on the city streets, by a glance at the beezles or the shape of a hood.

For me, there was a special attachment to Chevrolets of all shapes and sizes, because after school and on Saturdays I spent my time at the local dealership, running across the street to pick up coffee, sandwiches and cigarettes for the salesmen – yes, an 11-year-old could buy cigarettes for the salesmen without a lot of trouble and the salesmen would smoke them in the showroom – and also wiping the cars down so that they would be nice and shiny when people came to look. I got paid for my labors, a buck for wiping down the cars and a quarter here and there for the coffee runs and I thought I was rich.

“Incense and Peppermints,” “Ode to Billy Joe” and “The Letter” were among the tunes that the AM radio station played in the background.

The salesmen wondered sometimes why I wasn’t outside playing ball like the other kids my age, but they were happy to have me in the showroom and showed me kindness. On my end, I suppose the experience of hanging around the showroom kept me out of trouble, and my mom always knew where I was so that was a good thing. And the association with the dealership was perfect for a kid – like most kids in that age group at that time – who had what we called “car hots.”

For me it was all about the designs, the lines, not the motor or the drive train. And I had made up my mind that I would one day be a car designer for GM, make $50,000 per year which to me was a whole lot of money, and with that buy my mom her very own house.

None of those things came to pass but they were nice thoughts.

So on this afternoon in September there I was under the rooftop of Roosevelt Chevrolet and one of the salesmen, John Roberti, said “Hey kid, you want to see something?”

I nodded and he walked me outside, to the yard where Caprices, Bel Airs and Chevelles newly minted for the coming 1968 model year sat, shrouded in cream-colored canvas. He beckoned me with a finger, there in the lot where trees on the side streets were already dressed in flaming fall colors, and lifted the canvas to reveal the taillights of a 1968 Impala, beautiful and round and space-age looking, and my heart indeed skipped a beat. I felt like the most special boy in the world, one treated to one of the most awesome secrets imaginable.

Nobody else in Jackson Heights would know what the new full-sized Chevrolet looked like, and I would have something to brag about the next day at St. Joan of Arc Elementary School.

And then, Mr. Roberti – that’s what I called him because you always called adults Mister or Missus or Miss back then – motioned me to another canvassed form, something smaller than the Impala. Dressed in a jacket and tie, he whipped the canvas away like some magician, and there before me was a spanking new, Midnight Blue, 1968 Corvette Stingray.

It looked like no other car I had ever seen on the street, with sweeping aerodynamic lines, a dramatic sloped hood, and a lustrous finish on the fiberglass in which I could see myself.

As I visited auto dealerships to do some reporting for this automotive issue of our newspapers I thought back to that simpler time, before American luxury cars morphed into shapes more befitting imported family sedans, before the different brands all got sold under one dealership roof, when the new model year was special. And in so doing I remember what my mom said even back in those days, about how a Cadillac doesn’t look like a Cadillac and a Lincoln doesn’t look like a Lincoln anymore.

I realize that I am saying the same thing, and that some car-savvy 11-year-old more attuned to the nuances of the 21st Century auto industry would probably argue with me the way I argued with my mom about that topic.

But as I look at the new models of automobiles in 2013 I am also thankful that I grew up at a time as special for the U.S. auto industry as the late 1960s were, and that the wonder and joy of it all are inscribed in sweet memory.