In 1975 — when he was a graduate student in French at the University of Washington — my father bought a 1949 Buick Riviera for 250 dollars. It was a grand boat of a car — taupe and midnight blue, one of the first American automobiles with standard power steering. Plush leather. A steering wheel made of bone.
It was also an automatic — and this was in the days when auto manufacturers still named their automatic transmissions. Buick’s Dynaflow competed with Oldsmobile’s Hydramatic and Chrysler’s TorqueFlite. But in my father’s eyes — the Buick was by far the superior system.
My father’s life shifted drastically over the next few years and soon he was forced to sell the car — again for 250 dollars. But he was always in love with it, and throughout my childhood he’d comb The Seattle Times classified ads, looking in vain for the Buick.
More times than I can count, we’d go look at classic cars. A 1947 Nash Rambler, a 1937 Packard, a 1951 Cadillac. He never bought anything. The chrome was always too pitted, or the stitching too loose on the leather, or the interior too musty. Or (more likely) my father didn’t have the cash.
But the looking was somehow the point. We searched and searched — even through my teenage years, when we couldn’t communicate about anything else, when I was ambiently angry at everything. We’d drive to the house of some elderly doctor, and there — in the garage — would be the 1928 Ford.
Sometimes, we’d take it for a test drive. Occasionally, we’d go in a stranger’s house and have a cup of coffee. Invariably, the car’s owner wanted to tell its story — and so we’d sit there, listening.
These are some of the most vivid memories of my childhood.