Thursday, August 03, 2006

$15 Studebaker - Van Nuys, California - 1971

Click on photo to enlarge

So here's the sweet old 1946 Studebaker Commander I owned when I photographed the sunset pictured below. I bought it in Topanga Canyon, sometime in late 1970, from collage and assemblage artist George Herms for $15. I was 25 years old.

George and Louise lived a couple hundred yards up the road from the old Topanga Corral nightclub where us canyon folk all socialized and danced to many of the great bands of the '60s. The Studie had been sitting up on blocks in their front yard for quite some time when George offered to sell it to me (I believe it was more gift than sale).

What it lacked was brakes, so I did a complete brake job on it, including rebuilding all four wheel cylinders, which probably cost me less than $30 in parts in those days. Aside from that, the car was in great condition, with very low mileage, and the 226 cubic inch flathead six purred quietly like my old treadle sewing machine.

The paint was a bit oxidized but a little rubbing compound, wax, and elbow grease brought back its luster, and when I removed the plastic seat covers the original mohair upholstery underneath was still in perfect condition. In the trunk I discovered one of those neat old, pre air-conditioning, bullet-shaped Thermador swamp coolers that mounted in the car window and whirled cool moist air to the interior.

The photo was taken on a drizzly fall day in 1971 out front of my old buddy Bruce's parents house on Oak Park Avenue in Van Nuys, California. Bruce works for the Post Office to this day, and is responsible for my having a postal career. Back in 1970 he talked me into taking the Civil Service postal exam with him even though working for the Post Office didn't really seem to fit in with my artsy-fartsy back-to-nature hippie dreams. But the starting pay was $3.51 an hour and I figured maybe I'd work for a couple of years, save some money and travel, or buy some land.

Little did I realize that the burgeoning '60s counterculture I loved, and was so much a part of, was coming unravelled, and that the world would very soon be a much harder edged place.

On March 8th of 1971 I began working for the United States Post Office Department at the Woodland Hills station (91364) as a Special Delivery Messenger (the patches on our linen shirts bore the image of a Pony Express rider embroidered in maroon and blue). Thirty years later, in July of 2001, I retired at $20 an hour, from the "modernized" U.S. Postal Service, Big Bear Lake station (92315), where I was the main window clerk (the patch on my polyester shirt was an ugly stylized Eagle's head in red, white, blue, and gold, meant to signify speedy service).

Much of those 30 years was spent outside delivering mail through rain, sleet, snow, heat, and dark of night, because that's the way it was done back then. In 1971 a postage stamp cost 6 cents and we delivered Special Delivery letters & packages up until 9 o'clock at night, seven days a week, for an additional 45 cent fee. In 2001 a stamp cost 33 cents and there was no longer a Special Delivery service, but you could pick up your $11.75 Sunday delivery Express Mail at the Post Office between the hours of 12 & 2 P.M., if you remembered to bring your identification.

Along with a modicum of affluence usually comes some consumerism, so in 1972, to demonstrate my environmentalist leanings, I spent $2,000 on a new, very small and economical 4 cylinder imported Datsun pick-up truck, and regretfully, sold the old Studebaker to a friend for $250.

Four years later, another much-loved Beat Generation artist from Topanga, a mentor to George Herms, my friend Wallace Berman, was killed in a head-on collision in a little Datsun truck just like mine, leaving his lovely wife and young son behind.

Years later, in 1990, when we needed a family car, we decided on a Toyota 4-Runner, at $21,000, because I wanted something sturdy that my family might be relatively safe in, it was our last car. Peggy was broadsided at a blind intersection in 1996 by a kid going about 60 miles an hour, and a beefy frame crossmember in the Toyota saved her life. Soon after the 4-Runner was repaired we sold it, on January 31st, 1997, and now we've been car-free for nearly 10 years. We didn't want to be in them anymore.

Then, on August 29th of last year, at the same time Hurricane Katrina was battering New Orleans, our 24 year old son Jimmy drove another sturdy Toyota 4X4 over a 450 foot cliff, an accident which left him legally blind, but that thankfully, he survived. Still, Peggy and I, again had to spend many dreaded hours in rented or borrowed cars to visit Jimmy in the hospital and get him to his medical appointments, but that too has now passed...

Looking at the handsome old Studebaker it's easy to understand how we Americans became enamored with our automobiles.

But at this point, in light of the realities of todays world; the global warming and climate change brought on by a hundred years of internal combustion engines, the urban sprawl, the freeways and congestion generated by automobiles, the asphalted, concreted, plasticized, polluted, smoggy filth of our civilization, and the oil & resource wars we must now wage to sustain it all (not to mention the nearly four million people dead from U.S. auto accidents), you'd think we'd be realizing there are not going to be automobiles in our future, if we are to have one.

They've certainly lost their appeal in my eyes.

In fact I've come to detest the damned things, they're an expensive, dangerous, destructive, odious, abhorrent, abominable scourge upon the land and I'd love to see them all vanish today.

What we've gained from the convenience of automobiles, for me, is not worth what we're losing in the quality of life, or the health of our ecosystem. If we won't give the cars up; hybrid, electric, hydrogen-powered, bio-fueled, or whatever, I seriously doubt there will be many human eyes left to behold the sunsets and trees of the 22nd Century.

The automobile and its infrastructure is, in my opinion, our biggest mess, aside from, and exacerbated by, our overpopulation of the planet. Clean running efficient cars won't address traffic congestion, or sprawl, and something like 60% of the pollution generated in a cars lifetime is produced during the manufacturing processes.

Here's an excerpt from my favorite Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax.

"What's more," snapped the Lorax. (His dander was up.)

"Let me say a few words about Gluppity-Glupp.

Your machinery chugs on, day and night without stop
making Gluppity Glupp. Also Schloppity-Schlopp.

And what do you do with this leftover goo?

I'll show you. You dirty old Once-ler man you!

You're glumping the pond where the Humming-Fish hummed!
No more can they hum, for their gills are all gummed.
So I'm sending them off. Oh, their future is dreary.
They'll walk on their fins and get woefully weary
in search of some water that isn't so smeary."

And then I got mad.
I got terribly mad.
I yelled at the Lorax, "Now listen here, Dad!
All you do is yap-yap and say, Bad! Bad! Bad! Bad!
Well, I have my rights, sir, and I'm telling you
I intend to go on doing just what I do!
And for your information, you Lorax, I'm figgering

on biggering




turning More Truffula Trees into Thneeds
which everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE NEEDS!"

And at that very moment, we heard a loud whack!
From outside in the fields came a sickening smack
of an axe on a tree. Then we heard the tree fall.
The very last Truffula Tree of them all!

Oftentimes I feel like the Lorax, and, in fact, I'm beginning to look like him too...

...funny how one thing leads to another; sunset to Studebaker to career to tragedy to Loraxish ranting.
:~ {{{{{{

addendum -

In referring to George Herms and Wallace Berman I realize many people are not well versed in Beat Generation notables, but most of you have probably owned a picture of Wallace. He was honored by the Beatles in being chosen as one of the people for the group photo collage on the cover of their 'Sgt. Pepper' album.

And Wally greatly honored me by hanging one of my drawings on a wall in his home.
OK, so what if it was the bathroom wall above the roll of paper next to the toilet?
What better place to contemplate art?

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Blogger roger said...

nice ride!!!


8:45 AM  
Blogger Jim said...


It was a very nice ride, but I've expanded the text of the post quite a bit since you commented on the first paragraph or two.

Sorry about that...

3:10 PM  
Blogger Madcap said...

Jim, because of your example I try that much harder to curb our driving. I don't think we'll ever be car-free especially if we make it to the country. But if driving could be a once-a-week event, life could be so much more still, more sane. Working on it, getting there.

4:33 PM  
Blogger Sandy Hatcher-Wallace said...

That was a very good rant and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

7:33 PM  
Blogger clairesgarden said...

sometimes it is weather dependant, I cycled to work three times last week( I havent had enough coffee yet, its either 4 or 6 miles) and took the car out one day. there are two people I work with, one of whom will use a taxi three times a week, she lives one mile from work, the other has her own car and drives to work, she lives one mile away. if I lived that close I would walk.

12:03 AM  
Blogger roger said...

thanks for the explanation for the expanded text. i was rubbing my eyes wondering how i could have missed it. i agree with your assessment of cars as a bad idea run amok.


8:02 AM  
Blogger David Edward said...

we had a studebaker just like that- maybe George bought it from my dad.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Deb said...

I always love reading your rants, Jim! Lately on my regrettable drive to work I've been thinking about the impact of cars on wildlife. I hit probably two Monarch butterflies a day, some get a glancing blow off the windshield and some end up on the grill or beneath the tires. I've taken to driving slower, trying to avoid them, but if that's my impact then what's the total?

And now that you mention, the Lorax...mmm hmmm... ;)

12:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can understand your loathing of cars, but it has brought so much more to the world.

Cars really have brought the world together. It was the first attainable transportation that could take the common man somewhere that was not here and helped us to learn more about other places.

I grew up in a town where most people did not go much beyond a 50 mile radius and I love the car that made it possible for me to go beyond that.

I loved the ideas and lessons I learned that simply did not exist in my small town.

Yep, the car does damage to the enviroment, but I would much rather we find a way of long distance travel that would work with the enviroment. It is within our grasp if we would only invest in it.

Without the ability for the everyday man to travel, ideas, empathies and inovations would shrink and die, which is in my opinion a far more terrible future for our planet.

4:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've just taken a new job, and when the company relocates its local office in December, my work will be less than two miles from my home. I will be able to ride my bicycle to and from the office each day, and depending on the weather, I intend to. Like you, I look at this as a job I will hold only temporarily until I can disappear in my woods at Roundrock, but in any case, I don't expect to be working at this place for thirty years. It is sickly fascinating how we have become a car obsessed culture. It really is the worst thing for us, and it almost seems like a drug addiction. Part of the problem is that we have not maintained a workable alternative. Here in Kansas City I understand that the local rail transit system was purchased by one of the big car companies and pretty much shut down (back in the 1950s) so that automobiles were the only way to get around in this sprawling Midwestern town.

1:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too have been feeling more and more like the Lorax. What an enjoyable post to read.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

Great post, Jim! I've just been reading The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, so it's very timely for me, and I love the reference to Dr. Seuss - he was definitely one of the wise men of our times!
I have to say that I just love that photo of you and Peg, it makes me smile whenever I see it.

10:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, too, have a Toyota 4Runner. We bought it so I would have a reliable long lasting vehicle to drive, and also to pull our sailboats. We live in a city and my work is 25 minutes away, by car. I wish there was an alternate way for me to get to work, or that I worked within biking distance, but there is not, at this moment in time. We hardly have decent sidewalks either, so most biking/walking is on the side of the road or on the road itself. This country and its medium sized cities could use a rail service akin to what they have in Europe, or Germany. I would use that. Gone are the days you could make a living in a small town where you could bike or walk to work. Urban sprawl isn't bad here in Mobile, but bad enough to make a car a necessary evil to have. Therefore, I drive only as much as I have to. I did get a new Schwin 4 speed for my birthday. My first small step.

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Awesome post; always interesting to learn about people's pasts. I'm a few years younger than you but close enough in age to relate with the times of which you speak. Thanks for the tidbit on Wallace. I will have to get out Sgt. Pepper when I get home and check it out!

2:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i have to ask do want to sell the cooler tha one you found in the trunk

11:40 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


The evaporative cooler went with the car when I sold it to a friend for $250 back in 1972.

But I can't blame you for asking, those coolers are probably harder to find than an old Studebaker these days.

8:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Completely off the subject, but I hope you can help me. My Father, Rodney Williams and his friend were murdered in topanga canyon 4/19/72, they were in a Porche and supposably cocaine was found in the vehicle. I have little info , anything you can remember would be much appreciated !

11:25 AM  
Blogger Jim said...


As people with money began moving into Topanga in the late 60s, those in the music and movie industries mostly, harder drugs like cocaine & heroin came with them, and the era of peace loving pot smoking hippies began to disintegrate. I had many friends making good money in the entertainment industry, but I was never really part of their inner-circle, preferring to hang out with struggling artists and peaceniks I distanced myself from the hard drug crowd. By 1972, the writing was on the wall and I was living down in Woodland Hills, below Topanga, in the San Fernando Valley. When you left this post here, I had some vague recollection of hearing about a body being found in a Porsche in Topanga, and nothing more than that.

But just recently I read Jimmy McDonough's biography of Neil Young, 'Shakey', and there is a description of a drug deal gone bad and a shootout involving some guys in a Porsche on page 407.
I immediately thought of your query here but couldn't remember which post your comment was at.

I came across it again today and I hope this little bit of info is helpful to you. I'll try to send this to your e-mail address too in hopes that it's still valid.

9:17 AM  
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