Father and the Fiat

Fiat with fancy paint job

B1957 Fiatefore we get to the Fiat part,

I must tell you more about my father who was a genius. No, really, my dad was an inventor and a genuine genius of the “what goes up must come down” school of thought. You know, a physicist. Daddy was a mathematician who saw beyond what ordinary men saw, sort of like Newton or Einstein. He had complicated equations swimming around in his conscious, his subconscious, and, I’m sure, even in his unconscious mind. He often talked of dreaming in math, or in music, which, when you break it down, is math integrated with sound.

Born in Iowa in the fall of 1910,

my dad was the only boy in a house full of girls. As son and heir, he was coddled by his parents and by his many sisters. When he was three years old, Model Ts began to roll off the end of Henry Ford’s first assembly line. By the time he entered his teens, dad had ample opportunities to tinker with and to think about how to improve internal combustion engines.

After high school, my father entered Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts at Ames. At the time of the Great Depression in 1929, two years into his higher education, the would-be inventor had to quit college. In a desperate human sea of unemployment and poverty, the young man with curtailed potential began a career of odd jobs fixing broken cars.

In the world of brake fluid, leaded gas, and automobiles, dad was totally at home. He knew everything about motors and what made them tick. When he listened to an engine, he could tell exactly what needed fixing, which was a very good thing as his work process was slow and methodical. Dad never understood the word, “hurry.” Nor did he know even the first thing about the world of commerce. He was all adrift in any discussion of money or economics, whether worldwide, national, local or family.

Daddy supplied his own mechanic’s tools, cleaning cloths, and his coveralls. The shop owner supplied an empty work station and my dad worked on commission. In those days of no scheduled maintenance programs, an auto had to be in a crash, or it had to break, or almost break to be taken to a shop for repairs.

On days with no cars in the shop, dad worked on a car he bought from someone who had neglected its maintenance, or who had crashed it so badly it couldn’t be driven. As I remember it, very little, or even no money at all was earned on cars purchased, repaired, then sold by my father. None. Nada. When one of those cars was sold, the money received barely covered parts. No one ever considered the time and effort that made the car run again. Dad was happy to present a safe and working automobile. His customers loved him and brought more custom to his shop. Many followed him from shop to shop. In this element, my father was comfortable and popular. However, he seemed naively unaware that it took more than good wishes and a pat on the back to clothe and feed a family with five growing children.

Fiat of the 50sOkay, dear readers,

with tough times come sad tales. The few paragraphs above are a condensed background of the principal character in this story and have triggered more memories than I currently have stomach for. Perhaps I’ll take up that particular thread again, but right now, I want to stay on the lighter side, so I will skip ahead to the late 1950s when daddy bought his Fiat.

For a dozen years, we lived in Orland, in the heart of the Sacramento Valley. I was the eldest child and had recently graduated high school. Unhappily, college expenses were out of reach for me, but by the beginning of August, I found a job in Chico and joined mother in her daily commute some twenty miles to the east and back again.

Mother, who began work an hour before I did, always left the house at the last possible moment, then after stomping the gas pedal to the floor with her dainty right foot, she sped eastward like a bat out of Hell. She would dump her passengers out near their work places, then speed through town to her own job as the most accurate and the fastest comptometer operator in the accounting department of the Diamond Match Company.

After a long period of semi-employment and unemployment, dad found work at an auto-body shop some twenty miles to the north in Corning. The old clunker he was driving at the time was totally undependable, so my parents worked their way toward a discussion regarding the purchase, using real dollars, of a more dependable second vehicle.

We five children knew to walk as if to avoid eggs strewn beneath our feet. Throughout the negotiating period between our parents, nothing noisier than an angry glare through blue or hazel eyes passed between us. If there was a serious argument and we happened to be within earshot of tense parents, our words came out in hissed whispers or low growls pushed between clenched teeth. We wouldn’t allow ourselves to have a good old fashioned donnybrook until after dad brought his car home.

Loyal since his youth to Henry Ford’s automobiles and to Indian Mortorcycles, dad surprised us all in 1957 by switching his car allegiance to Chevrolet. Today, I will relate to you that dad loved that ’57 Chevy, the car in which mother sped to Chico five days a week carrying any brave and paying passengers as well as my cowardly self. So, since the expense of a second ’57 Chevy was out of the question, whatever car dad got to drive to Corning would be second best. In everybody’s estimation.

1957 FiatFrom his youth, daddy loved car races.

More than once during his twenties, my father traveled on his motorcycle some five hundred miles from western Iowa to Indiana to attend the famous Indianapolis 500 races. At our house, we grew up believing Memorial Day was officially Indy 500 Race Day. That annual event lasted for hours upon hours. Dad would recline on the living room sofa with the radio blaring race excitement at top decibels until mother screamed and chased him outside. He would then sit in the car in the sparse shade of an almond tree where he could listen to the race, running the engine every once in a while to keep the battery from going dead.

As my father loved car races, so did he love race cars. No speed demon himself, dad used his physics and geometry skills to teach young men with quick reflexes and steely nerves how to navigate the track efficiently and how to drive in a way that would win races. If he had notched his belt for all the races his cars won, his pants would never have stayed up. Of all his winning race cars, his favorite, and mine as well, was his adaptation of an old Hudson Terraplane he’d had since WWII. The really sad thing about the adaptation was the rumble seat had to be removed and the hatch welded shut.  However, the dare devil named Rick who drove it made the loss of the rumble seat a lot less sad.

An expert in their makeup and operation, dad loved some individual cars and certain makes or models of cars for particular attributes. For example, Fiat won a few early Indy 500 races, and in doing so, won my father’s heart. Forever. When he announced he had found a Fiat he wanted to buy, my poor mother totally freaked out. I’m sure she pictured him speeding ‘round and ‘round a dusty track. But, the price he negotiated came in under their agreed upon amount, so she could not complain.

Then came the day dad brought the Fiat home.

The much feared sleek racer turned out instead to be a miniature sedan. As I remember, it was two-tone in color. White on top with light green or yellow below, I think. Smaller than the original Terraplane, the Fiat was all squished up with little round wheels and little round headlights, and barely room enough for two adults and two tots to squeeze inside. However, the gas mileage was phenomenal, and dad praised himself profusely for his choice.

Of course, everyone had to have a ride in the strange new car, and for the following hour or so there were multiple comings and goings through the long gravel driveway that stretched from the highway in front of the house to the rural street behind us. One of the last to sample this new phenomenon, I waited at the edge of the drive among the almond trees to greet returning test riders.

As my father slowed the tiny car, a sneeze came upon him. Luckily, all windows that could be lowered were down as far as they could go. My spine stiffened as I heard a familiar “Ra-aa-aa-a-a-a-choo-hooo!”

To my – and to everyone else’s – great surprise, the Fiat leaped forward quite several inches, and I swear to God daylight was clearly visible beneath all four tiny Fiat wheels. Daddy never would admit to this, but I saw it all, and I know what I saw.Fiat Compact Car

I have only one more thing to add to this tale. Out of fear for my passengers and for my own personal safety, I never drove that Fiat. I didn’t dare. After all, I sneeze just like my father.

Author: Judith StClaire

As age sneaks up, we need to walk a couple of miles a day to remind our bones their job is to hold us upright. The process of walking can be dull unless you observe your surroundings. So, we talk to people we meet along the way and watch birds in their environments. You are cordially invited to come along.

Leave a Reply