Column: A 1940 Dodge drives down Memory Lane

You can’t mistake a cat for a dog and a dog for a flamingo. And I’ll never mistake a 1940 Dodge for anything else under the sweet Long Island sky. There it was, surging from Boisseau Avenue in Southold in a northeast flight into the North Road. A black, curvy body from the past flying ahead of my metallic gray Mercury Sable. Within a millisecond I pressed the accelerator pedal to catch up with this fast-moving vision.

Was it real? Yes it was. I knew its well-fed shape with chrome trim embracing its rear hatch. That 70-year-old car behaved as if it just got off the assembly line. My nine-year-old Sable had to breathe hard to keep up with the elderly belle, who seemed to relish a midmorning run, now heading east to where the land would end eight miles away. This must be a New London ferry gallop, I thought. A thoroughbred lusting for New England pastures. I wouldn’t let it go free.

We enter East Marion territory and “my” Dodge makes a sudden right. We are on a narrow road of quick turns and twists. I worry that the driver of the Dodge may have become aware and suspicious of this pursuit over several miles. If, of course, there is a driver in the car. Another left turn, this time into a driveway. The old Dodge has found its stable.
I park discreetly, get out of my car and walk toward the driver, who gets out of his car. Doors slam. “Excuse me … ,” I say. And I tell the man my story.

Back in 1947, after one year in the United States, my brother Jean bought the first car our family ever owned: a 1940 Dodge sedan, two-tone gray. Coming from a World War II life where bicycles were a luxury and walking four miles to school every day was the routine, for us a car was magic. The beginning of the American dream.

I was not of driving age yet. My brother was the captain of the ship. Opening, closing the doors of the car, sitting on the strangely home-like fabric of the seats, the special scent of the interior, the Bakelite steering wheel, all the little mysteries of knobs and switches, how wonderful, how incredible it was to have a car of our own. And now, over 60 years later, in a world of computers, cell phones, flights to the moon, here was a 1940 Dodge bringing me back to where I started my American life.

Gordon Schlaefer is the owner. I happened to have met him before at his 1670 House furniture store. Gordon had bought the Dodge three years ago from an owner in western Pennsylvania. Sight unseen. It was delivered on a flatbed truck to Wheeler’s Garage in Southold — yes, Wheeler is the owner’s real name! — where the engine would be rebuilt, a new exhaust system installed and the Dodge bébé put back in running order. And how well it runs. Gordon has owned a 1938 Buick given to him by his son and a 1972 Cadillac Eldorado convertible. He also owns a 1968 maroon Mustang. The intimate relationship between man and machine.

In 1940 a new Dodge DeLuxe sedan sold for $905. There were 104,814 built. Seventy years have passed. Not many 1940 cars have survived. Gordon’s Dodge has a good life in its old age. It includes a comfortable garage and healthy runs in the brisk air of the East End. I tell Gordon, “You know, you were going pretty fast. I had trouble keeping up with you.”

“Well, I didn’t want to slow down the traffic,” he replies. “Plus, my speedometer isn’t working right now. I wasn’t sure what speed I was going.” No wonder. I’ll have to tell the Sable.
One happy survivor. The great Detroit adventure. But then, one make after another, dying. Noble names you’d never think would go away. They were part of our vocabulary, of our culture: Packard, DeSoto, Hudson, Nash, Plymouth, Oldsmobile, even Pontiac, such a vigorous brand … the American dream. So many lives emotionally connected to those names. Family memories, photo albums, picnics, summer vacations, first dates, learning how to drive.

Part of my life too: Dodge 40, Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, my lost companions of the road. Part of life on the North Fork. That’s why I extend a warm welcome to Gordon’s 1940 Dodge in our midst.

There is a naiveté, an innocence about old things. About old houses, too. We get attached to them. My family house in Orient is over 130 years old. There is no Dodge 40 in its garage. But old bicycles, yes, an old wheelbarrow and a few old beams and some scattered items never fully explained. We are attached to all that. And to the village of Orient, where the first cars probably caused a lot of gulls to fly away at the sound of sputtering engines.

Pierre Gazarian is a poet and a writer of one-act plays. E-mail: [email protected]