Daniel Pinkwater, that is. That's right. The outlandish, ornery, opinionated, prolific Pinkwater has car stories to tell.
For those of you who have been with Car Talk for more than a few years, you'll know that the esteemed-yet-cussed Mr. Pinkwater was one of our all-time favorite callers to the show. So much so, in fact, that we named a recent CD collection after him. He's even done a bit of writing for us in the past, too.
Need more Pinkwater? There's plenty available at his web site. In the meantime, here's the man's newest missive for our site. Welcome back, DP.
By Daniel Pinkwater
Come back with me to my fifteenth year, to the mid-1950s, to the confusion and excitement of adolescence, to aesthetic and sexual awakenings. One knew that things formerly merely frustrating and incomprehensible were about to become important, but it was a mystery how one was going to fit into the picture.
I was a peripatetic kid, exploring the city on foot, by bicycle, hitchhiking, hopping on buses. I covered the whole town. I was free to do so -- my father had been a full-fledged gangster in the old country when he was my age, and saw no reason to restrict my comings and goings.
So one day I happened upon an establishment where they sold Citroen cars. I’d never seen one before, or anything like one. Now remember, this was 1956 -- cars, even nice ones, had silhouettes no more interesting than a slightly used bar of soap. My father’s Sedan de Ville looked like a big fat Chevy with little incipient fins and those Jane Russell-inspired things sticking out of the grille. Dad had a certain amount of style -- he'd ordered the Caddy in lavender and creme, but even so...kind of boring.
The Citroen was something entirely else. It was...it was...actually beautiful. Sinuous, sensual, organic. It came from France, which made it more exotic, but it looked like it came from another planet.
Aerodynamic? Other cars were advertised as being aerodynamic, but that was advertising copy. This was aerodynamic.
The interior, had I been a little more advanced in experience, I would have recognized as pure sex. The seats -- upholstered in a kind of jersey fabric I'd never seen before were astonishingly soft and cushy, yet supportive -- they held you. It had a spokeless steering wheel. The brake pedal was not a pedal, but a kind of button, like a mushroom. The dash was right out of a science fiction movie.
The salesman had time on his hands, or was just a nice guy, and willing to practice his pitch on a kid. He started one up for me. When he started the engine, the thing came to life! It rose up on its wheels like some kind of reptile awakening! He explained that it had not only independent four-wheel suspension, but hydro-pneumatic suspension, and an automatic leveling system. If you braked hard, hard as you pleased, the nose would not dip, and you could put two wheels up on the sidewalk, and the car would level itself and not tilt. There was a control that allowed you to change the height of the car for varying road conditions. It had front-wheel drive -- almost no cars had front-wheel drive. It had front-power disc brakes -- no car at all had power disc brakes. When you needed to change a tire it jacked itself up, hydraulically. Power steering. A clutchless transmission, powered, like everything else by the magical hydraulics.
It was miraculous. He told me about (but it would be years until I would experience) the ride, soft but not sloppy, effortless -- complete control, and completely relaxing, holding the road like nothing else.
I took with me a brochure, with fancy French-looking art, and diagrams of the mysterious hydro-pneumatic spheres. "Look, Dad! This is what we should get next time! It's advanced! They even come in the kind of Hollywood colors you like."
My father skimmed the brochure. "Dope!" he said, "Vhat heppens, deh hydraulics should spring a leak? Deh whole car turns into dreck." Dad was practical, and a skeptic. He appreciated beauty, but didn't let it dazzle him.
Now come forward with me, a mere three years. I am a young man. I am a college student. I am cutting class on a Friday, hiding in my room, reading a novel. There is a knock on the door. It is Bob Winston, my friend from high school. "What are you doing here?" I ask him.
"I was driving around, and I wound up here," he says.
"Driving around? Starting in Chicago?"
"And you wound up here? In New York?"
"I didn't have anything to do. Now I'm heading back. You want to come with me? I have a nice car."
Bob had recently been orphaned. He inherited money. He took me outside and showed me the car. It was a Citroen! A DS in the bleu nuage color scheme.
"Look, drive back to Chicago with me, and I'll buy you an airplane ticket back. You can be in class on Monday."
So, I finally got my hands on the spokeless wheel of a Citroen. I was not disappointed, not in the least. We made the trip from upstate New York to Chicago in 14 hours, and at the end we were still arguing about whose turn it was to drive. "It's your car, for God's sake! You have it all the time. Let me drive it for one more hour!"
I had fallen in love.
DS, the model designation is also a play on the French word déesse, or goddess. Goddesses are known to be fatally attractive and if you love one, you are going to suffer -- plus my father had warned me, but still I was clueless.
"I have to own a car like this someday," I thought.
--To be continued in Part Two, Lawrence of the Bronx