On Father's Day: My Dad's Cheap Cars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 14, 2013

My father didn’t come from an automotive background. He was an Iranian engineer (buildings, not cars) who grew up in a small northern village and came to the U.S. during World War II. The Army drafted him, and he met my mother at a Cornell University party in Occupied Japan, but that’s another story. By the time I knew him, he was a regular American dad who went to the Episcopal Church, coached Little League and grilled dogs in the backyard. His name was Hossein, though his co-workers at the engineering firm called him "Hose." And he never got the car culture.
My dad in 1960, dreaming of a bargain on a plain-jane Falcon. (Margaret Motavalli photo)The first car I remember him owning, after the Jeep nicknamed “Flying Carpet” he had in the Army, was a maroon ’49 Ford. It was a beater, with big holes in the back deck that memorably one year gave us a sneak peek at our Christmas presents in the trunk. He would have driven that plain-jane sedan straight into the ground if my mother hadn’t complained. So he back went down to the Ford dealer—I was eight—and came back with the cheapest thing on the lot, an absolutely base ’60 four-door Falcon sedan, no options at all, not even a radio.

I can imagine the conversation at the dealership. “How about a nice new Galaxie Starliner hardtop you’ll be proud to drive down to the country club?” One look at the window sticker, and my father would have been headed for the back row, where they kept the price-chopper Falcons. “What about this one?” I’m sure he said.
Dad's '49 Ford outside my grandparents' house in Weston, Connecticut, circa 1951. (family photo) Here’s the most memorable quote I can remember from my dad on the subject: “A car is just how you go from A to B.” I remember being out with him when we drove past a service station with the gas jockey’s hot rod sitting proudly on the tarmac. “If you don’t study hard you’ll end up like the guy who drives that car,” he said. It really didn’t sound like such a bad thing. It was a nice rod.

Okay, fast-forward seven years. Now I’m 15 and in the full grip of auto mania, with Cobra posters and a subscription to Car and Driver. The family Falcon was showing signs of distress, and if there’s anything my father hated worse than expensive cars, it was chariots that needed frequent repairs. So he switched brand loyalty to Chrysler, and this time I got to go down to the showroom with him. And that’s when I saw it.
This '60 Falcon is the spitting image of our family transportation. (Ford photo)In the front row, gleaming in the sun, was a 1965 Plymouth Satellite coupe with a big V-8 (I forget which one, but it was probably a 383, right?), a black vinyl roof, black bucket seats, console and, coolest of all, a four-speed floor shifter. They were probably asking $1,500. I wanted it more than Mickey Mantle’s autograph. I dragged my father over, because he was clearly headed for the budget corner. “Look at this, Dad, it’s really, really cool. Pleeeeassssee, can we get it?”  I didn’t mention that it could burn rubber in all four gears, because that meant we’d definitely not be going home in it.

“It has only two doors, that’s not practical,” he said. “Practical” was a big word with him. “And besides, your mother doesn’t know how to drive a standard.”

“She can learn, and it’s cheaper than a new car would be.” But I could tell he wasn’t buying my argument. I think I got him to at least sit in it, but the magic clearly wasn’t happening. I don’t recall a test drive.
Our Belvedere II looked like this, but with even less chrome. (Wimikedia Commons)He made a beeline for the bargains, and we ended up with an on-sale ’67 Belvedere II nobody wanted, a car even more basic than the Falcon. Painted a dull gray, it had a bench seat, a six-cylinder engine, and only two options—a radio and full hubcaps. I was incredibly embarrassed by the thing, even though I ended up inheriting it and driving it in college. I didn’t even try to jazz it up: no baby moons, racing stripes or fuzzy dice. The poor thing would just have looked silly.

My father died far too young in 1971, but he had one last intervention with my automotive passions. At 16, my twin brother and I got our licenses—on the first possible day—and my father took us down to Chevrolet’s OK Used Cars to look over some possible rides. And that’s when I saw it.

Parked in the back row was what was then just a used car, a 1959 Cadillac convertible, rocket ship taillights and all, black with red leather interior. This was 1968, and the asking price as I recall was $800. There wasn’t a thing that needed doing, except maybe those baby moons, and I wanted it more than I wanted the ball Roger Maris hit for his 61st homerun.
The '59 Cadillac that got away wasn't this high end, but it was a black convertible with red leather.“Pleeeaaaasee, Dad, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

“No, it’s a gas guzzler.” He’d learned that all-American phrase. I didn’t get the Cadillac.

He bought only one more car, a ’63 Nova station wagon. Do I have to add that it had a six under the hood, a bench seat and dog-dish hubcaps? And did I mention he was a really great dad in every other possible way? I miss him every day.

And here's a Satellite nearly identical to the one Dad refused to let rock my world back in 1967. What's it worth now? Here's a nice one for $40,000.

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