The magazine advertisement for the Studebaker features two women standing on the front lawn of an elegant home in a manicured suburb. They are dressed in sleek 1950s dresses. The women smile at the car. A smiling man sits in the car’s driver’s seat.
The ad from the 1950s captures the prevailing mythology from that era. Men drove most things in society, and women looked nice, even while standing in the suburbs on the front lawns of the homes where their children felt loved and secure.
Studebaker died as an automobile business in the mid-1960s, but the company’s beloved cars live on through the 13,000 members of the International Studebaker Drivers Club. Joe Stanley, of Spokane, is one of those members. This Sunday, he’ll join Studebaker lovers from all over the world for the club’s 41st annual six-day meet at the Red Lion Hotel at the Park.
Joe and I drove together into the past Monday in “Jenny,” the 1955 two-door Coupe Champion he restored. Joe held the car door open for me. The Studebaker’s bench seat had no seat belts. Never will have them. It was 90 degrees out. No air conditioning. Never will have it.
Joe turned on the car’s 1955 Philco radio. We waited while the AM-only radio warmed up. We both wore our cell phones on our belts, but the car’s 6-volt cigarette lighter would never deign to charge them.
As we drove through North Side streets, Joe, 52, pointed out modern cars. “Everything is so generic now. The cars are all rounded with square tops and low to the ground. Studebakers had wonderful lines.”
We ate lunch at the McDonald’s on Monroe Street near Francis Avenue. This was the first McDonald’s in Spokane. Joe remembers buying five burgers for a buck in the ‘60s. I relished their 25-cent milkshakes. No burgers and shakes for us Monday. A grilled chicken sandwich for me, a fish sandwich for Joe, washed down with iced tea and water. Life in our 50s.
Studebakers evoke nostalgia for a simpler time, but always, people led lives of complexity.
Joe’s father, who worked for the post office, died in 1964 of cancer. He was just 44. He left behind a widow and five boys, ages 5 to 14. The family, poor to begin with, grew poorer.
“There was never very much meat on the table,” he says. “We’d cut the milk with powdered milk.”
The boys were allowed one pair of shoes per year. One year, Joe’s pair wore out early. He was given brown hand-me-down shoes from his Grandpa. He polished them black and was teased at school.
After lunch, we drove by Joe’s childhood home in the Shadle Park area. His parents bought it for $5,500 in 1950 through a loan available to GIs returning from World War II. Seven family members shared the two-bedroom, one-bath house.
As we drove away, Joe expressed gratitude for his childhood and especially for his strong mother, who taught him to work hard. He owns a successful business, Stanley’s Service Center. His house now has many more than two bedrooms and one bathroom, and it’s filled with love for his wife and two daughters.
Joe possesses many “toys” – three Studebakers and a sailboat. He’s an avid Gonzaga University Zags fan and follows the team to their playoff games. The fathers of childhood friends, men now in their 80s and 90s, come by and chat with Joe as he repairs cars at his Northwest Boulevard shop. He’s friendly with nearby small-business owners and in the evening, he opens his parking lot to customers of Downriver Grill, a popular eating spot across the street.
Joe’s life turned out better than he ever imagined as he grew up here in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The Studebaker ad hinted at the life he’s enjoying now, rather than a life he had once and then saw disappear.
This is the value, I learned Monday, of restoring and honoring old cars. They evoke stories from the past that explain the present, too. Starting Sunday, you’ll see about 300 Studebakers driving in Spokane, lovingly restored, like Joe’s Jenny. Each one has a story. Don’t be afraid to ask.
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