By Tim Kromholtz
Above, Tim Kromholtz sits on the hood of his parents’ 1963 Studebaker Lark wagon. Photo courtesy of the Kromholtz Family Archives.
My love of cars was preordained. My parents have told me that my first word was “car,” not “Mommy,” not “Daddy.” My mother says from the moment I was born, I was happiest in the car.
One of my first memories was riding with my dad to a race track in the Seattle area in our 1963 Studebaker Lark wagon. Dad’s engineer bachelor friend at Boeing had bought a 1963 split-window Corvette. I remember seeing the swoopy black coupe drive away from me as he left me alone in the wagon so he could take some laps in the two-seater. In the Seattle area, car cabin overheating from sunshine was theoretically possible but has never yet taken place.
There I was, a four year old left to my own devices. I became fascinated with the soft clear plastic seat covers in the “Studey.” Dad was maybe a little excited and distracted because he also left his keyring in the car, which had what was known as a “Trim Trio.” I don’t know what all comprised the trio but one of the utensils was a sharp mini-knife blade. It seems all boys are born with the innate desire and ability to operate implements of destruction. I felt compelled to introduce the soft plastic of the seat covers to the mini knife. I proceeded to slice with gusto. I didn’t do any harm to myself but the seat covers were now no longer suitable for their purpose.
When my father returned I didn’t even get a scolding. Henceforth, the Studey had no clear plastic seat covers. To this day, my father is very regretful about this incident. If you were to judge my dad unfavorably in this instance, you wouldn’t get any sympathy from me. He had inhaled deeply of the rarified air that was the first truly capable American sports car.
When I was five, Dad took a job as a chemistry teacher at his alma mater, Gonzaga Prep in Spokane. That summer I got to ride in the front seat of our moving van from gloomy, damp monochromatic Seattle to gloriously dry, technicolor Spokane. It was euphoric.
When I was seven, my father was awarded a grant to earn his Master of Science degree in chemistry from Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana. We were to drive as a family of six from Spokane to Indiana, a five-day-drive, every June when school got out. We were going to live in Married Student Housing (how quaint sounding, now) for four successive summers for Dad to earn his degree. With Dad’s starting teacher’s salary at Gonzaga Prep, we could afford to eat out once a month only, on payday, at a burger joint: i.e. McDonalds or A&W. That was it. In contrast, his grant had a per diem for food and lodging during travel. On our trip to Purdue, we ate at three restaurants a day and stayed in nice motels. Hooray for travel!
We needed to take all our necessities in the compact Studebaker station wagon. When the rear section filled up, Dad resorted to loading suitcases on the roof rack. Unfortunately, the weight exceeded the limits of the roof and it sagged 3 or 4 inches.
We loaded up in the car to head east on Highway 10 on the approximate path of what is now I-90. Youngest brother Bryan was just 10 months old and was mostly in Mom’s lap. Cross country travel was much more of an adventure than what is typical today. In 1967, the interstate highway system’s buildout was still far from completed so much of the trip was on two-lane highways. The western part through the mountains was spectacular.
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That first leg of the journey was a remarkable contrast of bleak mining areas and pristine mountain forests. The Silver Valley where Kellogg, Idaho was situated was a denuded valley made bereft of its vegetation by the belching emissions of the huge Bunker Hill smelter. The Coeur D’Alene River that flowed through the valley and past the huge tailings pond ran a very unnatural yellow color.
The first town at the west end of the valley had the brutally accurate name of “Smelterville.” It very much resembled Mordor from the Lord of the Rings except there were humans toiling away instead of Orcs. There was a sign at the entrance of the valley that said “Welcome to the Fabulous Silver Valley.” Dad got a big laugh out of the “Fabulous” part.
Traveling somewhere east of Missoula we were startled by a loud noise from the roof which could mean only one thing – our luggage had come loose and flown off onto the highway behind us. We pulled over immediately and were horrified to discover that not only had the luggage fallen off, but it broke open and our belongings were strewn all over the highway. My mother, who was pretty easy to embarrass, was not pleased to have her underwear among the rest of our belongings all over the highway. My father as quickly and discreetly as possible gathered up Mom’s bras and the rest of our stuff and we got back on the road.
Further on was the giant smoke stack of the Anaconda Mine, at 585 feet tall, the tallest freestanding masonry structure in the world. Shortly after Anaconda was Butte, a ramshackle mining town with both a giant mine shaft headframe towering over its business district and an adjacent enormous open pit copper mine. That was as far as we could make it on that first day. We sat down for dinner at a Butte restaurant. My parents relayed my order for a hamburger. It arrived open faced on a plate. It was the first burger from a restaurant I had ever seen that wasn’t wrapped in paper. I didn’t quite know what to do with it. Mom said, “Just put the bun on top and eat it with your hands.” That was a big relief!
Even though the luxury amenities were enjoyable, I truly enjoyed the travel itself. Seeing new places, different geography and the flora and fauna, it all was fascinating. My mother was a great travel guide. She had answers to most of our questions about the strange plants, crops, farm structures, etc. Those trips were some of my fondest memories of my childhood. Being in the car without the isolating devices of today offered a profound “us against the world” dynamic. It was a shared experience that gave us a stronger sense of family cohesiveness.
Once in Indiana, Dad acquired two necessities: a large window-mounted room air conditioner from JC Penney to do battle with the humidity, and a utility trailer to haul behind the Studey packed with the A/C unit and the rest of our belongings back home. I mention it because on the way back in August, somewhere in Iowa we went over a good sized bump in the highway at speed. The trailer left the ground momentarily but did not return to the ground evenly. It went into a bouncing oscillation violently pulling on the little station wagon from one side to the other. Dad outwardly kept his cool and valiantly counter-steered through several cycles of this dangerous motion and managed to pull to the shoulder where the gravel dampened out the motion and we safely stopped.
Somewhere along the road my brother Kevin and I discovered that almost no truck driver would refuse to oblige young boys who were making the universally understood gesture of pumping one’s fist up and down to request a blast on his powerful air horn. When we encountered the rare trucker who refused us, my brother and I would try to outdo each other for the most unflattering name for the ungracious operator (to ourselves, only.)
My mother restricted our horn solicitations to five per day. It’s true, she suffered from what the psychologists call “Too Easily Mortified Disorder” or TEMD as it is commonly referred. You would think an intelligent and beautiful woman with the pluck to have survived a WWII prison camp as a child could overlook these decidedly more trivial affronts to her dignity, but it wasn’t the case.
Below, “Breakaway with a Wide-Track Pontiac!” in this 1969 Pontiac car commercial, which may have been viewed by the Kromholtz Family prior to their purchase of a 1970 Pontiac station wagon.
On one of the return trips back to Spokane, we were travelling in Montana near Cut Bank. Kevin, who was pretty stoic in the face of personal suffering, was starting to show some green hues in his complexion indicative of stomach flu. Prior to feeling unwell, he had eaten some cheese flavored puffed corn snacks. When the inevitable happened, there was a singular horror of being trapped in close quarters to the godawful sour stench, but even that harrowing experience could not diminish my love of travel.
Stopping for fuel was quite a different experience than the convenience stores with gas pumps of today. An attendant would smartly come to the drivers window and ask, “Fill ‘er up?” Dad would answer, “Yes, ethyl please.” Ethyl was not Dad’s pet name for the car, it meant hi-octane (premium) gasoline fortified with tetraethyl lead, suitable for high compression engines. In those days, even though the attendant was doing the filling, one could still smell the pleasant fragrance of God’s own Texas drilled, pumped and refined gasoline because a good percentage evaporated straight into the atmosphere. Nowadays as we pump it ourselves, if we do spill some on our shoes or hands, the fuel smells like some unholy combination of spoiled bourbon and used mothballs.
Most gas stations at that time were actual service stations. They had mechanics on duty with lift bays and new tires wrapped in tan paper, ready to install. Service stations had their own brand of unpretentious ambiance. In the usually crowded and oily smelling offices there was almost always a big selection of free paper road maps. I accumulated a large quantity of maps, a prized possession of mine. I’d take them home and dream of places we could drive to and imagine what the countryside looked like based on the various pastel colors the different states were colored on the maps.
As far as refreshments, usually all that was available were eight ounce bottles of soda pop from the red or blue painted steel pop machine. I wasn’t allowed to have Coke or Pepsi because the caffeine would end up inducing behavior in me similar to a claustrophobic feral cat. My favorite was the Orange Smash. Nothing tasted better on a hot day than that ice cold pop, delivered over the velvety smooth glass rim of the non twist-off bottle, accompanied by the bite on the tongue of the sharp soda bubbles and tartness of that beautiful unnatural orange colored liquid and finished with the vaguely orangish aroma bubbling back up into my sinuses.
The Studey/trailer package took us to Indiana on two additional summer trips.
My father, being a teacher and a leader of young men (and later women when the school went co-ed) had a tendency to make announcements or pronouncements with more than a tinge of grandiosity. We had gotten pretty used to them. Dad would bellow, ”Leaving in five minutes!” in a very similar manner to a general in a war movie mobilizing his troops. We were just going to church on Sunday. “From now on, no one has more than one bowl of Captain Crunch cereal per day!”
On this occasion, on a crisp Fall day in 1969, he gathered the family together and broke the following announcement, “We are going to buy a new car!” Now, this was important! In this situation, Dad intimately included me, a boy of ten, in the entire car purchasing process. It wasn’t until later that I appreciated how unusual my experience was.
Dad bought new car buyer’s guide magazines for American cars (what else was there?) for the new model of year of 1970. He determined that a full size station wagon was the only option. Dad avoided bargain brands for all major purchases, so for cars from Detroit, that meant Ford, Chevy and Plymouth were not in consideration. He chose the upscale brands Chrysler and Mercury, and from General Motors, he chose Pontiac.
I pored over the magazines, but one machine really caught my eye. It was the swoopy, low slung Chevy Corvette. When I asked Dad about the ‘Vette, something changed in his voice. I sensed he was talking about something that meant something to him.
“Yes, that is a sports car. It’s expensive and only carries two people, but it is a very hot car.”
1970 was the absolute peak of the muscle car era. Gas was cheap and horsepower was king. The Mercury offered the smallest engine of the three candidates, at a mere 429 cubic inches. Seven liters of displacement was the smallest! The Chrysler had an even larger 440 and the Pontiac offered a 455. For comparison, my wife’s admittedly diminutive 2013 Honda Fit is propelled by a 1.5 liter engine.
I went with Dad as he test drove all three wagons. We tried out the features, especially the tailgate and mandatory third row of seats. The Mercury had the most distinctive configuration with two sideways-oriented rear seats facing each other. The Chrysler and Pontiac had more conventional rear-facing single back seats which were more comfortable.
I think Dad preferred the looks of the Pontiac, which often seals the deal on which to choose. He asked me which one I liked best. I voted for the Mercury, for one reason: It had hidden headlights. Corvettes had hidden headlights. To me, hidden headlights were exotic and trumped everything else.
Now it was time to negotiate a purchase. At the downtown Spokane Pontiac dealership, Dad chose a particular set of options including the most powerful engine available for the wagon. Dad was too much of a car enthusiast to scrimp on that option. It would be custom ordered from the factory.
He sat down with car salesman, Lester Retsel. The full name of the car salesman would be recounted by him anytime the story was told about this purchase or any subsequent car purchase. I think because a car purchase was not only financially consequential but as a car guy, important to his happiness, Dad considered the lowly car salesman roughly equivalent in stature as the officiant at his wedding.
Another Pontiac commercial from 1969:
Lester Retsel put to paper the model and options and removed himself to privately consult with his sales manager. After a suitably protracted period of time, he returned with a price of approximately $5,700. That price didn’t sit well with Dad, but he was no haggler.
He went home and took action.
He saw in one of the car magazines that a service called United Auto Brokers could get you a new car at a price well below MSRP, bypassing the dealer. Dad configured the same car options, paid a small fee and sent in the form. The service sent back a sheet with a price right around $4,500.
Dad figured buying from the dealer would be preferable so he went back to Lester Retsel at the dealership and offered $4,500. Lester Retsel was shocked by the audacity of the offer and asked where he had come up with that price. My dad told him that was the price he was willing to pay. Lester Retsel, after consulting with his manager said it couldn’t be done. But Dad stuck to his guns, left the dealership for the second time and drove home. While he was driving home, Lester Retsel’s sales manager called our house and told Mom that they would take the deal.
We secured a factory order for the Pontiac wagon, with none of the tacky wood paneling so prominent in all the brochures. It was to have metallic Grenada Gold paint with a tan vinyl interior. We waited about 6 weeks for the car to arrive. After taking delivery from Lester Retsel at the dealership, Dad brought it home. That was the first time I experienced the intoxicating “new car smell.”
Soon after, he drove me out to Upriver Drive. When the coast was clear, he came to a stop and then floored it. The enormous 500 ft/lbs of torque of the 455 cubic inch, 360 horsepower engine threw us back into the seats as it accelerated the massive 5,000 pound car to 60 mph in a speedy for the time, 8 seconds. Dad thought he saw the gas gauge needle move, too.
Dad colored a thin gold stripe on the blackwall tires to give it a special detail touch.
We drove to our final summer in Indiana in style, stretching out in the much larger car. Usually it was Dad driving, with Mom in the passenger seat. My sister Karen was lying down on the third seat (she had motion sickness); middle brother Kevin and I sharing the middle seat and youngest brother Bryan in his “little place” between the middle and rear seat backs. Seat belt usage was mostly an afterthought and obviously unavailable in the “little place.” Sometimes I was in the front seat because I had the practical skill of being able to read a map. The kids could change position to front, middle or back while in motion (with permission from the folks) by crawling over the seats. We’d call it “torpedo” as the motion was similar to a swimming dive that was called that.
A “history” of the stationwagon, complete with Chevy bias and down-looking commentary on Ford and Plymouth:
Being a 10-year-old, I had zero empathy for my suffering sister, listless in the back of the car. To me, she was an annoying distraction to the fun I was having. I was always thinking to myself, “Come on, snap out of it, don’t spoil my fun!” The only time it was different for her in the car was on the rare instances when we were driving at night. Then she’d snap out of her car sick malaise, sit up and merrily take interest in all the slow-moving far away lights that did not make her ill.
Kevin and I would sometimes get in a physical altercation or we might pick on our youngest brother. Karen was usually spared this by her lethargic condition, much as a vicious grizzly bear won’t attack a person who is playing dead. My dad, when not driving, administered swift, proportional and certain corporal punishment for misbehavior. In the car, he would announce, “You’re building ‘em up!” By that we knew that we were building up a bevy of firm swats which we preferred not to get. However, car justice was sometimes moderated by the length of time between the actual infraction and the dispensation of punishment.
Sometimes Dad just plain forgot about it. Of course, if it were a serious enough offense, he would pull over, and rectify the situation. This had a strong deterrent factor.
After the Purdue era was over in 1970, the Pontiac took the family on vacation trips. Some of these were to California in June when school got out, to escape the seemingly never ending rainy springs in Spokane. When I was 13, we went on a family vacation to my then personal vision of paradise, Los Angeles, where the tan and beautiful Marcia Brady lived with the Brady Bunch, among other attractions. On the way, we pulled into a scenic viewpoint of majestic Mt. Shasta, just inside the northern California border. I was already brimming with a sense of well-being, the sky was blue and the sun was shining just as it was supposed to in California.
As I got out of the car, I crossed paths with an attractive girl near my age with shoulder length, ash blonde hair. She was obviously travelling with her family, as well. She smiled at me and solicitously said, “Hi” as she got into her family’s car. This wasn’t the sort of thing that happened to me often. Actually, it was the sort of thing that had never happened to me. In spite of my earnest wishes, Dad cold-heartedly refused to abandon our stop to immediately give chase to the car with the beautiful girl. I was forced to endure the crushing disappointment of never having the opportunity of getting to know this glorious vision of girlhood who almost certainly must have had the extremely desirable quality of not finding me repulsive. Once again, this only increased my favorable opinion of car travel, especially to California.
The Pontiac was Dad’s commuter vehicle to work every day in the 1970s. Dad would give Gonzaga Prep students in the close vicinity rides to class every school day. I could see the students who were older than I, scraping the windshield and warming up the car in the driveway where it was parked while I finished my breakfast. When it came time for me to attend Gonzaga Prep and I was to ride to school with Dad, I found out that even though I was the firstborn of the owner of the car, the son of the respected secondary instructor, heir to the vast estate and all it entailed, all this meant nothing. The most senior student who wasn’t even related to Dad held the right to ride in the shotgun seat, trashing eons of patriarchal social structure. Such is the life of a freshman.
The Pontiac was still the family vehicle when I finally received my license at age 17. I couldn’t wait to take it out myself on a Saturday night and cruise Riverside, the main two-way street in downtown Spokane. Riverside was still bustling on weekend nights in 1977, despite the first gas crisis in 1974. At that time, feathered long hair, high waisted bell bottom pants, mustaches (mostly on men) and Chevy Camaros dominated the landscape. The police were very vigilant, and any mistake was rewarded with a certain citation, but I avoided that. The amount of fuel the thirsty Pontiac consumed that I was required to purchase with my limited funds greatly restricted how much time I spent on Riverside.
My experience in cars growing up was a big influence on my adult life. I have owned more cars than most people (about 40 of them) and it has consumed a large part of my time and resources, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I have quite a few more stories about the cars I purchased myself as a teenager and later. Also, I will have a quick rundown on the cars my dad owned once free of the economic drain of four children. Due to length, it is not compatible with the format of this awesome publication. If you’d like to read more and see accompanying pictures please go to www.facebook.com/tkromholtz.