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Automotive and Travel Historian

My 1936 Chrysler,
My Parents' Generation, and the Road

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Norma Desmond had been a silent film star -- the biggest of them all. Two decades later, when she visits the studio where she made all her films, she's just a has-been. An assistant asks famed director Cecil B. DeMille, "You want me to give her the brush?"

DeMille answers, "Thirty million fans already have. Isn't that enough?"

This is a pivotal scene in the classic 1950 movie "Sunset Boulevard."

I've never named a car. In fact, I think it's a silly thing to do, but if I were to name my 1936 Chrysler Airstream, her name would be Norma because thirty million drivers gave her the brush, and I think that's enough.

In 1934, Chrysler had put everything the company had into the revolutionary Airflow. The Airflow's list of technological and design advancements is long and familiar because its features became standards of the industry, and modern cars carry those features to this day. The Airflow drug the auto industry out of the stagecoach era and into the 20th century. It picked up the body and moved everything forward so the engine sat on top of the front suspension, moved the rear seat passengers off the rear axle, and rounded its corners to genuinely reduce wind resistance. The stagecoach shape of all cars had forced the front seat to be narrower than the rear seat, but the Airflow widened the front seat to match the back, and the Airflow's interior gave the passengers unprecedented comfort and safety.

The bad news was that the Airflow came as a shock because it was so different from every other car on the road. It was also comparatively expensive. Chrysler wasn't sure the risk would pay off, so they conceived the Airstream line for 1935 and '36. Under the skin, the Airstream was as technologically advanced as the Airflow -- maybe a little more advanced because of its independent front suspension -- but on the outside, the Airstream is just an ordinary car. My six-cylinder Airstream was the lowest-priced sedan to wear the Chrysler name in 1936.

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Its ordinariness helped the Airstream succeed, but as later decades gave the Airflow the accolades it deserves, the Airstream disappeared under the Airflow's shadow.

My parents were old enough to be my grandparents. They were both born in 1924 and raised in Los Angeles. I grew up watching old movies in the 1970s with my mother -- movies that are now called "classics." For me, pre-World War II America is in full color. I had always wanted a car from the 1930s because my parents' generation fascinated me. The 1950 DeSoto I've had for 18 years -- along with the '49 Dodge, '55 Chrysler, '60 Plymouth, and others -- have all been substitutes for the 1930s car I really wanted. Finally, in September of 2006, I found my Chrysler. The Chrysler was in Wisconsin, but I still lived in California, so it took a plane ticket and a 2,800-mile drive to get it home.

By the time I was driving west on the Lincoln Highway in Iowa, I thought of Norma Desmond and how the movie business viewed silent stars by 1950. The driving public treated the 1936 Chrysler Airstream no better by that time. In 1950, Norma the Chrysler was a has-been, too, which is frustrating because Norma was more prepared for the 1950s than the new Chryslers.

In the 1940s, eight-cylinder Chryslers had a rear axle ratio of 3.36, and six-cylinder Chryslers had a ratio of 3.54. In 1949, Chrysler geared down the six-cylinder Royals and Windsors to 3.90! Chrysler's 1949 slogan might as well have been "Chrysler LEAPS into the 1930s!"

A 1950 Chrysler has a nonsensical 3.90 rear end because Chrysler had an advanced case of Oldsmo-phobia. The corporation thought the only way to compete with the new V-8 Oldsmobiles was to gear down for some little bit of extra acceleration, but there was a problem. In the early-1950s, America was building FREEWAYS, not drag strips. Competent, highway-speed cruising would have done Chrysler's reputation a lot more good than some unnoticeable bit of acceleration.

Meanwhile, Norma the Has-Been was pushed to the margins, but Norma had a 4.30 rear end with a 30% overdrive that gave her an overall ratio of 3.00. Norma was a hell of a lot more prepared for the freeways of the 1950s than the 1950 Chrysler was!

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Just like Norma the Movie Star, Norma the Chrysler is sleek and shapely. From behind the wheel, the 1936 Chrysler Airstream is shaped like a rocket while my 1950 DeSoto is shaped like a brick. Norma slices through the atmosphere better than cars of the Jet Age or Space Age.

Even as a child, my mother liked quiet relaxation. I can see her sitting on the porch of her house on 51st Place in south Los Angeles in the late-1930s with cars like Norma parked at the curbs. I can see my mother on all the driving trips to Big Bear, California, she took with her father in his used Chevrolets, and I can see Norma going the other way or in the rearview mirror. My mother went to the movies every Friday night, and she would call her father to pick her up afterwards, and I can see them driving down Vermont Avenue with Norma in front of them.

I can see my father riding his bicycle up Normandie Avenue on his paper route in the late-'30s with Norma parked in the driveways on 70th, 69th, 68th Streets, and so on. My grandfather owned a garage and auto parts store on San Pedro Street, and my father would go with him when he delivered large orders of parts to garages in Bakersfield, which meant loading my grandfather's '36 Plymouth with parts and a little trailer and braving the Ridge Route over the mountains. When my father was in his teens, his first job was working for my grandfather in the little, indoor service station within the repair garage, and I can see my father filling Norma's tank and checking the oil and tires. He told me the hardest part about the service station was that all those folding hoods of the 1930s opened and shut differently from each other, and people admonished him in advance to not scratch the hood, fenders, or headlights. He also had to check the water level in the batteries, which were under the drivers' seats, and people would admonish him while he was doing it to not dirty up their upholstery.

The first mechanical repair my dad ever did was replacing the clutch on a customer's '36 Plymouth, and I thought of my dad a lot while I changed Norma's throw-out bearing.

Why would anyone destroy the artifacts of my parents' lives? Why would they destroy the artifacts of their own parents' lives? Pathologically self-centered, Baby Boomer streetrodders are still mad at their parents, and they will streetrod a survivor like Norma in the name of living out some teenage fantasy. It's sick.

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Norma reminds me of a time when people grew up on time, and adults were adults. Fred and Ginger were the height of talent. Cary and Constance were the height of cool. Clark and Carole were the height of romance. Men wore suits to work, and women put on dresses to go shopping. The boss was Mister So-and-So, not Dave, Bob, or Jim.

Detroit marketed cars to a man's inner adult, not his inner child. Norma's intricately woodgrained dash and gold instruments makes a man feel like he's at a fine oak desk, and the plush upholstery makes a lady feel like she's in a fine home with the best furniture. Norma doesn't pretend to be an airplane or space ship, and she certainly would never do anything as childish as pretend to be a sports car.

In the 1950s and '60s, people started buying cars with their inner children, and they forgot Norma. The 1936 Chrysler didn't conform to the Jet Age or the Space Age, and she was a hell of a lot more shapely than the creased, rectangular cars of the 1960s and '70s. In those years, only a few people appreciated Norma. In spite of better freeway cruising and fuel economy than many much more modern cars, Norma was forgotten. Even today, Norma is a low-value car and lives as an also-ran next to her inferiors -- cars from her time that can't even dream of insert engine bearings, overdrive, 50 pounds of oil pressure, or crossing the Continental Divide at 70 MPH.

In less than two years, this unnoticed car has traveled over 10,000 miles through nine states. The transmission is not silent like later Chryslers, and the transmission will not be hurried during shifts. The acceleration is quite good, and with the low-geared rear end, second gear is a waste of time unless we're climbing quite a grade. First to third to overdrive is what Norma likes. I will rebuild the leaking shocks, replace the rotten weather stripping, and reupholster the interior. Eventually, the Chrysler will get a new black paint job and new running board rubber.

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Little by little, she is preparing for her return. After decades of seclusion, Norma is ready for her close-up.