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JEAN SHEPHERD — “I Love Cars, So There!”

Among the many aspects of Americana that Shepherd enjoyed was his love of cars. Here in italic (now with some added illustrations), is the beginning of my early post about the Bugatti sports carimgres

(I know I’ve posted this photo before, but I’m obsessed with it.)

and the Royale limo, which he did a pen and ink drawing of that I possess:BUGATTI DRWG SCAN

Jean Shepherd was a connoisseur of many arts, including the design and driving of cars, motorcycles and the like.  His interest in them extended to his role as emcee of the Greenwich Village sports and antique car rallies from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s,

31 chevy with_Miss_Beatnick-mcdarrah

(Miss Beatnick, 1959, with Shep’s 1931 Chevrolet Independence,

photo by Fred McDarrah, image from http://www.flicklives.com )

to the scores of columns he wrote for Car and Driver magazinecar & driver in the 1970s and, not least, to his penchant for racing perilously through the streets of New York City and environs on his motorcycle or scooter, in his Morgan or Porsche, or in some other exotic species of automobile, such as an Isetta and a  funky little Goggomobil whenever he could.  He was, indeed, a motor-cuckoo—a car-cuckoo.  1959goggo_ad

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He often spoke about them in his broadcasts, many times about his childhood being driven in them by his father, “an Oldsmobile man,” in his teenage years driving them and riding in them. After all he was from the Midwest and had been to the Indianapolis 500.

He talked about his father’s troubles with keeping the family car going–his father was a connoisseur of used cars. Many will recall the trouble with the family car as it appears in A Christmas Story. When he got out of the army and before he’d gotten a job, he told how he had driven his MG-TD sports car up north, been spooked by the strange darkness of the sky in the morning, and had rushed back home. Other than the indomineble Morgan

morganmg.td

(Morgan in black and white photo–the classic Morgan color was

a dark forest green known as “British racing green.”

MG-TD in color. Color cars that Shep had are unknown.

I had a bright red MG-TD, just as the one pictured.)

 the MG he drove was the last of the old-style sports cars, the TC and TD models said to have been brought back to the States by GIs in the first years after WW II, beginning the sports car popularity in this country.)

He once mentioned that in his early days, he’d been in charge of a VW dealership (If true, this probably would have been in the late 1940s or early 1950s). One of his stories was published in the 1967 Volkswagen promotional booklet that contained a selection of articles and cartoons about VWs, Think Small. Shep’s article is the longest piece in the publication and it is a story about buying his first car–but it has nothing to do with VWs:

shep vw

He talked about what it was like to be a passenger when his father was driving the family somewhere. He said his own first car was a black, 1933 Ford Roadster. Sometimes he talked about cars he owned as a teenager, in such stories as going on a date and the problems of getting to the girl’s house when trying to pass through a herd of turkeys and other problems trying to get the car to function.

He talked about going to the Indianapolis 500 with his father, and he even wrote a piece for Popular Mechanics about the Indy 500. I discuss it in one of my unpublished manuscripts about Shep:

“The Two Faces of Indy,” a May 1976 article on the Indianapolis 500 car race.  When he writes about something he dislikes, for me the result is only occasionally amusing, a cranky burlesque.  But here, as he relates the racing tradition to American customs, one of his favorite themes, his style and his sharp eye for the unexpected, yet telling detail, shine.  Note how he wraps it all up with a disparaging comment on the common folk, in a long, one-sentence concluding paragraph chock-full of crying, barking, popping of cans, and the sun-struck image of eating a wiener:

“Weeks before the day of the race, the faithful begin to gather from all parts of the land, lining the streets of Indianapolis with their cars bumper to bumper, their sleeping bags, their campfires, their jackets covered with patches, their beer cans, their crying babies and barking dogs, all waiting for that boom of the cannon which announces that the infield is open, to go charging fender to fender like a herd of demented buffalo to get that same spot they have occupied for years, to put up the tent and pop the first can, and to instinctively celebrate something indefinable in the restless American spirit, the urge to move, to compete, and to eat hot dogs in the sun.”

In May of 1974 he published three articles about the Indy 500 in the New York Times.  In one, he wrote:

“To understand the 500, you have to have at least a faint whiff in your nostrils of those far-off times in the dreamy Indiana cornfields when the roar of a motor was as incredibly magical to the earthbound natives as space travel is to us today.”

He owned several cars that he advertised on his radio shows, including the English Rover and the French Peugeot. One of his Jean Shepherd’s America episodes is all about cars, includes him waiting for his new car to come off the line in Detroit, and him while taking a lap around Indy with racing great Duke Nalon. The title of the episode is “I Love Cars, So There, Ralph Nader.” (Nader was well-known for criticizing the quality of many American products, including cars.)

shep in JSA Cars

Shep at the wheel.

One of my favorite stories about Shepherd and cars is him claiming that in his over-night radio days, to get to the station’s transmitter for his show, he would race down the New Jersey Turnpike in his Porsche, and one night he crashed it into the WOR Radio’s 50,000 Watt cooling pool.

porscheThis is a Porsche of about the time Shepherd

said he had one, 1956. I assume he had a convertible.

I don’t know what color. Visually, later models were slimmed down

and lose the look of power those of this era had. No photo does justice to

the powerful look of this car–I describe it as looking

rounded and muscular and like a clenched fist.

Shepherd also, at times, drove a scooter and a motorcycle in addition to piloting his own small plane.

shep in gocart

Shep at the wheel

Among other things, Jean Shepherd lived a life of improvisation (which includes some daring), creativity, adventure, and a sense of widespread taste in the arts. I believe the summit of much of all this in his life was in the 1950s to the mid-1970s. And cars were a kind of symbolic embodiment of it all.

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PART OF COMMENT BY JOEL

Beyond cars, imagine he saw the growth of radio into a ubiquitous medium. The transformation of air travel from a military to a civilian more of transportation. The talkies. Television. The ability to travel long distances, affordably, happened in his youth, and travel he did.

His excitement over technology, whether cars, boats, motorcycles or airplanes was infectious. And as a sports car dreaming kid, he fed my fantasies.

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5 Comments

  1. mygingerpig says:

    Planes, trains and automobiles….Shepherd lived in a fantastic transformational era, and it is not hard to imagine the excitement he had for automobiles as a kid that he never grew out of. He hit a chord when he described his old man and his cars. My father bought used Plymouths, and as a kid, I was obsessed with every new feature the next model carried. I remember models when the front windshield was crankable to let in air. We had a model with a canvas insert in the metal roof. One car has a toadstool growing out of the rear side panel upholstery.

    I will never forget the excitement and pride over the 1953 blue Plymouth my dad brought home. It as the first totally new, showroom car we’d ever owned. What a huge deal. It had the new car smell! And I vividly remember that it has a one piece windshield. That was the hallmark of the 1953 cars, previous models being split in two panes of glass. By 1955, there were “panoramic” or wrap around windshields, as in the 1955 Ford Fairlane we bought.

    Beyond cars, imagine he saw the growth of radio into a ubiquitous medium. The transformation of air travel from a military to a civilian more of transportation. The talkies. Television. The ability to travel long distances, affordably, happened in his youth, and travel he did.

    His excitement over technology, whether cars, boats, motorcycles or airplanes was infectious. And as a sports car dreaming kid, he fed my fantasies.

    Joel

  2. Bettylou Steadman says:

    body{font-size:10pt;font-family:arial,sans-serif;background-color:#ffffff;color:black;}p{margin:0px;}I remember one of Jean’s sponsors in the 50s was Volvo, and I had never heard of the car before.  He made me want to have one, but I never did get one.  I love and enjoy all your writing about Jean.  Thanks for keeping us informed.Bettylou  

  3. Frank Reck says:

    Great post. One of Shep’s TV episodes, I think that it was from Shepherd’s Pie, featured him driving down Route 95 to South of The Border in Dillon, SC, which is literally just over the border from NC. Later in the episode he visited a Ford plant to personally pick up his new car, a bright red, Mustang, convertible.

  4. Joann Sheppard says:

    I found a cartoon drawn by “Shep ’44” in my father’s WW II scrapbook. It appears to have been done in Texas. Does anyone know if Jean Shepherd was stationed in Texas in 1944? “Shep” is a fairly common nickname for someone with Shepherd as a last name.

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