The Golden Age of the Automobile in Brownsville

My brother, Allen, would round the corner a half block from our house in his 1968 Pontiac GTO. His dual muffler pack would announce its arrival before him getting there. We called it the Golden GTO (Goat).

We grew up in Brownsville, PA., in the 50s and 60s. It was often said in earlier days that Pittsburgh would never amount to anything because it was too close to Brownsville. We never knew if that was true or just an old wives’ tale.

General Motors came out with the GTO and Ford Mustang in 1964 Camaro in 1966. The age of speed and power in the automobile industry was upon us. I don’t remember my brother’s GTO horsepower, but it would make the teeth of green new dealers chatter if I told you. It was a simpler time back then. You did not have to worry about noise pollution; the louder, the better, and more heads it turned. We did not have to worry about catalytic converters and our carbon footprint to curb air pollution because the EPA didn’t exist until 1970. You didn’t have to think about gas prices, as the average gallon cost was 34 cents. We did not have to be concerned about supply-chain problems as everything, from the tires up, was made in the USA.

My brother would drive down the street and rattle through his four-speed transmission on the floor, and his muffler would crescendo like a perfectly tuned orchestra. It was as if he made a fashion statement every time he accelerated. It was as if the power cars of the day had their own mystique and personality and most were faithful to a brand, be it General Motors, Ford, or Chrysler.

After my brother got his GTO, I inherited his 1955 Chevy, which was an automotive cultural icon on its own.  My brother drove it for a long time with just a primer gray paint finish, a trend in that day.  People referred to it as the “Gray Ghost.”  He converted it from a three-speed shifter on the column to Hurst three-speed floor shifter.  Floor shifting was considered the new or novel way to go.

It was the hot car of the late 50s and early 60s, but not so literally hot. The heater would take a long time to heat up. I commuted to college at California State College, PennWest California today, located in California, PA, a trip of about five or six miles.  Mornings in the winter trimester could be at or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.  On these cold mornings, I would crank up my Chevy and head out to school.  About the time that I pulled into the college parking lot the heater was just starting to blow hot air. That afternoon as the shadows were increasing and the temperature dropping on those short winter days, I drove home. About the time I pulled into the curb at 521 Green Street, you guessed it, I just started to feel the warm air from the heater. Needless to say, I never took off my winter gloves or earmuffs on these trips.

This car did not have power steering or power brakes; the only thing power about them was the strength of your arms or legs. If you were not claustrophobic, you would be after you rode in the back seat, but what it lacked in creature comforts, it made up with moxy. Most kids wanted to drive a 55 Chevy. We did not know anything about the luxury features of a car, so, what we did not know, did not hurt us. We just knew we had a car with a big engine and loud muffler that turned heads and got you from one place to another, and that was enough. Just how it was in those days.

The OPEC oil embargo in 1973 changed all this. Gas prices spiked, cars and engines got smaller, and the power car was gone. New cars started to be manufactured that were better designed more efficient, but maybe I am just getting old: but the new automobiles seem to lack that mystique of the cars of the 50s and 60s. These classic vehicles will never return, yet it is still fun for us war babies and baby boomers to remember the golden age of the automobile.

I can still hear to this day the roll of thunder of the Golden GTO as it rumbled down the street.

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