Vacations in a 1951 Nash still live in memory.
In the distant past, loading mom, dad and the kids into the car and heading out for a week or two of touring the U.S.A. was a yearly event for many families in America. The car or station wagon was packed with camping gear, beach accessories and a cooler or two full of healthy food and unhealthy snacks. The glove box was crammed with maps obtained free from the friendly gas station attendant who had filled the tank prior to the family heading for the horizon. On the roof was a rack holding suitcases and camping gear, and hanging on the outside of a rear door window was an early type of air conditioner known as a “swamp cooler.” It looked like an open mailbox and was filled with ice and water. Air would flow through the front, pass over the mixture and then blow cool air into the passenger compartment. The car stayed cool as long as there was still ice in the swamp cooler.
Both the car and the family were now ready, so the vacation would begin and what followed was fun and frustration, excitement and exhaustion, and, after returning home, years of remembering only the best parts of the vacationing in the family car.
The Lamberts were like most parents and siblings traveling in the 1950s. We’d climb into the car (1949 Dodge, 1951 Nash, 1956 Cadillac) and head out early enough that you could still hear the chickens snoring. The patriarch of our family, being a police officer, felt that the safest time to be on the roads was just before dawn. This accomplished four things: We got a head-start on the traffic; the first day of the vacation was a full day; most of the drunks on the road had already made it home, or had crashed; and the rest of the family went back to sleep as dad steered towards our destination.
I have only a few vague memories of the 1949 Dodge, an encyclopedia’s worth (thumb drive?) of memories traveling in the 1951 Nash, and a vivid recall of the short few years we traversed the asphalt in the 1956 Cadillac. The Cad’s limited travel time was due to my older sister’s habit of talking mom and dad into letting her take the car out for the evening and then, within an hour or two, steering it into an immovable object.
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The best memories started with the Nash that we owned from 1953 to 1957. Some people remember one distinct thing about the front seat of a Nash, but back then every father of a teenage daughter knew of this feature. The front seat could be adjusted to recline all the way back and turn the interior of the Nash into a motel room on wheels. I was about 6 years old when Dad brought home the brown and beige mobile love shack, and I thought the reclining front seat was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. A few Saturday afternoons were spent with my brother and me playing checkers and card games in the four-wheeled master-bedroom.
Our vacations were typical for families of that era. I saw much of Yellowstone Park through the rear window of the Nash. Jumping from the rear seat out onto the pavement provided me the misty view and sulfuric smell of Old Faithful as it faithfully spit its contents 90 to 180 feet in the air every 35 to 120 minutes.
On one occasion my strolling away from the Nash and the adjoining Lambert camping settlement resulted in making the acquaintance of a large grizzly bear that had decided to see if my pockets contained anything that was not normally found on the forest’s menu. Unfortunately the bear had never met my mother. Mom grabbed two large pans from the campsite, ran up to the bear and began banging the pans together. Mr. Bear learned what I already knew; my mom could be intimidating. The grizzly moved on and my mother had another story to tell at family gatherings.
The best place of all to go in the Nash was to the ocean, and our favorite spot was the Tidelands Campgrounds near Copalis.
We would lay claim to a secluded site and set up camp. Mom and Dad would put up a tent to sleep under the stars while my brother Lynn and sister Judy got the Nash ready for the three of us to spend a night under the headliner. Our seaside sojourns usually lasted for a week and I loved every minute of being in the sand and surf with my family.
Most car buyers from the 1950s forward did not consider a Nash to be a very sexy car. Dependable, yes. Roomy, yes. Good family transportation, yes. Flashy and prestigious, no. I’m not one of those people, since my list of previous vehicles includes six Nash/Rambler/AMC products. But, as most of my old-car collecting friends frequently point out, “Lance likes weird cars.” It is likely that my love of these cars started because of the good times had with my family in that 1951 Nash.
I didn’t think our family vacations in the Nash could possibly be improved upon, but I was wrong. Into the Lambert clan entered two fantastic things; an almost beautiful 1956 Cadillac Coupe DeVille and a well-worn, fold-out tent-trailer.
The Cadillac arrived in 1957 and, even at 10 years old I knew the year-old Caddy was beyond my father’s police officer paycheck. Closer examination revealed the reason for affordability. The previous owner’s two children, when left alone in the car, expressed their artistic aptitude by taking the cigarette lighter and burning perfectly round holes throughout the Coupe DeVille’s interior. When they had completed their masterpiece the white leather and yellow wool broadcloth seats and door-panels looked like Howdy Doody’s freckled face. Fortunately, the exterior looked like a well-maintained one-year-old Cadillac.
The tired-out tent trailer lacked all of the dignity displayed by the exterior of the Coupe DeVille. It was a wooden and metal-trimmed box on two wheels that, when unpacked and unfolded, was able to uncomfortably sleep a family of four (one bed on each side, two sleeping family members per bed), or five if someone was willing to sleep on the floor between the beds. The hillbilly hostel had a small area for a table and cooking equipment, limited storage and was covered by a large moldy canvas tent structure. I didn’t care about the limited space or mold because I thought this setup was the coolest camping contraption ever invented.
The family vacationed at the ocean most summers, and the arrival of the fancy Cadillac towing the funky tent trailer must have resembled, at the time, Princess Grace showing up at a movie premier with one of the Three Stooges as her date. It didn’t bother me a bit even though the Cadillac’s interior looked like it had the measles and the interior of the tent trailer smelled like an old tuna sandwich.
Eventually the family’s passion for loading up the family car and heading out on the highway diminished. The tent trailer finally rotted beyond being habitable, my sister wrecked the Cadillac three times, and we all lost our willingness to get up before sunrise and head out to see the beach or bears.
You may be wondering whatever happened to the Cadillac. It was such a mess after the final wreck that my dad traded it for a bowling ball and a box of chocolates. The buyer got the worst end of the deal.