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The First E

The First E

by Michael Frank

©Michael Frank (
New York City has a reputation among people who don't live here. Some call it mean, others fast-paced, others call it exciting and others glamorous. For those of us who grew up here it was just a place to live, like any other.

I grew up in the Bronx. The Bronx is one of the 'outer boroughs', which is what we call anything which isn't within a 20 minute walk of Rockefeller Center (real New Yorkers are very provincial). It was named for a Dutch settler, Jonas Bronck. The 'the' in the Bronx is a bit of a mystery. One observer noted that places where the British fought battles tend to have the 'the' honorarium. For example, the Indies, the Sudan, etc (the Colonial Army fought a holding action in the Bronx during the Revolution).

The Bronx is the home of the New York Yankees, Fordham University, and about a million people. Most folks live in small apartment buildings, though some live in two-family houses. Very few have private houses. It used to be that New York University's uptown campus was located there as well, but this is long gone.

When I was a kid, the Bronx was a working class bedroom community (not that different today). Sort of a pre-suburb. Our fathers woke up each morning, got on the subway, and went to work. Our mothers did the shopping. This was the 50's.

In 1961, I could look down my block and see a line of cars parked at the curb (nobody had a garage, of course). Most of these cars were built by the Jalopy company. I don't know when this company went out of business, but they produced an incredible number of vehicles. As late as 1961, most of the families on my block still owned Jalopies. Someday the automotive press needs to do a retrospective on these fine cars.

The cars on my block were all grey. Not that they started out that way. But acid rain quickly deteriorated the primitive paint finishes of the day, leaving nothing but a dull grey scum. Blues became purple. Reds became brown. And eventually everything was grey. These cars were also BIG. One of the major rites of passage was learning how to lift yourself onto a car fender. The better cars could accomodate four or five kids sitting on a front fender.

Automotive tastes of the fifties and early sixties seem curious today. Cars which were as large as houses were coveted by rational adults. Fins and chrome were everywhere, although the chrome quickly developed a rusty cheese grater texture. The ex-WW2 tank driver who lived down stairs drove a Willys Jeepster (holy Toledo, what a car!). Gordon up the block got envious stares in his winged Chrysler 300 letter car. The Van Loessers's had a stodgy '56 Pontiac, in tu-tone arsenic green. The corner boys cast hungry eyes on old man Foster's Double-H Hudson (with the step-down sill). Debbie's father drove one of those little Corvairs. This was the first new car on the block, but everyone agreed that it had no class (too small). My old man drove a '53 Chrysler New Yorker (Firepower Hemi!), a real class act.

1961 was an exciting year in the Bronx. No, we weren't electrified by the news from Jaguar. Most of us had never seen a Jaguar, nor could we afford the price of an auto magazine. What made the year exciting was typical American stuff: A young new President in Washington, rock n roll, and the emerging youth culture. The Bronx was mesmerized by a Yankee team that could do no wrong. Mickey and Roger were knocking them out of the park....everyone had a home run ball, signed by their favorite player (what ever happened to my...). On the radio, while the rest of the country was Twisting, the Bronx was listening to home town favorites Dion and the Belmonts and Bobby Darrin, broadcast on WMCA from the Flying Saucer at Freedomland. A huge blizzard that winter found me conducting a snowball war from the shelter of my brother's '57 Plymouth, which spread its wings above me like a guardian angel.

But it was already on its way.

Up the block, someone had fallen in love with a picture in a magazine. The order had gone out immediately, but the car took forever to arrive. It was the spring of '62 when it finally appeared. A bright red XKE roadster. The day it arrived, he drove it home, and parked it on the street with the top down. In a world where kids learned about hot-wiring before they learned to read (sometimes instead of), there was no fear of theft. This was not a Hudson, a Studebaker, or a DeSoto. This was a masterpiece, a beautiful red jelly bean in a jar of elephants. No one would touch it. We gathered around it in awed silence.

We had never seen such a car, not in this neighborhood. I had once seen a Volkswagen on Fordham Road, and we had had a good laugh about it. We had heard about Rolls-Royces. My brother flirted with a spindly-wheeled MG-TF, but it just didn't fit his leather jacketed image. On TV, we admired the Corvette on Route 66. But this was different. It was loud, even with the engine off. It was fast, even standing still. Mostly, it was sitting there right in front of us. A strange visitor from another planet, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal Jalopies.

It was repo'd later that year, the story of a lot of lives in the old neighborhood. A desperate love affair, ending in tragedy. "It's gone", we said, and no one had to ask what "it" was.

In time, we would become richer, and pastel Mustangs and orange Cougars would pop up along the curb. Eventually, we all grew up, got jobs, and bought a piece of suburbia. But we were never as well off as the year that Roger eclipsed the Babe, and when the Cat From Heaven came to visit for a while....

Mike Frank
1969 E-Type 2+2

©Michael Frank (
HTML by Nick Johannessen


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