Growing up in the Fabulous Fifties

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This week, Greg gets an email from a reader who’d like to find out more about Greg’s background, and how he learned so much about the cars he loves.

Q: Greg, I really enjoy traveling back in time with you on the columns you write. I, like you, was born in the late 1940s and remember all those wonderful car companies you write about.

I’m interested in the cars of the Fifties as there were so many to choose from. How did you learn so much about all these cars, and could you tell us about your upbringing and if it included cars? Thanks, Al D., Massachusetts.

A: Al, I’d be happy to oblige.  I was born in 1949 in a small Pennsylvania coal mining patch town called “Brady,” although it was listed officially as Ranshaw, Pa.  It was right outside of Shamokin, which was a fairly active and major coal mining town from the 1920s through the 1950s. Back in its day, Shamokin had many coal barons, along with three movie theaters and many live traveling vaudeville shows. People like Groucho Marx were regulars in Shamokin, and one time Groucho mentioned on his “You Bet Your Life” quiz show sponsored by DeSoto that Shamokin had some of the prettiest girls he had ever seen.

Sadly, when the coal mining industry died, so did towns like Shamokin.

As for cars, that’s pretty much all I ever thought about as a youngster. I would stand out on our porch in Brady, which was one story up, and watch all the cars that went by and memorize them as best I could. Our local Monsignor at Saint Anthony’s School and Church,  was a Mercury lover, and I remember when he bought a brand new 1956 Montclair, orange and white. What a beauty. He would always wave to me standing on that porch.

My grandfather owned a grocery store next door to our house, and all the people would stop and load up their cars. This gave me a chance to “help” as I could then actually get in the cars to check out the interiors and my favorite item, the speedometer. My grandfather was a Buick man, and he had a beautiful 1948 Special in the garage that I played in all the time.

I learned of many cars thanks to my grandfather’s store. I remember Packard, Henry-J, Kaiser, Frazer, Rambler, Willys, Studebaker and so many more…but never a Tucker! With only 50 ever built, I never saw a Tucker back then but do remember my grandfather mentioning them.

1955 Dodge Rpyal Lancer tri color

Everyone who lived on my Main Street block I connected to the car they drove. One was a noted regional baseball umpire who they called “Hoople.” When “Hoople” bought a brand new tri-color 1955 Dodge the street literally went crazy. We had seen two tones, but a tri-color car was a first for many of us. The only guy that didn’t drive that came to the store was “Stauney” Baginski, who lost his arm in the war and always walked to the store. I even remember that the watermelon truck that used to go by in the hot summer months was a REO truck, and three guys would cut small diamond shaped pieces to taste out of the watermelon you selected to make sure it was ripe. As for our ice cream guy, it was “Sonny Boy” in a 1954 Chevy Good Humor truck.

While standing on the porch, I remember the miners coming home from work around 4:30 everyday. They car pooled back then, too, and I recall a 1936 Chevy Sedan with six miners in it to a 1950 Plymouth Cranbrook, which was still fairly new. I remember these hard working miners getting out of those cars completely covered with coal soot, carrying empty lunch pails and looking beat. I knew then I didn’t want to be a coal miner.

1948 Buick advertisement

All along those formative years from 1950 through 1957, I stood at the top of that porch studying the cars and trucks. Then one day in 1957, my dad announced he got a new job in Vineland, N.J., at the Times-Journal newspaper as an ad salesman. I was thrilled, although I would miss my grandfather and his store immensely.

When I got to Vineland, it turned out to be one of the hottest areas for cars and racing, featuring a Vineland Speedway with a quarter-mile dragstrip, a 1.7 mile SCCA road course and 1/2-mile asphalt oval for stock cars. Every Friday through Sunday in the warm months, I lived at that speedway.

My first car magazine subscription, notably Hot Rod in 1958, came thanks to the parochial school magazine fund raisers. When the schools sold magazines to raise money, I took full advantage and the following years added Motor Trend, Car Life, Road & Track, Car Craft and others to help with my learning curve. I also read Chris Economaki’s National Speed Sport News every week, which was the weekly bible of motor racing.

That pretty much sums it up Al, although I could write forever but my space limitations are at hand.

(Greg Zyla writes for GateHouse publications, and More Content Now. he welcomes reader questions at 116 Main St., Towanda, Pa. 18848 or at

Greg Zyla

Greg Zyla