Saturday, December 25, 2010

Clairton, Christmas, and Fins


Christmas morning 2010: It is early morning in the desert. The effects of a Christmas Eve party at the home of a former Pitt head basketball coach are slowly wearing off and we are looking forward to friends coming by later for Christmas dinner. So many former Clairtonians have moved away over the years. Many have moved to California, and even more to Florida, where there are so many ex-pat Clairtonians that they have an annual Clairton picnic. My email box is stuffed with holiday wishes from friends and family including many current and former Clairton residents.

Clairton ex-pat Vinnie Ross reminded me of the Christmas traditions in 1950s Clairton; the decorations that hung high above and across the streets, the decorated Christmas tree that stood proudly before the Roll of Honor at the intersection of St. Clair and Miller Avenues, Santa Claus and Toyland at the Clairton Hardware, and other displays at G. C. Murphy 5&10, Skapiks, and all the other small businesses that we’ve discussed in our 99 Clairton blogs.

Our own house was built in the early 1940s mostly by my father and his brothers, relatives, and friends, none of whom had expertise in reading blueprints or architecture or any of the other skills that we consider essential for home building today. The house was built on a lot in the last block of St. Clair Ave., one of just a few homes on that block. The street was unpaved until it met the beginning of traditional St. Clair at Gumble’s Chevrolet, current location of Rite Aid. But as the years passed more homes were built and the neighborhood eventually included two sets of Benedettos, Crans, Manzeks, Mols, Mazzolas, Pete Colonna the barber, Smokey DeCarlo the auto-body man, and others. More years passed and the road was flattened and paved, and a bridge was built across the hollow connecting the Hill to Wilson and Clairton Park.

The neighborhoods were rich with traditions. Most celebrated Christmas on December 25th but Serbian, Russian, and other Orthodox kids got to celebrate Christmas again two weeks later on January 7th. Many grandparents spoke little or no English and there did not seem to be much racial unrest. Such was the snapshot of Clairton in the 1950s and early 1960s.

But another phenomenon existed during a segment of those years – fins. More precisely, tail fins that adorned nearly every American car between 1957 and 1960. First, let me paint a picture of cars in the 1950s. Production had stopped during World War II as factories were converted to make tanks, Jeeps, and other military vehicles. When the war ended, late 1940s production cars were blah in appearance and color. That began to change in the early 1950s. “The Big Three” auto companies included Chrysler (Chrysler, Dodge, Desoto, Plymouth, Imperial) General Motors (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac), and Ford (Ford, Mercury, Edsel, Lincoln).

During the era, Cadillac was the standard of excellence by which all other cars were measured, so it might have been the early 1950s style of the upturned taillights of the Caddy that inspired fins. The 1956 Caddy was the only one that had anything other than smooth rear fenders.

But with the unveiling of the 1957 models, style was in full swing with two-tone paint, dual headlights, and tail fins. Cars became longer and lower and engines more powerful. Arguments among car nuts over which carburetor system offered more power; two four-barrel carbs (dual quads) or three two-barrel carbs (three deuces). Older cars were customized by individuals to further exaggerate the trend and car engines were measured by cubic inches which went from a measly 90 “cubes” to more than 400. Gas mileage was rarely calculated because gas was cheap – two-bits (that’s a quarter for you uninitiated) a gallon and often less.

By 1959 the longer, lower, wider, more powerful, tailfin race had reached its peak. A joke during the era showed two fishermen in a boat watching two fins coming toward them. One fisherman said to the other, “It’s either two sharks or a ’59 Caddy.”

Chevrolet had been the preferred car for many Highway Patrol and State Police agencies. By 1959 the rumor spread (probably an urban legend but it is one every teen boy swore was true) that the fins on the ’59 Chevy were so dramatic they created an airflow issue during high speed pursuits which caused the rear of the patrol car to be lifted from the highway, causing the patrolman to lose control. Thus, police agencies were forbidden to buy 1959 Chevys .

The rumor gained even more credence when the 1960 Chevy model came out with considerably smaller fins, and by the 1961 the fins were gone completely from not only Chevy but nearly every American car. Ah, but those four year models of nearly every model of the “Big Three” manufacturers thrived and became extensions of our ego. The exception was the Edsel by Ford which lasted only a couple of years.

American cars continued to be big, powerful, and fuel inefficient until the oil embargo of 1972 when many car buyers switched from models built by the Big Three to funny little cars like the Volkswagen (mockingly called “the pregnant roller skate”), a cheapie little funny car called “Honda” and a couple of others, Datsun (which would change its name to Nissan) and Toyota. They were cheap and fuel efficient but carried the stigma of “Made in Japan” which was synonymous with “poor quality.” My how times have changed.

A little blogging music Maestro: the theme song for Olds, “Would you like to take the wheel, of my Rocket Oldsmobile…”

Dr. Forgot

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