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Curb Feelers and Fender Skirts October 1, 2009

Posted by vsap in Blogroll.
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We all have a time frame where we “emerge”. That is, when we are old enough to remember. For some, it’s very early, maybe 2 years old. Others, like me, it was 5 years old. So, I remember first seeing and riding in my grandfather’s 1953 Chevrolet Bel-Air, turquoise with white accent paint, wide whitewall tires, fender skirts and curb feelers. It was my grandfather’s first new car ans it would last until he bought his next new one, which was his last, a 1963 Ford Galaxie. He passed away from the effects of smoking in 1966. But, that’s not what this is all about. It’s about the ’53 Chevy, the curb feelers and fender skirts. And, maybe, the Dagmars on the front.

It makes me wonder if Dagmar Midcap took her name from this kind of bullet-shape bumper, popularized in the 1950s. But, I digress.

If you forgot how this model looked or didn’t know it existed, you can check one out here: http://www.scottymoore.net/53chevy.html. Scroll down until you see the restored blue 4-door and you’ll even see the fender skirts, but, sadly, not the curb feelers. Just under 250,000 were built at a list price of $1,874.00.

If you can’t imagine curb feelers, our friends at Wikipedia have a couple of photos and a solid definition to offer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curb_feeler.

My Dad did not get his license until 1961, at the age of 39. While it’s not unusual, even today, for urban dwellers in New York and Chicago to go long stretches of their lives without cars, it was somewhat unusual for a stevedore living across the river from St. Louis to accomplish the feat. It is a tribute to the Terminal Railroad Association, which ran the street car lines, and Bi-State Transit, which ran the buses that ultimately doomed the street cars. These modes of transit, along with cabs, were our family’s mode of transportation before July 1961.

That bit of history is important when you realize it took a 6-block walk, a street car ride, another 3-block walk, then a bus ride, then a final 4-block walk, to arrive at my grandparent’s home. In the winter, that was really unpleasant. In the summer, it was worse since on top of the unusual fatigue involved, we were all sweaty! St. Louis in the summer is not for the faint of heart or those who can’t stand perspiration, especially that of others.

What I remember, through 5-year-old eyes, is this Bel-Air had to be the biggest, shiniest car I had ever seen. My grandfather, a larger than life figure to the adults he knew, was even larger to me. Gruff, broken English mingled with what I much later discovered were Sicilian profanities, and the smell of his Old Spice, which I can still conjure from time to time, make him a strong memory to me. This man, who drove a produce truck 6 days a week, 12 hours a day, was now in possession of his first new car. Pride was too weak a word to describe his feeling about it.

If the car didn’t happen to be there when we arrived for a visit, I would either occupy myself in the vacant lot across the street, hitting bottle caps with an old broom handle or simply sit on the steps and wait for it to arrive. I wish I could say I was waiting to see Grandpa, but, hey, I was afraid of him! I was waiting to hear the curb feelers scratch the concrete curb and see that beautiful blue ship pull into port. What a sight! It must have been how sailors felt about seeing a destroyer or aircraft carrier come into Newport News: majestic, awe-inspiring! Other cars on the street might have been new or old, I didn’t notice. This! This 1953 Chevy Bel-Air 4-door, I noticed!

On the unusual occasion I got to ride in the car (either to wakes or funerals), its seats were the most comfortable thing I ever sat on. Of course, when you compare most basic furniture with street car and bus seats, anything else by comparison is lush. And “luxury” was the word that came to mind (or something like that, whatever a 5-year-old’s version of that word would be). Four could fit comfortably in the back with the driver and two others in the front. Mostly, my Mom, Dad and two sisters sat in the back and I got to ride between my Grandpa and Grandma in the front. Whether the front or back, I was too small to see outside so I focused on the interior. when I was in the front, that was the radio since it was right in front of me.

There was really one choice for my Grandpa at the time: KMOX 1120AM. Oh, not that KSD or WIL were bad, but we all have our habits and, at the time, Cardinals baseball was on that station and we were still a couple of years away from the football Cardinals relocating from Chicago and the Blues wouldn’t come into play until 1967. The Hawks were always competitive but Grandpa wasn’t much of a basketball fan. Even then, I remember it being either Big Band music or talk radio, mostly sports call-in. It was easy to be dazzled by the chrome on the dashboard. In retrospect, it was amazing we were not injured in any way seeing as we had no seat belts, padded dash or airbags. Somehow we survived.

Over the years it didn’t handle age very well. By the time Grandpa let it go for his new Ford, it was rusting and the paint fading. The fender skirts were gone as well as the curb feelers. The curb feelers weren’t needed once my grandparents moved to the suburbs and bought a house with a driveway and garage. Plus, the curbs where low and rounded, not high and square like in the city. It seemed style had overtaken fender skirts and function had forsaken curb feelers. Sad, really, when you consider that the modern adaptations of fender skirts and curb feelers are relegated to the “pimped out” genre. But that’s not how it was meant to be. Infrequently, you may find a 1953 Bel-Air 4-door appropriately decked out. Cherish the moment.

For me, it’s a brief respite. A way to get in touch with the past without re-living the usual horrors of family life and focusing on that benign family member, the 1953 Bel-Air, that just asked to be admired. Dressed to the nines in curb feelers and fender skirts.



1. watch Justin Bieber Never Say Never online free - December 8, 2010

Hi there,

Thanks for sharing this link – but unfortunately it seems to be down? Does anybody here at vsap.wordpress.com have a mirror or another source?


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