Guest Columnist

Playing second fiddle to dad's Terraplane

Carroll McKibbin believes this photo of him in the back seat of his father’s 1937 Hudson Terraplane was taken around 1940. (Submitted Photo)
Carroll McKibbin believes this photo of him in the back seat of his father’s 1937 Hudson Terraplane was taken around 1940. (Submitted Photo)

Dad’s first love and I joined the McKibbin household in the same year. Mom heaped tender care and affection on her new born son. Dad did the same with his brand-new 1937 Hudson Terraplane.

The Hudson arrived by accident. Perhaps I did also as I had two older brothers. Whatever the case, Dad quickly accepted the four-door Terraplane with avid attention. I became an also-ran.

In 1920, Dad converted a livery stable in Guthrie Center into an auto repair shop. Five years later he turned down a Chevrolet dealership because he wasn’t sure horseless carriages would outlast their four-legged predecessors. But finally convinced a decade later that automobiles were here to stay, he became the local Hudson dealer. By then the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties had given way to the agonies of the Great Depression. Auto sales sagged to nothing.

The Terraplane remained motionless throughout the winter. Fully rested and ready to go, the car made its first appearance in the spring when Dad backed it out of its private dwelling for a trip to one of our farm relatives or, if we were lucky, to Springbrook State Park.

Dad finally sold one Hudson, but to himself when the original buyer backed out. A year after purchasing a two-story house and a quarter block of land for $2,500, my father was stuck with an $800 automobile — and me.

The Terraplane with its “electric hand” gear shift was a classy automobile for its time. Other cars had a manual transmission operated by a floor shift rod. Dad’s Hudson, to his great pride, changed gears with a small lever attached to the steering column. With a push on the clutch pedal and a flick of a finger, the transmission moved from one speed to another.

The absence of the floor shift rod allowed for bragging rights and the addition of a third passenger in the front seat, something I aspired to but never attained.

Dad seemed to think children should be no bother and no expense. Not so with the Hudson. While his prize received new seat covers, I wore hand-me-down, threadbare jeans. The Hudson got new whitewalls. The worn-through soles of my sneakers got tire patches. And when the first flake of snow fell, Dad placed his four-wheel treasure in hibernation in its private garage. To make sure of his Terraplane’s comfort, he spread a thick wool blanket across the hood and covered the grill with a canvass shield. When the weather dipped below zero, an electric heater provided warmth for the motor. In the meantime, my brother Gabby and I shared a bed in an unheated bedroom, wrapped around each other like snakes hoping body heat would stave off the bitter Iowa cold.

The Terraplane remained motionless throughout the winter. Fully rested and ready to go, the car made its first appearance in the spring when Dad backed it out of its private dwelling for a trip to one of our farm relatives or, if we were lucky, to Springbrook State Park. But no matter where we were going, we stopped first at McKibbin’s Garage. There Dad checked the tires, the battery, the radiator, and most anything else imaginable while the family waited and waited in the car. One would think the Hudson could make a ten-mile round trip without a near overhaul. Dad apparently thought otherwise.

On one such occasion we finally, finally made it to my Uncle Grant’s farm where Dad parked on the sloping barnyard. Noticing the car unlocked and the adults inside the house, I made a daring move and invited my cousin Marilyn to join me in the front seat of the car.

I slipped my 10-year-old frame into forbidden territory and grabbed the steering wheel. To impress Marilyn I imitated the vrmm, vrmm sounds of a car motor and yanked the steering wheel back and forth. And then I pushed on the clutch pedal, just like Dad. The car started rolling down the hill. Marilyn screamed. I tried to steer. We gained speed. A brick silo lay straight ahead. More speed. I panicked. My foot miraculously slipped off the clutch and locked the wheels. The Hudson skidded to a stop — mere inches from the silo.

I breathed a sigh of relief, but not for long when I saw my dad running at me in a rage. Struck with a sense of survival, I panicked again and locked the car door. That only increased Dad’s anger. He pounded on the window and barked naughty words.

Mom arrived on the scene and squeezed in between the car and my fuming father. “You should’ve set the emergency brake and locked the car,” she scolded. “Anyway, nothing’s hurt. Just simmer down.”

Mom’s presence cooled Dad’s temper and allowed me to escape into her welcoming arms. I had survived my first and last turn at the wheel of Dad’s jewel.

Just as the Hudson and I arrived in the same year, we likewise exited together in 1956. I graduated high school that year and moved on to Grinnell College, never again to live full-time in my parents’ home.

The Terraplane blew a death blow gasket that summer and never recovered. Eighteen years and 42,000 miles later, Dad tearfully watched his pride and joy towed away to Bill Alexander’s auto salvage yard.

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A used Ford Crestliner followed in the footsteps of the Hudson Terraplane, taking the same position in the deceased’s garage. But the love affair was over. Dad treated the Ford like an ordinary car and I, at last, gained equal status.

• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean. He has written two books: “Apron Strings,” a humorous memoir of an Iowa upbringing, and “Lillian’s Legacy,” the true story of a supposedly unsolved murder in a small Iowa town. Comments: cmckibbi@calpoly.edu

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