Counting Studebakers and other amusements on a long drive

By Al Vinikour
Abandoned Cars and Trucks

(January 13, 2014) A while ago we were driving my twin-grandsons back home after they conducted a successful weekend campaign to level our home. Sometimes they’d ask the usual question of, “Are we there yet?” But I noticed that Daniel, the big-twin, was listening to his Walkman and Marc (Wee Man) was doing something or another to while away the 40 minutes or so it takes to get to their house from ours.

This got me to thinking of what my brother Bill and I did during drives with our parents when we were kids. I’m five years older than my brother, who is a biologist at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois – which makes his life about 180-degrees from that of his handsome and talented only sibling. When we were growing up in the ‘50s we didn’t have CD players (speaking of CD, we didn’t have Cheetos or Doritos) or rear-seat entertainment systems or hand-held games.

How did we occupy the hours and hours we’d sometimes spend in the back seat of the family Oldsmobile while being held captive by our parents? There’s a one-word answer to this question…"improvise."

About the closest thing to a high-tech time waster was a “Highway Bingo” card. This was a regular bingo card but instead of numbers and letters it had things to look for along the highway, like Burma Shave signs, sheep (my personal favorites) and other barnyard animals, gas stations, purse snatchings, assaults on women and children, etc.

However, if the cards weren’t available then we had to make up games on our own. One of my favorite games that my brother and I played was spotting cars. We’d each take a car brand and whenever we’d see one, we’d count it. Whoever had the most cars at the end of the drive got to smack the other in the arm, back or some other bodily location (family jewels were off limits, so obviously chivalry wasn’t totally unknown). The only criterion was that I was the one who got to choose what kinds of cars we’d each have. Since I always seemed to favor Ford cars I would choose that brand.

However, for my brother — and this is where age and experience comes to play — I’d have him count Studebakers, Willys, Nash Ramblers or Hudsons and sometimes Tuckers. I can honestly say that in the 10-15 years we played that game I was never defeated. My brother, on the other hand, was covered with bruises from head to toe, and my parents were concerned that he may have brain damage or something similar from being so apparently accident prone. (He knew that if he ever told on me I’d beat him to death. After all…what are big brothers for?)

I did almost stick it to myself one time when we had to go to South Bend for some business related to my dad’s junkyard. I hadn’t realized that South Bend was where Studebakers were manufactured and I gave Bill Studebakers for that ride. I told him that because it was his birthday I was also going to give him Packards as well.

Then I told him that since he had two car lines I was going to pick two as well so we could be more competitive and the game would be more interesting. I chose Fords…and Chevys. I then told him that we could count parked cars even if there were no drivers in them. Well…I was in the midst of a huge lead when we entered South Bend’s metropolitan area and drove by Studebaker Hill (the proving ground the company used for their vehicles).

There at the bottom of the hill were hundreds upon hundreds of new Studebakers waiting for shipment to dealers. I panicked. Bill hadn’t seen the volume of Studebakers filling up the distribution lots yet so I told him that it wasn’t fair all those years for me to pick the largest-selling cars and stick him with the dogs and “just for today” I was going to swap my selections for his…beginning that second.

He readily agreed — seeing his first victory in his mind. As we stopped at the light outside the manufacturing facility I said, “Holy Jumping Christ, Bill! Look at all those damned Studebakers!!!!” My dad swung his arm at me to try to punish me for my language but years earlier I had learned the reach dimensions of his arm and always sat in the right-rear position of the vehicles we owned. He sometimes would accidentally whack Bill on the downswing.

But the damage had already been done. Bill saw all those Studebaker’s and instantly thought how his luck had changed from a bright future to dog crap in the blink of an eye. Long story short I made my dad pull off to the side of the road so I could count the Studebakers I saw. They hadn’t been listening to us, as usual, and didn’t know that I had changed the rules a few minutes previously. They thought I was just being nice to try to help my little brother win a round but just his luck…I picked up the better part of a thousand cars in one fell swoop and won the day. (I “didn’t want to play” on the way home.)

The point I’m trying to make here is that all the technology we didn’t have back then we always found some creative way to amuse ourselves…and none of our games ever needed batteries — and they were free! 

You’re probably wondering whose life got the better scenario between Bill and me. Bill went to college…took drugs…earned a master’s degree in (no, not baiting) science and has a nice family. I, on the other hand, became a journalist. Maybe I should have been the one picking Studebakers.

Studebaker photo from American Motors Forum. Picture from the Mike Lenyo collection.