The Morgan Plus Four
Somehow it was inevitable that I would learn to drive in such a classic Ivy automobile as
an English roadster, and in British racing green, no less.
It was all a matter of manual transmission.
My mother was convinced that you didn’t really know how to drive unless you could operate a stick shift. She was also convinced that Boston drivers were better than New York drivers, which was where we lived. There is a sufficient body of opinion and evidence to support her first statement. The second is unsupported. The average driver in both cities is just that: average. To be fair, she was a better driver than my father, whose driving skills were, well, average.
About the only advantage I could see was that you could get a license at sixteen in Massachusetts, but had to wait until eighteen in New York. I doubted Drivers Ed at school offered manual transmission as an option.
Details like than never stopped my mother. Since we spent between two weeks and two months a year in Boston anyway, she decided I would learn to drive there as soon as I was old enough, which meant fifteen to her.
The Saab Sonnett
That required a trip to the North End to apply for a learner’s permit, using my uncle’s address as my “legal residence”. Both my mother and her brother were contributing to the delinquency of a minor, while I was set (up) to learn to drive illegally.
Next stop was the Garber Driving School. My mother was not only determined that I would learn to drive in Boston and with a stick shift, but also that I would learn from the same place she took lessons. She dragged me into the main office, where she identified herself by her maiden name (as it was still called back then), adding that she had been “the young Mr Garber’s last private student”.
From the back of the office there was a shuffling sound and a quavering voice rang out: “Did somebody say ‘the young Mr Garber’?”
An elderly man appeared, who quite possibly had been young back before the first World War, if not earlier. According to my mother, he was “the young Mr Garber” because he was the youngest of the Garber brothers, who owned and ran the driving school and a travel service.
Of course, Mr Garber said he did indeed remember my mother, which is possible since the Garbers were political cronies of her father. They were all involved with the resettlement of displaced peoples before, during, and after the second World War. There would be no problem with teaching me manual transmission; Garber’s still had one last car fitted out for that purpose. And, of course, I would be assigned their “best instructor”.
The car turned out to be a dark green roadster, held together with spittle, duct tape, and the Lord’s Prayer. It was about the size of a motorcycle and sidecar, a detail I would learn later. It wasn’t one of the vintage Bentleys I had fallen in love with in the old Avengers television show, but it would do.
The car was also fitted out with a double brake and a double clutch, which must have taken some degree of jiggery-pokery. I don’t know enough about automotive mechanics to tell you how it was done, only that it was done. I don’t remember where the duct tape and WD-40 were kept.
As for the instructor, he was a screaming bigot. We could not drive by a member of one minority group or another without his commenting on “those people” in denigrating terms. Most of his anger was directed toward African-Americans, but Latinos and Asian-Americans weren’t spared his opinions about race. Since the roadster was an open car, they could often hear him loud and clear.
Like many fifteen-year-olds, I had two characteristics: fast reflexes and complete cowardice. Instead of confronting him, I learned to shift gears fast to get away from the justifiably irate members of the various minority groups he had offended. I would also make sharp turns in front of oncoming streetcars to help make our getaways before we were killed.
Of course, learning to drive wasn’t only about wondering whether I’d live long enough to take my SATs. It was also about finding a car to drive once I had my license (and would be the first in my class at school to have both). That’s when I discovered a Saab dealership about a block from Coolidge Corner, near where my uncle lived.
While Saab is a proper Ivy marque, the particular model I fell in love with wouldn’t be Ivy for another twenty or thirty years, when it would enter into the ranks of the third category of Ivymobiles. The Saab in question was the Sonett, something of a cross between a sports car and a rally car, but closer to Mrs Peel’s Lotus Elan than any of Steed’s Bentleys.
More important, the Sonett had lots of leg room for my six-foot frame, something my five-foot-two mother did not care about. She felt I could adapt to the leg room in a more practical car. She also didn’t like that the Saab was a Swedish marque, because of a Nazi connection. As a World War II buff of my acquaintance likes to put it: The Wehrmacht ran on Swedish steel.
In the event, the point became moot. When it came time for me to take the actual test for a Massachusetts license, my mother stopped the process on the grounds it would be illegal. I now knew how to drive, but wasn’t allowed to, which, for all I know, may have been the point of the entire exercise.
A year later, I took Drivers Ed at school. The instructor was a very nice man, a gym teacher who took on the extra job to provide a better life for his family. The car was a mid-sized, middle-class, decidedly non-Ivy hardtop that felt huge and unwieldly after the roadster. The hardtop also had automatic transmission.
Not everyone’s first experience learning how to operate a motor vehicle involves all three categories of Ivy cars. Usually, it’s just one; two, at the most. The three categories are: practical; sports car; and vintage (or antique). In other words, Ivymobiles run the gamut from workhorse to show horse.
In Take Ivy’s section, Vehicles for Ivy Leaguers, T. Hayashida notes only two of the three categories of Ivymobiles. “University students, Ivy Leaguers in particular, are passionate about classic cars.” Hayashida claims that with classic or vintage automobiles “Ivy Leaguers carry on with their tradition of appreciating vintage things and I find it a typical Ivy attitude”.
As for the other category, he notes “sports cars are the second-most sought after vehicle”. In the 1960s, British sports cars dominated the campus scene. For example, in Love Story (1970), one of the most Ivy/Preppie films made to date even if it is almost as bad as the book upon which it is based, the protagonist, played by Ryan O’Neal, drives a mid-1940s MG TC Midget.
1940s MG TC Midget
Hayashida spotted MGs (TD to MGB) and Triumphs (TR3s and 4s) as well as a number of Morgan Plus Fours (or is that Morgans Plus Four?). My old fencing teacher had a Morgan. Those familiar with what’s under the hood of a Morgan might argue that they qualify for both categories.
Hayashida devotes barely a page to the topic. Fifteen years later, Lisa Birnbach doubles that in The Official Preppy Handbook (1980). In a section called Prepmobiles, the Preppy Handbook proclaims, “The car is as much a key part of Prep paraphernalia as a club tie or the ubiquitous duck. If, that is, it’s the Right Car – the Proper Make, in an Accepted Color, Appropriately Adorned”. In short it is the main category of such automobiles, coming before sports and vintage cars.
The Handbook highlights such marques and models as BMW, Jeep Wagoner, Mercedes-Benz, Peugot, and Volvo. (Saab is mentioned in passing elsewhere in the book.) Birnbach adds: “Any English Car. It’s English, and that’s good enough.” Various models of Jaguars frequently make Ivy lists.
1980's Volkswagen Rabbit Interior
Birnbach’s list also includes the Volkswagen Rabbit with the explanation of “a simple matter of inverse snobbery”. My generation of Ivy was close to Hayashiba than Birnbach (hence the roadster), but it was the Volkswagen Beatle that was all but ubiquitous back in the 1960s and early 1970s, a simple matter that one did not spend as much money on the second car as on the first.
A proper Prepmobile has to be in the right color as well: British racing green, of course, but also maroon, fire-engine red, navy blue, and silver (grey). Or, as Ross McCammon noted humorously in The Preppiest Cars of All Time, published in RL Magazine, part of the Ralph Lauren website, “basically, any color found in Royal Stewart plaid”. Adornments are minimal, but predictable. Parking permits to the right clubs, beaches, ski resorts, and the like, dominate.
Royal Stewart Plaid
All seven of the marques and models McCammon selects for his list were manufactured in the 28 year period between 1970 and 1998, for many the last flowering of the traditional Anglo-American style now known as Ivy. The annotated list includes the Mercedes-Benz SLR 107; the Jeep Wagoneer; the Land Rover Range Rover; the Porsche 941; and the BMW 3-Series; as well as both the Volvo 240 and the Saab 900, which he dubs “the Sensible Swedes”. More popular in the Northeast, the Saab and the Volvo were known as the “Liberal” cars. McCammon notes, “each of the Swedes still embodied those hallowed prep values of durability, suitability, and an uncanny ability to start up and get moving even in a cold winter morning.”
More to the point is what he claims all the cars have in common and what any car added to the list must have. Such a car “must be an investment, though not be terribly expensive. It must be subtly styled. And, most important, it must accentuate the scene – from the ski lodge to the supermarket – not overwhelm it”.
Yet, many discussions of Ivy vehicles get overwhelmed, if not derailed, by Ralph Lauren’s automobile collection, which has been featured in two major museum exhibitions. The first, Speed, Style, and Beauty, was mounted by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2005, and produced the predictable debate about whether motorcars are objects d’art. Five years later, the second show, The Art of the Automobile: Masterpieces from the Ralph Lauren Collection, was presented in the Musée des Arts Decoratifs (part of the Louvre) and coincided with the opening of a store in Paris. The collection is currently housed in a private museum, D.A.D. Auto Storage, in Bedford, NY.
courtesy Ralph Lauren Auto Collection
That’s an interesting evolution for someone whose first two motorcars of record fall well within the parameters of Ivy. Alan Flusser in Ralph Lauren: In His Own Fashion (2019), cites Lauren’s first motorcar as a 1961 white Morgan convertible with red leather seats, which Lauren purchased while he was still a tie salesman. When he founded Polo, Lauren bought a 1971 Mercedes 280SE convertible, customized to his specifications.
However, it could be argued that with the emphasis on older cars with European racing or touring pedigrees, his collection straddles the Ivy categories of sports and vintage automobiles, but the show horses, not the workhorses.
Of course, quite a few years have passed since the Handbook was first published. The cars are still Ivy-Preppy, but have changed categories, going from practical to classic. As with most things Prep, Trad, or Ivy, it’s often better to have something old than something new, and how the Sonett came into its own as a Right Car.
As for the current scene, wagons are still Ivy; SUVs are not. BMW’s two-door sports cars are, but not the M5. In terms of Ivy, BMW has something of the same “Is it Ivy?” question Cadillac does. Certain models are seen as the sign of the arriviste, or worse, the fourflusher.
But the passage of time can change even that. The once spurned Japanese marques have made considerable gains into Ivy garages. Or as one Ivy wag on the Internet put it, “Alas, I’m now driving practical Japanese vehicles that are very reliable, comfortable, and utterly boring.”