2017-10-11 / Opinions & Letters

Red hot

Midwest Memo
by Alan Shultz

Fire engine red on the body, black on the interior, wide white-walls on the tires. And a convertible to boot. I bought my first car on the week of my 16th birthday. I bought it from a private party and paid cash with lots of $20 bills from my lawn mowing route. The car was a 1964 Chevrolet Corvair, a low riding, rear engine wonder that, regrettably, was featured prominently in Ralph Nader’s book entitled “Unsafe at Any Speed.” Although Nader’s book was published in 1965, I had not read it and was not aware of Nader’s findings when I sealed the deal on my first sweet ride.

The Corvair had the distinction of being the only American built, rear engine air-cooled automobile. That cooling took place via air fins cut into the rear hood that covered the engine compartment. Make a mental note of those air fins because they play an important detail as we go forward here.

Break for commercial:

You may have seen any number of the commercials for Farmers Insurance that have run in the last couple of years. The commercials star actor J.K. Simmons as a professor at Farmers’ University. Simmons walks the new recruits through the halls of the university and points out monuments to accidents the firm has covered.

“We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two,” Simmons says, sharing Farmers’ trademarked phrase as he recounts the dogs that flooded an insured’s house, the elks that trashed another’s pool, and the moose that headbumped one frightened insured’s motor home.

I love these commercials.

And so it was that I was sitting on the couch munching Cracker Jack last week when a new Farmers Insurance commercial aired.

The scene is a festive and colorful parade route with onlookers lining the street. Into the viewer’s frame comes a red convertible, top down, with a guy sitting atop the rear seat. The guy is dressed in a costume, head to toe, that looks like fire flames.

“Dude,” yells a guy standing in the crowd, pointing to the costumed guy - “you’re on fire.”

The fellow wearing the costume waives enthusiastically and replies - “I know.”

“No- really,” a lady in the crowd yells, “you’re actually on fire.”

The guy in the convertible now realizes that his costume is indeed on fire from flames lapping out of the rear cooled fins of…..drum roll please…..the red 1964 Corvair convertible, which is also on fire. He jumps from the car and successfully does a drop and roll.

Farmers covered that - per the professor.

Now… back exactly a half century (gasp) to my very own red Corvair convertible.

A couple weeks into owning the car I wind up being one of the drivers from an outing of our church youth group. We’ve gone to the beach for the afternoon and I am now driving three other teens home. I don’t recall the guy that was in the front seat next to me, but I do recall the back seat riders, the lovely and attractive Soderburg sisters - Linda and Sandy. The girls are bikini clad, except for bulky sweatshirts they’ve put on for the ride home. The sun is hot, the top is down.

We’re on the south side of Chicago, slowly inching up the 87th Street exit ramp off the Dan Ryan expressway. A car pulls along next to us, the man leans out of his window and points to the rear of my car.

“Fellow, you’re on fire,” he yells. (I don’t think they said “dude” back in those days.)

Flames lap out the air fins on the back hood from the burning engine. It is a “Back to the Future” moment - the exact scene which will be captured 50 years later by Farmers Insurance.

All my passengers jump from the car - without me yet stopping or any doors opening. I pull over. Out come beach towels and off come the girls’ bulky sweatshirts as the four of us beat that fire with everything we could get hold of.

Unlike the Farmers’ Corvair engine fire, in this case not much was covered, not the car, not even my bikini clad backseat fire-fighting passengers.

As I recall, traffic came to a total stop.

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