Columns

2014.05.29 Aunt Bee’s Studebaker and other fine vehicles

on . Posted in Nowhere Road

By RICH FOLEY

I recently saw an old episode of “The Andy Griffith Show,” one in color from late in the series. In it, Barney Fife comes back to Mayberry for a school reunion. He pulls up to the courthouse to see Andy, and he is driving, of all things, an Edsel convertible.

Andy acted impressed and asked Barney if it was a 1961 model. Barney replied that it was a 1960, but it had a 1961 grille. Wrong on two points, boys. First, there never was a 1961 Edsel. Ford Motor Company pulled the plug on the brand shortly after the 1960 model year began.

Secondly, the Edsel had three totally different front end designs, one for each year of its existence. The car Barney was driving was clearly a 1958 model, featuring an unforgettable “horse collar” grille. Comedians of the time said it resembled “an Oldsmobile sucking a lemon.” 

I wouldn’t make such a big deal out of it, except Ford provided virtually every car on the series, new and used. Cops, robbers and ordinary citizens on the show all drove Fords (or an occasional Mercury). It’s hard to believe no one caught the error, especially with all the publicity over the hundreds of millions of dollars Ford supposedly lost on the Edsel experiment, which ended shortly before the debut of the show.

So, it’s pretty obvious that Andy Griffith and Don Knotts weren’t “car guys,” but the series did feature one unexpected “car gal.” Or to be precise, perhaps “car aunt” would be a more appropriate term.

Frances Bavier, known to one and all as Aunt Bee, was a fan of the Studebaker brand since the mid-1930s and drove them exclusively, except, sadly, in the “Andy Griffith” episode in which she “learned to drive,” even though she had been driving in real life for decades.

Ms. Bavier, who, contrary to her folksy image on the show, was said to be sometimes ”difficult” and easily offended, probably was pretty miffed at having to act like she couldn’t drive. And then the added insult of having to “learn to drive” in a Ford? I’d bet that episode was fun behind the scenes.

Aunt Bee got her revenge a couple of years later. After Andy Griffith moved on and the show morphed into “Mayberry, R.F.D.,” with the Aunt Bee character the only original cast member left, she had a bit more power.

When an episode of “R.F.D.” called for Aunt Bee to drive, Bavier refused to do it unless she could drive her own car. Thus, viewers got to see her in her personal 1966 Studebaker, a two-door Lark Daytona.  

Since 1966 was Studebaker’s last year of vehicle production, the Daytona was Bavier’s last new car, which she owned for the rest of her life. She refused all suggestions to buy something else, and, as a member of the Studebaker Drivers Club, had access to other Studebaker owners when parts were needed.

She kept the car in perfect condition, but eventually she quit driving and parked it in her garage. After her death in 1989, the car was discovered with four flat tires and an interior destroyed by her cats.

At an estate auction, someone paid $20,000 for it, claiming he wouldn’t touch it. Otherwise, the new owner said, it would no longer be “Aunt Bee’s Studebaker.”

I wonder where that car is today, and if it’s still in the condition it was in 1989. I also wonder what Ms Bavier might be driving if she were alive today.

I’m sure the idea of a Smart car would appeal to her, but she might find it inadequate for her shopping needs. A Hummer might be big and sturdy enough, and surprisingly, the fuel mileage isn’t any worse than many cars in the 1950s got. Maybe a cross between the two, say, a Pontiac Aztek, might be a good compromise.

A check of my car ad collection turned up a 1929 Buick, supposedly with only 298 miles on it, and “stored in a heated garage.” But that might be too mainstream.

There’s a 1939 Willys, which might be quirky enough, but it now has a fiberglass body. Sorry, too modern.

A 1960 Cadillac Series 62? Nice, but too pretentious.

Wait, I think I’ve found a winner. “1953 Studebaker Pickup. 289 cubic inches, supercharged, 3 speed on the floor, runs and drives great.” The 3 speed wouldn’t bother a “car aunt,” it’s got a powerful engine, certainly enough hauling room for her needs, and best of all, it’s her favorite brand. How about it, Aunt Bee? Have we got a deal?

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