Bringing Life, Humor, and Honesty to Service Journalism

Today’s Washington Post business section pulls together excerpts from the buying-a-car columns of Warren Brown, who died recently at the age of 70. Lots of newspaper and magazines run such how-and-what-to-buy pieces but rarely with the life and humor that Brown brought to the Post. A few excerpts:

I’ve driven thousands of cars. But no one ever followed me home. No one begged me to stop for photographs, or pleaded with me to linger in a mall parking lot to placate a friend who was trapped at a checkout counter, and who would “just die if she couldn’t see this”—the 1998 Volkswagen Beetle.

Ford named the car “Aspire.” That’s a good thing. Had the company called it “Inspire,” it would have violated truth-in-advertising laws.

The 1997 Buick LeSabre Limited is an old folks’ car. It’s big and roomy. When it moves, it galumphs— bounding along highways in a self-satisfied, triumphant manner.

The styling is governmental. It would fit nicely into any municipal, state or federal vehicle fleet. That is our first impression of the 2008 Ford Taurus Limited AWD sedan, a full-size car designed to haul parents, children, police, perpetrators or politicians. Even with its bright, bold, three-bar grille, the new Taurus appears devastatingly official.

My mother, Lillian Gadison Brown, always wanted a Cadillac, but she couldn’t find a dealership that would sell her one—not in segregated New Orleans, anyway.

She was black. And in the 1950s and 1960s, the few blacks entering Cadillac dealerships in New Orleans tended to be the people who cleaned those places.

My mother was a professional. That is, she belonged to what was known in black New Orleans as a “professional family.” Her husband was a teacher who did some occasional biological research for the National Science Foundation. But that wasn’t enough to get her respectful passage through the doors of local Cadillac dealerships, where some salespeople laughed at her outright, or directed her to a used-car lot to shop for battered Chevrolets.

So my mother did the next best thing. She bought a Cadillac from a rich white man in nearby Metairie, La., for what she deemed a “good price.” It was a 1965 Cadillac Coupe DeVille, midnight blue with a cream white top, white leather interior and whitewall tires.

My mother cleaned that car weekly — at least, she ordered her children to wash, wax and polish it (“With clean, soft cloths, please. Don’t scratch my car!”). And when she stepped into that sparkling Caddy, she would become a black Cinderella en route to a ball, even though her destination was Schwegmann’s supermarket in east New Orleans.

Spare me the sermon about the meek inheriting the Earth. They can have it. I want to go to Heaven in a Bentley.


  1. Ted Van Dyk says

    Well done and I always admired Brown’s taste and swing. But have never shared the longstanding American fascination with cars. I particularly recall, as a kid after WWII, the near mania that swept the country as each year’s new models were awaiting commercial unveiling.

  2. Ted, one of my relatives married a young woman who was the daughter of Italian immigrants; she had grown up poor in Boston and after World War Two the couple moved to a small town in Connecticut where her husband was middle class successful but not rich. Her dream was to own a Cadillac, and at about age 50 her husband bought her one, a big, blue one. Back then, when cars had a more defined personality, a Cadillac said to the world: We’ve made it.

    I had a different emotion about cars. I was seven when World War Two started and during the war years we learned to hate the Germans and what we called the Japs. I grew up driving the family’s Buick and then from the 1950s on bought American cars–no German or Japanese cars for me. Finally in the late 1980s American cars had become so poorly made that I was persuaded to buy a Honda and found they were very well made. But, like you. I think of a car as transportation, not a symbol.

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