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Cruising Memory Lane

The rise and fall of Jax car culture

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The gateway to Florida, Jacksonville has long served as a transit hub. Steamships, railroads and trucks have all made their mark on the history and culture of the city. In the boom years following the Second World War, however, the car was king.

A new book by local author Dorothy K. Fletcher documents those halcyon days. Indeed, Jacksonville on Wheels: A Car Culture Retrospective (published by The History Press of Charleston) explores the Bold City’s love affair with the automobile from the arrival of its first “horseless carriage” in 1896 to the enduring success of the annual Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance.

While car culture lives on in some spheres of American life, the Golden Age—the days when cars were as pure pop as Coca-Cola—was the 1950s and ’60s. Fletcher was there.

“In my day,” she said in an interview with Folio Weekly, “the car was the place where you could be the most free. It could get you away from home and parents and let you have your own kind of life, even if it was just cruising up Main Street or going to the drive-in and seeing all your friends.”

Yet Fletcher never imagined she’d write a book about cars.

“It’s kind of weird that I would be the one to do this,” admitted Fletcher, a retired high school English teacher who already has four history books under her belt. “I’m not a technical person at all, but there’s an emotional side to cars that I understand very well. We enjoy cars. They’re very much a part of our existence in America.”

She was inspired to write about that experience by Bill Warner, the lifelong car enthusiast who founded the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance in 1996. Warner had read Fletcher’s previous works—books about Jacksonville’s lost restaurants, theaters and movie houses—and reckoned she could produce a top-notch history of Jax car culture.

As Fletcher began researching for the book, Warner invited her on a guided tour of the city, pointing out all the historic sites: the dealerships where proud young people purchased their dream rides, the garages where the vehicles were tuned up, and the streets and beaches on which they raced.

The result is a 140-page paean to those happy days, still celebrated at select events throughout the year but no longer part of our lived reality in the new millennium. The volume is meticulously documented and filled with dozens of photos, of cars and dealerships and factories.

‘Promotional tour’ might be too grandiose an expression, but Fletcher is signing copies of Jacksonville on Wheels at local bookstores throughout the holiday season.

What’s her ride of choice these days?

“I love Volkswagens,” she said. “My husband had one when we met. I learned to drive in a VW. It was my first car, and now I drive a Passat. Some people get cars that look like themselves. Well, I’m a short, little, petite woman, so there!”

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