Joe McMahon remembered the first car he ever bought like some people remember their first kiss. It was a 1934 Ford Coupe, all-black with yellow wheels and white sidewall tires, along with a rumble seat--an ingenious extra bench seat that folded up from the back of the car.
"It was beautiful," McMahon told me in an interview last year, one of the last ones he gave before his death in September 2015, at the age of 90. "I bought it for $250 in 1943 from a friend, because he was going into the service. I wish I had that car today. Six months later, I had to sell it when it was my time to go into the service."
McMahon was born on December 30, 1924, in Columbus, Ohio. His early life was marked by turmoil. His mother died when he was four, and his father was a traveling salesman selling razor blades in south Texas, so McMahon and his sister were cared for by his grandparents and aunts. "In those days the choice was relatives or an orphanage," McMahon said. "My dad would send up money for them to take care of us."
To pass the time, McMahon studied cars. The first car he ever noticed was his father's Franklin roadster. In 1902, the Franklin Automobile Company had developed a line of luxury cars with air-cooled engines (as opposed to standard combustion engines dependent on liquid coolant), the details of which were fascinating to the young boy. By the time he was 12, McMahon's father had remarried and brought his children down to San Antonio to live permanently.
"From that point on, we would drive down the road together and I could tell him the name of every car that passed us," he recalled. "They were all different looking, not like they are today. Cars are all cookie-cutter today."
As soon as he turned 16, McMahon was itching to get behind the wheel. He first learned to drive in his stepmother's 1931 Chrysler Coupe. Only a couple years later, he was able to purchase his own, the 1934 Ford, but he could only enjoy it for a few months before the war came calling. He was 18 in 1943 and about to be drafted. He didn't want the infantry, so he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. “They gave me a physical and threw me in there,” he recalled.
With the war raging across the globe, McMahon was fast-tracked past basic training and sent to the Sheppard Field in Wichita Falls, Texas, where they put him up in the air as quickly as possible. He had never been within walking distance of an airplane before. "Instead of having 10 weeks to prepare, we had 4 weeks,” he said. “They needed recruits. I was basically cussed at for 45-minute periods endlessly with my trainer in these two-seated open airplanes."
From there, McMahon underwent additional training at Ellington Field in Houston and attended navigation school at the San Marcos, Texas, Army Airfield, and gunnery school in Laredo near the Rio Grande. From there, it was on to Italy, where McMahon flew 30 B-24 missions with the 15th Air Force, bombing military targets in Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. His first mission was to a synthetic oil refinery up in Poland, one of several Nazi fuel production centers. "They expected us to lose half the planes just from running out of gas,” he said. “But we had to knock that synthetic oil plant out of there."
He had several close calls and his planes were occasionally hit with anti-aircraft flak. One time, he was on an airdrop supply mission for prisoners of war in the Alps, and his pilot literally scraped the plane's tail on the top of a mountain as they were flying over it. "They were not going to shoot me down," he said emphatically, his voice raising. "And if they did, I was just going to walk from Yugoslavia or wherever back to the base."
He befriended a young boy at a British airfield on the coast of Yugoslavia. "He wanted one of the wings off my uniform, so I gave it to him," McMahon said. The boy gave him a homemade star in return, which McMahon still had 70 years later.
McMahon had already been sent home from Europe after 27 months of service when he got the news the war had ended in Japan.
After the war, McMahon earned a degree in business administration from the University of Texas at Austin, and went into the traveling sales business with his father, now focusing on selling pencils in bulk. He first marriage produced two children (one now dead, the other still living in Houston), but the marriage lasted only 11 years. After his divorce, he met a woman named Sammie at a country music bar. "She was so sweet and pretty and loved to dance and threw great parties," McMahon recalled. "We just made a good fit. I was married to her for 35 years." Sammie died in 2000.
It was during this marriage that McMahon rekindled his love of cars. He first purchased a 1952 Mercedes black convertible, which McMahon had redone with cream paint and red-leather upholstery. Not long after that, McMahon bought a 1955 lemon-yellow Thunderbird, beginning a lifelong passion for TBirds. He soon added a 1962 Thunderbird Roadster to his collection. He and Sammie lived their lives in those cars, going on road trips, running errands, working on them in the garage.
To find others who shared his passion, McMahon eventually founded the South Texas Vintage Thunderbird Club, which still meets regularly today. The club honored McMahon's World War II service in a special ceremony. A couple years ago, McMahon also joined several other World War II veterans on an "honor flight" from Texas to Washington, D.C., where they visited Arlington National Cemetery and the World War II Memorial, a moving trip that allowed McMahon to pay tribute to his fallen comrades.
Over the years, McMahon sold his older model TBirds at a handsome profit, but he kept two--a 2002 model with 11,000 miles on it, and a light tan '05 50th-anniversary edition Thunderbird with only 6,000 miles on it.
McMahon--decorated World War II veteran, traveling salesman, and lifelong car enthusiast--was still taking his beloved TBirds out for a spin until his very last days.