Monday, May 4, 2009

All the Cars I've Ever Loved

Well, not quite. I couldn't afford the time to talk about all the cars I've ever loved. But it is quite easy to talk about all the cars I've ever owned, most of which I've never loved. (They certainly haven't loved me back, in any event -- they're like trombones, in that regard.) So why the title of this post? I just couldn't pass up the cheap reference to Willie Nelson and Julio Inglesias' unprepossessing little tune.

I learned to drive later in life than most (our family only had one car, and between my parents and older brother, the competition was too fierce), and I couldn't afford a car in college. So I was 25 by the time I bought my first car -- actually, I went in halves with my then-girlfriend. The year was 1979, and we used it to get our stuff back home after graduating from college in Pittsburgh (well, she graduated, I didn't -- this was grad school, and the end of my academic ambitions). It was a 1968 Plymouth Belvedere station wagon that looked as if it had been through World War II, and lost. I think it was white. It cost us $125 -- yes, even at that price, we had overpaid for it. It sported more holes than an artillery range, and it was disconcerting to see the road go by right under your feet. Every time we wanted to go someplace, we had to fill it up with oil and check the gas, rather than vice versa. This beast blanketed the air with blue smoke after a cold start, but improved as it warmed up. Against all odds, it actually ran very well -- it had Chrysler's intrepid 318 c.i. V8 engine, and got close to twenty miles per gallon. The hard part was keeping it street-legal, especially in inspection-happy Pennsylvania. Alas, after four months of hard driving (10,000 miles). the police caught up with me and forced me to junk it. Here's a picture of a much nicer one that I found on the web:

Enormous, wasn't it?

I enlisted in the Air Force late in 1979 and joined the band program at Travis Air Force Base, California. I would have been better off to save my money, but Travis was located in the middle of the Suisun Swamp, and it could get pretty boring out there with the snakes and fruit flies. (The Plymouth -- and the girlfriend -- were gone for good by this time.) So in late 1980, after many weekends of chow hall and base theater night life, I bought my second car: a 1966 Ford Galaxie four-door sedan. I think it was white, too. I paid $250 for it, and it already had 130,000 miles on it. This is the only car I ever owned that I still miss -- it was simply bulletproof. I haven't had many bargains this good in my fifty-five years. I put 100,000 miles on it, and gave it to my brother, who put on another 100,000 before he wore it clean out. The car had zero amenities (other than lots of room and plenty of road-hugging weight), and the interior parts had a bad habit of falling off. But it always got me where I was going. I was taking a lot of night school courses in math and computer science, and had to drive a lot back and forth to Vallejo, California, where some of the classes were taught. It never let me down. Once, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra came to San Francisco, and I took my old trombone teacher Bob Hamrick for a ride down Telegraph Street. ("How do you feel about those $250 brakes?" he asked fretfully.) I was to have the Galaxie for several years. The one pictured below is much nicer than the one I had, but that's the model. The '65, '66, and '67 Galaxies were very similar; the '66 was the only one with rectangular taillights. Meanwhile, my buddies back in Pennsylvania were already convinced that Lee and junker cars go together like Greek philosophy and hemlock, and I've never since been able to convince them otherwise.

In 1981, I was 28, and the question was finally answered: was there somewhere in this great country of ours a woman who could, and even more importantly, would put up with me? Luckily for me, the answer was yes. Debbie joined our band as a flute player, and we became an item within two months -- and finally married in April 1983. This also meant marrying into a Fiat, so you can see she was already undaunted by lost causes. She owned an olive-drab green 1974 Fiat 124 four-door sedan, pretty much the same car that the Russian Lada was based on -- and you know how famous the Russians were for making great cars, at least when they sported treads and machine guns. Fiat already had a horrible reputation for reliability -- their slogan could have been, "At least we're not French." However, Debbie had already put over 100,000 miles on the Giant Olive, driving back and forth from her home in Glendora, California to her college courses at Long Beach State -- so how bad could it be, I wondered? It was a strong runner, but it burned oil and had gremlins in the electrical system. Still, for its day, it was quite amazing. A cheap car with great seats, a double-overhead-cam 1.6 litre four-banger back in the day of pushrod engines, and four-wheel disk brakes at a time when almost no car on the market had them, and certainly not cheap econo-boxes. It was fun to drive, and exciting, too, especially when the headlights went out for no apparent reason in the dead of night. Here's a picture of the dandy little Eye-talian from the Web, almost identical to the one we had. Pretty, eh?

While still in the Air Force, I transferred into the computer programming career field, and shipped out to Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, with Debbie transferring to the band at Offutt. Four blissful years in California, without a serious winter, came to a dreary end -- I was soon to find out that Omaha winters are even harder than Pittsburgh winters. Ick. Too much cold for this Southern boy! The Fiat was showing signs of body cancer (they were famous for rusting in the showroom) and we finally banished it when, driving to work one morning with a colleague, Dave, it began spitting hot radiator fluid on his shirt, right through the dashboard. "Ouch! Ouch!" explained Dave. That night, Debbie and I bought a 1982 Volkswagen Jetta Diesel. Later on, a colleague of mine in Denver, Ron, would explain our selection in this manner: "Lee, it's like you wanted to be cool. You thought to yourself, VW is a cool European sedan: stylish, handles well... But at the last minute, you had to go and say, 'Slap a diesel in it!'" I wish I could say it was the worst car we ever owned. My mechanic dubbed it, "Hitler's Revenge," for its miserable reliability. But it got great mileage. Only problem was, we moved to Denver after separating from the Air Force, and we would get passed going up the sides of the mountains by sixteen-wheelers. It couldn't pull a hat off your head. If you tied a chain from the rear bumper to a light switch, your wheels would spin and the light would never come on. And getting passed by the sixth-grade girls on their roller skates was really ignominious. But it got about 50 mpg, and that came in handy on the numerous trips I took from Littleton (where we lived) to Boulder (where I played in the orchestra) and Longmont (where I took trombone lessons). The Jetta pictured below is identical, except ours was a four-door and did not have the fancy wheels...

The oil & gas shortages of the late 1970s ushered in an era of absolute blandness in auto design. The Jetta had all the style of a Tupperware container. Cars should dare to be beautiful and settle for ugly if that's the only alternative to nondescript. Same as me.

In Jan 1987, I started a job with a company called TRW in Fairfax, VA, and both the Ford (getting ancient by then) and Hitler's staff car made the journey with us. In D.C. traffic, you might as well use roller skates; you'd get where you're going faster. A bad case of arteriosclerosis of the highway. Especially after a snow storm, nothing is slower than Manassas in January. I'll leave off here, and pick up the narrative again soon.


Glen said...

Tell us about the Checker. That is a timeless love story.

Lee said...

Patience, young man. The saga unfolds even as we speak...