WARNING! If you have absolutely no interest in cars, trucks, motorcycles or wheeled contrivances of any sort, DO NOT READ THIS STORY! Doing so may result in extreme boredom, or worse, annoyance. You have been warned.
There are many lenses through which one can view history: geologically, astrological, literary, artistically, genealogically and sociologically to name a few. Being a full-fledged, old-school analog guy, I tend to measure history automobilogically. In other words, I perceive my history from where the rubber meets the road. It has been said that you can tell a lot about a person by the car he or she drives. I suppose you'll have to be the judge of that.
When I was born, my dad had a ’49 Ford Coupe - I wish I had one today! My folks wheeled me about our neighborhood in a white-rubber-wheeled baby buggy with a convertible top. Years later, after my younger sister was no longer traveling by this mode, my friends and I used the wheels from the buggy and some 2x4s to make our own race car, steered with a rope. We kept a lot of Band-Aids in our pockets. At around age three, and in honor of my first real word, “tractor”, my farmer grandfather bought me a 3-wheeled, pedal-powered, ride-on tractor with a wagon and front-end bucket loader. I picked up my first girls with this. (With the wagon, not the loader!) A few years later, I prepared myself for the road by practicing in the woods on my grandfather's mid-40's Ford 8-N.
At age six, I received my first “big boy bike”: a beige 24” Columbia 2-wheeler. And I did feel pretty big. That is until I realized that most of my buddies were cruising around on 26” bikes. I wobbled around, following them on that nondescript Columbia until Christmas of my 10th year when my parents gave me a shiny, black 26” English 3-speed Royce-Union bicycle. This was my primary ride until I got my driver’s license at sixteen and tooled around town in my parent’s very un-cool, poop-brown, 1963 Dodge Dart sedan with a push-button transmission. I suppose now that they've passed I can reveal that I wasn't really being chased by hoodlums on the night I buried that "Daht" up to its axles in the mud, and had to be towed by Arnold’s Garage from deep in the cornfields of Cresotti’s farm. I had been engaging in my first (but not last!) episode of “submarine races” with my girlfriend.
Life really got on the road with my own first automobile: a red 1965 VW Beetle that my dad and I paid $800 for. I jazzed and juiced that Bug up, using nearly all my meager wages earned working in a Dairy Queen supply warehouse to add header pipes, Firestone Wide-Oval tires, chrome wheels, rallye lights (with wire-mesh brush screens for all the off-roading I might never do), a chrome competition air cleaner, faux-leather door panels, tachometer, seat covers and head rests, an extension speaker for the AM radio, and the crowning touch – wood-grained contact paper for the dashboard! I commuted for two years to college and then sold it, just before the 40 hp engine blew up, to a student from Long Island for $900. My father, a WWII vet, had been skeptical from the start of my foreign “peoples’ wagon”. He wanted his son to "get a good American car, like a Dodge!" Hell, I drove that Beetle for nearly three years and sold it for a hundred bucks more than I paid for it. I considered that "American" enough.
Dad wanted so badly for me to "buy American" that he found a gold (champagne?) colored, 1965 Dodge Dart Sport with a Slant-6 engine. It had white bucket seats and a floor shifter for its automatic transmission. He pointed out that it already had a built-in extension speaker for its AM radio. It had been owned by a little old lady who only drove it to church. Uh-huh. It could not “smoke show” the tires. I hated this car. We paid $800 for it too.
One day while idling around town in the "Ol' Gol' Daht”, I came across a shiny, red 1967 Austin Healey Sprite for sale in a local gas station. It needed an exhaust system and a new convertible top. The owner needed $800. I offered $700 and we settled on $750. I sold the “Daht” to my buddy Eddie for $700 - he drove it all through college - and I went right up and drove that jaunty, English Sprite home. My father wouldn’t talk to me for days. Again, I spent nearly all my DQ warehouse wages on a new exhaust system and convertible top. I installed them myself.
That English sports car was a blast to drive and I went everywhere in it, including driving over sixty miles to a gig in a winter snowstorm with the top down. That's so I could fit my Fender Bandmaster amp and electric guitar in the jumpseat in back! Several of my buddies had English sports cars too. Our "club" consisted of: a Triumph TR-4 and Triumph Spitfire, a Sunbeam Alpine Tiger (that little sleeper had a V8 engine in it!), an MG-A (which was totaled on the Mass Pike and replaced with an MG-B). We tore it up over most of the Northeast. Sadly, I had to succumb to the fact that the Sprite simply would not start if it were raining or below 32 degrees. I once got so angry with it for leaving me stranded that I punished it by breaking off all the toggle switches from the dashboard. For revenge, the car made me stick wooden toothpicks into the headlight switch to "ignite the lamps"! After I was forced to rebuild the engine - to the tune of a thousand bucks! - when the opportunity to make an even trade for a 1965 Chevy van came along, I did the deed.
It was around 1970 and the band that I was in, Max Creek, was starting to expand. We got more: bigger amps and speakers, instruments, members, friends and hangers-on. We began to travel further than our immediate Hartford surroundings. The Chevy van fit the bill – well, most of the time. I recall one trip in a wailing Nor'easter to a gig at Mt. Snow in VT when the wipers failed. We tied ropes to the wipers and pulled them back 'n forth through the open vent windows. It was very long, cold trip. We camped in it from time to time, though not always on purpose. The shag carpeting, paneled walls (complete with ‘accent lights’) and built-in double bed made this van the ideal multi-purpose, back-road ‘love machine’ - if you were in the right company! I painted the front of the van with a bright portrait of a blazing yellow sun with a nice platter of sizzlin' bacon ‘n eggs smack in the center. The band’s name was painted on the side. The 3-speed transmission would regularly lock up in third gear, necessitating that someone crawl under it with a long metal hook and free the stuck linkage – not a joy in nasty weather or on a highway ramp.
Badly missing my Sprite, a drummer friend of mine convinced me to go in ‘halvsies' with him on a lime-green 1959 A-H Bug-Eye Sprite. I leaped at the chance. I should have looked before leaping. Twice. We had intended to use the car for weekend rallyes and parking lot gymkanas. We barely got the car home from the funky used car lot before its transmission exploded. The dealer refused to fix it or take it back - "It's yours now, boys. I already spent yer money anyway". It took several phone calls and a letter from an attorney, but we did get our $500 back. We had our "racer" less than 72 hours. That car is worth over 25 grand today.
I eventually unloaded the Chevy van when I left the band. Can’t remember where it went. Probably a good thing. But I do remember that its demise necessitated the purchase of my first brand-new car. Except that it wasn’t a car. It was a 1972 Datsun (before they became Nissan) pick-up truck, screamin’ yellow, with a 4-speed transmission, wide mag wheels and a tonneau cover to keep the weather out of the bed – except that it didn’t. I recall a nearly cryogenic experience with hypothermia while camping in it at the Crafstbury, VT Fiddle Festival. Despite this shortcoming, I rather liked this li’l truck and kept it for the four years it took to pay it off – all $2995 of it. But I was getting restless for some adventure - and that Datsun rode like a buckboard.
The adventurous path led me to a 1970 VW Camper Van, complete with a pop-top and (very uncomfortable) hammock, tilt-top table, fold-out double bed, sink, ice box, closet and – a gasoline heater! I had moved to "way upstate" New York (aka The Tundra) and that gasoline heater helped seal the deal! The "heater from hell" got a reputation for peeling the skin from the shins of anyone sitting in the back of the van, and for its periodic unexpected explosions that nearly broke the sound barrier, sending foot-long blue/orange flames shooting from its exhaust pipe and imposing shell-shock upon any living creature within fifty yards. Oh, but it had a 40-channel CB radio – “That’s a big 10-4, Good Buddy!” I liked this camper van a lot and felt that I pretty much got my $1200 worth from it. It was just that the Volkswagen 40 hp engine simply didn’t have enough nut to negotiate the rugged Adirondak Mountains, especially in the winter. I began to keep my eye out for another ride.
And that’s when the 1942 Chevrolet Panel Delivery Van - aka a WWII munitions transporter - came along. This vehicle was so unique that it warrants its very own story. (My, my, it's your lucky day . . . I refer you to “The Ragtime Millionaire’s Ride” story found posted in the February 2009 issue of this very Web Journal. You'll learn more than you bargained for about this very unique rig).
After nearly driving "Old 42" into the ground – or was it the other way around? – I found myself longing for something that was more reliable, fun to drive, got better mileage and didn’t leave me deaf as a post (guess you'll have to check out the other story to find out what this means?). My wife discovered a 1971 British Racing Green, 4-door, Audi 100LS with tan leather seats. I had to agree with her (after all, she had once owned a racy little 1969 Fiat Spyder convertible) that this vehicle was a blast to drive . . . hugging curves, shooting down the highway, mile markers a-blur! Unfortunately I didn’t get to blur past too many mile-markers in the 100LS before a bitter divorce plotted the course for that ride and it drove out of my life almost as recklessly as it drove in. The ex eventually totaled it.
I still had the ’42 Chevy, but couldn’t find anyone to buy it so I took it off the road and stowed it in my parent’s yard where it languished for a couple of years until I practically gave it away to a guy who turned it into a really classy hot rod. Nearly broke, I borrowed $1000 from my family and purchased a white and yellow 1971 Volkswagen van. Yup, another VW van. Never knowing when to leave well enough alone, I took out the middle seat, installed carpet and curtains, suspended the Union Jack from the ceiling, added a Jensen cassette stereo (with FM radio!) and, you betcha, Good Buddy, another CB radio! I was off ‘n runnin’ for another few years, rollin' down the highway, avoiding the "Smokies" and eventually frying two more engines. I would have kept the VW longer except the right rocker panel rusted out, releasing the sliding side door from its track, sending it flying off into the woods somewhere in northwest Connecticut. I duct taped the severely wounded door back on and sold the van to some kid for $350. I needed the money (and then some!) to buy my 1977 silver Audi Fox.
Like its Audi 100LS predecessor, the Silver Fox was also quite a hoot to drive. Too bad it was such a money pit. Everything that could go wrong with it did. And just when I thought I’d fixed or replaced practically everything, nearly draining my bank account in the process, the top of both front fenders simultaneously rusted completely through shooting water, mud, sand, snow, whatever, flying up onto the windshield. The ballistic pebble that took out the windshield one dark night was the Silver Fox’s death knell, and I sold it to another kid for a few hundred. But that was OK, because I’d already found my next ride.
The pristine, white 1967 Volvo P-1800 two-seater sports car with black leather, electronic overdrive, full gauges, fog lamps and Stebro exhaust was just what I needed. My girlfriend and I spent $1650 for it. But it wasn’t to be in my life for too long as my girlfriend and I had very different automotive requirements. She gardened and raised small livestock. I worked as a musician and newspaper ad salesman. I could carry my guitars and briefcase in the Volvo. She couldn’t carry three dogs, hay bales, peat moss, animal feed or live goats and chickens in the 2-seater “P”. But she did. It didn’t take long before the poor car took on a real hang-dog look, like it belonged to the Beverly Hillbillies – and it smelled worse than a compost heap. We eventually broke up and she got the Volvo. I no longer wanted it.
That’s when I bought my second brand-new car – a maroon 1984 Subaru Brat. (BRAT = Bi-Radial All Terrain. Go figure). This jolly little number was the renegade marriage between a miniature Japanese 4x4 pickup truck and a mountain goat. It would go nearly anywhere, didn’t eat much, and was as reliable as Caribbean sunshine. That is, until it hit around 125k miles. Then its body began to disintegrate into dust and some serious mechanical nickel ‘n diming began. I’d returned to grad school in New Hampshire and could not afford to keep tossing a few hundred here and there to keep this delightfully odd vehicle roadworthy. I began to understand the true definition of Brat.
It was around this time when my mother was killed in a single-car crash on the MassPike. It was just before Christmas. It's never a good time to lose one's mother, but this seemed especially harsh. The following summer, to assuage my grief, I bought a beautiful, black 1984 BMW 1000-RT, a for-real, decked out touring machine. I had many road adventures on this motorcycle. But the Beemer seemed just too big, too fast, for the analog guy and my girlfriend at the time hated riding, so, somewhat reluctantly I sold it to a neurotic German who criticized my nothing-short-of-immaculate maintenance records.
I guess you could blame the sailboat for the arrival of the red and black, 2005 Honda Element. Some folks call it the Honda Elephant, a Toaster-on-Wheels. I call it my Swiss Army Knife Car. It has suicide doors just like the classic early ‘60’s Lincoln Continental. I can put nearly anything in it (including snow- and leaf-blowers, amps, guitars et al) and load it out again just as easily. The rubberized interior can be sponged clean in a jiffy. It has all-wheel drive, so its footing is sure. It has a spunky 4-cylinder, 5-speed so its performance and economy are quite good - a respectable 28mpg highway. The black plastic fenders and rocker panels resist dents and won’t rust out. There’s tons of headroom. The seats fold down to make a double bed. The 7-speaker sound system has a sub-woofer and it ROCKS! There's a compass and GPS (directional overkill), a radar detector (the Element can easily exceed the speed limit), an oversize analog clock and a jack for the mp3 player that I don't have. Best of all, the Element tows the sailboat without a whimper.
So what happened to the Passat? I kept it for awhile, but found I was spending most of my time in the Element, so I sold it to a local kid who pimped it out with free-flow exhaust, carbon wheels, performance computer chip, etc. I needed the money to buy a 2004 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Custom. Hey, the old Triumph was getting lonely, and a man can’t ride just on four wheels all the time!