The odometer on my trusty rusty is topping 180k. It occurred to me that one of these days I’m gonna need another car. I’m in no hurry to buy another one, believe me. My ‘01 Malibu, while long in the tooth is hands-down the most reliable car I’ve ever owned. It got me thinking about all the cars I’ve had over the years. A few good ones, and a lotta clunkers.
For instance, the ‘74 Ford Maverick I owned for awhile. I called it “The Widowmaker” for a couple of reasons. For starters, there was rust hole about a foot in diameter in the floor in front of the driver’s seat. A previous owner fixed this with a piece of sheet metal laid over the hole fastened down with nails, bent over on the underside. Also, someone miraculously shoehorned a 400-something cubic inch engine from a Thunderbird into it. The combination of ridiculous speed and never knowing when the seat was going to fall through the floor made for a white-knuckle experience every time you drove it. Still, at least it was sort of mechanically reliable, unlike my first car.
If you were like the guys I knew in school, once you hit 14 or 15, you started checking out the car magazines and drooling over the ‘Vettes, Ferraris, and street rods. There might have been a few lucky rich kids whose parents bought them a Corvette, but for the rest of us, the car we fantasized about was usually a lot more impressive than the one we ended up with. No matter… Even if the car you got wasn’t the head-turner you wanted, it was still freedom! No more riding the bus to school for you, my friend… and when you weren’t driving somewhere practical like school or your job, you could scoop the loop with your friends or transport the herd to some teenage misadventure.
My first car could legitimately be referred to as a head-turner, though. It was one of these:
Behold its’ hideousness! The AMC Gremlin! Fittingly unleashed on the world April Fool’s Day in 1970, the Gremlin handled horribly, rusted quickly, and was plagued with reliability issues. The one pictured above is not my car, but another of the same color that has obviously been restored. If you want to know what my car looked like, imagine the one in the picture after being attacked by a group of angry monkeys, then submerged in the Atlantic Ocean for a couple of weeks before being left to dry in the sun for 30 years, and you’re in the ballpark.
I inherited this beast from my sister, who bought it for $50 from a local character who wore little round hippie shades and a beret. Kind of a beatnik Fred Sanford. Once the thrill of risking life and limb in this jalopy wore off for her, I got it. Yay me.
Scooping the loop with friends wasn’t an option, since 1) no one but me wouldn’t be caught dead in this abomination, and 2) the pins were broke on the driver’s seat so the spare tire had to go in the backseat to hold the back of the driver’s seat up. In this car three was the maximum occupancy, provided you could get three people in it without the rear axle snapping in half like a chicken bone.
One thing you had plenty of was ventilation. The plastic speaker grills in the backseat area had been punched out, and they lined up perfectly with a couple of massive rust holes in the body. So, not only could you stay nice and cool in the summer (and winter), but as an added safety feature, a backseat rider could stick their arm out and signal for a turn.
I remember before dad handed me the keys, he said “I wouldn’t take it over about 35. Pieces will fall off of it.” For a split second I thought it was his fatherly way of keeping me from driving like an idiot. Then I glanced over at it and back at him, and I knew he wasn’t kidding. I don’t think I ever ventured off over about 2 miles from home in it.
One unintentional “feature” was the Swedish massage you’d get whenever you went for a drive. Turn the key and if you were lucky, the car would eventually wheeze itself to life. After waiting a few minutes to let it cough up all the hairballs, you could slowly herd the thing down the road, the engine making a loud “PUCKITA-PUCKITA-PUCKITA” sound as it did its’ best to shake free of the motor mounts and you enjoyed a deep-tissue massage. Sweeeeet.
Towards the end of it’s mercifully short life in my possession, I turned the key to start it, and the ignition cylinder fell out in my hand. I fixed it by reaming a hole in the dash with my pocketknife, and wiring the ignition up to a pushbutton. I did this because: 1) A replacement was around $20, which was roughly 10 times the value of this car, and 2) Even if someone could easily steal it, who would? You could’ve parked this thing in the worst neighborhood in Detroit, came back a year later and it still would have been sitting there unscathed, except maybe for a sympathy card tucked under the windshield wiper.
One day the engine puckita’ed it’s last puckita. I don’t even remember the circumstances surrounding its’ unceremonious demise, except that one day it was sort of running and the next day it wasn’t. Instead of being overcome by a wave of despair, it was more like a wave of “meh”. I didn’t care much. Walking was a better and safer option.
Looking back at some of the cars I’ve had over the years and considering the rolling pile of garbage I could be driving, I’ll stick with my trusty rusty until the wheels fall off, which I hope isn’t for a very long time.