Automotive tales of my youth

I wrote the following paper in 2002 about my unique history with automobiles for a literary club called the Tuesday Night Club. The paper deeply resonated with members of the all-male club. After all, what guy doesn’t have car stories? I’ve had more than my share. Since 2002, I’ve also owned a completely restored 1967 Camaro RS which falls into the unique category just like the vehicles in the paper. The only picture I have handy is the Camaro, which should get you into an automotive mood.

As I pondered a headline such as “Cars of my youth,” I realized these extensions of my humanity were more than that. These were my youth – and so sweetly remembered without the sting of  nightmarish repairs.

Pardon all caps mode, but that helps when you are reading a paper aloud to a group. Bear in mind I have only done a light edit…

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WHEN MARTY DOGGETT READ HIS PAPER LAST YEAR ABOUT SOME YOUTHFUL PERAMBULATIONS, I THOUGHT I’VE HAD SOME OF THOSE. MAYBE THERE’S A TNC PAPER THERE.

BUT I HAD ALREADY DECIDED TO WRITE ABOUT THE MIRACLE CURES OF GENOMICS AND PROTEOMICS — THE FABULOUS TECHNOLOGIES THAT I WRITE ABOUT NOW. UNRAVELING HOW GENES AND PROTEINS WORK PROMISE TO PROLONG LIFE AND RID US OF THE WORST DISEASES. ALAS, GENOMICS WILL HAVE TO WAIT BECAUSE I DON’T WANT TO LOSE THE INSPIRATION MARTY GAVE ME ON A TOPIC THAT’S BEEN ON MY MIND FOR A LONG TIME.

MY YOUTHFUL TREKS AROUND THIS COUNTRY ARE IDEALLY EXPRESSED THROUGH THE FIRST SEVEN CARS I OWNED. THESE ODDITIES WERE A PROFOUND PART OF MY BUDGET-CHALLENGED YOUTH. AFTER ALL, A CAR NO MATTER HOW POORLY IT LOOKED OR RAN WAS OFTEN A YOUNG PERSON’S MOST PRIZED POSSESSION.

FOR SOME PEOPLE, GRADUATION FROM HIGH SCHOOL OR COLLEGE  ENDS A CHAPTER IN ONE’S LIFE. OR TURNING 30, 50 OR ENDING AN ILLUSTRIOUS CAREER. THE BOOKENDS ON MY YOUTH – WHEN I SUPPOSED TO BE AN ADULT – WERE FROM 1970 UNTIL 1981 WHEN CARS HAD TO BE CHEAP AND RELIABLE. OF COURSE, THAT MEANT THERE WERE OLD, ODD AND UNRELIABLE.

BUT FIRST A WORD ON WHAT WAS PROBABLY THE PENULTIMATE DECADE FOR AMERICAN AUTOMOBILES, THE SIXTIES. THE BEACHBOYS WROTE SEVERAL SONGS ABOUT CARS AND HOTRODS. THE NATION’S LOVE AFFAIR WITH AMERICAN PRODUCED JAN AND DEAN AND THE LITTLE OLD LADY FROM PASADENA, RONNY AND DAYTONAS WHO SANG GTO AND THE RIP CHORDS WITH THEIR HIT “HEY LITTLE COBRA.”

MUSCLE CARS AND HOTRODS WERE INTERTWINED WITH MASCULINITY AND SEX APPEAL. MY PARENTS THOUGHT ALL THIS WAS NONSENSE WHICH MADE IT ALL THE MORE APPEALING TO ME.  OF COURSE, THAT REBELLIOUS MENTALITY HAS COME BACK AND BIT ME BIGTIME WITH MY OWN KIDS.

CHEVY HAD THE MOST IDOLIZED ENGINES AS EXPRESSED BY CUBIC INCH DISPLACEMENT – THE 283, 327, 396, 427 AND THE GIANT 454  A STAPLE IN   POLICE CRUISERS. THE MOST FAMOUS ENGINE OF ALL WAS IMMORTALIZED IN THE BEACH BOYS SONG “409”. HERE’S WHAT AUTO WRITER BOB WALLACE HAS TO SAY ABOUT THE 409.

“SHE’S SO FINE, MY 409,” WAS ONE OF THE BEACH BOYS’ BIGGER HITS. THE ULTIMATE 409 OF THAT ERA HAD TO BE AN IMPALA SS. THE 409 OF SONG WAS A BIG-BLOCK, POKED AND STROKED VERSION OF THE OLD 348 TRUCK ENGINE WITH A BRACE OF 4-BARREL CARBS PERCHED ON TOP.

DODGE AND PLYMOUTH HAD THE 440 HEMI. FORD HAD A 427, BUT IN 1968 WENT ONE BETTER THAN GM WITH A 428 CUBIC INCH POWER PLANT. AND FORD PRODUCED MILLIONS OF THE POPULAR 390, STANDARD  IN MANY LARGE FORD MODELS.

ALAS, I HAD BUT ONE VEHICLE WITH THESE GAS-GUZZLING POWERFUL PLANTS OR MILLS AS HOTROD MAGS CALLED THEM, BUT THAT DIDN’T STOP ME FROM DREAMING ABOUT DRIVING DOWN HIGH ST. IN A POKED AND STROKED PONTIAC GTO. THOSE CARS TURNED HEADS.

CARS THEN WERE MUCH SIMPLER THEN. THERE WERE NO COMPUTERS, GPS, POLLUTION CONTROLS OR HUNDREDS OF LITTLE MOTORS TO CARRY OUT SEEMING TRVIAL TASKS LIKE CRANK WIPERS ON THE HEADLIGHTS. WHAT’S MORE, REAL MEN WORKED ON THEIR CARS, WHICH TODAY IS A LOST ART. CARS HAVE BECOME TOO COMPLEX AND SPECIALIZED FOR MERE MORTALS TO WORK ON.

I GOT BUG FOR ANYTHING WITH FOUR OR MORE WHEELS FROM MY GRANDFATHER’S FARM EQUIPMENT. HE HAD TRACTORS, JEEPS, TRUCKS, BIG MOWERS AND LOTS INTERESTING AND LIMB-THREATENING FARM IMPLEMENTS. I HAD BEEN DRIVING IN THE FIELDS SINCE I WAS 9 OR 10.

ROMANTIC OR NOT, CARS THEN WERE BLAMED FOR CHOKING POLLUTION AND MULTITUDE OF OTHER ENVIRONMENTAL SINS. BUT FEW CARED IN THE SIXTIES?

I VIVIDLY RECALL JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING ABOUT MY FIRST SEVEN VEHICLES. I GAVE SOME OF THEM NAMES AND WORKED ON THEM WHEN THEY WERE BETTER LEFT ALONE. THE SIXTIES SAW THE ADVENT OF POTHEADS, BUT MY FRIENDS AND I REVELED MORE IN BEING PISTONS-HEADS, ALWAYS TINKERING AND FIXING CARS, DOING DANGEROUS THINGS LIKE TOWING THEM AT 50 MPH WITH A 25-FOOT ROPE AFTER THE BRAKES HAD FAILED. AFTER ALL WHO HAD THE MONEY TO CALL A REPAIR TRUCK AND TAKE THEM TO THE GARAGE?

I BOUGHT MY FIRST CAR – A 1965 CHEVELLE 300 DELUXE – AT AGE 19. IT WAS THE MOST MUNDANE OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. RAY DAVIS, A WELL-KNOWN LOCAL CHEVY SALESMAN AT YEO CHEVROLET AND BEFORE THAT COLLIS CHEVROLET WHERE LUNT & KELLY IS TODAY, SOLD IT TO ME FOR $900. ORIGINALLY A LACKLUSTER ANSWER TO THE FABULOUS FORD MUSTANG, CHEVELLES WERE MADE BY GM FROM 1964 TO 1977.

CHEVY MADE MORE THAN 6.2 MILLION CHEVELLES MALIBUS AND 300S, ANOTHER 600,000 SUPERSPORTS AND 102,000 CONVERTIBLES. GM’S BEST YEAR WAS 1969 WHEN IT SOLD MORE THAN 600,000 CHEVELLES AND PRODUCED OLD ONE OF THE BEST MUSCLE CARS OF DECADE – THE CHEVLLE SUPERSPORT 396. IT SOUNDED AND LOOKED REAL FINE.

ALAS, MINE WAS NOT THE HOT EL CAMINO HALF-CAR HALF PICK-UP OR THE SIZZLING CHEVELLE MALIBU OR SUPERSPORT.  MINE WAS THE NONDESCRIPT LOW-END MODEL WITH A WIMPY 230 CUBIC-INCH SIX-CYLINDER ENGINE. BOOORING. IT WAS WHAT THE CHEVY BISCAYNE WAS TO THE IMPALA (update: when I bought the `67 Camaro at the Owl’s Head Transportation Musuem auto auction in Aug., 2010, I really wanted a late sixties Chevelle SuperSport…also, too pricey).

STILL IT WAS MY FIRST CAR. MY COLLEGE BUDDY JIM GAGE NAMED HER GERTRUDE. JIM WAS ON THE SAME ODD AUTOMOTIVE TRACK AS ME. HE DROVE A SIMCA, A FRENCH CAR THAT NEVER TOOK HOLD HERE. BRITISH CARS WERE HORRID, BUT FRENCH CARS WERE A DISASTER.

GERTRUDE TAUGHT ME MANY VALUABLES LESSONS ABOUT PATIENCE WITH MACHINERY. SEVERAL MONTHS AFTER I BOUGHT THE CAR IN THE SPRING OF 1968, I RACED DOWN TO SEARS IN SAUGUS TO BUY MY FIRST SET OF CRAFTSMAN TOOLS. WITH AN ENTIRE WEEK’S PAY FROM THE OWENS-ILLINOIS FACTORY WHERE I WORKED SUMMERS, I BOUGHT RACHETS, SOCKETS, SCREWDRIVERS, GAPS AND WRENCHES. I STILL USE THOSE TOOLS TODAY. SEARS STILLS GUARANTEES A FREE REPLACEMENT IF ANY OF THEM BREAK.

WHAT SEARS DIDN’T SAY IS THAT YOU COULD BREAK OTHER THINGS USING THEM. WHEN I GOT HOME, I DECIDED MY OIL COVER BOLTS ON THE TOP OF THE ENGINE NEEDED A LITTLE TIGHTENING. THEY ALWAYS LOOSENED OVER TIME IN THOSE DAYS. SNAP! THAT THREE EIGHTHS INCH RACHET COULD TAKE THE HEAD RIGHT OFF A BOLT IN NO TIME. SNAP, SNAP, SNAP. IN 10 MINUTES, I HAD SEVERED THE HEADS ON FOUR BOLTS.

DAD TO RESCUE. MY FATHER HAD KNACK AROUND MACHINES AND TOOLS. HE ALWAYS WORKED DELIBERATELY AND WITHOUT HASTE. I ADMIRED HIM FOR THAT. WE TOOK GERTRUDE DOWN TO THE BARN AT 20 TOPPANS LANE AND IN THE HEAT, DARKNESS AND MOSQUITOES PROCEEDED TO EXTRACT THE HEADLESS BOLTS WITH A MIRACULOUS REVERSE DRILL BIT KNOWN AS EASY OUT. YOU DRILLED INTO THE CENTER OF BOLT, INSERTED THE EASY OUT, TURNED AND OUT THEY  CAME.

BETWEEN TUNE-UPS AND MINOR REPAIRS, GERTRUDE RELIABLY TRANSPORTED ME TO AND FROM COLLEGE. ONE SUMMER EVENING I THOUGHT HER FINISH LOOKED A BIT DULL. TAKING THE OLD FINISH DOWN TO BARE METAL AND  SPRAY PAINTING THE GLEAMING SURFACE WITH RUSTOLEUM WILL MAKE HER LOOK LIKE NEW, I THOUGHT. JIM GAGE WAS HORRIFIED WHEN HE CAME TO MY HOUSE AND SAW THAT I WAS SANDING THE TRUNK’S SURFACE WITH A CIRCULAR SANDER ATTACHMENT ON A POWER DRILL USING 80 GRIT SANDPAPER. THE GOUGES NEVER CAME OUT AND GERTRUDE NEVER LOOKED THE SAME, WHAT WITH A FOREST GREEN RUSTOLEUM ON THE ROOF AND TRUNK AND ORIGINAL BLUE/GREEN FINISH EVERYWHERE ELSE.

I NEARLY FRIED HER ELECTRICAL SYSTEM WHEN I PUT IN A DC TO AC CONVERTER SO I COULD RUN A REEL-TO-REEL TAPE RECORDER IN THE CAR. THE CONVERTER WENT UP IN A HAZE OF BLEW SMOKE AFTER 24 HOURS, PRECIPITATING  ONE OF MY MANY TRIPS TO AL GOLDBERG’S JUNKYARD TO PICK UP A NEW ALTERNATOR FOR $10 AND USED VOLTAGE REGULATOR FOR $2.

GERTRUDE WAS THE ONLY ONE OF TWO CARS WHOSE ENGINE I REMOVED. IN LATE WINTER 1972, SHE DEVELOPED AN OIL LEAK WHEN THE GASKET ON THE OIL PAN BLEW. REMOVING THE OIL PAN SEEM LIKE GRITTY  UNDER-THE-CAR JOB BUT NOT ALL THAT COMPLICATED. LOOSEN THE BOLTS, DROP THE PAN, SMEAR THE GASKET WITH CEMENT, PUT IT IN PLACE AND REASSEMBLE. I WAS CRUSHED WHEN I DISCOVERED THE PAN COULD NOT BE REMOVED WITHOUT LIFTING OUT OF THE ENGINE. I CALLED GM AND THEIR TECHNICIANS CONFIRMED IT: THE HEART HAD TO COME OUT.

I THOUGHT THIS WAS THE END FOR GERTRUDE UNTIL ON AFTERNOON JIM GAGE BUILT A PULLEY OVER GERTRUDE’S HOOD OUT OF LOGS AND ROPE, AND SAID “JUST DO IT.” THE PIONEER SPIRIT WAS ALIVE AND WELL. IN THREE WEEKS, WE MANAGED TO GET THE ENGINE OUT, FIX THE PROBLEM AND PUT IT BACK. I WAS AMAZED THE CAR ACTUALLY RAN AFTERWARD. IN COURSE OUT THE WORK, THE RADIATOR WAS PUNCTURED FROM A RACHET ACCIDENTALLY THROWN AT A HIGH RATE OF SPEED. A BRAKE LINE BROKE TOO. BOTH WERE EASY FIXES BY COMPARISON.

I SOLD GERTRUDE FOR $150 IN THE SUMMER OF 1972. SHE’S IN AUTOMOTIVE HEAVEN TODAY.

I WAS CARLESS FOR A YEAR OR SO, BUT TOOK THE PLUNGE NEXT WITH A 1966 MERCURY MONTEREY MARAUDER. THIS MAFIA MOBILE LOOKED AS LONG AS ITS NAME AND  WAS FUNERAL HOME BLACK WITH BRIGHT RED LEATHERETTE INTERIOR. LIKE MOST $350 VEHICLES CARS IN THOSE DAYS,  IT WAS IN POOR CONDTION. THEY DON’T MAKE THEM LIKE THEY USED TO AND THANK GOD. IN LAST SUNDAY’S GLOBE, ROYAL FORD, THE GLOBE’S CAR CRITIC, PANNED THE COMEBACK OF THE MERCURY MARAUDER MUSCLE CAR – LOTS OF GROWL BUT NO BITE.

THIS CAR HAD A 390 CUBIC INCH WITH A FOUR-BARREL CARBURETOR, THE ONLY BIG ENGINE IN THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. YOU COULD FLOOR IT AND SEE THE GAS GAUGE NEEDLE EDGE CLOSER TO EMPTY. THE CAR CONSTANTLY OVERHEATED. THE BRAKES WERE POOR. THE MUFFLER LEAKED. EVERY BOLT IN THIS CAR HAD BEEN TURNED ONE TIME TOO MANY. IT WAS WILD AND HAPPY RIDE TO AL GOLDBERG’S A FEW MONTHS LATER TO PERMANENTLY DROP IT OFF.

MOM BAILED ME OUT THIS TIME. IN 1973, MY BLESSED MOTHER SOLD ME HER 1971 AUSTIN AMERICA, A BRITISH CAR. A BRITISH CAR? THEY WERE ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE LESS RELIABLE THAN AMERICAN CARS. MOM HAD BOUGHT IT BRAND NEW FOR $1,100 FROM DEALER FRANK INSERO AT THE RTE 1 TRAFFIC CIRCLE. SHE WANTED TO GET BACK INTO VW BEETLES WHICH HAD SERVED HER WELL SINCE SHE DUMPED A 1964 CHEVELLE MALIBU BECAUSE IT WAS TOO BIG. MY DREAM CAR!  I WAS CRUSHED AT THE TIME. THE DIMINUTIVE VW BUG WAS NO HEAD TURNER. THE MALIBU, ON THE OTHER HAND, WAS A POTENTIAL CHICK MAGNET AND LORD KNOWS, I NEEDED ALL THE HELP I COULD GET.

NOW IT WAS 1973. GAS PRICES WERE CLIMBING SO ECONO-BOXES WERE TIMELY AND POLITICALLY CORRECT. IN DIMENSIONS, THE OLIVE-YELLOW AUSTIN, MADE BY BRITISH-LEYLAND, WAS A SQUAT BOX ON TINY 12-INCH TIRES. IT HAD NO POWER, COMFORTABLE SEATS AND MANUAL RACK AND PINION STEERING.

AHHH, THE STEERING. THAT IS THE CENTRAL STORY TO THIS PRECURSOR TO THE YUGO. ONE FINE DAY I WAS HEADING DOWN COMMONWEALTH AVE. AROUND BU AND SIGNALED TO TAKE A LEFT TURN. I TURNED THE WHEEL AND IT AND THE STEERING COLUMN LITERALLY CAME OFF IN IN HANDS. MEANWHILE, I KEPT GOING STRAIGHT. I WAS TRAVELING 20 MPH IN TRAFFIC WITH NO STEERING. MIRACULOUSLY, THE BRAKES DID NOT FAIL AT THE SAME TIME AND I BROUGHT THE RUDDERLESS VEHICLE TO A SAFE STOP. THIS TIME, I WENT FOR THE TOW TRUCK WHICH BROUGHT IT BACK TO INSERO IN NEWBUYPORT. HE ALLEGEDLY FIXED IT BUT THE SAME THING HAPPENED AGAIN. IT WAS TIME TO TAKE MATTERS INTO MY OWN HANDS.

A SPLINE FROM THE STEERING BOX JUST UNDER THE FIREWALL HAD STRIPPED, MEANING THE STEERING COLUMN WHICH FIT OVER THE SPLINE SPUN WITHOUT THE DESIRED RESULT. HMMM…I COULD PAY HUGE SUMS, DO THE SAFE THING AND GET THE ENTIRE STEERING SYSTEM REPLACED. OR I COULD DRILL A HOLE THROUGH THE COLUMN AND SPLINE AND SECURE IT WITH BOLT, WHICH IS WHAT I DID. ON A TRIP TO THEIR HOME IN WILMINGTON, DELAWARE, I REGALED MY GIRLFRIEND’S PARENTS  WITH THE STEERING STORY. THEY WEREN’T AMUSED.

THE OTHER PROBLEM WAS WITH THE BRITISH SU FUEL PUMPS. SIX OF THEM FAILED – THE POINTS THAT ACTIVATED A DIAGRAM CONSTANTLY BURNED OUT. I FINALLY INSTALLED AN OFF-THE-SHELF GENERIC BENDIX ROTARY  PUMP AND NEVER HAD A PROBLEM AGAIN. I SOLD THE CAR TO FELLOW CAB DRIVER LENNIE TREMBLAY FOR $150 AND MADE SURE HE KNEW ABOUT THE WEAKNESS IN THE STEERING. I KEPT MY EYE ON THE NEWSPAPERS FOR A WHILE.

NEXT UP WAS THE WORST OF THE SEVEN, A CANNIBALIZED 1966 VW POPTOP CAMPER. IT HAD A 1971 ENGINE. THE 6-VOLT ELECTRICAL SYSTEM IT WAS BORN WITH HAD BEEN UPGRADED TO 12-VOLTS, MEANING THE ALTERNATOR LIGHT NEVER WENT COMPLETELY OFF.

BUT POPTOP CAMPERS WERE VERY MUCH IN DEMAND AND I HAD MANAGED TO NAB ONE FOR $300. MY GIRLFRIEND (THE SAME ONE) AND I PLANNED A CROSS-COUNTRY CAMPING TRIP. WHAT BETTER VEHICLE TO DO IT IN. IT WAS FLUSH WITH HOMEY AMENTIES: CABINETS, A KITCHEN TABLE AND SMALL DOUBLE BED IN THE BACK. A 4-FOOT SQUARE SECTION IN THE ROOF POPPED UP 2-3 FEET TO LEND AN AIRY FEEL, BUT THERE STILL WASN’T ENOUGH HEADROOM TO STAND UP.

I RIVETED ENLARGED SOME AIR VENTS TO THE ENGINE WELLS TO INCREASE,  PUT ON SOME 16-INCH TIRES ON THE REAR AND TRIED TO REHABILITATE THE CARS GASOLINE FIRED HEATER. YES, GASOLINE FIRED HEATER. IT EVEN LOOKED LIKE A BOMB. IT SAT JUST ABOVE THE REAR-MOUNTED ENGINE. GOD FORBID I EVER GET REAR ENDED – EVEN A LITTLE BIT.

HERE’S HOW IT WORKED. A DIAPHRAM ACTIVATED PUMPED SENT COPIUS AMOUNTS OF GASOLINE INTO A CHAMBER WHERE IT WAS IGNITED. WHATEVER HEAT RADIATED OFF THE  CHAMBER WAS BLOWN INTO THE BUS.

THE UNIT’S THERMOSTAT WAS BROKEN SO I HOT-WIRED THE PUMP TO A SWITCH INSTALLED UNDER THE DRIVERS SEAT SO I COULD TURN IT OFF AND ON AT WILL. ON THE TRIAL RUN, THE HEATER LIT UP (I COULD HEAR THE ROAR) AND PUMPED THICK BLACK SMOKE INTO THE INTERIOR OF THE BUS. IT DAWNED ON ME THAT I WAS PLAYING WITH FIRE AND INNOCENT LIVES. I DISABLED IT ENTIRELY.

THEN IT WAS OFF TO THE WEST COAST. HERE’S CAPTAINS LOG, JULY, 1975.

RTE. 80 IN NORTHERN PENNSYLVANIA…AROUND LOCKHAVEN – OIL LEAKS PROFUSELY FROM WHERE ENGINE CONNECTS TO TRANSMISSION. THIS IS NOT A GOOD START TO THE 7,000 MILE JOURNEY. CAN WE MAKE IT TO COLUMBUS, THE FIRST STOP?

WE MAKE IT TO COLUMBUS. TRANSMISSION SLIPPING AND MAKING A GRINDING NOISE. MECHANIC SAYS I NEED NEW CLUTCH, THROW-OUT BEARING, PRESSURE PLATE AND GASKETS. NO PROBLEM. I’LL DO IT MYSELF.

ENGINE IS REMOVED ATOP A SAWED-OFF GROCERY CART. NEW PARTS ARE INSTALLED AND I SAY A PRAYER FOR JOHN MUIR, AUTHOR OF HOW TO KEEP YOUR VOLKSWAGON ALIVE, ALSO KNOWN AS THE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO VOLKSWAGON REPAIR. HE COULD REBUILD HIS ENGINE ON THE SIDE OF THE ROAD. RELATIONSHIP WITH GIRLFRIEND GOING DOWNHILL MONEY SUPPLY TAKES BIG HIT.

NEXT STOP – CINNCINATI. BUS WAS GETTING VERY LOUD, FORCING GIRLDFIEND AND I TO REPEAT EVERYTHING WE SAID TO EACH OTHER, WHICH WASN’T MUCH. DIAGNOSIS. MUFFLER NEEDED REPLACING, BUT IT WOULD HAVE IN ORDER TO WAIT TO PRESERVE CASH.

SANTA FE – REPLACED MUFFLER. GIRLFRIEND AND I TEMPORARILY DEAF.  ON TEST DRIVE ON SANTA FE’S BACK ROADS, THE BUS STOPPED AS IT SOMETHING IN THE MOTOR SEEMED TO HAVE SNAPPED. TOWED BACK TO JIM GAGE’S DORM AT ST. JOHN’S UNIVERSITY WHERE HE WAS GETTING A MASTER’S DEGREE. I CALLED MUIR’S SANTA FE HOME FOR HELP AND COMMISERATION. HE WASN’T THERE.    DISCOVERED THE FOUR ENGINE BOLTS HOLDING THE ENGINE TO TRANSMISSION HAD ONLY BEEN FINGER TIGHTENED 1,500 MILES AGO IN COLUMBUS. BOLTS TIGHTENED AND WERE BACK ON THE ROAD, HEADED FOR DURANGO. MUCH SILENCE EN ROUTE.

FOUR CORNERS, THE INTERSECTION OF THE NEVADA, UTAH, ARIZONA AND NEW MEXICO BORDERS. AT MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, OUR BEST TWO DAYS ON THIS ODYESSY SO FAR, THE CLAMP HOLDING DISTRIBUTOR IN PLACE AND THUS REGULATING ENGINE TIMING COMES LOSE. I AM READY TO LEAVE BUS AND GIRLFRIEND AND WALK QUIETLY INTO THE DESERT.

AS I STRUGGLE TO TIGHTEN A BOLT THAT CANNOT BE TIGHTENED BECAUSE IT IS STRIPPED, VACATIONERS IN STATION WAGONS HOP OUT, STRADDLE THE FOUR STATES WITH THEIR ARMS AND FEET WHILE ANOTHER FAMILY MEMBER SNAPS A PICTURE. I HATED THEM TOO.

NOW WE WERE STUCK. THE ONLY THING TO DO WAS HITCHIKE 50 MILES BACK TO A JUNKYARD IN CORTEZ, COLORADO TO GET ANOTHER CLAMP. HERE WE WERE A- LONGHAIR FROM MASACHEUSETTS WITH HIS HIPPIE GIRLFRIEND HITCHHIKING IN A REMOTE PART OF COLORADO. ALL WENT WELL. THE MOST INTERESTING RIDE CAME FROM TWO HAY HAULERS IN A OLD STAKE TRUCK. THEY BROUGHT HAY TO INDIANS IN REMOTE SETTLEMENTS. THEY WERE VERY FRIENDLY AND HELPFUL. OR THEY SIMPLY DECIDED WE WERE NOT WORTH ROBBING OR MOLESTING.

NEXT STOP: NEEDLES, CALIF., TEMPARATURE: 115 DEGREES. BELIVE OR NOT I’M GETTING TIRED OF THIS. DISTRIBUTOR CAP DEVELOPS A CRACK. ONE HOUR LATER A NEW CAP WE ON OUR WAY ACROSS THE MOJAVE DESERT WHERE WE HAD NOT BUSINESS BEING. 115 DEGREES ALL THE WAY ACROSS TO  BARSTOW WHERE OUR APPEARANCE NECESSITATED SEVERAL STABS AT GETTING OUR ONE AND ONLY CHEAP MOTEL ROOM OF THE TRIP.

IT’S ON TO SF. BUS RUNNING BETTER THAN RELATIONSHIP. STARTER GOES…WE WILL JUMP START IT FOR THE NEXT 3,000 MILES. YOU COULD JUMP HER UP A HILL BECAUSE THERE THE BUS WAS SO INSUBSTANTIAL. BORROW LOTS OF MONEY FROM FRIENDS IN SF AND GIRLFRIEND’S SISTER IN PINEDALE, WYOMING.

EXCHANGED PROMOTIONAL CASINO CHITS SEVERAL TIMES IN LAKE TAHOE FOR CUP OF NICKELS AND MANAGED TO FILL GAS TANK.

THE ONLY OTHER BREAKDOWN WAS A FRONT WHEEL BEARING THAT GROUND TO DUST IN PORT JERVIS, NY ON THE RETURN. WE ARRIVE SAFELY AT HOME IN MALDEN AFTER TWO MONTHS ON THE ROAD. RELATIONSHIP TERMINATES THREE MONTHS LATER. THANK YOU, BUS.

HERE’S THE IRONY. I PUT AN AD IN THE GLOBE TO SELL IT AND GOT THE ASKING PRICE FROM THE FIRST CALLER. AS I HANDED HIM THE KEYS (I HAD FIXED THE STARTER)  I SAW THE SAME EXCITEMENT IN HIS FACE THAT I HAD WHEN I BOUGHT IT. LITTLE DID HE KNOW…FORTY OTHER CALLS FOLLOWED WITHIN TWO DAYS. VW POPTOP CAMPERS WERE VERY POPULAR.

NOW IT WAS BACK TO FUTURE. I BOUGHT A 1964 DODGE DART OFF A GUY’S LAWN IN NORTHERN MAINE FOR $75. GAGE ALWAYS RIBBED ME THAT I PAID TOO MUCH FOR THE CAR. THAT WAS MANTRA IN LAGRANGE, MAINE WHERE HE LIVED. “YOU PAID TOO MUCH.”

THE FACT IS THIS CAR WAS THE BEST OF THE LOT. I GOT 30,000 TROUBLE-FREE UNTIL A CYLINDER BLEW IN IT DURABLE SLANT SIX ENGINE AT 195,000 MILES. WHAT OTHER CAR COULD EVER TRANSPORT ME FROM CAMBRIDGE TO NBPT. WITH NO BRAKES WITH JUST THE THREE SPEED STANDARD TRANSMISSION TO SLOW ME DOWN? THE DART DID AND THAT INCLUDED TOBIN BRIDGE OUTBOUND TOLLS.

I REVELED DRIVING DOWN THE MAIN DRAG IN AFFLUENT BEDFORD, MASS., THE TOWN I COVERED FOR THE LOWELL SUN. IT WAS A HEAD TURNER, BUT IN A DIFFERENT SENSE. YOU COULD SEE THE REACTION IN THE EYES OF BEDFORDITES. “HOW CAN SOMEONE BE DRIVING A CAR LIKE THAT IN OUR TOWN.” IT HAD A LOT OF RUST.

AS WAS MY HABIT, I JUMPED RIGHT BACK INTO FRYING, THIS BUYING A 1971 SAAB 99. THIS WASN’T THE ODD-LOOKING SLOPED BACKED JOB W/ A TWO STROKE ENGINE REQUIRING THE GAS AND OIL TO BE MIX. RATHER, IT WAS A NEW MODEL THAT WAS THE PRECURSOR TODAY’S MUCH LARGER SAABS. WHAT I DIDN’T KNOW WHEN I BOUGHT IT WAS THAT THE ENGINE WAS SUPPLIED BY NONE OTHER THAN BRITISH LEYLAND AND IT WOULD THE POWER PLANT THAT WOULD DO IN THIS CAR IN EVENTUALLY.

IT HERKED AND JERKED IN REVERSE AND FIRST GEAR AND THE BEST I COULD DISCERN IS THAT THE PROBLEM IT WAS COMING FROM THE FRONT WHEEL DRIVE TRANS AXLE. I WAS ABOUT TO VIOLATE THE FIRST RULE OF AUTO REPAIR. NEVER TAKE APART A TRANSAXLE. THE JOB REQUIRES A HALF-DOZEN SPECIALIZED TOOLS THAT EXIST ONLY ON ANOTHER PLANET.. BACK ON THE BARN FLOOR AT 20 TOPPANS, I GINGERLY PULLED THE TRINION JOINT FROM FEMALE RECEPTABLE IN THE WHEEL, UNAWARE IT WAS BATHED IN HUNDREDS OF LITTLE PIN BEARINGS. THEY EXPLODED ONTO THE BARN FLOOR.

DESPERATE TO BREAK EVEN ON THIS JOB, I GOT AT LEAST 80% OF PIN BEARINGS BACK ONTO THE TRINION JOINT. I LIVED WITH THE HERKY-JERKY MOVEMENT THEREAFTER.

I HAD BEEN WARNED THAT THE TIMING BELT WAS A PROBLEM IN THIS CAR IF A DEVICE CALLED TENSIONER WAS NOT PERIODICALLY REPLACED. THE TENSIONER KEPT THE BELT TAUGHT AND RUNNING. AND IF THE TIMING BELT SLIPPED, BROKE OR CAME OFF TRACK, THE PISTONS AND VALVES WOULD COLLIDE, RUINING THE ENGINE.

OF COURSE WITH THE NEW TENSIONER SITTING IN A BOX ON THE PASSENGER’S SEAT, IT HAPPENED. THE ENGINE QUIT WITH A BANG.

NOW, I WAS ABOUT TO ATTEMPT A THIRD ENGINE REMOVAL, THIS TIME SOLO – NO GIRLFRIEND TO JUSTIFIABLY HARANGUE ME OR GAGE TO HELP. WHEN I PULLED THE ENGINE, MY WORST FEARS WERE CONFIRMED. INDEED THE VALUES AND PISTONS HAD MET HEAD ON BECAUSE I COULD ONLY TURN THE CRANKSHAFT ABOUT 180 DEGREES. WHEN I REMOVED THE TIMING BELT COVER, OUT FELL THE TENSION. IT WAS A SIMPLY PIECE OF HARD RUBBER GLUED ONTO A METAL CLAMP.

BTW, THE REPAIR IS SIMILAR TO ONE MANY CARS STILL REQUIRE TODAY. IF WORN TIMING BELTS ARE NOT REPLACED BETWEEN 60 AND 100,000 MILES, YOUR VALVES AND PISTONS COULD COLLIDE. DON’T LET THAN HAPPEN. IF YOU HAVE A TIMING CHAIN, WHICH MOST CARS DON’T ANYMORE, NO NEED TO WORRY.

THE SAAB 99 WAS FINISHED. THIS TIME I BOUGHT A CAR MORE PECULIAR AND BIZARRE THAN THE AUSTIN AMERICA — A RENAULT 12, WHICH ONE  AUTOMATIVE MAGAZINES DESCRIBED AS “A CASKET ON WHEELS.”  LIKE THE AUSTIN, IT HAD NO POWER AND WAS VERY CHEAPLY BUILT. THE DRIVER’S SIDE DOOR WEIGHED ABOUT A THIRD OF WHAT TYPICAL CAR DOOR WEIGHS.

THE CASKET ON WHEELS (NOT BECAUSE IT A DEATHTRAP. RATHER, IT SIMPLY LOOKED LIKE A CASKET) RAN WELL FOR 20,000 OR 30,000 MILES UNTIL PERHAPS THE MOST SPECTACULAR INCIDENT OF MY SEVEN CAR EXPERIENCE.

IT WAS 1980 AND I WAS REHABBING A HOUSE IN IPSWICH, MAKING MANY TRIPS TO GROSSMAN’S IN DANVERS ON RTE. 114. IT’S THAT HUGE TOYOTA DEALER TODAY. LOADED DOWN WITH ABOUT 20 2X4S ON THE ROOF RACKS, I STOPPED AT THE NEIGHBORING MCDONALD’S FOR A BURGER, FRIES AND A SHAKE.

HAPPILY MUNCHED AWAY ON RTE 95, MY FRONT WHEELS LOCKED AT 50 MPH, LAUNCHING THE 2X4S LIKE MISSILES. THE CHOCOLATE SHAKE SPILLED FROM THE CUP WITH GREAT FORCE. IT TOOK ME A COUPLE OF SECONDS TO REALIZE WHAT HAD HAPPENED. FORTUNATELY I WAS THE RIGHT HAND TRAVEL LANE. BUT THEN I LOOKED UP. A BUS AT HIGH SPEED WAS BEARING DOWN ON ME. I WAS GREATLY RELIEVED WHEN ITS BLINKER WENT ON, INDICATING THE DRIVER HAD SEEN ME AND WAS SWITCHING LANES.

MEANWHILE, A GOOD SAMARITAN HAD STOPPED TO HELP AND WAS MORE THAN WILLING TO CRAWL UNDER THE CAR AND TAKE A LOOK. “PUT IT IN DRIVE,” HE SAID. I OBEYED, GOT OUT AND RETURNED TO WHERE HIS LEGS STUCK OUT FROM UNDER THE CAR. THEN IT DAWNED ON ME. NO ONE WAS IN THE CAR, HE WAS UNDER IT AND THE VEHICLE WAS IN DRIVE. FORTUNATELY, THE CAR NEVER BUDGED.

FINALLY, HE ROCKED THE CAR BACK AND FORTH, FREEING THE LOCKED TRANSAXLE. OF COURSE, THERE WAS SOMETHING SERIOUSLY WRONG AS INDICATED BY THE LOUD GRINDING NOISE COMING FROM THE FRONT RIGHT WHEEL. AFTER AFTER A FEW MAD DASHES ONTO THE HIGHWAY, I RETRIEVED ALL THE 2X4S AND LIMPED HOME.

BUT IT WAS TIME TO TAKE STOCK. NEVER AGAIN WOULD I FLY SO LOW TO THE GROUND. I HAD A REAL JOB, A REAL SALARY, EVEN OWNED A HOME AND MORTGAGE.

I LOOK BACK ON THIS CAREFREE ERA WITH GREAT FONDNESS. I GUESS THAT’S WHAT MIDDLE-AGED MEN DO. OWNING THESE CARS REQUIRED SELF-RELIANCE, INITIATIVE AND INGENUITY. ALONG THE WAY, THEY MADE ME REALIZE HIGHWAY OF LIFE IS NEITHER STRAIGHT NOR SIMPLE.

THE LESSON HAD BEEN LEARNED. I BOUGHT A NEW TOYOTA COROLLA.

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