Search Results for: cars of a lifetime

This post is one in a series based on a format at another website; much like genres of music, I can measure the phases of my adult life with the cars I’ve driven.

I’ve touched on my family’s history with wagons in previous installments, but I think the subject demands a little backstory. My father was a committed wagon aficionado before I was born, with a succession of full-size Fords from the late 60’s through to the early 80’s, when he switched to Chevy. The first wagon I can recall was a 1967 Country Squire, painted in light green. All I remember of this car was the back seat. This was back in the day of lap belts, wide swaths of sticky vinyl, and cold air whistling through gaps in the door cards. We traveled the width and depth of New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts in this Ford, and it served us well through the 70’s.

A holiday trip to my grandparents’ farm was always on the schedule, and when the whole family was in town, the front yard was filled with a fleet of wagons, each representing a wing of our extended Irish family. My uncle Neil was a Dodge man, probably due to his experience as a police officer, and he drove a huge Fuselage-bodied yacht which he swore had an extra hidden gear: Warp Drive. Later, as his family expanded, he traded it for a series of full-sized vans. Uncle Dave was a Chevy man, and always drove a clean, corporate-looking offering from GM. Grampy ran his painting business out of a series of wagons, vehicles which probably didn’t belong on the road and were filled with the tools of his trade.

Dad’s Country Squire finally had enough miles on it that he got another, this one in a darker green. If I recall, the older wagon was relegated to hauling duty for his landscaping business, and usually sat parked in the cul-de-sac with the handles of at least two mowers sticking out the back window.

Later, after the Gas Crisis abated somewhat, we picked up a full-size LTD wagon in beige over brown, named Fozzie, which was the largest wagon I recall ever driving in. It was big and plush and stuffed with a comical amount of wasted interior space; I think we could have parked my mother’s Gremlin (named Kermit) in the back if all the extra plastic paneling hadn’t been in the way. It had pop-up rear facing seats in the cargo area, which were only really good for invoking car sickness–a problem when there were no windows to roll down.

The LTD was sold sometime after my Dad bought the repossession agency, which was a relief on their gas bill and the beginning of a parade of different wagon types and brands. We had several Chevy Impala-based wagons, some of which were quite reliable, and one of which scared the family away from diesel forever: the cursed Oldsmobile LF9 motor that happily shit all over itself at the first opportunity. My sister and I drove it to school one cold winter morning and broke down within view of the parking lot; we were told it was due to water in the fuel (GM did not include a water/fuel separator on this engine, so this makes sense), but I still believe it deliberately wanted to embarrass me in front of the entire 9th grade.

After the Chevy, we had an Audi 9000 wagon, which was a lot like driving the Millennium Falcon. This was back when Audi was synonymous with “overpriced European shitbox.” When it ran, it was fast and we could hide a lot of people in it. But it spent more time in the garage than in hyperspace, and we needed R2-D2 to decode the electrical issues it suffered from. Driving to pick up my parents from the airport one day, we turned on the windshield wipers in a summer squall. Within a half a mile the wipers shorted out the whole car, and we coasted to a stop on the access road to the Arrivals gate. I recall waiting a very long time before it started again.

Nevertheless, I liked a wagon, because I was doing a lot of hauling for marching band and as the head set builder for the drama club. After the VW accident and the Subaru trying to kill me, I drove my parents’ cars around for a while until another vehicle turned up in the impound lot: an ’85 Sentra wagon.

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Not mine, but exactly the same. Same colors, same shit wheels.

It was a tired example owned by a heavy smoker, which probably explained why the bank hadn’t wanted to reclaim it and the fire-sale price we got it for. Blue over gray, it had been in a minor front-end accident at some point, enough to bend the hood and wrinkle the driver’s fender but not damage the frame or engine. After we bought it, I spent an entire weekend scrubbing the nicotine off the plastic bits, scrubbing the carpeting and headliner, and fumigating as much of the stink out of it as I could. This was only partially successful.

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In 1985, this was LUXURY. My plastics discolored the exact same way.

My Dad sourced a used fender and aftermarket hood, and I pounded out the mounting points enough to get the fender lined up with the bumper and get the hood to close, although I was the only one who could open it. We never did repaint it, so it looked ghetto in three colors, but it ran, and it was mine.

1985NissanSentra_03_700

Gray over blue. Unless the upholstery was supposed to have been blue…

It served me well that winter and through the spring. It featured a 1.6 liter engine with a three-speed automatic, and got very respectable gas mileage at the expense of being a complete pig, but that was mostly OK with me.  It had four doors and a spacious rear cargo area so I could haul drywall and plywood and drums and friends. The pictured example has A/C but mine did not, which kind of sucked.

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Look how cheap those door cards are! That’s a Hefty bag, for crying out loud.

After graduation, my group of friends decided to hit Jones Beach before we all had to get serious with our summer jobs. We loaded up my Sentra, my friend Jon’s Cavalier, and headed south. Jon loved to beat on his Chevy and quickly left me in the dust; I remember pulling into the parking lot long after they’d gotten there, covered in sweat, and getting home at about the same interval. Still, it got me to and from work and parties and I could fold the rear seats down to crash if I couldn’t make it home, which came in handy that summer.

In the fall, as we firmed up college plans and I got ready to head to MICA, I emptied it out and gave it a final wash, and we sold it to help pay for tuition. If I remember correctly, Mom and I drove to Baltimore in a wagon of some kind, but I can’t remember what it was…

Other entries in this series:
’73 Volkswagen Camper Bus
’84 Subaru GL Wagon
’86 Mazda B2000
’86 Honda CRX
’93 Ford Taurus

Date posted: May 1, 2015 | Filed under cars | Leave a Comment »

This post is one in a series based on a format at another website; like music albums, I can measure periods in my adult life with the cars I’ve driven.

By about 1998 or so, my trusty CRX was getting long in the tooth. It was beginning to blow lots of oil through the tailpipe, to the point where whenever I got on the gas I left blue haze in my wake. The A/C was inoperable, and it began to overheat in traffic, which made it unusable in the city (which was where I lived at the time). I was dealing with two vehicles that needed constant mechanical attention: I had a ’78 Scout that started up and ran whenever I asked it to, but was really only meant as a semi-occasional driver and not a full-time commuter (14mpg and a 4-speed stick in Beltway traffic kind of sucks). Something had to give.

By chance, my mother was shopping for a new vehicle, and we came up with a plan. She was planning on trading in her Taurus for a new Subaru, but knew I was looking, and graciously offered it to me.

She had an LX model with a 3.0L V6, which was a nice upgrade from my wheezy but thrifty 1.3L 4-banger.  This was the second generation, the one that sold like hotcakes before they redesigned it with the fishbowl windows. As the luxury model, it came with electric windows and locks. It had a bench seat (technically a split 60/40 with armrests, but a bench seat). It was a dull shade of gray with a gray interior, which made it invisible to the naked eye, but it was easy to park in the city and got decent gas mileage. Sadly, it was a column-shift automatic.

tortoise
Not my car–image yanked from the Internet. Same color and wheel covers though. If you squint, it’s almost like it’s not there…

I sold the CRX to a guy who had plans to autocross it and took delivery of the Taurus, driving it home from Upstate New York in the fall. Over the next five years, it served me (and my future wife) well, if not anonymously. Even though it was almost double the curb weight of the Honda, it would move when I got on the gas. It was a decent highway cruiser, but lacked any kind of lumbar support for drives over 2 hours in length. The interior fittings were typical of that era: Ford’s idiot-sized buttons were laughably larger than the Honda controls I was used to. And even though it was a 4-door, I found that it was surprisingly less accommodating than the CRX’s hatchback for things like bikes, oversized furniture, or drywall. Having a trunk was nice, though, even though there was no passthrough.

The year I bought the car, I’d been laid off from my job, so I set about finding a new one and keeping busy. I rehabbed the bathroom in my rowhome, which required several loads of drywall. I picked up an inexpensive crossbar rack from somewhere and became skilled at driving sheets of plywood home strapped to the roof. Then I heard about a warehouse close by in my neighborhood that was being knocked down. I stopped over and asked if I could reclaim some of the brick they were hauling away, and they let me take as much as I wanted. I made several trips with the trunk loaded down to the alley behind my house where I could drop it off. This saved me a lot of money on raw materials but blew out both rear shocks. I never replaced them.

I had few problems with it in the first few years, but as it reached the 10-year-mark, expensive things started breaking down. It began to have overheating issues, something I thought I’d sold off with the CRX, that manifested the exact same way: Sitting in traffic, the temp gauge would begin to creep upward, then suddenly zoom into the redline. My mechanic looked things over but found nothing wrong with the cooling system; even after leaving the car running by itself for an hour, he couldn’t replicate the issue. This seemed to be an issue with the Vulcan V6.

I continued to have inconsistent, nagging problems with overheating, negating use of the A/C, and then the transmission began slipping. It would suddenly clunk out of gear completely, usually as I was cornering at speed, which got tricky when I was on the Beltway. Or, it just plain refused to shift upwards out of second, leaving me screaming at 5,000RPM in the slow lane trying to make it to the next offramp.

The last straw came as I was driving to pick up the catering for our rehearsal dinner. At this point the Scout was out of commission–the exhaust was missing behind the headers–so the Tortoise it was. With delicious barbecue for 30 loaded in the trunk, I started back to the house but got bogged down in Beltway traffic, and the temp gauge started climbing. I pulled over to the shoulder and let it cool down for a half an hour, and then continued down the road–for a half a mile. This on-again, off-again voyage continued for three more hours until I was able to get it home, where I parked it, unloaded it, and probably kicked it.

After we returned from our honeymoon, I spied a For Sale sign on a car in our neighborhood, and gave the owner a call. Once that deal was done, I called up and donated the Tortoise to our local NPR station for a tax writeoff.

Other entries in this series:
’86 Honda CRX
’84 Subaru GL Wagon
’86 Mazda B2000
’73 Volkswagen Camper Bus

Date posted: March 9, 2015 | Filed under cars | Leave a Comment »

This post is one in a series based on a format at another website; much like music, I can measure much of my adult life with the cars I’ve driven.

Ate Up With Motor recently did a comprehensive history of the Honda CRX, a car I owned for a brief while and the sale of which I still regret to this day. Which leads me to the next chapter in my automotive history…

My CRX was a hand-me-down silver HF model from my girlfriend’s father, who had driven it, given it to her, and then let her brother rag it out for a while before parking it in his driveway and then offering it to me. My B2000 was blowing oil and beginning to get expensive. I had a desk job as a designer, having gotten out of the contracting business a few years previously, so I did what any 20-something male with disposable income would do: I sold the truck and bought a beat up sportscar.

CRX

It had about 90k on the odometer when I got it, the CV joints were already bad, the brakes were shot, it needed some muffler work, and it smelled like cigarettes and feet. I put some money into repairs, got it running reliably, and, unbelievably, got three years of dependability at 40mpg. It was a stick, and first gear was a dog. But once it was at speed, it was a blast to drive–nothing like the pickup.

It was beat up, sure. Her brother had obviously tried to drag faster and lighter cars, played tag with trashcans and mailboxes, spilled coffee, ash, fast food, and bongwater over every inch of the carpet. It rattled and squeaked. The wiring behind the radio was a rat’s nest, left over from multiple hack installations. The AC worked as long as the car was in motion, but the minute it stopped I had to turn it off. This foreshadowed future problems with overheating in Baltimore traffic and a pattern that repeated itself with several other cars until I bought the CR-V.

But, I could fit two mountain bikes under the hatch, park it in a shoebox, and the money I saved on gas more than offset the thirsty V-8 of my first Scout. Where was the downside?

In its third year, it began to show its age by leaving larger and larger clouds of blue smoke behind, and soon it was burning through a quart of oil every two weeks. The rings were shot, and I was living in the city with no tools and no garage to effect repairs. Regretfully, I placed an ad in the paper and sold it to a guy who told me he was planning on setting it up for SCCA racing against MR2s.

Had I been thinking smarter, I would have driven it up to my sister’s house and parked it in the chicken barn out back until I could have afforded a rebuilt engine, but hindsight is, as they say, always 20/20.

Other entries in this series:
’86 Honda CRX
’84 Subaru GL Wagon
’86 Mazda B2000
’73 Volkswagen Camper Bus

Date posted: February 24, 2014 | Filed under cars, history | Leave a Comment »

This post is one in a series based on a format at another website; much like music, I can measure much of my adult life with the cars I’ve driven.

Growing up, our family spent a lot of time in wagons, from a cavernous ’68 Ford Country Squire all the way up to an electrically balky ’86 Audi 5000. In the early 70’s, an American wagon was respectable, held a ton of suitcases, Christmas presents, two kids and a dog, and could be counted on to make it through the high snow in Pennsylvania on December 24th. You might say we’ve never really given up on the wagon, even if it’s not American: my mother currently owns a Legacy Outback.

84 subaru

A Subaru was the first wagon I called my own. It came before the Mazdas and after the Honda, but it did a lot to cement my love for station wagons. I loved it, even though it tried to kill me. It was an’ 84 GL, bought at a repo auction. It had originally been white, and at some point was resprayed a medium blue, up to but not including the inner door sills. When I got it the outside was in good shape but the inside (as most repossessed vehicles were) was disgusting, so I took a long weekend and hosed out the dirt, cigarette funk, and mildew.

The GL series was set up by Subaru with an on-demand 4WD system, which was a perfect fit for a 16-year-old kid in New York State living on the side of a mountain. Our first winter in New York, we had ridden shotgun in my father’s whale-sized Ford LTD wagon during a snowstorm as he tried to make it up the first section of the road we lived on, at the base of the mountain. Experienced in this sort of thing, he solved the problem by getting a head of steam up on approach, blowing the stop sign at the base of the hill, and hitting the slope running. RWD in a 5,000 lb land barge meant we stayed at home until the plows came by.

The Subaru was full of little engineering miracles its designers had baked in, including a third headlight behind the badge in the grille, all manner of handy little compartments inside, factory cupholders, and a windowshade over the rear cargo area, the first I’d ever seen this genius invention installed in a car. There was a surprisingly large amount of space in the back when the seats were folded down. I put this space to good use during a couple of summer parties when there was no other place to crash. The spare tire was mounted on a bolt behind the carburetor directly above the engine, which speaks to both the miniscule size of the tire and the engine. But because it was so small and this was before the time of airbags and safety, it zipped along quickly for its age and condition. This was also the first car I owned with electric door locks and windows (it would be another 15 years before I owned another) and the second in a long line of stick shifts I drove through high school. I immediately fitted a third-hand Blaupunkt tape deck and ran wires to some car speakers retrofitted into two wooden speaker boxes.

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Image via Bringatrailer.com

 

It was also the car I took on an epic journey to visit my girlfriend at college and then continue northward to my sister’s college apartment. I was a senior in high school, she was in her first year of college, and we both were too dumb to realize our puppy love would never work long-distance. The first leg of the trip took me to windy, overcast Binghampton, NY to stay overnight on the hard floor of a dorm room between my girlfriend and her very uncomfortable roommate. I’d come up there to visit, and because I thought I was a stand-up guy, to break it off with her in person. This went poorly. From there, after I’d made her cry, I drove north into a snowstorm to stay with my sister. This being my first long-distance trip in the car, I’d arrived in Binghampton with a splitting headache but chalked it up to my poor diet at the time. Little did I know it was due to another, more sinister reason: a crack in the exhaust manifold was leaking carbon monoxide into the cabin, and because I had the windows closed and the heater on, I was slowly asphyxiating myself. Somewhere on 81 north I closed my eyes for a long minute, and when I opened them back up I was doing 65 down the side of a long embankment, heading straight at the concrete footer of a freeway sign. I hit the brakes, skidded to a stop, and took stock of the situation. Then I put it in 4wd, crawled back up the side of the embankment, and… stalled it right as I got to the shoulder of the road. It was then that I discovered one of this Subaru’s idiosyncrasies: when stalled, the battery light came on and it refused to start under its own power.

Had I been thinking clearly, I might have aimed it back down the embankment and popped the clutch, but I was already jumpy from my brush with death and lacking the confidence to get it kick-started. Further, it was snowing, and even though it wouldn’t crank over, the hazard lights worked, which meant it could help me flag someone down for a jumpstart. Presently, after some quality alone time out in the cold, someone did stop and give me a jump, and I continued on my way–with the windows rolled down and Back In Black blasting at full volume. I made it to my sister’s apartment in Geneva with another headache and stayed with her for a few days, drowning my sorrows in cheap beer.

The return trip was mostly in daylight, which made travel easier, but as I neared the Hudson River, traffic started backing up as snow started falling. At that time the easiest and cheapest route across the Hudson was the Bear Mountain Bridge, which involved driving the Bear Mountain Bridge Road, an ass-puckering stretch of two lane road towering high over the Hudson. I didn’t relish the idea of that drive in slippery conditions, but I had 4wd and figured I could make it. To get to the bridge from the west, I had to travel a section of the Palisades Parkway winding through the Bear Mountain State Park. Somewhere on the approach to the bridge, I rounded a curve and came upon a BMW mushed into the granite face of the cliff to my right. Alarmed, on the next straightaway,  I downshifted to brake slowly and switch to 4wd. This plan worked perfectly until the right front tire dumped itself into an unseen storm drain and I stalled the engine again as I bounced upwards out of the seat.

This time, nobody who stopped had jumper cables, and it was doubtful I could get it out of the drain; only my front left and rear right wheels were touching pavement and I doubted the hamster-driven 1.6L engine could get me out. I hitched a ride with a nice lady who dropped me off at the first available rest stop on the Palisades, and I called my Dad for a tow.

Two or so hours later he appeared at the rest stop in the company wrecker, and I spent an uncomfortably quiet ride back to the Subaru with him to pull it out. It started quickly, and as I recall one of us stood on the rear bumper while the other backed it out slowly. We may have put it on the wrecker for the ride home, but I think I probably followed his taillights slowly up Bear Mountain and down into Putnam county.

That following Monday, the mechanics confirmed what we’d suspected: cracks in the manifold. I think the diagnosis was too expensive to consider, so the GL went on the market and I moved on to my next loaner vehicle. That spring, I talked my folks into the VW Type 2.

I miss that little car, for all its faults. It was miserly on gas. It was purpose-built and did many things very well. It was fast when it needed to be and stronger than it looked; it hauled more than people gave it credit for. Apart from repeatedly trying to kill me, I miss that car very much.

 Cars of a Lifetime series:
Mazda B2000 Pickup
Volkswagen Type 2 Camper

Date posted: June 19, 2013 | Filed under cars | Leave a Comment »

I.
This is actually a story about three vehicles, not just one. During high school, as related elsewhere, I drove many different vehicles (one of the odd perks of my father’s business, a repossession agency). We lived out in the boonies, many miles from school, and when I got heavily involved in after-school activities my parents grew understandably tired of shuttling me back and forth at all hours of the day and night. After the Type 2 Van was sold, and before I requisitioned my sister’s Honda while she was in college, My dad gave me the keys to a silver Mazda B2000. This was the fourth generation (’78-’85), featuring a 2 liter gas engine, five-speed stick, two seats, and not much else. This particular truck was only in service for a short while; I’ve forgotten exactly why it left the fleet.

II.
In its place appeared a black doppelganger in better mechanical shape. I drove this truck during one hot summer to and from my job as a golf-course ranger (in retrospect, one of the easiest and most ridiculous jobs I’ve ever had) and as a barback/busboy. Lacking any source of air conditioning, I beat the heat by rolling the windows down and turning the balky radio up as loud as possible. Being a 5-speed, it was slightly more fun to drive than an oxcart. The gearing was low and then got ridiculously high somewhere around 4th, so I found I had to get the engine screaming in 3rd to stay in front of it. It featured black fabric seats and worn carpeting that smelled… funny, and which got even more stinky as the heat of the day wore on. It had a steering wheel made of some form of black rubber that cooked in direct sunlight and then melted off onto one’s palms, so it looked like I’d arm-wrestled a Sharpie upon arrival to work.

It took a righteous beating from a 16-year-old punk, though, and stayed together admirably well as I bombed it up and down the lumpy back roads of Putnam County. At some point that fall, my next car was appeared and/or my father decided he wanted his utility truck back, so I turned it back in and moved on.

III.
During my sophomore year of college, perhaps to celebrate the highest GPA I’d ever earned in fourteen years of school, my Dad handed me the keys to another Mazda and told me to take it with me. This could also have been in response to the painful and expensive series of train rides I needed to take to make it home each break (although I’m not complaining–to be able to walk to the train station in Baltimore and make it all but 15 miles from my house in New York State via rail is a miracle here in the USA). It was a fifth generation model, an ’86, and it had about 90K on the odometer. Compared to the black pickup, though, it was a Cadillac. The body and interior were in better shape. The clutch was smooth and geared reasonably. It was miserly on gas. It had modern tires. And all my crap could fit in the rear bed–perfect for a dumpster-diving art student with a ground floor apartment.

Over the next three years, my little mule got me to and from my parents’ place in NY through all kinds of weather, moved countless classmates between shitty apartments, carried people to and from parties, hauled construction debris and camping gear, and never complained. It took my roommate Pat and I all the way out to Texas in a meandering, aimless spring break journey our sophomore year without incident; the only issue we had with it was due to driver error when I bent a leaf spring backing it into a service station bollard in a driving rainstorm. The bed was just long enough to fit the pair of us for camping, but we found out the hard way about the effect of corrugated metal on restful sleep.

Apart from a vapor lock problem with the carburetor I never had major mechanical problems with it. Upon graduation, my father signed the title over to me, and I used it heavily for the next three years while I ran a contracting business. As it reached past the 175K mark, however, it started to blow more and more smoke. I was adding oil weekly, which meant the rings were going. Grudgingly, I placed an ad in the Baltimore Sun and within a day I had three people call me to set up appointments. The first guys to arrive showed up in a slammed Nissan minitruck painted teal over maroon and spoke little english; I knew what my little mule was in for when I signed over the title. I like to think she’s still on the road somewhere, lowered an inch or two above the ground, painted like a back alley puta, cruising the minitruck section at car shows.

Other entries in this series:
’86 Honda CRX
’84 Subaru GL Wagon
’86 Mazda B2000
’73 Volkswagen Camper Bus

Date posted: September 27, 2012 | Filed under cars, history | Leave a Comment »

This post is one in a series based on a format at another website; much like music, I can measure much of my adult life with the cars I’ve driven.

Driving to the store the other day with Finn in the rocket seat, I was flipping through radio stations until I happened upon “Summer Nights” by Van Halen. Say what you will about this particular 80s prom anthem, but it takes me back to a particular summer spent in the driveway of my parents’ house, grinding the dents out of a faded Volkswagen bus. There are some lessons it’s taken multiple failures for me to learn: Don’t date crazy chicks, don’t leave the toilet seat up in a house full of women, Don’t do work on spec or without a deposit, don’t do shots of tequila under any circumstances, and don’t buy a 20-year-old vehicle without knowing what you’re getting yourself into. This was the first time the Sky Pilot tried to drill that last lesson into my head.

Let me set this up: My Dad, in a kind gesture (no doubt brought on by fatigue related to driving me all over creation), bought me a used blue Datsun 240 at auction somewhere around my 15th birthday. For long months it sat in the garage waiting for me to gather the funds and knowledge to get it running. I should interject here–buying cars for our family was not a big deal, because my Dad owned a repossession agency and auctioned cars all the time. We weren’t swimming in money, but good deals came up every once in a while, and a ragged out 15-year-old sportscar wasn’t worth much to the bank by then. The 240 was pretty cool for a first car; it was low, it wore fat racing slicks on slotted mags, and it had an aftermarket sunroof. As it sat, it would have been the envy of a certain segment of my high school. Because I was as strange then as I am now, I knew it wasn’t the car for me.

By then, I had my eye on an orange whale sitting inside the chainlink fence of the impound lot. It was a 1973 VW T2 camper van sitting on four bald tires. The headlights had been punched in by a front end collision at some point (insert foreshadowing music here). The paint was faded, but there was no evident rust. The engine took several liberal stomps of the gas to wake and missed on one cylinder. The interior stank of mildew and German upholstery. It was an early-70’s European living room on wheels with a built in wet bar; I was in love.

For the kingly sum of $400, it was mine. I think my Dad was disappointed I wasn’t interested in his gift Datsun, but the pro/con matrix I drew on a sheet of tabloid paper for my parents spelled out my intentions: The sports car was impractical, a cop magnet, and dangerous. The bus was spacious, thrifty on gas, and wouldn’t make it over 70MPH on a downhill slope. Plus, I had private visions of camping trips with friends, out-of-state road trips, and eventually packing it with all of my junk for a trip to college. I’m sure, in hindsight, it would have been a magnet for the crusty patchouli-stinking trustafarians at art school, even if I looked like I stepped out of a J.Crew catalog.

So, I spent the spring of 1988 with an angle grinder in my hand, smoothing out high spots around the headlight buckets. It was my first experience with a slaphammer, bondo, wet/dry sandpaper, and auto primer. It went pretty well, too; I’d say it was about a 10-footer when I was done. My Dad noticed how much time I was putting in on the body, had his body guy respray it in VW orange, and it looked much more presentable even if the patina I liked was gone. Meanwhile, a visit to the mechanic, a rebuilt carb, and several Benjamins had the 4-banger running smoothly.

It was a stick, and it featured the longest gear lever I’ve ever thrown. Because the shift linkage traveled all the way to the back, it took a while to master the spongy feel of the gears compared to the tight Japanese econoboxes I’d learned on. Plus, VW’s odd placement of reverse (mush down and to the left) made parking a challenge. The engine put out more power than I thought it would, though, and I could actually chirp the tires—not that I tried.

After it came back from the shop, I unbolted everything above the roofline and spread it out on the lawn. I used a bucket of laundry detergent and several stiff brushes to scrub the grime out of the fabric and off the fiberglass while the upholstery inside ran through the washer. When it all went back together, the bus stank of cleaner until the day I sold it. To this day the smell of Simple Green puts me back behind the huge wheel of that puttering beauty.

Your correspondent at the wheel

That summer, I played OU812 through my aftermarket Blaupunkt tape deck endlessly while I drove to marching band practice, to and from my friends houses, and later to high school, where I definitely had the most unusual ride in the parking lot. I even found a cooler place to sleep than my un-air conditioned sweatbox of a bedroom: I popped the top down in the driveway, opened the hammock, and slept outdoors until the weather got too cold. I drove it through the fall, when my Mom got on my Dad about the tires, so we sprung for four new all-weather radials and he had them mounted with the white side out, to my dismay.

Big difference

I had my misadventures with her as time went by; working on the engine was a back-breaking experience due to its location and the non-ergonomic location of the rear hatch. I learned how to kick-start a manual when I had some problems with the battery and a bad ground. Changing plugs wasn’t as easy as it looked on my Dad’s F350, which had an engine bay the size of a dumpster. I found out the hard way about cross-threading spark plugs in an aluminum block when I blew one out of the socket hard enough to drive it into the overhead access hatch. I nursed it home on three cylinders and explained the problem to my Dad, and he had his mechanic repair it with a helicoil.

She met her final day head-on, like a proper German. Driving a friend home from school, I crested a hill at about 35mph. There was no time to brake for the Sentra which pulled into the intersection without looking. Its bumper rode up mine and pushed the sheet metal into the cabin until it was about 6″ from my passenger’s knees; I bounced off the dashboard and steering column and stalled the engine, surprised at how fast everything had happened. I checked on Sue, who was white as a sheet but OK, then got out and checked on the other driver, a shaken middle-aged woman. After the cops showed up and took the report, Sue’s parents came and got her (this happened only 1/4 mile from her house) and the leaking Sentra got towed away. Not thinking clearly (but still pragmatically), I got in the bus, fired it up, and headed home. My parents were out of town, so I parked it in the driveway and borrowed my Mom’s car to drive to school the next day. The bus sat in the driveway for a month or so until I decided for good that I didn’t feel safe it it, and we sold it shortly afterwards.

Date posted: September 21, 2012 | Filed under cars, history | Leave a Comment »

I wrote my Cars Of A Lifetime series a few years ago, inspired by a website called Curbside Classic. This past weekend, I noticed they’d put out a request for people to submit their own stories, so I shot off a quick email to the site admin and heard back from him within a few hours. He gave me a login and I posted a sanitized, embellished version of my Volkswagen Bus story this weekend, complete with a couple of new pictures I found, and I’ll be posting my Mazda piece this week.

Date posted: January 30, 2018 | Filed under cars | Leave a Comment »

Here’s the COAL article I posted on Curbside Classic for my ’84 Subaru GL.

Date posted: February 18, 2018 | Filed under cars, shortlinks | Leave a Comment »

I posted another expanded story on Curbside Classic sunday morning.

Date posted: February 4, 2018 | Filed under cars, shortlinks | Leave a Comment »