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.
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.
This weekend, I went up the Carlisle truck show, and I packed for it like I was doing an extended tour of duty with the French Foreign Legion. I’d been up there with my old Scout back in 1998 or so and the two things I remember about it were that it was blisteringly hot and that I was overwhelmed by the amount of people, vehicles, and stuff for sale. So I packed extra oil, coolant, transmission fluid, water, and gas. We bolted the soft top back on and left it down in case of rain, put the bikini top up, and packed chairs, a cooler, two toolboxes, the spare tire, and fresh coffee.
Friday evening Brian H. stopped over to help me get Peer Pressure put back together, and once again I wouldn’t have been able to get it done without him. In about two hours we got all three seats, the Tuffy console, and the roll bar back in place along with a bunch of smaller assorted stuff. I’m OK with the bed liner but not thrilled with the results. I think because it sat for three years some of the chemicals were going bad, so the mixture didn’t come together the way it should have. I also had some issues dialing in the pressure properly so some of the coverage looks like snot. But Saturday morning we were ready to roll bright and early, and the truck ran like a top.
The ride up was uneventful and strange–because we didn’t see one other show-going truck until we got into the town limits. Years ago I was passing all kinds of modified and antique vehicles, either there to show or to visit. This time there were none. It got to the point where Brian and I thought we’d come on the wrong weekend.
Once we got in the fairgrounds, the view changed: trucks as far as the eye could see. And mostly newer stock. Lots of late-model pickups with bolted-on accessories like tires and lifts and air dams and lights–lots of lights. Rows of lowered mini trucks (Yeah, I guess that’s still a thing; I figured it died out decades ago) sprinkled with the odd antique. There was no rhyme or reason to the organization other than a few club groups here and there, so the makes were in random order. Pennsylvania is a mecca for antique cars of all shades, more so than Maryland in my opinion. Every time we drive through we’ll see some kind of pretty muscle car or hot rod out for a cruise. Apparently there aren’t a lot of antique trucks up there, or they’re boycotting the show for some reason, because the pickings were slim.
Our club showing was excellent, however. They set up a tent toward the grandstand and we had 25 trucks lined up fender to fender along one row, so you knew where the Internationals were. Lots of people would walk down the row and stop until someone older in the group would say, “Hey lookit them Scouts!” and launch into an explanation of what they were.
We met up with Brian T. and walked the grounds for a while. My favorite section had to be, without a doubt, the customized van area, where several survivors of the brutal 70′s were parked in all their airbrushed metalflake glory. After some lunch we wandered back and hung out with the club folks, where I picked up my new steering wheel. Brian and I sat down and talked quietly over some beers; we were both overstimulated by the people and sights and needed some quiet time to recharge, which worked out really well.
I drove Brian H. back to his place and peeked in at the engine he’s selling me; we have to hump it from his back shed around to the front of his house, get it onto a truck, and up to my place. Then we have to get it back off, into the garage, and up on the stand. I have no idea how the second half of this procedure is going to happen yet.
The girls got back from a birthday party about the same time I did, which was perfect, because I got to help get Finn into bed and relax a little with Jen before we all fell asleep.
Sunday I spent a good bit of the day catching up with yardwork and cleaning I’ve neglected for the past two weeks; it felt good to get the shaggy lawn and hedge trimmed and vacuum the floors and put things away where they belong. It was better still to spend time with the girls. We capped a glorious sunny day off with a walk around the neighborhood, following Finn on her bicycle as she pedaled up and down hills, sparkly tassels blowing in the breeze.
I had a three-day weekend planned in order to complete a long-standing project on the Scout, and I learned a couple of valuable lessons during the process. Originally my plan was to gather a couple of other guys together to do a group thrash on three or four cars at the same time, figuring several people can accomplish a lot more in a short period of time than a single person in several days. The first thing I (re)learned was that I need to ground my expectations in reality and refactor exactly what I think I can accomplish; my rule of thumb with house projects has been 3 times the estimate in cost and duration. Cars don’t seem to be much different. I’d originally planned on having someone come in and soda blast the exterior, prep it for paint, and shoot color on it in a 3-day weekend, but I scaled my plans back to prepping and shooting the bedliner I’ve had stored in my basement for 2 years. The sheer scale of that project almost killed me.
Friday I got to work early and ground out a good portion of the existing paint but got slowed down by uneven surfaces and thickness. My good IH buddy Brian H showed up in the afternoon with another angle grinder and a willingness to help, and between the two of us we finished cleaning out the tub, washed it, etched it, and laid down the first coat of POR-15. We stood around and shot the breeze for a while, enjoyed some cold beer, and packed up the garage. That evening we hosted Kirsten for some drinks and conversation about her website design, and everyone fell into bed exhausted.
Saturday Will stopped over with his daughter Alina, a playmate of Finn’s, and while the girls tore the house asunder we fetched Will’s Austin Healey from its parking spot in Arbutus and got to work with grinders on the fender lips. Glenn and Christi came by not long after that, and the three of us traded beers, grinders, and conversation through the afternoon until the clouds started forming. My neighbor passed by with his shiny Corvette, and I waved him into the driveway with a cold beer. The second thing I (re)learned is that car guys are everywhere, and cars are a fantastic way to meet new people (and bring different people together). Between a rusty truck, a rusty British sportscar, a not-so-rusty Japanese import (there in spirit) and a shiny American sportscar, we all found common ground and easy conversation. As the rain started falling, we put my tent up over the Healey and Will applied rust encapsulator over the metal, finally deciding to leave it overnight instead of driving it back in the rain.
Sunday Brian T. drove over from Chestertown with his compressor, and he helped me tape the Scout up in preparation for bedliner, until we realized we couldn’t shoot it. Brian stopped over a little later to check in, and Will came by to ferry the Healey back home. It was reassuring to have so many friends offer their time and support with the project, even though we couldn’t finish it, and that’s the other thing I (re)learned all over again: I’ve got great friends, I’m blessed to share their love of old, rusty objects, and it’s hard to express how much I owe them all.
Monday morning, I’m sore, a little disappointed (I won’t be able to get the chemicals I need overnighted—they’re being shipped via UPS Ground) and my hands are chewed up, but I only spent about an hour behind a computer in three days and I accomplished more than I thought I would. There’s a feeling of satisfaction from that kind of job that’s hard to come by with my daily employment, and while I don’t think I could run an angle grinder 40 hours a week, it sure felt good to finish that part of the job.
Finally, I have to send huge public thanks go to my loving wife, who took on Finn, her job, and company for all three days while I got some ya-yas out. Thanks baby.
Not a bad way to spend a Sunday.
This video is interesting for many different reasons, the primary being that my mother owned a baby blue 1966 Buick Special convertible almost identical to the featured car. (Hers may not have been a V8, however).
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.
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.
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.