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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
Operation Honda Hitch is complete. The instructions blithely state, “If necessary, enlarge forward access hole.” That six word sentence translated to about an hour of trimming small holes in the subframe in order to fish an 11/16″ carriage bolt and spacer block up inside. Luckily the Dremel tool I bought a month back made short, surgical work of the problem. The tough part was feeding the hitch up and around the muffler, threading each of the bolts through the holes, and getting everything lined up. I had to use the jacks from both cars to slowly move the hitch up into place, and then get each nut started on each bolt without pushing them up into the frame. Luckily, it worked.
The wiring is still in the mail, so hopefully that’ll show up this week.
I’ve got a big box sitting on the porch downstairs, a present for the CR-V. It turns out, after reviewing train, bus, and plane schedules, that there is no inexpensive, direct way to get from here to Syracuse in under 12 hours for less than $400. After boring my sister on the phone for a half an hour while I priced out travel options, she suggested buying a hitch and renting a trailer. Which will cost less in total than any of the other alternatives. Such is the state of public transportation in America. So I have to borrow a pair of ramps from my neighbor and get the hitch installed this weekend (I’m told it’s a 20 minute job, but I don’t have ramps), get an oil change, and she’ll be good to go. This way will also allow me to strap a ladder on the roof of the ‘V, something I wasn’t sure I could do on a 10’ box truck.
I think I’ll also hit up the Harbor Freight for a cheap moving dolly and a 100-pack of bungee cords.
Somehow this explains a lot about how enjoyable it is to fix a car or truck with friends. (via Road & Track)
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.
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.