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.
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.
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.
I brewed up a batch of Chinook IPA last night for the fall; everything went smoothly even though I didn’t quite have enough water. This is the second batch I chilled too far, so I’m going to amend my ingredient list to one bag of ice and 4 gallons of water. I missed the specified original gravity by 0.001%, which isn’t too shabby.
My parents are coming into town in October, so I’m putting a moratorium on the saison in the keg until they get here. Guess I’ll have to stock up on some seasonal pumpkin beer….
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.
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.
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.