Tuesday, March 11, 2014

War Stories - Special Edition: "Car Wars"

This is not specifically a railroad "War Story" but is not completely unrelated.  Hence,  "Special Edition!"

Lesson number one:

A Belvedere is not a Road Runner

The last couple years of college I had use of a two door 1970 Plymouth Belvedere.  It was my Aunt's car.   I was glad to have it.  It had the famous 225 cu. in. slant six that had a long stroke and lots of low end torque.  It was mated to an ancient three speed manual transmission that allowed the car to get out of it's own way but wasn't going to win any races.  Compare to the car I learned to drive, it was sports car.  In fact, it shared the same sheet metal as the famous Road Runner.  Once, a young guy in eastern Kentucky said to me, "Ah lack yer Road Runner."  I told him it was just a six cylinder Belvedere and that was the end of the conversation.  I don't know if it was because he lost interest in the car or because he lost interest in talking to a "Yankee."

But, lets get a few things straight.  This was no sports car.  It was no luxury car.  And, it had it's share of quirks.

Here's a quick list of the car's features:

  • Vinyl bench seats with seat backs that flopped forward for rear seat access
  • Rubber floor mat in lieu of carpet
  • Manual air vents at floor level in lieu of AC
  • Non-synchro first gear for double-clutching fun
  • High dashboard and low windshield for poor visibility
  • AM radio with dash mounted speaker for high fidelity amusement while driving
  • Manual steering and manual brakes for physical fitness
  • A FULL set of seat belts.  Separate lap and shoulder belts for front, outboard seats, lap belts elsewhere.  All with matching buckles.  None with retractors.  You had to store the shoulder belt in clips above the door.

And a few quirks:

  • Door handle clip on drivers side fell off a lot so you'd have to enter through the passenger's door (I got really good a pulling the door panel and putting the clip back on)
  • Starter with a dead spot that required occasional roll-starting
  • Shift linkage that occasionally got out of correspondence with transmission requiring some specific yanking under the hood with arc-joint pliers (kept in glove box for just such an occasion)
  • Rear wheel bearings that would fail frequently
  • Parking brake release you couldn't reach wearing the shoulder belt - but you could hit it with your right foot if you crossed your legs.
But, all in all, it wasn't particularly hard to drive and it got reasonable gas mileage - around 20 mpg overall, so I was very happy to have it.  I drove it all over the place.  Lots of day railfan trips out of Troy  (unless my friends with nicer cars volunteered to drive!)   Trips back to NJ for the weekend.  A couple of long-haul trips to/from Kentucky in winter and summer.  I even added an FM radio converter and a really cheap cassette tape deck to go with a couple of 6x9 rear speakers.

On I-70 in Ohio.  Winter 1976/77
Lesson number two:  Just because you can doesn't mean you should (always drive)

I even drove it from Altoona to LaGrange IL for some training in the summer of 1978.  That was the turning point.  Getting to Chicago was rather uneventful.  The week there was rather uneventful.  Then I drove home via Lexington KY....

It started well enough Friday afternoon, heading down I-65 toward Indianapolis, but, as the day wore on, it got hotter and hotter, hitting the mid-90s by mid-afternoon.  I had the 2-60 AC system going full blast.  Both windows down, going 60 mph.  I about melted.  At one point, I was heading off at the next exit for gas only to find myself wheeling up to a truck weigh station.  Not good.

I got through Indy and down to Louisville where I hit some traffic.  While creeping along a ramp, I heard the unmistakable "cheep, cheep, cheep" of the rear wheel bearing with every wheel revolution.

Uh, oh.

I had just had the left rear wheel bearing replaced 10,000 miles ago and just 20,000 miles before that.  How can this be?

By the time I reached Lexington, the "cheep cheep" had become a very ominous "rumble rumble whirl whirl rumble rumble" and you could smell hot 90 weight gear lube.  I slowed way down, very afraid I'd break an axle. I arrived at my destination, hot, tired and worried - that I would have trouble getting my car fixed in time to get back to Altoona for Monday morning.

Saturday, the first order of business was finding a garage that was open and willing to do the repair.  Not easy, but I found one close by.  Next order of business was to rent a car while mine was in the shop.

I rented a brand new, 1978 Chevrolet Monte Carlo.  Oh...my...goodness!

Lesson number three:  When rental cars are much, much better than what you are driving, it might be time....

It had a small block V-8.    It had plush bucket seats.  It had air conditioning.  It had a four speaker stereo system.  It had quick power steering and power brakes and "wide" 70 series tires.  It had carpet.  It was quiet on the inside.  It road very smoothly.  It hardly seemed fitting that the word "car" could be used to describe both my Belvedere and this thing.

It felt like I was driving a rocket ship!  Step on the gas and it took off.  Step on the brakes and it stopped.  Straight and fast without having to stand on the pedal.  Aim it around a curve and it just went.  No wrestling, no cajoling, no bending it to your will.  Just turn the steering wheel a hair and it just WENT!

I got my car back on Sunday, all patched up, and returned the rocket ship to the rental agency, but I was ruined.  All the way back to Altoona I compared and contrasted.  The poor Belvedere lost every round.  Then, a dangerous thought took root.  "I have a good job. I'm making $16,275 a year.  I could buy a NEW CAR."  I thought.

It was true.  I did have a job and was still living the lifestyle of a poor college kid.  Most importantly, I had the mindset of a poor college kid, so my income was piling up faster than I could think of ways to spend it.  I didn't have enough money to buy a new car outright - my folks always did it that way, so I thought maybe I should just keep saving up.  But, I did have enough to get started and have a loan cover the rest.  I joined the Conrail-Altoona Federal Credit Union with this in mind.  Just in case.

I started researching cars.  I had conflicting goals.  I was ever the practical engineer, so I needed something practical.  Very practical.  Station Wagons were practical and I LIKED station wagons. I also needed something relatively efficient and reliable and I really liked having a stick shift car.  But, I REALLY liked driving that rented Monte Carlo "rocket ship".  So......

In September 1979, I wound up ordering "cousin to that rocket ship" - a Chevy Malibu Classic station wagon with the smallest small block Chevy ever made (a 267 cu. in. V8) and four on the floor.  I had deleted the radio because I had pretty good one I wanted to move from the Belvedere and I had also deleted the tinted windows to keep maximum visibility out.  Ralleye wheels, since they should be less of a headache than wheelcovers.  This was one very weird car.  Only a handful were ever made this way. Cost was about $4500.   I had about 1/3 saved up and applied at the credit union for the balance.

I had moved from Altoona to Columbus OH in the mean time (see Moving Day #2).  The GM "A body" cars (Monte Carlo, Malibu, et. al.)  bound for the northeast were all built in Doraville, GA and a bunch of them moved by rail via the Southern Railway up through Cincinnati to Conrail and then through Buckeye Yard up the northeast.  I used to spend my lunch hour watching loaded autoracks from the south go over the hump, wondering if I could catch a glimpse of my new car on its way to me.  I may have.  It was hard to tell...

Lesson number four:  Avoid Altoona.  Always.

Finally, mid-November, the car arrived at the dealer in NJ!  I headed from Columbus to NJ for the weekend to pick it up.  I had to go via Altoona to pick up the check at the credit union.  I hadn't been in Altoona since that day I got rear-ended on Plank Road the day before I moved to Columbus.  Wouldn't you know it?  I'm waiting at a light headed into "downtown" Altoona when, WHAM, I get rear-ended again!

This time the damage was very minor.  I couldn't tell any new dents from the old ones!  So, we decided "no harm, no foul" and didn't even exchange info.  I picked up the check and headed east.

The next morning, my folks took me to pick up the car.  It was fabulous!

Here it is.  That very day.

I had that car until 1988.  Put 170,000 miles on it.  Was it trouble free?  No.  Did it have it's own quirks and problems?  You bet.  But, you never forget your first new car.

Every now and again, I wish I would have hung on to it.

1 comment:

  1. Amidst all the troubles you faced with your car, I’m pretty sure you’ve enjoyed your road trips and previous travel destinations. We always have fond memories of our first car, quirks and all. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts. Good day!

    Colin Morton @ Sea Port Auto


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