Tripping It

Lehighton (PA) Times News

May 8, 1971

We are obviously wheel-oriented. We go to the store in cars, we go down the block in cars, we go down to the sea in cars—we sometimes go next door in cars, thereby making the trip in twice the time it would take to walk. We can blame our cars for air pollution, for approximately 50,000 deaths a year, for insurance rates that climb like a hot-footed monkey, and often times for just plain cussedness. We lose sleep over the monthly payments on cars, we complain about the kid down the street who races his engine until all hours of the night because he lost his license for drag racing and can’t seem to get his foot unstuck from the gas petal even if the car isn’t going anywhere.

Our lives are dogged determinedly by broken suspensions, ruptured mufflers, hissing radiators; our dreams are haunted by cars about to run us down as our legs become transformed into concrete anchors. We are, in short, depending on a paranoia.

If we sift through the rubbish of the hatefulness and the planned obsolescence of automobiles, we can all pluck from the dark forest of adversity at least a few bright flowers of auto-oriented memory—usually associated with our first car(s).

And the memories should certainly be treasured, because they are rapidly becoming antiqued, as today’s youth demands spanking-new $4500 supercars for their “first set of wheels.”

Many of us can think back to that $75 clunker that was our pride and joy, often being older than we were, often running on mismatched retreads or tires collected from the town dump, being lubricated with waste oil that we badgered from a friend who worked at a service station, and often held together by paper clips and chewing gum.

Consider, for example, a 1940 DeSoto. Looking more like an offspring of some witty battleship, it rolled along on tires that were two inches bigger than the standard brands and that were almost impossible to locate, especially on a limited budget. The back doors opened toward the front, like the $8000 Lincoln Continentals, and the back seat was more like a living room sofa, complete with the living room. The speedometer was a round affair that, with the lights turned on, progressed through a series of colors as the car picked up speed, hitting a bright red when the thing occasionally got going over 50 mph. Some of the cars even had auxiliary fuse box systems, so that, should a fuse blow, one reached under the dash, flipped a switch, and the electrical system was switched over to a second set of fuses.

Or how about a 1963 VW micro-bus? With a full load it would go rushing along one of the Interstates at a frightening 35 mph—frightening because any chance wind would make it handle like a boat in a gale. Combine that with the fact that during winter there was not even a hint of a heater and an inborn difficulty to turn it over, and you’ve got some kid pushing his bus down a hill every morning to get it going. Then mix in the fact that two weeks after purchase, the engine blew with a clang at the fantastic speed of eight mph, that two weeks after that the clutch cable snapped, and that two weeks after that a rear tire blew and could not be taken off because it was one of the original tires that came with the bus when it was new and the lug nuts were rusted on and two cans of liquid wrench and two bent lug wrenches later it was still as secure as ever and the dealer had to come and tow it back to the garage just to remove the wheel, and you’ve got a picture of a kid going through old cigar boxes looking for some loose change to pay to keep the thing on the road. Picture, if you can, a race between a maroon-and-white and a green-and-white VW micro-bus on a four-laner, both vehicles plugging along to the putt-putt-sputter of their 38 horsepower engines, being buffeted about by the wind, and neither drive willing to admit that his “car” was a the bottom of the automotive evolutionary heap.

Or consider everyone’s most unforgettable car: the Corvair. Ralph Nader probably spent more of his life than he likes to think about taking apart and putting back together the unique Corvairs, cursing them, legislating against them; and yet they were the going-away favorites of their owners. Their handling was uncanny, they could be driven all winter long on regular tires, and they were great on gas. The initial releases, the 1960s and 1961s, were equipped with gas heaters, which were unrivaled in winter weather, providing instant heat on the coldest days. Once they began to malfunction, though, it was like looking for flowers in January to try and find a mechanic who would touch the heaters. “Fellow down the road worked on one a those things once,” a typical mechanic said, “’en he blew his whole garage and hisself to kingdom come. Nope, won’t touch the dern thing.” They also had a tendency to overheat their middle pistons, calling for frequent engine repair. I’ve also known a guy who hit a 150-pound deer on I-80 with his ’60 Corvair four-door and needed nothing more than a $5 headlight pack replacement from a junkyard for his troubles. There have also been Corvairs that had been run over by tractor-trailers that have ended up looking like nothing more than a flattened piece of tin car; but then, there have also been Cadillacs that have been run over by tractor-trailers that have looked like nothing short of a pressed canned ham.

But those cars of first love are long gone, replaced by shiny new late-model jobs, complete with four good tires and a spare, engines that would balk at even the thought of using second-hand oil, and that would be incensed at the very thought of having garden fodder hauled in their back seats.

Maybe the new cars are great in their own way; I never knew a clunker owner, though, who found it necessary to carry a brace of gas company credit cards to keep his pride and joy on the road—they usually ran on love and loose change.