You always remember your first. Oh, I’d had others, sexy German coupes and cute Japanese gas misers, but they were never truly mine, they were beholden to another. I found myself carless at eighteen, and needing transport, on a very low budget. My Dad, he knew a guy from the airline. His Mom had passed and he had the proverbial ‘only driven to church on Sunday’ car, almost twenty feet long and certainly squatting on valuable driveway real estate. He wanted it gone, money changed hands, title signed, and just like that, I was a car owner. Like a lot of virgins, I took his sales pitch at face value, something I would soon regret.
A massive piece of domestic iron hadn’t been how I pictured my first, but the price was right, and I then drove a car with white line tires, a landau top, and rear wheel drive. The 1967 Chevrolet Caprice Classic is a microcosm of the society that spawned it, a Brady Bunch-sized automotive expression of 1960’s American excess. Three manspreading bros could sit across the back seat and never touch, manliness intact. My friends and I chucked all our gear into the trunk, it was so large it swallowed 200 cm slalom skis with room to spare.
Even the terminology used to describe it is so period perfect in its grandiosity. It had a ‘Turbo Fire’ 327 cubic inch Chevy small-block V-8 engine, which had no turbo. It sported a ‘Turbo Hydramatic’ 3-speed automatic transmission, which had nothing to do with a turbo. The new “Astro Ventilation system” consisted of adding dash vents and removal of the wing vents. Push-button presets on the AM radio were a big deal, because you didn’t have to turn the dial to every station.
Instrumentation was pretty sparse by today’s standards. An optimistic 120 mph speedo sat between the gas gauge and a clock, paired with an AM-only radio. A period advertisement lauds the smooth operation of the ball-bearing equipped ash tray, “To keep tempers calm.” Can’t have Dad throwing yet another anger fit over a sticky ash tray, can we?
The car that gave me freedom quickly became the taking car. New tires, plus a pair of snows for the rear pilfered my puny bank account. I redid the rear brakes, a nightmare learning experience never to be repeated. I put new spark plugs, spark plug wires, ignition points, condenser, and distributor cap in her. I optimistically cleaned the carburetor at my Dad’s advice. Air filter, fuel filter, heater hoses, radiator hoses, oil filter, coolant, all replaced in my crash course on car maintenance.
Inevitably, it’s what you don’t replace that fails next, and I was soon the proud owner of a new Sears Die-Hard battery, after my steed refused to giddy-up one chill Seattle morning. But after our initial courtship squabbles, we settled into a lovely long-term relationship, my humongous family car and I. I washed and waxed her, and checked the air and treated the tire sidewalls regularly. I learned to change headlights, tail lights, and turn signal bulbs. I kept a growing toolbox with spares in the trunk.
I drove daily to school at Highline College near Federal Way, and to my afterschool job making sandwiches at a little deli in Des Moines, WA. I drove the three and half hours one-way back to Portland, OR, several times a month to see family and friends. Memories of gas lines and the 70’s oil crisis fresh in my mind, I’d proudly nurse almost 21 mpg out of her in all-highway driving.
I dated an introverted, shy, beautiful dark-haired girl from Des Moines, WA. I met her in my Norwegian class. Her car was sensible, small, and Japanese, so we’d usually take my car. She’d sit in the center of the bench seat as I drove, smiling shyly. Our portable rolling living room heard personal stories, philosophical discussions, and a lot of nonverbal communication. It was large, comfortable, and a space where we could be alone together.
US 26 in Portland during ash fall
When Mount Saint Helens erupted again, this time sending ash into Portland, I was staying with my brother in Beaverton, briefly before moving to Arizona. I made an air cleaner cover out of pantyhose to keep the ash out of my engine. I mused over how to best clean the ash off the paint without creating a thousand scratches. I missed the top of my mountain, that I was supposed to climb and ski the year it blew up.
Boom. Oregonian Photos ^^
It’s hard to appreciate what it was like to drive cars like this, especially as a young driver. Your have to develop a high level of comfort with imprecision. The General Motors ‘B’ platform the car was based on dates back to 1926. Thankfully, nobody makes cars like this anymore, and for good reason. The front suspension was so primitive, with under-damped shocks and coil springs, as was the leaf-spring rear. Over repeated bumps, the suspension would ‘pack-up’ and become ineffective at absorbing more bumps. It’s anemic V8 (by today’s standards) was still a large, powerful and torquey motor. Body roll was epic, cornering prowess was clearly an afterthought, with bias ply tires and soft springs.
Even with studded snows, it was a barely-guided missile in the snow, yet I took it repeatedly to the mountain. I carried ‘starter fluid’, a mixture of surely carcinogenic highly volatile solvents to spray into the carb on a cold day to help it wake up. I carried bags of sand in the trunk for weight and traction aid. The number of near misses and improbable successes grew over time.
1960’s American cars were born of incredible ‘slop’, not the high-tolerance computer-guided design and manufacturing of today. Worn wheel bearings manifested as oscillation in the front end. Overly hot brakes on road trips manifested as weak-to-no brakes. Yet, there’s a method to such overt sloppiness. Your car drives less like a tense German autobahn burner, jiggering over every expansion joint of the freeway, and more like a land yacht, sailing down the calm seas of I-5 Southbound. I’d bring a few 12-packs of Coors (not sold in Oregon at the time, so my friends thought that was a big deal), point the nose South, and surf my way down I-5 to Oregon, jauntily singing along to pop tunes on the AM radio.
All good things come to an end, and my girl’s ending was both sad and spectacular. Visiting Oregon in the Spring, I was driving up Highway 26 at night to St. Vincent’s Hospital, to see a high school friend who was laid up from a motorcycle accident. I blame the concert I went to the night before, or just my fatigue, or the torrential rains. Hell, I guess at some level, I blame the designers. New construction had started to reroute the Barnes road underpass, changing its gentle curve to a rapidly decreasing radius one as you exited the freeway. I came in too hot in the rain, and slid through the corner, fighting to avoid swapping ends.
As I looped back underneath the freeway, I pulled it almost back straight, giving it throttle and hanging on for dear life. The road had other ideas, as new construction had left a six-inch ledge to my left, and my rear wheels dropped over it. The effect of crossing the uneven pavement was immediate and spectacular, as the nose changed direction and slammed into the concrete abutment under the freeway. The rear whipped around and followed suit, as Detroit iron met Oregon concrete with a resounding crash and prolonged scraping. The hood, fenders, and door buckled, headlights smashed out on the left side, and the entire left side of the car crunched. I hit my arm on the window pillar and thought it was probably broken (it wasn’t, just badly bruised).
Amazingly, the engine was still running, and I was able to limp the car a few more blocks to the hospital parking lot, where I parked it in a far corner away from sight, nose-in. Steam hissed out of the radiator, as the engine made really unhealthy sounds in its death-throes. My steed had breathed its last, barely a year into our relationship, all that effort and money gone into a smoking wreck.
I thanked her for protecting me. Two years prior, I had nearly died in a car accident, hitting two telephone poles, spidering a windshield with my face and being trapped in a burning car. So, with no small gratitude, I cleaned out the glove box and put my things into the trunk, then walked to the hospital to see my friend and get my arm checked out.
The next day it was sunny and dry. I’d called my Dad in the morning, as I needed his help and to borrow his ‘extra’ pickup truck for awhile. He’d arranged for salvage and a tow truck to meet me to sign over the title. The side I’d crunched showed massive amounts of body-filler (a.k.a. ‘Bondo), for a car that had ‘never been crashed’. The paint under it was the original bright Chevy Blue, not the dull Chevy green I always had been told was ‘original factory paint’. My Dad’s co-worker had lied through his teeth, curiously selling his honesty to make a $500 sale, a bad trade in my mind.
I ran my hand down the long creased line of the front fender on the passenger side, fondly remembering the seas we’d sailed. Our voyage was a short one, in the relative scheme of time, and like a lot of virgins, my first wasn’t at all what I expected, our relationship born of deceit and dishonesty. My naivety and inexperience had allowed me to be taken advantage of. I’d learned that despite hard work and good planning, you can lose what’s dear to you in an instant of bad judgement.
I wasn’t a virgin anymore, and I already had my eye on this really hot German girl with super high gas mileage. Still, you never forget your first, and today when I see one, I feel again the warmth of our tumultuous relationship and remember a year when everything felt new, strange, and kind of wonderful.