I have always enjoyed driving. And many of the automobiles I have owned over the years, especially in my more adventurous younger days, represented something considerably more than simple transportation. I owned a number of convertibles, which to me represented breezes, sunshine, youth and freedom, and (hopefully and futilely) rendered me more attractive to young ladies (it’s interesting that today all the people driving convertibles seem to be my age; today’s young people do not seem to be interested!). And at one time I actually owned a real sports car.
In the 1960’s I owned two Chevrolet Corvair Monza convertibles – an aqua 1962 and a maroon 1966. The Corvair was a daring product for an automobile company like General Motors: a small compact car with rear mounted air-cooled all aluminum engine with six horizontal opposed cylinders and one of Detroit’s more innovative reactions to the increasing popularity of smaller German and Japanese cars. The Corvair also had four wheel independent suspension which, along with the rear engine, gave it superb handling characteristics. It is unfortunate that an early flaw in the suspension, quickly corrected in later model years, allegedly caused some crashes, described in Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed”. This negative publicity resulted in a downturn in sales and the ultimate demise of this truly unique American car.
I lived in Denver, Colorado in 1961 and 1962 and first became acquainted with this remarkable vehicle through a good friend who owned a 1961, from the Corvair’s second year of production. On our joyrides through the curves, inclines and slopes of the Colorado foothills and mountains, I was astonished at how well his car handled and vowed to get one myself, resulting in my aqua 1962 Corvair. Then my friend and I did some joyriding in my car as well and even took it on a quick road trip to and from New Jersey in 1962.
When I returned to New Jersey and resumed my education, my little brothers enjoyed riding with me in the “Monza” and Charlie, Richard and Stan had their picture taken in front of it one Sunday.
Somewhere between the ’62 and the ’66 Corvairs, we bought a 1963 Pontiac Tempest convertible, one of GM’s “compact” cars from the 1960’s and another very unique car. The engine was a four cylinder, but a very unique four, consisting of the regular Pontiac 389 V8 with one bank of cylinders missing. To compensate for the missing four cylinders, a new driveshaft had to be manufactured for this strange engine, called the “slant four”. In addition, this car contained another GM innovation – moving the transaxle to the rear and connecting it to the engine with a flexible drive shaft, thus getting rid of the hump and flattening the floor. The car was fun to drive but owning this car ended badly. At that time we had absolutely no idea of how manage money and we discovered that we could not afford this car and were falling behind on payments. I called the GMAC office in Newark and arranged a voluntary repossession, drove the car to Newark, turned it in, gave them the keys and shamefacedly took the public bus system back to New Brunswick. So ended our affair with the Pontiac Tempest, but, surprisingly, giving the car up in this way actually improved our credit rating.
I guess it was some time after the Pontiac Tempest affair that we bought the 1966 Corvair convertible. This car served us well – taking care of our commuting and pleasure driving needs in New Brunswick for a couple of years and then taking us safely across the country in 1968 to Pinon, Arizona, my first teaching location on the Navajo Reservation. While at Pinon, this beautiful little car also took us reliably and efficiently to scores of National Parks and Monuments all over the beautiful American southwest.
I had always serviced the car myself and took very good care of it. But after moving the next year to Rock Point, Arizona, the engine of this beautiful little vehicle failed on a trip to Tucson. The car was belching clouds of black smoke, running unevenly and burning lots of oil. I don’t know exactly what was wrong but it was likely a cracked piston or broken rod. Corvairs’ air cooled engines ran considerably hotter than water cooled engines and that fact could have been the cause of my problem. At any rate, I had to keep pouring cans of oil into the engine between Tucson and Phoenix, and not having the time to have it repaired, found a dealer there who would accept it as a discounted trade-in, and drove a ’68 Comaro (white with blue interior and yes, another convertible) back home to Rock Point, Arizona. I hated to say goodbye to my second and last Corvair but by that time GM had ceased production and this great automobile was history. Thank you, Ralph Nader.
The Camaro convertible was a dependable car, not as good on gas but fine for driving around the Reservation and for the long shopping trips to Farmington, New Mexico. I remember one frightening incident with the Camaro. On the way back from a shopping trip to Farmington on US 160, somewhere around Red Mesa, I accidently shoved the automatic transmission handle into reverse while I was going about 60 miles per hour. The tires squealed and smoked, the rear end was fish-tailing and I thought I had lost the whole drive train, but I stopped and found that the transmission still worked and the engine was ok, and then proceeded on home. I think I was very lucky.
The Chevy Camaro lasted us until we found out that we were going to move to Cambridge, Massachusetts for me to go again to graduate school and needed a car that would carry some significant cargo. After looking around, I decided to buy a new 1970 Volkswagen Kombi, the most stripped down Volkswagen bus imaginable, so stripped down in fact that there was no back seat – just empty space and a bare painted steel floor behind the front seats, quite simple and barren, but very serious cargo space. I later built a wood structure that brought the floor behind the seats up to the level of the floor over the engine so you could place a mattress and sleeping bags in the back and comfortably camp. This vehicle certainly fulfilled its purpose for transporting cargo, its box shape maximized space for a huge volume of personal possessions.
Like all Volkswagen buses of that vintage it was woefully underpowered, causing extreme embarrassment when going up hills as a long line of angry frustrated drivers gathered behind and generally gave an angry glare and blast on the horn when they were finally able to pass. And the floor-mounted manual shift had so much give that it felt like you were shifting with a sapling. However, this vehicle (I can’t call it a car) served us well, through the last few months on the Rez, the year in Cambridge and the first years of my job in Duxbury, Massachusetts. It was the vehicle in which I did my own limited version of Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley”, taking a wonderful trip by myself with the family dog.
Another pleasant memory relating to VW buses at that time was that you automatically became a member of a certain group or fraternity of other VW bus owners. Heading down the highway in this bus or my later VW Camper, the old “V” peace sign was always exchanged between drivers. This feeling of kinship could have been an assumption of kindred political opinion, for it seemed that VW buses were the preferred mode of transportation for hippies back in the 60’s and 70’s, or the peace sign indication of kinship among VW bus owners may simply have been a sign of shared frustration with driving these boxy, poor handling and under-powered vehicles. At any rate, I did enjoy feeling that for whatever reason, I was a member of that select group.
Soon after settling in to the Duxbury Public Schools job and building the first house we owned in Plympton, Massachusetts, I purchased my dream car, a 1973 Porsche 914. Anyone knowing anything about sports cars, knows that this car, with its mid-engine design, was superbly balanced and handled like a dream. Its engine was essentially a bored out and souped up air cooled Volkswagen engine, coupled with a very tight five speed manual transmission. I really enjoyed this vehicle, taking it on a trip west, visiting my Grandfather and Aunt Ada Friedly on the way, camping in Zion and Bryce National Parks and ending with visiting my parents and brothers in Denver. In its trunks (since the engine was in the middle, it had small trunks front and back) I had my suitcase, tent and camping equipment.
As an aside, I should mention that when I was comfortably situated in my campsite in Zion, seated at my picnic table, enjoying the peaceful beauty while sipping a Coors after a tasty supper of a bologna sandwich and Van Camps pork and beans, I was assaulted by a huge Winnebago with California plates and dirt bikes fastened to the bumpers, pulling into the campsite beside me. In no time the peaceful and relaxing silence of that heavenly place was violated by the noise of loud voices and laughter, TV and two-cycle engines, completely destroying the contemplative mood in which I had been basking. All I could do was drink enough additional Coors’ until I didn’t really care anymore.
On the way back to Denver after camping in Bryce Canyon National Park, I found myself on a very straight stretch of highway between Green River and Hanksville, Utah, and decided that this was my opportunity to see how fast my little Porsche would go. Pushing the gas pedal down as far as I could and keeping it there, it got me up to 115 miles per hour, still the fastest speed I have ever experienced in any car.
By the way, this little sports car was great on gas mileage, a very valuable feature while waiting in gas lines back in the infamous days in the early 1970’s of “shortages”. After filling up, I was always able to avoid another gas line for a very long time.
When my sanity returned in the midst of building my second house in Plympton, Massachusetts (actually built by my talented brothers, Richard and Glenn – I was the unskilled labor), and knowing that I would have to be “camping” while finishing the house, I sold the Porsche (for more than I paid for it) and bought my second Volkswagen bus, this one a full fledged camper. The well-known “Westphalia” camping configuration inside this small vehicle was very efficient and utilitarian and could sleep a couple of adults and a couple of children quite comfortably. It was also large enough inside to enable me to transport large items needed for the continuing house construction. But on a trip home with some furniture items from the Jordan Marsh warehouse in Quincy one evening, all the lights on the dashboard went on when the engine seized up, the rear drive wheels screeching and skidding until I hit the the clutch pedal. My air-cooled, overstressed (again, a very small engine propelling a fairly heavy vehicle) and hot running Volkswagen engine had simply worn out, maybe threw a rod, as they say, simply broke or whatever. At any rate, I had the vehicle towed to a repair place where I had a rebuilt engine put in the vehicle.
The final chapter in the story of my VW camper was quite serious. During the winter, while driving home from a friend’s house in what seemed to be just rain, the temperature had gone down and near my house the rain, unknown to me, had turned to the infamous “black ice” . The last thing I remembered before waking up in the Plymouth Hospital the next day was my camper slowing, spinning, totally out of control but still going 40 miles per hour. I was told by the police the next day that I had hit and knocked down a telephone pole and had put out the lights for miles around. The police found me covered with blood staggering around in the back of the vehicle. I had sustained a very severe head wound, a concussion and several broken ribs, the former from striking the windshield and the latter from hitting the steering wheel. The entire passenger side of the front was crushed three feet in. If I had hit the pole a little more to the left, I would certainly have been killed instantly. VW buses were notorious for their complete lack of crash protection in the front.
Shortly after that incident, I became acquainted with the Honda Accord through a good friend, who owned a 1977, then a brand new design and entirely new kind of car from Honda, which previously was known mostly for motorcycles and the tiny Civic. After hearing my friend extol its many virtues I was convinced that the Accord was the kind of car I needed, so I bought a new aqua 1978 Honda Accord and quickly became completely convinced that it was one of the highest quality cars I had ever owned. It had great acceleration and gas mileage, handled beautifully, took to Massachusetts winter driving nicely with its front wheel drive and had many luxury features that were “extras” on other vehicles at the time. I loved this car, which marked the beginning of my “practical” car owning days, which included a number of other Hondas, a Plymouth Voyager, a Ford Explorer, a ’76 Chevy pickup with a camper, a GMC van, a Ford Escape, up to the present 2004 Dodge Dakota and the 2009 Toyota Corolla, all practical, none glamorous or exciting.
It’s been a great ride, owning and driving this variety of vehicles over many years. Like so many other things in my life, the people I have known and loved and the places I have lived and worked, each of my cherished vehicles added a distinct kind of experience, color and definition to my life.