Pages Navigation Menu

A Peculiar Fixation (Ongoing)

A Peculiar Fixation (Ongoing)

©2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (2013) A peculiar fixation. Book in progress.





A Peculiar Fixation

One American’s Experiences with Motor Vehicles

By Dallas Denny


Several years ago I made, as a mental exercise, a list of the various motor vehicles I’ve owned. I was amazed to discover that in forty-some years of driving I had acquired, driven, and sold or otherwise disposed of more than 30 automobiles (the current count is 33 and one pickup truck) and some 17 motorcycles. When I compared my automotive experiences with acquaintances of a like age, I discovered most had owned far fewer vehicles—some as few as three, some as many as six. None had owned more than a dozen. I began to suspect I was a rare bird.

It’s no secret Americans have a strange and obsessive attachment to their vehicles—one strong enough to drive global politics and fuel political disagreements in our own country. The interaction of mass production, manifest destiny, and the internal combustion engine has transformed the social and physical landscapes of this country, changing them in the most peculiar and profound of ways. The automobile—and here I include motorycles and motorscooters, SUVs and pickup trucks, min-vans and urban assault vehicles— has shaped our cities. Without it there would be no suburbs, no supermarkets, no malls, no cup holders. It has molded our lives and our destinies, and in the process dug deep into our pocketbooks. It figures into many of our most personal moments and social ceremonies: whether we’re being born, getting married, or dying, a motor vehicle will almost always play a prominent role.

We ride in our cars daily: to and from work and school, to the grocery store or the theater, to pick up our mail, to visit our friends, across the country on vacation, or just for the hell of it. Many of us spend our workdays in our vehicles or in the vehicles of others— think cabdriver, courier, traveling salesperson, police officer, bus driver, pizza deliverer. We listen to CDs and iPods and satellite radio and audiobooks in our cars, eat fast food as we drive, and sometimes nap or even temporarily live in our cars. We use them to take us to faraway places and to destinations just down the block, to magic kingdoms and cities hundreds or thousands of miles from our birthplaces, or to Mom and Dad’s house three streets over. Scarcely a day goes by without us climbing behind the wheel and putting the key in the ignition and zooming away to somewhere or nowhere.

We pay enormous sums for our automobiles; the car payment is more common, and often nearly as expensive, as the mortgage payment. When we finally finish paying for our cars— and even before we do so— we trade them for newer models. We make monthly payments for insurance to protect us from the damage others might inflict upon us and the damage we might inflict upon others and to protect our vehicles from the wrath of Mother Nature and uninsured motorists. We pay increasingly high prices for gasoline or diesel to fuel our vehicles and for scheduled (and, alas, unscheduled) maintenance— oil changes, tuneups, brake jobs, muffler repairs, paint jobs, tire rotations, detailing, valve jobs and engine rebuilds, replacement of broken windows, new shocks and batteries, reupholstery. We “improve” our cars with custom wheels and tires, steering wheel covers, CD changers, global positioning devices, and television screens, oogah horns, dashboard shrines, mud flaps, window tints, chrome-plated motor parts, custom exhausts, bumper stickers, running lights, fancy paint jobs. We treat our cars as if they were lovers, buying for them (instead of chocolates or flowers), tires, wiper blades, oil filters, tune ups, seat covers, fancy hubcaps, air fresheners, floor mats, 400-watt subwoofer amps. We have them cleaned, painted, detailed, and acessorized. If our automobiles are lovers, they are certainly expensive ones!

Automobiles inform our art. Some consider the automobile itself a work of art. New models are unveiled under spotlights at trade shows as if they were models on a runway, draped in high couture. They are featured on the pages of magazines in elegant settings and made to do magic tricks on television screens. Elements of automotive design find their way into our buildings and even our computers. The tail ends of popular models like the 1957 Cadillac are turned into coffee tables or booths in diners or buried in the sand in a bizarro tribute to Stonehenge. Model and cast metal cars are popular toys for boys, and sometimes grown men and women, and even Barbie has a convertible and a motor home.

I could go on in this vein. I could write a psychological treatise, explaining for the benefit of the scientists of the future how and why we’re so strongly affected by our multi-ton rolling behemoths, or I could play the anthropologist or the sociologist or the historian. I could describe how automobiles have changed our mating rituals and the foods we eat and how we shop, or how the politics of the petroleum which fuels them has led to wars and the making and breaking of Middle Eastern nations and American presidents, or how motor vehicles have changed the very ways wars are fought, of how the poisons emitted by internal combustion engines are polluting the air, land, and water and changing the climate, or how our motor vehicles have shaped and are shaping our neighborhoods and our homes. But I’ll leave all that to others. I just want to tell stories, based on my own experiences, of my own peculiar relationships with motor vehicles and speculate a bit about how and why I, like most Americans have come to feel so strongly about mobile creations of metal and glass and plastic and fabric.

Well, mostly. Despite my best intentions otherwise, I find I’ve indulged myself a bit here and there.


Chapter 1: Relating to Objects

Chapter 1

Relating To Objects


Human beings are born with the ability to make and a drive to form deep emotional attachments with other humans. This is a necessary skill for a social animal—and we, as primates, are indeed social animals. Except for the rare hermit, we live in proximity to others, often in the same houses, or, even if we live alone, in homes only feet from the homes of others. When we aren’t geographically close, we communicate with one another by telephone, letters, FAX, and e-mail. We know the faces of and are able to differentiate among hundreds or thousands of others, and we define ourselves by our place in the collective, as father or mother, son or daughter, aunt, uncle, cousin, neighbor, fraternity brother, co-worker, fellow church member, co-worker, fellow student, or citizen.

This ability to form social bonds often generalizes to our relationship with animals— in particular dogs and cats, but it can include horses and other farm animals, fish, and wild game. Our bonds with our beloved pets can be as strong as our bonds to family members, and their deaths can be devastating.

In a strict sense, manufactured items aren’t unique, not in this postmodern age, not since Henry Ford— to whom this book is dedicated— perfected the assembly line. Our machines are made from standardized parts, assembled in pre-engineered ways, and upon superficial examination look exactly alike, except perhaps for their color— and even the paint is limited to a standardized palette.

Why, then, do so many of us bond with objects in much the same way we do with other humans? Perhaps it’s just a twist on our natural inclination to form interpersonal bonds, or perhaps it’s the result of millions of years of interactions of humans with the physical world— we have, after all, since paleolithic times depended upon our tools. We seem to be natural collectors. We acquire and covet such varied objects as stamps, coins, comics and first edition novels, dolls, electric trains, sculpture, paintings, pottery and glassware, weapons, and sound recordings. We learn to make fine distinctions among our treasured objects, classifying them by size, shape, function, color, condition, year of manufacture, model number, and even production run. We argue the merits of a Brush McCoy cookie jar and elaborate upon the differences of pre-1964 and post-1964 Winchester Model 1894 carbines— but we rarely imbue our possessions with a personality. We rarely coax, cajole, curse, or confide in our coins and stamps. We may consider them lucky or unlucky, but we usually don’t give them a gender or a name, and we certainly don’t think they contrive to disappoint or frustrate us or praise them when they function as their designers intended.

This isn’t always the case with our motorized vehicles. Our relationships with them go far beyond thankfulness for a machine that can take us from one place to another faster than we can walk. We give them names and attribute to them a gender. We promise them we’ll take them to the mechanic if they’ll just damn it start, and take it as a personal affront when they just damn it won’t. It’s just different with our vehicles.

But why do we grant them status as quasi-alive? Is it because they convey us from place to place like that living thing, the horse? Is it because they interact with us, responding to our hands and feet on their controls? Is it because of their marvelous complexity? Is it because their ticking motors seem to us like beating hearts? Or is it because of some combination of these and other factors?

Perhaps it’s the way they’re styled. After all, automotive connosieurs rave about the sweep of the tailfin of the 1957 Chevy or the sharklike shape of the Sting-Ray Corvette, or the distinctive shape of a Ford F-150 pickup or the sound of a P-54 Mustang fighter, or the shape of a Cris Craft’s bow. Perhaps it’s a hearkening to an earlier, nostalgic time, when the motion and sounds of the vehicles in which we rode with our families made us feel happy and secure. Maybe it’s a combination of all of these things, but for many of us— and I include myself—vehicles (as are, for many people, dolls) are a special case.

Aircraft, ships and boats, and motorcycles have their afficianados (I certainly love motorcycles), but for many of us, it’s cars and trucks: sometimes those we rode in or coveted in the wooly days of our youth, and sometimes the latest high-concept status symbol. But just what is it about our cars that makes us feel so strongly about them?

Certainly, both aesthetics and personal reminiscences play a role in our relationships with motor vehicles, but I suspect the greatest appeal of our vehicles is that of — an automobile GOES. Its motor is indeed like a throbbing heart. A car seems like a thing alive, swift as a cheetah as it scratches off, executes graceful turns, and screeches to a stop. Moreoever, it doesn’t do these things on its— it requires the help of a human, who must operate it. When it’s driven, it becomes an extension of the human— a prosthesis, a snarling, dashing, darting, rolling exoskeleton that can barrel down the highway at 120 mph or simply take the driver to Peoria. Perhaps that’s the crowning touch— the machine and the organism become one.

But enough of such esoterica. That’s not what what I want to write about. I sat down at my computer to write about my own relationship with automobiles and how my own experiences have informed my beliefs and appreciation of them, and to speculate about how my experiences may differ from or reflect those of others.

In reminiscing on the myriad and assorted vehicles I’ve owned, I realized I had a tale to tell about each (although I won’t bore you in these pages with stories of all 33!). I also came to realize my experience is hardly the norm. I know there are others like me— many, no doubt, with stories more interesting than mine. But this is my story. And I’m sticking to it.



I’m six years old. My mother, my younger brother, and I have arrived, via a Military Air Transport Service DC-3, at OrlyAirport in Paris. My father shows up in a World War II vintage round-robin Jeep he’d bought from a fellow sergeant for $50. When our Ford arrived from the States by ship, he told us, he would resell the Jeep so it could continue to serve newly-arrived families— and he did; perhaps that Willys is still making its rounds in the LoireValley.

On this warm fall afternoon, we take the scenic route to our new home in Jarjeau, near Orleans, riding with no top. We cruise along a winding two-lane road, passing farmhouses and fields and forests, the sun on our skin and the wind in our hair, the smell of dungheaps occasionally assailing our noses and my mother’s sensibilities. It’s marvelous. I don’t understand why we can’t keep the Jeep forever.

Chapter 2: The Gray Dumpster

Chapter 3

The Gray Dumpster



The First Automobile I Ever Owned


1950 Dodge Coronet

My first car was a gray 4-door 1950 Dodge Coronet. I bought it in 1968, when I was 19 years old, for the princely sum of thirty dollars. To say she was in poor condition would be an understatement. She listed to one side like a post-iceberg Titanic, and the finish looked as if it had been worked over by an army of dwarves with ball-peen hammers. The mohair interior had become no-hair, and padding erupted from the front seat as if from an overstuffed turkey on Thanksgiving. The driver’s door wouldn’t open, which meant I had to climb and out on the passenger (uphill) side. There was no glass in the driver’s window, which I kept open in the summer and covered with cardboard in the winter and on rainy days.

Because she had a weak battery, while at work at Shoney’s I would park her on a hill around back, near the garbage area. Murray Lockett, the manager, once told me to come quick, the Dempster Dumpster truck was trying to empty my — and so the Coronet acquired a name among my co-workers— the Gray Dumpster.

The Dumpster had a fluid drive transmission, which meant I could drive her as either a three-speed or as an automatic; the clutch was optional. So, apparently, were radio and heater, for she had neither. She was freezing during the cold Tennessee winter, and on the long drive to work I would sing to keep myself company.

I drove the Gray Dumpster for more than a year without significant problem. Surprisingly, she didn’t take her last voyage with me. I sold her for $15 to a co-worker, a cook, who had her only a week before he wrecked her going the wrong way up a one-way street. The back story: he was drunk on his ass. For reasons I didn’t understand at the time and now realize were due to his inherent racism, he blamed the accident on a family who had been minding their own business when he slammed into them. He blamed the accident on them.

Hoping to recoup part of his loss, he offered to sell me the new jack he had bought. I took him up on his offer and drove him to the junkyard, where we retrieved the jack from the sprung-open trunk. The sight of the Dumpster broke my heart. She was squashed front to back like a melon dropped on its end. It was an ignominious end for a faithful servant.

The Gray Dumpster would have been a bargain even at fifty dollars.

In the mid 1990s the Atlanta Journal-Constitution invited its readers to write about their first car. I came up with the above and sent it in; of course, it wasn’t published. The newspaper was more interested in Thunderbirds and Model T’s than rusting hulks that had once been battleship gray.

There’s more to the story, of course.

I think at some level I agreed with my parents’ assessment that I wasn’t, ahem, experienced enough to drive a car— hence my motorcycle years. But after several years of riding bikes, I decided I was as mature as I was likely to get— besides, I was getting weather-worn. I was tired of lying in bed at night with my teeth chattering and my hands numb from the cold ride home. It was time to go from two to four wheels.

I knew my salary at Shoney’s wouldn’t buy much in the way of a car, but I wasn’t looking for much, just four wheels and a trunk. When a waitress named Betty told me her husband had an operational 1950 Dodge Coronet for sale for thirty dollars, I bought it, sight unseen, telling her my only condition was that it would run and could be driven. She assured me it did and could. I paid her without having seen it or having much of an idea what it might look like (I mean, how much of a risk was I taking?) and made arrangements to pick it up on payday.

On the big day, my mother drove me to Nashville to pick up my new machine. There she was, as described above, but beautiful to my eyes. Why, some soapy water here, some wax there, and she would look as good as new. Well, may not, but she might look some better. The Gray Dumpster!

Let’s be honest. I never called her the Gray Dumpster. Neither did my co-workers, after they tired of laughing at Murray’s joke. She was just the Dodge, or the car, and I won’t cause her postmortem embarrassment by referring to her any more as a dumpster. Even though she did rather look like one.

Although I had been assured she was operational, I was still a bit surprised when she fired right up. Betty’s husband handed me a title— not the title, you understand, said he, but a title, one which belonged to another 1950 Dodge, a car which had gone to its rest. Who was going to look that closely, anyway? Feeling I had no right to complain about a fishy title to a thirty-dollar vehicle, I thanked him, waved to my mother to let her know she could go back home, and set out.

Now, the reader must understand: the entirety of my piloting experience had, before that date, been behind the wheel of my father’s antique 3-speed Dodge pickup, which he would let me drive the last half-mile home after school, fishing for the gears with every shift. I had little reservoir of expertise upon which to draw. So of course I immediately got into deep doo-doo.

Dodge Fluid DriveI didn’t even get the Coronet into high gear before I came upon a traffic light— and as my bad luck would have it, it was on a steep upgrade. Since the coordination of the clutch and gas pedal was tricky business, and since although I had been told about the fluid drive, I had no idea just what that meant, I slowed, hoping the light would turn green before I reached it. Of course, I had no such luck. The light remained red, and I had to stop. So there I was, the car on an incline, the clutch pressed down, my foot on the brake, dreading the nerve-wracking business of starting uphill. Then, to my horror, I realized the brake pedal seemed a bit close to the floor. I watched my foot. No doubt about it, it was slowly, but definitely sinking! I pressed harder, but the pedal continued to drop until it was flat on the floorboard; then, of course, the Coronet began rolling backward down the incline, directly towards a car which had pulled up behind me. In about five seconds I was going to crash the Dodge’s ass end into someone’s two-tone pride and joy, and my driving career would be over before it had begun.

In a panic, I took my foot off the brake and tried the tricky maneuver of getting the car to roll uphill. I believe my intention was to run the red light. I killed the engine. Damn! I pulled the emergency brake; it came out so easily I knew it wasn’t hooked up. The Dodge was picking up speed. In a panic, I stomped the brake pedal again, hoping the gods of hydraulic pressure had healed the brakes. To my astonishment, the Dodge came to rest just short of collision. There were brakes again!

As I sat through that interminable light, I realized I could maintain brakes by quickly pumping the pedal whenever it began to sink. In the six or so months I owned the Dodge, that remained my braking strategy. But just now the light had changed to green. I hit the starter and the engine caught. Revving the motor to an insane pitch, I slipped the clutch and rolled up the hill, through the light, and onto the highway, my first driving challenge behind me.

Had I bothered to learn before I set out just how a fluid drive transmission worked, I could have rolled to a stop without using the clutch and pushed gently on the accelerator to keep the car from rolling downhill, using the automatic mode— emergency averted. But with the usual clutch and three-on-the-column, the fluid drive had given no hint of its capabilities.

One does not, of course, expect a beaten-up 1950 Dodge to have an owner’s manual, but by experimenting I discovered the fluid drive could function either as a three-speed standard or two-speed automatic. When I first drove out I would change gears as with a standard transmission, but once the transmission was in third gear, I no longer had to use the clutch; the transmission functioned like any automatic. The combination of shifting and automatic driving was a godsend for a novice driver who wasn’t quite sure of the difference between the second and reverse positions. Hills once again became my friends.

I didn’t have the Dodge long before I got into another scrape— literally. I had had a falling out with my parents, and as a result was living in the Ross Fireproof Hotel. The Ross was located in downtown Nashville on the corner of 4th and Union, just behind the Ryman Auditorium, which at the time housed the Grand Ole Opry. The Ross was one of those places where old men on pensions sit around as if waiting to die. The lobby was filled with whittlers and tobacco chewers and those who were both. The old men would watch me with rheumy eyes as I walked through the lobby toward the stairs. I lived in the basement in a room that cost eight dollars a week, cheap even by 1968 standards. It wasn’t much of a room, of course, but I didn’t need much.

The desk clerk at the Ross was a gray old man who drove a gray old car— a Buick of about the same vintage as my Dodge, and a handsome one, at that. It looked rather like an upscale cousin of the Dodge. Its interior was pristine, the mohair soft and velvety, the paint shiny and unscratched. The Dodge looked like its unsavory relation.

One day, while trying to get the Dodge out of its narrow parking space, the Buick close beside it, my inexperience won the day and I scraped the side of the Buick several times as I maneuvered back and forth. Of course, I scraped the Dodge too, but considering its condition that didn’t seem to matter much. What did matter was the Buick. Although I was afraid to look at the damage, I knew it had to be significant.

I considered going into the Ross and fessing up— “I did it! I did it! Stop whittling, dammit! I did it!”—- but prudence won the day and I kept my mouth shut. For weeks I waited for the lowering of the boom, but nothing was ever said. Later, the same desk clerk got me thrown me out of the Ross for having a woman in my room— the woman was me, but that’s another story— and I was glad I had kept my mouth shut.

For the year and more I owned the Dodge, it ran like a champ. The motor, a flathead 6, purred, and the fluid drive functioned perfectly. The body, ragged as it was, was at least constant. The only significant problem was tires; the Dodge, which in restrospect I imagine had a twisted frame, was death on rubber. It didn’t help that I would buy $5 tires, already bald. I would have flats on a regular basis, perhaps once a month. I would try to keep a trunk full of spares, but I soon grew weary of jacking her up to change tires. When I had a flat I would drive slowly along the side of the road until I came to a service station— remember service stations? They had them in those days. There, I would pull a tire out of the trunk, of, if my supply was low, buy a tire for $5 or so, and, if I had driven far enough to ruin the wheel, a rim as well— and for almost nothing, and they would fix me right up. There were service stations in those days!

The Dodge had but one key, and I lost it one Sunday while visiting my parents. I knew I had last seen it just before napping on the couch, and when I realized it was missing I searched throughly, but it never turned up. Twenty years later, on one of my last visits with my parents, I found the key by happenstance. It had fallen, Lord knows how, into an arrangement of artificial flowers on the coffee table. The flowers had been sitting there, unchanged, for 20 years. I still have the key.

But journey with me once, again, back to those thrilling days of yesteryear. I’m at my parents with a car that has no key. Since I didn’t have a spare, and since the Dodge’s ignition switch refused to yield to my father’s largest screwdriver, I got out the Yellow Pages and dialed a locksmith. “You want how much?” Unbelievable! I should become a locksmith; Scoundrels they were, charging such prices!

My parents were kind enough to drive me to a parts store in the nearby town of Smyrna, where for a few dollars I bought a generic ignition switch. My first act as an automobile mechanic was installing it. I was proud of my handiwork; the car was running in time to get me to work. But she had become hard to start. Eventually she didn’t start at all and sat for two months in the parking lot of the Ross while I caught the bus to and from work. One day I sat in her, trying to crank her. No matter how many times the engine turned over, she wouldn’t start; she seemed to hit only when I released the key. With a sudden flash of electromechanical insight, I realized I had wired the switch incorrectly; when the switch was in the Start position and the starter was turning, there was no power to the coil; only when I let go of the key and the switch automatically returned to the On position did the engine have spark. Fortunately, the residual motion of the starter was enough to (sometimes) fire her up. I pulled out the instruction leaflet for the switch— which fortunately was still in the glove box— studied the connection diagram, and got out my screwdriver. I found the offending wire and moved it to the proper position, fixing the problem. The Cornonet started right up. I was so proud of myself!

I learned several lessons in losing that key; first, it’s wise to hang onto instruction sheets, even when you think you won’t need them again; and second, it’s far, far cheaper and easier to get spares made on the front end than to deal with highway-robbing locksmiths. Today, I keep a crate of instruction booklets dating back more than 20 years (well, recently I digitized them all, so there’s no longer an actual crate) and I have a key safe in which I keep multiple duplicates of every key I own. Consequenetly, I have never, more than 40 years of driving, had to pay a locksmith to come and get me into my car.

I keep a metal pail full of obsolete keys I’ve accumulated through the years. I go through the bucket from time to time; It’s a walk down memory lane. I wrote a poem about those keys, which my ex-father-in-law published in 1981 in his journal, Cumberlands.


Keys, keys

A lifetime of keys

Pitched into this bucket

Yale, they say

Master, they say

Samsonite, they say

Or Buick, or Fiat

I save keys

They unlock old memories


This is the key to my first car

The one with the bad brakes

This key fits my grandmother’s house

Although she never locks it

This key fits an army footlocker

In which I have stored

Things too private to tell you about

This tiny key fits a tiny lock

Long ago discarded

This big brass key

Fits the tightroom

At a mental hospital

Where I once worked

Or lived

I don’t remember which

This key fits the lab building

At my old college

Where I used to put together experiments

While my marriage was falling apart

And all the keys in this pile

Are the ones that must fit something

But I don’t know what

I’m going to keep them

Because some day they might fit something

Don’t laugh it’s happened before

With this key

I opened the trunk

Of a Chevrolet

And it is a Mercury key


And now it’s time

To put all my keys

Back into the bucket

They’ve done their trick

They’ve taken me back twenty years

I save keys

They unlock old memories

No, I didn’t live in the mental hospital. I worked there. Really. And shame on you for thinking otherwise!

There’s no telling how long the Dodge would have lasted had it not been for that drunken encounter on a one-way street. She was running fine when I sold her to that irresponsible cook. Certainly I had no complaint with her performance. I got rid of her only because I had found the car of my dreams. Well, sort of.

It happened this way; after work one night, I sat with my chums and co-workers in the parking lot of H. Salt Fish & Chips, where we swapped stories until just before dawn. When a Metro Nashville policeman gently suggested we all go home, I pulled across the four-lane Nolensville Road and had a close encounter with a newly-installed foot-high lane divider. The Dodge bucked high in the air like a high-strung colt, then, remembering her age and dignity, landed with two flat tires and two bent rims.

Now, one flat was driveable, but two weren’t. I was barely able to get her up the road to a cut-through and into the parking lot of a closed Texaco station, the police watching and no doubt laughing all the while. I left a note on the windshield saying I had had a mishap and would phone the next morning to arrange to buy tires and to please not have her towed away. One of my friends, seeing the mishap— and almost certainly laughing, too— drove me home.

I phoned the service station the next morning as promised and arranged to buy rims and two bald tires (amazine how there always semed to be cheap tires and rims when I needed them). When I arrived after work— on the bus— the attendant asked if I would be interested in a 1957 Chevy Bel-Air.

There she sat in the bay, in all her primered glory! And for only $100, yet. What a bargain! I gave him $50 on the spot, promising to bring the balance in a week, and drove away in the Dodge, sporting two new very used rims and tires.


 Vehicle: 1950 Dodge Coronet 4-door sedan

Color: Battleship gray

 Features: Flathead 6 engine, fluid drive transmission, cardboard driver’s window

 Months Driven: 14

 Purchase Price: $30

 Sell Price: $15

 Reliability: High

 Lessons Learned: A $30 car isn’t necessarily a bad car. Make extra keys. Lots of them. Immediately.

Chapter 5: Fixing Cars in the Back Yard

Chapter 5

Fixing Cars in the Back Yard


Being a backyard mechanic can be a miserable experience. It can be a rewarding experience as well, but so, I suppose, can fighting in a war.

It’s all about tools, of course. Properly outfitted, tasks that would take all weekend with makeshift implements can be done in only minutes. If you don’t believe me, try changing your spark plugs witout a deep-well socket and wrench. Some tools are affordable, others impractical for most of us. If you have four or five thousand dollars to spend on a lift, for example, you can stand up and get at the underside of your vehicle. Without a lift—which exactly descibes the situation of just about every backyard mechanic, you put the car up on jackstands, if you have them, and lie on your back on a creeper, if you’re lucky enough to have one and lucky enough to have a cement floor on which to roll it, or on the ground if you don’t have a creeper. Then you roll, or scoot, as the case may be, under your car and then back out a dozen or more times as you find you require tools you didn’t think to take with you.

Think Norman what’s-his-name, the guy who has a television show called “The Yankee Workshop.” Old Norm deals with furniture rather than cars, but the concept is the same. He has a tool for everything. This causes my woodworker friends to hate him— and it makes the amazing things he does with wood look simple. But old Norm would be nobody without that well-equipped Yankee workshop.

Having the proper tools is no guarantee things will go right—not when it comes to automobiles, anyway. Bolts snap, or their threads are stripped, or they’re so rusty they won’t turn, or none of your more than one-hundred-and-fifty sockets will fit them, or they’re simply impossible to get to, even after you’ve removed the battery, air cleaner, carburetor, starter, air conditioner compressor, alternator, radiator, fan belt pulley, water pump, valve covers, steering wheel, and transmission. Your target, lying only two inches away from your fingers, stubbornly resists the special wrench you had to buy and will never use again, or it turns only 1/128 of a revolution every time you manage to get the wrench positioned, which happens only about once every fifteen minutes. The job which you told your honey would take only an hour, and which you could have had done at your friendly neighborhood garage for only $300, turns into a five-day affair. And when you finally get the starter, or the water pump, or the solenoid replaced, it won’t work; this is either because the workers in the Chechnian factory at which it was rebuilt put the Ford parts in Chevrolet boxes for a lark, or because the smiling man at the auto store sold you a part meant for a 1953 Studebaker, or maybe a part for the right brand, but for another model, or the right model but the wrong year, or for a four-cylinder engine when you have a six, or for the big four-cylinder engine instead of the small four-cylinder, or for an Isuzu assembled in Japan instead of the United States, or for a car with an air conditioner when your car has none. Usually the part is only subtly wrong and you don’t realize it isn’t right until everything has been put back together and you’ve used two bars of Lava hand soap to scrub away the worst of the imbedded grease and you and your honey are out for dinner and a movie. Then your newly-installed part explodes, falls off the car, or begins making a horrible sound.

Believe me, being a auto mechanic is all about getting filthy. The parts of cars that get worked on are covered with grease and grime that quickly gets transferred to you. First your hands are begrimed, and then your arms; when you try to wipe the sweat out of your eyes with your shirtsleeve or a shop rag you thought was clean or with the back of your hand, you leave a smear on your face. Sand, dirt, grass, leaves, insects, and that washer you dropped and were looking for all morning stick to the grease that is soon covering every square inch of your skin. Your hair becomes matted. Things— unpleasant things— drop into your eyes. You itch in places you don’t want to scratch because they are still mostly clean. You keep losing your tools, which disappear into the long grass of the back yard, and why, oh why, didn’t you buy that house with a garage, or you drop a fitting, find it after thirty minutes, and promptly drop it again. And then the phone rings, and you must crawl out from under your car and figure out how to pick the damned phone up without ruining it. By the time you’ve grabbed it with a mostly clean shop towel, it has, of course, quit ringing. No problem; it was probably a wrong number anyway

As for that aforementioned fitting, you clearly dropped it one too many times, for it’s nowhere to be found, which means you’ll have to bum a ride to the auto parts shop for a replacement— which you’ll probably drop as well. And say, doesn’t that sound like thunder? Rain’s coming.

But to offset the unpleasantries, there’s the sweet satisfaction of knowing you’ve done a good job. The leak is fixed, or that annoying clicking sound is gone, or full power is restored. All is in order, and you’ve saved a hundred-and-fifty bucks— not counting, of course the two hundred dollar investment in tools.

For me, though, the real satisfaction isn’t in the job well done. For me, it’s about figuring things out, about being a detective— for diagnosis is perhaps the most important part of the repair process.

Many good mechanics are terrible diagnosticians. They can replace a part easily enough; they just have a difficult time determining what has failed, and why. Their approach to fixing a problem is to throw parts at it. “You have an ignition problem? Let’s try new points and spark plus. That doesn’t fix it? Let’s try new plug wires and a distributor cap. No? Must be the electronic ignition. Nope; that didn’t do it. A new distributor, then; that’s about all that’s left in the ignition department. Ooops! Not an ignition problem at all. It’s a fuel problem. I cleaned the fuel filter and that didn’t work, so you’ll need new fuel injectors. And then a fuel pump. I’ll need to drop the gas tank for that, so it won’t be cheap.”

Such diagnostic incompetence is, embarassingly, the norm, even in the service departments of dealers supposed to know about such things. Mechanics who fail to figure out why their customers cars are malfunctioning are the reason many Americans eschew used cars, preferring instead to buy new ones— which are, of course, used cars as soon as they’re driven from the lot. People make payments for five or six or seven years, and then, when their vehicle is paid off (or even before), they buy another. They behave as if they believe mailing in a monthly payment of $650 will protect them from the gods of mechanical breakdown. It doesn’t, of course. Even new cars can break down—and frequently do.

To my readers I say, don’t throw your money away on a bad mechanic. Find a good one—not only an honest one who won’t fix what isn’t broken, but one who is a competent diagnostician. I could point you toward my own mechanic, but as he would immediately be swarmed, I won’t. Ha ha! Find your own.

A good diagnostician will not only find what has gone wrong, he’ll figure out why. Your battery has failed because the alternator has been overcharging it. The new battery will fail as well, unless you replace the alternator as well. Your tie rods failed because your fancy new wide tires put too much pressure on the front-end joints. Expect trouble with the wheel bearings, too.

Even good diagnosticians will install the occasional unnecessary part, but years of experience make them pretty good detectives. They’ll do tests to help them determine what’s wrong, and then use their best automotive judgement to figure out the problem. And of course today’s on-board computers help the diagnostic process.

I don’t say I’m a good automotive diagnostician, but I at least understand things break for a reason. When things have gone wrong with my cars and I’ve been able to figure out what has happened and have been able to fix them, and especially when I’ve broken down on the road (usually after midnight or on a Sunday, and in every instance far from a parts store) and been able to figure out how to patch things up enough to limp home, I’ve been exceedingly proud of myself. And then there have been times I’ve been more than a bit stupid. The red plug wires on my ’57 Chevy were one of my silliest mistake. You’ll find the occasional example of my brilliance and stupidity scattered throughout the rest of this book.

Chapter 7: The Bug

Chapter 7

The Bug


1961 VW Beetle

My brother Rick’s first car was an off-white 1961 VW Beetle. I don’t remember if he suggested the trade or if I did, but before I knew it, he owned the ’61 Chevy and I was the new owner of his Volkswagen.

Before I tell you about the VW, I should finish the story of the blue Bel Air. Unlike my other cast-off automobilies, which exited stage left, this one stayed in the family, and I was witness to its fate.

Rick had the car only a week or so before there was trouble. It started out innocently enough—doesn’t it always, just! He was driving with his girlfriend on Halloween evening when the Chevy had the very flat it had been considerate enough not to have while I was driving at 100 mph. The tire blew less than a mile from my parents’ house. There being no spare, he and his date walked home and took my parents’ car for their evening out (he being presumably more mature than I at that age, was allowed to drive it).

The next morning, when Rick went with friends to change the tire, he discovered the Chevy had been vandalized, and by someone who knew him, for his name and his girlfriend’s were scrawled on the windows in paint. The wheels and battery were gone, stolen.

Rick and his friends rounded up a set of wheels and tires and a battery, but the Chevy wouldn’t start. They towed it to my parent’s house, washed away the paint, and spent two or three weekends unsuccessfully trying to get her to run. About once a month therafter, they would make a halfhearted attempt to start her. I kept threatening to take a look at the Bel-Air, but never seemed to get around it. Finally, nearly a year later, long after Rick had bought another car, I raised the hood and straightaway spied what was wrong. A small red wire was loose at the positive battery terminal. Without it, I soon figured out, the Chevy wouldn’t run.

The first time I looked at an automobile engine, it might as well have come from the spaceship that crashed at Roswell. It was an alien-looking chunk of metal with unrecognizeable components. I had no idea what was what and how it all fit together to make the darn thing go, where this ended and that started. All the individual parts merged together into an incomprehensible whole. But eventually, with persistence, things began to sort themselves out. That square contraption sitting on top of the engine is the carburetor. It mixes gasoline with air and feeds the mixture into the manifold—there, that heavy-looking piece of metal with the firing order embossed onto it, that’s the manifold. The carb gets the gas from the tank in back by way of the fuel pump, which is this little jobbie here, mounted on the side of the engine block (as was the case in those days. Now they’re in the gas tank, which seems a frigging insane place to put an electrical device). Yes, that’s right, it’s the engine block because it’s a big square of steel (or, nowadays, aluminum).

It helped that I hung out a lot at the Kimbrough’s, where Mr. Kimbrough was ever kind enough to explain how things fit together. “Look,” he would say, as I would work on a motorcycle engine in his garage. “This groove matches with the hole in the crankshaft. So it’s this side of the bearing that faces the crank.” Eventually, it all began to make sense. Sort of.

Looking at the loose wire, I could see it logically belonged on the positive battery terminal; in fact, I would see where it had once been attached. And I couldn’t be sure without getting my hands dirty, but the other end seemed to lead to the distributor. I found an adjustable wrench, loosened the bolts on the positive terminal of the battery, reattached the wire, and screwed down the bolts.

The next time I saw my brother I said, “The Chevy will start now.” He looked at me as if I were crazy—but after the third or fourth time I told him, he phoned his friends and they charged the battery and she fired right up.

Rick didn’t keep the Chevy long after that; I suppose she was his bad-luck car, as El Diablo had been mine. And besides, she had sat for nearly a year, which can age a car horribly.

Now as to the Bug — this is, after all, a chapter about a ’61 Volkswagen Beetle— she was cute, I have to give her that. Like all Beetles, she had a four-speed transmission, an air-cooled engine mounted in the rear, and a tiny trunk in the front.

She was spartan. There was no radio, of course, and there was no blower for the heater, only a knob which pulled up a set of flaps which deflected air from the hot engine into the interior of the car. That was the theory. In actuality, the mechanism had long ago broken. I could get heat only by crawling under the VW and wedging up the rusty flaps. Everything would be fine until I hit a bump, knocking the flaps back down. Then it would get very, very cold.

The Bug had only one dash instrument, a speedometer. There was no gas gauge, just a reserve feature, that being a little lever on the floorboard; when the tank ran empty and the car would begin to sputter from lack of fuel, a quick flick of the foot would move the lever to the reserve position, providing an extra gallon or so of gas. When the tank was filled, it was critical the reserve pedal be moved back to its original position so it could do its job; otherwise, the engine would use the gas in both the main and reserve tanks and then die and there would be no gas whatsoever.

Since I was still in a hot rod frame of mind, I replaced the Bug’s steering wheel with a deep-dish affair only 10″ wide and added custom window cranks and door handles—or did my brother do that? I don’t remember, but at any rate, I approved. Any other car would have been impossible to steer with a 10″ wheel, but even without power steering, the Bug drove fine.

The VW’s brakes were questionable, so I took her to the Volkswagen dealer, who quoted an outlandish price— something like $150, I seem to recall—for repair. I decided I could live with problematic brakes; of more concern was the fact that the battery wouldn’t hold a charge. I would keep it on a trickle charger overnight, and every afternoon when I left for work, I would reinstall the battery and start the bug by pushing her down the road, sparing the electricity. Most days my mother would help me get off to a flying start, pushing like a pro in her housedress.

At work, I would park the bug on the hill beside the dumpsters so I could jump start it. Driving home from work at night, I would keep the headlights off as much as possible, turning them off wherever there were streetlights—but invariably, before I would reach home, the lights would dim and the bug would start to sputter, and I would have to go to parking lights, and then to no lights at all. Many was the moonless night I would drive the last five miles down dark country lanes, my head out the window and a flashlight in my hand. Fortunately, I managed not to smack my head into any trees, although I did make the close acquaintance of several ditches.

The Bug’s charging problem could have been fixed with a junkyard generator and voltage regulator, and even the purchase of a new battery would have helped, for it would have held enough charge to get me home at night with the lights on. I made one half-hearted attempt to fix the problem, replacing the generator with one provided me by a friend, but it didn’t help— meaning the problem was the voltage regulator, an inexpensive unit, and easy to replace. But before I resolved the condition, a friend put his Mercury hot rod on the market, and bought it.



Vehicle: 1961 Volkswagen Beetle

Color: Ivory

 Features: Air-cooled 4-cylinder engine in rear; 4-speed transmission; reserve feature in place of gas gauge

 Months Driven: 5

 Purchase Price: Trade to my brother for 1961 Chevy

 Sell Price: $350

 Reliability: Medium

 Lesson Learned: Don’t take needless chances with your life

Chapter 9: We Now Break for This Important Announcement

Chapter 9

We Now Break for This Important Announcement!


Gentle reader, if by now you’ve battened down your literary hatches in anticipation of forty more colorful stories of my automotive and motorcyclative (if that’s a word) purchases, or, if is more likely, you’re wondering what sound this book might make when it hits yonder wall, fear no more. My intention throughout this work is to use my automotive misadventures to set the stage for discussions like the one in the next chapter.

Certainly, my early history with automobilies will seem foreign to many of my readers. I acknowledge I am, well, different. The psychiatrists cooking up The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Edition 5 (due for release in 2012) are no doubt at this moment developing the diagnostic criteria for Vehicular Noncomformity Syndrome. Soon, no doubt, those like me will be featured in journals in medical articles and the drugs Beaterban and CarPro will be in clinical trials around the country. But until then we’re loose on the roads, so up your insurance coverage, fasten your seat belts, and keep an eye out for our the cars we’ve abandoned along the side of the Interstate highway. And please be patient when our Yugos stall out at the traffic light. We’re doing the best we can.

So as I just said, I’ve always known I was… well, let’s just keep saying different, since DSM-V is still years away. Even at a young age, I knew most people started out with a pretty good used car and moved up from there. They might change their oil or spark plugs, but they otherwise took their vehicles to mechanics. Nor did they soup up their cars with expensive after-market products. They would never own by choice a one-hundred-dollar car—and if, by necessity, their first car was a one-hundred-dollar beater, they would make sure their second wasn’t. By the time they reached their 40th birthday, they would most likely have purchased at least one and probably more than one brand new cars or trucks, or they would drive low-mileage, recent-vintage “pre-owned” models purchased from the Buick dealer. Or maybe they would lease.

Perhaps if my parents could have afforded to gift me with a car, or if my first jobs had paid more, I would have walked that perhaps more convenient but certainly less interesting road. But my first years on the workforce were characterized by financial exploitation of my young body.

My introduction to the wonderful world of work began when I was 14 years of age. I got a paper route. Many of my customers cheated or just wouldn’t pay me, and I wasn’t yet up to being firm with adults—even childish ones who would deliberately cheat a 14-year-old paper carrier. I made just enough to pay the newspaper company for my stock.

My second work experience was as a counselor at a summer camp; I made just $75 for eight weeks work. It was fun, but certainly not lucrative. I did learn how to make beaded change purses.

My first real job was at a family-owned restaurant in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I worked ten hours a day, six days a week, for fifty cents an hour (no tips). The ride to and from work was 90 long minutes by bicycle. When I was handed my first paycheck and it really hit me how very little money I was getting for so very much work, I walked out.

My next job was at Shoney’s, regional home of the Big Boy, a franchised eatery with a statue of a fat man on the transom and indoor dining and curbhops. I started at $1.10 an hour, and I got that much only because it was minimum wage. To earn my fifty or sixty dollars a week, I was required to show up at 6 am and hose the french fries and spilled milk shakes from the parking lot. At 7:30 I would go inside and wash dishes and bus tables until 5 pm.

The dollar went a lot further in those days, but even at 1960s prices a dollar and a dime wasn’t much money. So even though I lived with my parents most of the time, it was hand-to-mouth and paycheck to paycheck. One hundred dollar was about as much cash as I could come up with. There was just no way to save enough money to buy a good used car, especially considering the long daily commute to Nashville to work, and, part of the time, an equally long drive to Murfreesboro to take college classes. And truth to tell, my character was—and remains— such that I find it difficult to deprive myself of RC Colas and Hostess Yo-Yos in hopes of one day driving a pre-owned Pontiac. And, fortunately, I was smart enough, even then, to avoid the we-will-put-you-in-a-car-for-$499-down lots (not that I could have come up with $499). So in those years it was cheap cars or walk.

Chapter 11: College Cars

Chapter 11

College Cars


During our time in Murfreesboro, Lynne and I had several vehicles, often two at once, giving us transportation for our sometimes differing schedules. For a time we had a 1961 Ford Galaxie, a huge car we acquired for $100 from one of Lynne’s friends. It was a genuine redneckmobile; we both hated it, as we had too many teeth to drive it properly, but it did run and so was a bargain for the price. Its principal characteristics were huge round Ford taillights and a home-installed Sparkomatic floor shifter which would sometimes stick in first gear, necessitating a crawl under the car to jiggle the levers until whatever had gotten stuck became unstuck. We drove the Galaxie for six months, then sold it for $100. Good riddance.

We purchased a 1965 Ford Custom from a retired couple in Nashville who had used it to haul a camping trailer. It was outfitted with a pneumatic brake for which we had no use. It had high mileage from their cross-country trips and so used a bit of oil, but ran and looked great, and it cost us only $250. It came with not one, not two, but three spare tires. We drove it until the last spare was on the car and then sold it for $450.


The Econoline


1963 Ford Econoline Van

We used the money from the sale of the Custom to buy a 1963 Econoline van with only a driver’s seat. There was a huge hole in the floor where the passenger seat should have been. When I drove, Lynne would ride on the engine compartment, which sat just beside the driver’s seat.

Lynne hated the van, but since she had taken a job locally in Murfreesboro and I was still commuting daily to Nashville, and since the van got poor gas mileage, I stuck her with it. She would play hate games with the Econoline, putting in a dollar’s worth of gas and daring it to run dry before she deemed it appropriate. It usually did.

We didn’t have the van long, but I did get to play hippie with it when I left with friends for the Erie Canal Soda Pop Festival. We piled blankets in the back and Mike Shoop removed the 8-track tape player from his Chevelle and wired it to a 12-volt battery so we would have music. We set out after midnight for Indiana—which was a very strange place for an Erie Canal festival to be, seeing as the Erie was several hundred yards away in New York state.

The van threw a fan belt in the middle of nowhere in the Indiana early morning darkness. Without a new belt, we would be going nowhere. I shouldn’t have worried, for we had Mike Shoop with us, and Mike is the luckiest human being to ever walk the planet. He spotted a light a half-mile or so ahead of us and walked there with Clyde Huddleston and wouldn’t you know it, it just happened to be a service station, and wouldn’t you know it, it just happened to be open at two A.M., and wouldn’t you know it, they just happened to have exactly the right belt, and wouldn’t you know it, the attendant had no problem with loaning wrenches and screwdrivers to a couple of long-haired boys from Tennessee. They came back happy, but wouldn’t you know it, we hadn’t brought a flashlight and Mike was having an impossible time trying to change the belt in the dark. Clyde solved that problem by walking along the road until he found a disposable aluminum pie tin, which he cleaned off and held so it reflected the light from a headlight onto the engine. Mike installed the new belt in short order and we were off to have a wet and miserable time at a music festival at which there were a lot of drugs but very little music.

Clyde was the only one of my friends who hadn’t been to college. He was always putting himself down for it, but it was he who thought about the pie tin, and it was he who came up with a solution for the van’s window problem.

In its previous incarnation, the Econoline had been owned by a carpenter. At some point he had braked hard and a couple of unsecured two-by-fours had sailed through the passenger’s side of the windshield, leaving a hole some ten inches in diameter. Lynne and I would stuff pillows through the hole, but they were always falling out. Clyde suggested I buy two squares of clear Plexiglas a couple of inches larger than the hole, position one outside the windshield and one inside, drill holes through both, and fasten them together with nuts and bolts. Duh! None of us college kids thought of something so cheap and effective. Clyde did. Good for you, Clyde, wherever you are!


The Malibu

1964 Chevelle Malibu

There are a couple of cars I really should have kept, and Mike Shoop’s 1964 Chevelle Malibu was one of them. After he had lost to the Comet in our quarter-mile race, Mike had rebuilt the 283 engine and added a four-barrel carburetor, power-packed heads, and a four-speed transmission with a Hurst shifter. The Malibu’s blue paint could have used a good polishing and the interior was worn in places, but the tires were good and it was reliable and fun to drive.

Nowadays a two-door ’64 Malibu will bring something like $50,000, but back then it was just another Chevy. What made it special to me was the engine. It had a healthy, powerful sound and made a special vibration that could be felt more than a block away; when one of us was home in bed, we would know the the other was coming home by the vibrations. It was an engine that promised to live for 100,000 miles or more.

I bought the Chevelle from Mike for $350, who loved it; he must have been in desperate financial constraints to sell it. I never asked him, and he never said. To my everlasting shame, when Mike showed up on the day of the sale, I shorted him $30, for no particular reason, since I had the extra thirty in my pocket. It was selfish and mean, and quite unlike me. Mike, I owe you thirty bucks. Five hundred now, with inflation and interest.

We kept the Chevelle until the tires were bald (in those days, tire wear seemed sufficient reason to get rid of a vehicle). I sold it for the same price I had paid—but I didn’t short myself the $30.


Cars, Vans, and Trucks I Have Owned

Motorcycles I Have Owned