Mike Wilson: Vehicles I have known and not necessarily loved

Published 12:00 pm Thursday, March 2, 2023

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Mike WilsonThere is an arresting and memorable image in “Sensation of Velocity,” a Vanguardist poem from the 1920’s by Jorge Luis Borges: that of a sleek sedan rolling the road up in front of it as it speeds toward the horizon. I know this sensation; when I drive north on I-85 at 6 am on my way to Catawba these days in my new F-150 on cruise control, it seems like nothing could possibly impede me. Nearing retirement, I have finally reached a pinnacle of sorts vehicle-wise, but it has taken a long 50-odd years to get here. I finally broke down and replaced my 2001 Ram when I was faced with 100-degree commutes and an AC repair estimate of some $2000. I had bought the Ram new to replace Blue Thunder (see below).

My first car was a 1962 Corvair Monza that I bought in 1970 with a gift of $100 from my granddaddy. (Yes, in those days there were lots of used cars available for that sum; a friend of mine bought a brand-new VW Beetle for $1750 at the same time.) The maroon Corvair had a manual “four-on-the-floor.” I washed and waxed it frequently. I was thoroughly unaware of Ralph Nader’s documentary “Unsafe at Any Speed,” which included harrowing statistics of deadly crashes caused by this model’s fishtailing on wet curves. The defect I discovered had nothing to do with the heavy rear end; the drive axles were secured to the chassis by a relatively undependable press-on bearing. I confirmed this one day as I crossed a bridge and noticed in my side mirror that the right rear tire was sticking out about 8 inches. The next thing I knew, the wheel had detached and I ground to a halt, almost off the bridge. Good-bye, Corvair.

My next $100 car was a white ‘62 Fairlane with a “three-on-the-tree” that had already been worn out considerably by its previous owner, Memphis Light, Gas & Water. It had a tendency to collect moisture under the distributor cap, so whenever it wouldn’t start I would open the hood and wipe out the cap. A more disturbing defect was that the gas gauge didn’t work, so I had to rely on a calculus of gallons purchased (at .23, sigh) vs odometer readings. I am still mad at my sister for using it without my knowledge and leaving me with an unexpectedly empty tank, forcing me to flag down help right after a high school basketball game. Luckily, my favorite math teacher drove by, so I was not forced to use my “Arkansas credit card” (siphon hose). My best friend drove a Bel Air of the same vintage with the same manual transmission. It was amusing to watch the acrobatics necessary to shift gears with his left hand while trying to keep the right arm around his girlfriend.

I knew just a little about auto repair in those days since I would help my dad with old cars he would buy to fix up and sell. We had a good friend who worked in the paint department at the International Harvester truck plant, so if we showed up at 5:15 any given afternoon, he could spray a coat of leftover red on whatever we were fixing up. We once fixed up a great Impala convertible with a big V-8 that basically only needed a carburetor kit, but the first time I stepped on the accelerator, I accidentally laid rubber halfway down the block right in front of my dad. That car went instead to a young man who was eager to get to Canada yesterday.

We then got a real cream-puff of a ‘62 Galaxie with nice dark-green paint and a black interior. This one needed an engine rebuild, so my dad’s best friend, a jet mechanic, was recruited. One very cold evening, the two of them had a church meeting, so they left me the job of torquing the rod cap nuts. I must have missed or under-tightened one; on the test flight down Poplar Avenue a few nights later, I heard a tapping that got louder and louder and then suddenly I stopped dead and every light on the dash was red. The engine had seized up. So long, cream-puff Galaxie. It still hurts to contemplate the effects of a loose five cent nut.

I did not take a car to college. For one thing, I didn’t think my usual clunkers could make the LeMans-like 24-hour drive. When I came home on breaks, I could pick something from the fleet. One summer it was an old VW Beetle with only one flaw: there were a few teeth missing from the flywheel, so whenever it wouldn’t start, I had to put it in high gear, grab the rear bumper, and pull it backward a few inches. Worked like a charm! My VW indignities were nothing compared to those of a friend whose throttle linkage broke. In his impecunious state, he resorted to running a cable along the outside of the car that he would pull forward with his left hand out the window to accelerate. I was with him one day when he got stalled creeping toward a traffic signal on an upslope. Not pretty.

Our wedding was my graduation weekend in 1976. We reasoned that our best friends would already be around. My folks wanted to set me up for real life with a decent car, so they came to Massachusetts towing a ‘66 Impala that my dad had fixed up. They were accompanied by my aunt and uncle, who followed towing a big pop-up camper to use along the way. The tale of this caravan’s denial of entry to the Holland Tunnel because of propane tanks and the traffic jam occasioned by their attempts to execute an about-face is a fixture in family lore.

Julio was a ‘77 Grand Prix, Tangier Orange with a cream-colored vinyl top. It had the biggest V-8 available in those days, and with chains and a trunk full of cinderblocks, it was a true dreadnought in the snow. There was an old Pontiac dealership nearby with lots of loyal customers who had the habit of trading in at about 100k, but I knew that with good maintenance one could drive them at least another 75K or so, so I got several successive cars from them. I was driving the family through the Virginia mountains on I-81 one hot day when I got an overheating light. I pulled over to open the hood and saw that a water pump hose had split near its end and there was enough slack to repair it, so I only needed to wait a little while for things to cool down. I should have waited longer: when I pulled up the latch on the radiator cap, I got sprayed on the belly with hot coolant and scalded. Unfortunately, I had just scalded the very same area about 10 days earlier when I accidentally dropped a whole Smithfield ham into a big pot of boiling water while attempting to lower it carefully. I finally got the hose fixed and we were on our way. While the car was big and long and heavy, it wasn’t especially spacious inside, and when our third daughter was born, her sisters and her car seat just wouldn’t all fit in the back. I traded again, and soon Julio was spotted delivering pizza thereabouts.

Blue Thunder was a ‘66 Chevy S-10 that I did love. My dad had found it on a church friend’s farm with weeds growing up through the bed and decided to fix it up for me to use when we got back from Mexico and moved to Massachusetts to resume grad school. He actually consulted me about color and bought some paint, which our IH friend kindly applied. When our first child was born that August, I drove that truck from Memphis to Chicago to western Mass pulling a U-Haul without a single problem. For the record, my wife flew the same route with our newborn. Apparently, I got the better end of the deal…A few years later, it brought our relatively meager possessions from Massachusetts to Virginia. I drove it for 22 years, especially to haul my duck boat around, and it finally gave up the ghost when it became #3 in the fleet and the fuel lines got gummy. It expired belching highly noxious fumes one afternoon in the middle of the West Innes/Statesville Boulevard intersection at precisely 5 o’clock, and I only needed to go another 50 feet to coast into the Exxon station on the corner. The drivers who couldn’t move seemed highly displeased.

Mike Wilson is a former Hampden-Sydney Spanish professor and 13-year resident of Prince Edward County, who now calls North Carolina home. He can be reached at jmwilson@catawba.edu.