Sunday, January 16, 2011

52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy - Week 3, Cars

Cars!  Some of my earliest memories involve the family cars.  My father was a Plymouth man.  We always had the big land yacht Plymouths, Belvedere's and Fury's when I was young.  I recall a blue one and a white one from when I was very young.  Bench seats and huge trunks, automatic shift on the column.  BIG V-8 engines.  Seat belts were mandatory equipment by the time I was aware, but rarely used.  Car seats were unheard of.  I recall once standing in the middle of the front bench seat between my parents, with another adult sleeping across the bench seat in back, when we missed a turn and went off-road into a large ditch area.  I bit my tongue.  Other than that, everyone was okay.  I may have been three years old, but I'm not positive of that.

In about 1976, my father made his first departure from the Plymouth line.  He bought a white 1974 Ford Custom 500.  And regretted it the whole time he owned that beast.  That car just had its own philosophy that didn't mesh with Dad's Plymouth mindset.  We kept it for a long time, though, as I drove that car when I started driving in 1982.  It had a V-8 engine, the 351 Windsor.  Not the Cleveland variant that powered muscle cars of the era.  It leaked oil.  It rusted, Dad patched it with Bondo.  It died mysteriously, Dad talked with a guy from church who was a Ford man.  They made it work again.  I don't remember for sure when we disposed of it, but I think it probably went straight to the crusher of whatever junkyard received it after we traded it in on the next car, a pale blue 1980 AMC Pacer.

Yeah.  AMC Pacer, almost all glass upside down goldfish bowl, hatchback.  HOT in the summer, the air conditioner could barely keep up.  This thing had bench seats in front, and automatic transmission on the hump in the middle.  The straight six cylinder engine had enough power.  Rear defroster was a new thing for us, and in Minnesota it's an important feature.  So much glass meant a lot of window scraping in the winter, we appreciated not having to scrape the rear window as well.  We had that car for a number of years as well.  It also got rusty toward the end, as most American cars of that era did.  Cars now have much better design to avoid water collecting, better rust-proofing, and in many cases, plastic body panels that they don't rust out anywhere near like they used to back in the day!

Me driving the 1992 Chevy Citation
In 1992, my paternal grandmother (she who infected me with the family history bug!) died.  My father inherited her car, a maroon 1985 Chevrolet Citation with about 5,000 miles on it.  A 7 year old car with 5,000 miles!  Like new!  That car was a 4 cylinder with manual transmission. By this time, I was away in the Navy, so I don't know how that car ended.  Mom got a Reliant K car at some point.  When Dad retired, he bought a Pontiac Grand Am that he still has.

In 1984, my girlfriend (who became my wife) bought a gold 1973 Mercury Montego.  Mercury was just a fancy name for Ford.  It had the same 351 Windsor engine as my family's Custom 500.  It also leaked oil.  I'm told that oil leakage was a feature of that engine.  It had many of the same issues as the Ford mentioned above.  In 1986, she bought a brand new white Chevrolet Spectrum, a model soon shifted to the Geo brand.  It was a 2-door hatchback with a 1.6 liter 4-cylinder engine and manual transmission.  Learning experience!  I had picked up stick shift somewhere, but she had not.  She bought the car with my assurance that I would teach her how to drive it.  She learned well, and that car went with us when we married and moved to Virginia Beach, VA when I enlisted in the Navy.  We kept that car until a few months before I got out of the navy. We traded it for a blue 1991 Isuzu Stylus, about which more later. 
1986 Chevy Spectrum getting a cleanup

Before this point, I had needed a second car for driving to work on the Navy base and back.  I picked up an old red VW Beetle, which was very temperamental, but I liked it when it worked.  I later decided I would prefer the VW Bus for the added space.  I found and purchased one in 1990, a 1979 with the 2-liter air cooled flat four engine with hydraulic lifters.  It was beige over brown in the 2-color scheme a lot of those had at the time.  I picked up the Idiot's Guide for VW owners and read it.  I needed it.  Mostly, though, this van ran pretty well, after we found the fuel clogs in the tank.  I fell in love with that van!  It was the last of the old bread loaf style vans.  When we left Virginia to move back to Minnesota, some of our household goods went into that VW van.  About 1/3 of what we owned, I'd guess, which meant it was packed from the front seats back, there was not even air spaces.  I sat in the driver's seat, and our dogs rode on the passenger side in front.  Even loaded up this way, that thing was fast for a VW.  On the freeway, the speedometer showed 82MPH, and truckers I passed were chatting on the CB about it, saying they'd never seen one of those go that fast.

The aforementioned Isuzu Stylus was a sporty little 4-door with a 1.6 liter 4-cylinder engine and manual transmission as well.  We got the upscale model with handling package by Lotus!  It handled like a dream, and would do in excess of 100MPH, when the front end would start to float.  Or so I'm told... *wink*  That car was great fun on dry pavement, but really not suited at all to Minnesota winters.  It was light enough, and the tires on it were for performance, not snow, that we had very poor traction.  We kept it a couple of years after returning to Minnesota, but eventually ended up trading it in on something more appropriate for the area, a maroon 1988 Chevrolet Astro Extended Van.

My wife had misgivings about driving something so big after years in smaller compact cars, but quickly fell in love with the traction and visibility it offered in the winter.  It also had anti-lock brakes which came in very handy in icy Minnesota driving!  It was large enough to accommodate our growing family, easy to get kids and gear in and out.  It was even large enough to carry everything we needed to go camping.  During this time, we were both working, so I needed something to drive.  The VW Bus quickly rusted in the Minnesota winters, so I garaged it until I could restore it. I went through a series of $500 junkers that were sufficient to get me to work and back.  I remember a Chevrolet Caprice and a Chevrolet Celebrity wagon.  That one had stick, which amused me, a small station wagon with stick shift!  Eventually, I got a dark blue 1990 Chevy Astro, a base model old thing.

We were a two Astro (and one VW) family.  Eventually I realized I was never going to have the time and money to do the VW justice, so I gave it to a friend of my brother-in-law who wanted to restore it for his sister to drive.  I just wanted to see it fixed up and back in use.  He did restore it, and did a great job, but his sister didn't like driving it, and last I heard, it sits in her yard.  I wasn't real fond of the pea-green color he painted it, but that was no longer my worry.  I wish I could afford to buy it back!  The low-end Astro died, so we got a white 1998 GMC Safari (GMC's version of the Astro - we had certainly become a family of van enthusiasts!) for her to drive, and I started using the older Astro.  A couple of years later, I got a job some distance away, and rather than throw half my pay into a gas guzzling all-wheel-drive van, in 2007 I traded it in on a champagne colored 2000 Toyota Camry. This is the car I am driving today. 

To come back to the beginning of this post, I spoke about old cars rusting out and dying relatively young.  If you got more than 50-75 thousand miles out of a car you were doing well, and rolling the odometer over 100,000 was newsworthy.  The cars would generally rust to pieces even if the engine and drive train were still functional. When I bought the Toyota in 2007, it was already 7 years old and had 160 thousand miles on it!  The car was in great shape, obviously the previous owners had cared for it well, and those were all highway miles.  The car still shows almost no rust.  I had an unusual happening, the main bearings went in the engine, so I had to replace it. Everyone kept saying how unusual it was for this to happen in a Toyota.  I should get many more years of service from this car.  Back when I was a kid, cars might sell with a 10,000 mile warranty.  Now it's not unusual for new cars to sell with a 10-year, 100,000 mile warranty.  As much as we gripe about car problems, they are extremely robust and reliable compared to 30+ years ago.  Think about that next time your car demands a little TLC!

If you've stayed with me this far, congratulations, and thanks for reading this novel!  What cars did you and your family own when you were growing up?  Do you have any interesting stories?  Share them in the comments below!