AUTOMOBILES

 

My experience with motor vehicles has been rather ambivalent. I appreciate good machinery and grew up reading Hot Rod and Car and Driver but I've never felt like I had to have a particular car or even any car. I've never felt like my ride defined me, unless it was my bicycle, and I've always owned the best bike I could afford. I didn't own a car or have a driver's license until after high school, which in America makes it pretty hard to get a date.

Because all of my vehicles have been whatever was available at whatever price I could afford at the time I have been what my father likes to call a 'qualified pilot-engineer' on all of my cars. I am fully capable of fixing nearly any mechanical ailment, sometimes under trying circumstances, and have the tools and reference material to do anything up to and including engine overhaul and major transplant surgery. A lot of this knowledge was gained in my twenties when I would routinely have to carry a toolbox and a box of parts in the trunk. If I owned a vehicle long enough it would get to a point where it would be stone-cold reliable, if not exactly pretty.

As I have gotten older I have found myself less inclined to work on my car. Now, I just want it to work with regular maintenance, and I'll even farm that out. When I can get the oil changed for about $20, it isn't really worth my time to do it myself. I still like to wrench occasionally and I'll help friends out, but I just don't see the need to do it on a regular basis.

So I'll tell the story of my cars on this page. I'll say whatever I have to say about them plus notable incidents that each vehicle was involved in. The cars are listed first to latest.  Because I don't generally take pictures of my cars, the accompanying photos will be 'file' photos of a representative vehicle.

 

 

 
VehicleParticularsThe Story

1973 VW Type III Fastback

1.6L Fuel-injected flat four

3-speed automatic

About 60 bhp.

 

NOTE: My VW wasn't nearly this pretty but it was a similar color.

My first car bought shortly after high-school graduation. I never registered this car and would go bombing around on country roads late at night. Until I got caught by the town police, who advised me to drive straight home and park it.

I was fascinated by the fuel injection control box, located under the rear seat. It was all breadboarded from individual components; not an integrated circuit in sight.

I started learning to work on cars when a local mechanic advised me that it would cost $75 to have the injectors serviced. That was real money then. I bought the tools and the parts and did it myself. This car also exposed me to one of the classic car care manuals: How To Keep Your Volkswagon Alive, John Muir, c. 1969. This book is worth buying and reading even if you don't own a VW.

 

1973 Torino Station Wagon

351W-2V V-8

3-speed automatic

156 bhp

 

NOTE: This is the 'Gran Torino' trim. Mine was plain (no trim) and a sort of hospital green color.

 

 

I bought this car shortly after I sold the VW. I liked the V-8 but being a young man, wanted more power. A lot more. One of our neighbors had an old Mustang in rough shape in his garage and he agreed to let me have the engine, a 351C-4V. Before I agreed to buy it I pulled the oil pan. Oh-ho, a four bolt main! I got the engine for $50.

This was my first engine build and I didn't know anyone who had done this before. I bought the Chilton's manual and pored over the engine rebuild section until I had nearly memorized it. I had to buy a fair amount of expensive tools, and then the parts. I wanted a high performance engine, and speed costs money. A pair of newly machined heads with all-new parts is very expensive, and they looked so good it seemed a shame to put them back on the engine.

A lot of machining and aftermarket parts later, I fired up the new engine. There are few feelings like turning the key on your first engine build, not knowing for sure what's going to happen.

This one worked great. Based on the mods I estimated that the engine was producing somewhere north of 300 bhp. I enjoyed surprising people at stop lights who thought I was driving Mom's car. It was good thing gas was cheap, because if you stuck your foot into the 4-barrel, you could actually watch the gas needle move.

The fun lasted until one of the camshaft retention bolts failed, allowing a couple of pushrods to drive themselves through the engine with extreme prejudice, turning the engine into a very expensive pile of scrap.  

1967 Plymouth Belvedere

318-2V V-8

3-speed automatic

230 bhp

 

NOTE: I've actually owned this model car twice. My first one was yellow and looked very similar to the one in the photo. The second one was white and wasn't in as good a shape.

 

The first time I owned this model car I bought it from a friend. After a tune-up and completely rebuilding the brake system the car was reliable. These are the only vehicles I've owned that had drums on all four wheels. I had confidence that the car would get me where I wanted to go. The interior was like sitting in your living room and there was plenty of space to work under the hood. The car would return an honest 20+ mpg on the highway with sensible driving but still had enough power to, um, enjoy.

The bodywork was solid sheetmetal and the bumpers were substantial. This was illustrated when I was rear-ended by a '78 Mustang traveling at 45 mph just after I had made a left turn. The Mustang was totaled: the engine had been shoved under the firewall and the front end was destroyed. Damage to the Plymouth: a small dent in the rear bumper and a broken taillight. I was able to drive away from the scene; something not many cars today could do.

The second time I owned this model car I bought it from my grandmother. It had spent 20 years in Chicago and wasn't in nearly as good a shape as the first Belvedere. While ferrying the car from Georgia to North Carolina the left front wheel bearing welded itself to the spindle 60 miles from home. I parked behind the local police station, told them what had happened, and called my girlfriend to pick me up.

The next day I had to go to the junkyard and buy a spindle assembly and go back and replace it. Did I mention that it was the middle of winter and it was twenty degrees outside? My girlfriend kept her car running and the heat on while I worked in very cold conditions, taking occasional 'warmth breaks'. It was pretty miserable. 

Still and all, this is a car I wouldn't mind owning again.  

1974 Pinto Station Wagon

1977 Pinto Station Wagon

2.3L-1V Inline 4

4-speed manual

88 bhp

 

NOTE: Both of my cars were the same color brown and looked very similar to the one in the photo.

 

 

I bought the '74 when I was living in San Francisco. The previous owner had installed a '76 engine in it, which meant I had to get a waiver from Sacramento to pass the CARB smog test. Other than a tune-up, oil change, and coolant flush I didn't have to do anything to the car.

Because my license had expired I had to retest. At the time, if you lived in San Francisco you had to demonstrate the ability to parallel park on a hill to get a driver's license. I learned to hate stop signs at the tops of hills because you could smell the clutch burning. I did like the Pinto steering, and didn't like the sloppy gearbox. The car would get about 25 mpg highway.

Fun Fact: Parking in downtown San Francisco is non-existant. The nearest affordable parking garage ($300/mo.) was ten blocks from where I lived. I laugh when I watch a movie or TV show where people find parking spaces no problem.  

I drove the heck out of the '74. Camping in Nevada and Utah and eventually across the country to North Carolina. It's only problem was that it leaked oil, about a quart every 1000 miles. The previous owner had installed guages so when the oil pressure started to waver I just pulled over and added a quart. The only major repairs were replacing the clutch; and the differential started to whine, so I paid $50 for a rear axle at the junkyard and swapped out the whole thing.  I eventually sold the car to my brother, who drove it for another couple of years.

If the '74 was the cream of the Pinto crop, the '77 was not. Besides the usual used-car mechanical maintenance I had to replace the exhaust system and the brakes. This car also leaked oil, but more so than the '74. The '77 met it's demise on the highway when the engine blew. I have to say that a blown engine at highway speeds is pretty impressive and leaves no doubt as to what has happened.

I was on my way from Florida to North Carolina so I picked up what I could carry, called the State Patrol to let them know why the car was on the shoulder, called a junkyard to come get it, and hitchhiked the rest of the way. I had to take the train home, and of course, I had no car.

1967 Chevy Van

230-1V Inline 6

3-speed manual

140 bhp

 

NOTE: This is the same color as my van, and is a good representation of how it looked, but mine had worse paint.

 

This vehicle is a bit unusual in that the engine sits up front between the driver and the passenger which is great in winter but not so much in the summer. It also puts most of the weight of the van over the front wheels when it's empty and the handling takes some getting used to, as does having the steering wheels under your butt.

I bought the van with the intent to turn it into a camping/beach van. It was actually the worst vehicle I've owned. Riddled with rust, an electrical system that would embarrass a 1960's Jaguar, and an engine that burned copious amounts of oil, it was a near-daily struggle just to keep it running.

On a trip from North Carolina to Florida the electrical system packed up. I found myself behind a church at 2 AM in BFE South Carolina trying to rewire the ignition switch (which has a LOT of wires, by the way) by the light of a streetlight. A cop pulled up, asked me what I was doing, looked at the van, looked at me, and asked if I thought I could get the thing home. I replied in the affirmative and she left. Half an hour later I did get the thing to work and got it home. I'm sure that the cop checked back and I'm equally sure that she was surprised I wasn't there.

This van has the dubious distinction of being the only car I've ever had stolen, and if there was a car voted least likely to attract a thief, this would be it. I walked out after work and there was hole in the parking lot where the van used to be. No one at work could believe that a) someone would steal the van, and b) that they could get anywhere with it.

A few days later I got a call from a Sheriff about 80 miles away telling me that they had my van. To add insult to injury they told me that if I didn't come get it pretty soon they would impound it and charge me. The girl who gave me a ride to pick it up wondered if I would be able to get it home. Such was the reputation of the van.

The van eventually started to generate a military-grade smokescreen under acceleration and was retired when a cop pulled me over after witnessing this display and told me that if I didn't go straight home and park it he would impound it, and then he followed me home to make sure I complied.

1978 Ford Pinto Cruising Wagon

2.8L-2V V-6

3-speed automatic

115 bhp

 

NOTE: My car was the same color as this one and except for the fancier wheels this is a good representation.

 

 

When I was a kid I thought these cars were pretty cool so when I had the opportunity to buy one I did. The V-6 was a nice bump up in power for a car that was close to the same weight as a standard Pinto wagon, and you could light the tires, but I have always wondered why Ford never went all in and put the 302 V-8 in as a factory option. There is enough space in the engine bay and it's a popular conversion among owners. Same thing with the PT Cruiser: nice body, crap driveline.

Even with the V-6 this car is underpowered and really needs a larger engine. I didn't get to drive this car as much as I wanted because it had some electrical issues and spent most of it's time with me as a 'hanger queen'. My landlady eventually told me to fix it or sell it because she was tired of looking at it in our shared garage. I sold it but wish now that I had fixed it. These cars in decent shape go for around $3500 now and even adding the V-8 would still make a reasonably priced project.

1987 Chevy S-10

2.8L TBI V-6

3-speed automatic

125 bhp

 

NOTE: This is a photo of the actual vehicle at 150,000 miles.

By the time I got to the S-10 I only wanted three things in a vehicle: reliability, automatic transmission, and A/C. I bought a truck because pick-ups are handy things to have and I planned on moving later that year. This particular truck was unusual in that it had a 7-foot bed; most S-10's have a 6-foot bed. It was reliable and would get 20+ mpg highway, but because it was a truck it was way too easy to spin the tires in wet conditions when unloaded.

When I bought the truck I vowed to keep it until the wheels fell off, and that's about what happened. I used it to move from Florida to Washington and then drove it all over the Northwest, including a lot of places where I probably should have had 4-wheel drive. I used it to ford streams with water coming over the hood and it never let me down.

The engine bay is fairly tight and working on an S-10 can be an exercise in frustration. You have to access the rear spark plugs through the wheel wells, and changing the starter will test even the most patient. To change the valve cover gaskets you have to remove a fair amount of stuff just to get to them. I had a mechanic aquaintance tell me that he charged an extra $20 when he saw an S-10 come in the door. I fully understand that attitude.

I owned this truck for 11 years, by far the longest tenure of any vehicle I've driven. There came a point where enough things started to go wrong that it wasn't worth the expense of repairing it. While I probably wouldn't buy another S-10 because of the challenges of working on it, it was reliable and tough and did everything I asked of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1980 Datsun 210 Station Wagon

1.4L-1V Inline 4

5-speed manual

75 bhp

 

NOTE: My car is a Forest Green but this is a good representation. A photo of the actual car is below but it shows it in less than ideal circumstances when it accidently rolled off a friend's driveway.

 

 

 

 

 

I bought the Datsun because while I used the truck enough to justify having one, the gas was eating me up, so the Datsun was going to be my commuter car and runabout. As such it did the job admirably. Reliable enough to make regular trips between Seattle and Corvallis, OR and getting 30+mpg while doing so.

What I hadn't anticipated was how much fun the car is to drive. The gearbox has longish throws but is nicely spaced and the steering is decent and the car is a blast throw around tight curves. While seriously underpowered; I've often been down in third gear doing 45 mph and being passed by trucks on mountain passes, on a twisty road it's a lot of fun. So much so that I will seek out roads of that description just to drive them.

The Datsun requires very little care and feeding, and when it does need something it doesn't cost a lot. There's plenty of room to work in the engine bay and parts are inexpensive. It's also very sturdy; I've taken it off road with nary a complaint. It's not perfect: there is almost no soundproofing so it's loud, the interior is a bit cramped, the defroster under the best of conditions is not that great, and as I said, it's way underpowered.

I was surprised to find that there are active fan groups across the nation that love these cars. My Datsun needs to have the engine and front-end rebuilt as well as major interior work done, so it has spent the last several years in a garage. I've thought about selling it, but then I realize that for what the repairs would cost I can't get another car with the good qualities of this one, and the body is in decent shape.

My understanding is that the mechanicals from the 200SX are bolt-in conversions so I expect that at some point I'll put in a 2.0L 200SX engine and suspension, redo the interior, put on some fancy rims and performance tires, and really have some fun.