Column: Our Love Affair With Cars Is As American As Apple Pie | Opinion

Americans love cars. My wife and I must be true-blue Americans, we’ve owned 22;. We’ve even loved several. Chuckle along with me through a random selection.

Judee and I met at, then, Appalachian State Teachers College, in Boone, jumped the broom and “resided” in the 1/2 at 322-1/2 East King St. Wealthy as church mice, there were zero dollars for luxuries like libations for socializing. But our first car, a ’50-something English Ford, helped fix that. Owning it was a lesson in humility. Breakdowns were quotidian occurrences, parts were unattainable, and car repair people understandably scratched their head and laughed.

On one rare occasion when the thing actually ran, Judee was saying “Michael, we’ve got to get rid of this thing,” and at that very moment I was eyeing a sign saying, “we buy wrecks.”

“How much would you give us for this fine automotive specimen?” — “Not much.” — “How about a fifth of liquor?” — “I got to warn you, it’s cheap booze.” — “Done.” We couldn’t believe our good fortune.

Sometime down the road, we purchased a ’70-ish Honda Civic. The day we bought it, it was bright red. Unknown to us, at that time, red car paint took about a day to oxidize into mud-fence orange. I frequently waxed the car, keeping it a bright red. The day we sold it, it was bright red.

We used the Honda proceeds for a new 1974 Toyota Crown, fully accessorized, including air-conditioning. We kept it exactly seven days. The air-conditioner worked well; and the car worked well — but not simultaneously.

We traded the Toyota for a new ’74 Datsun Z. The “Z” was huge eye-candy. It was also a tin skateboard with a huge engine. Its Z-emblems were glued on; and if you really gunned it, they could fly off. I once wide-eyed one as it twirled in flight over the hood, then over the top of the car.

Its great big engine worked wonderfully until you had to floor the thing while passing. Pull out to pass, then see an oncoming car and stomp that baby, and the gas in its carburetor promptly “baked dry.” The car simply dropped dead, and you feared you would be next.

I almost was. An oncoming drunk ran into the Z, then he, himself, sped off. The Z, minus one side, and I were in a ditch but fellow motorists fell into pursuit. The drunk parked outside a place that sold “cold beverages,” ran inside, locked himself in the bathroom, climbed out a window and ran, on foot. The cops traced him through his parked car, but on the day of his trial, he had skipped bail. The city sold his impounded car. The city got the money.

We saved our lunch money and bought a new 1979 Mercedes-Benz 240D sedan. I don’t have a clue what the 240 was about but the “D” stood for one of Rudolf Christian Karl Diesel’s inventions. The Benz was powered by a diesel engine (sans spark plugs) and could run on bio-derived or petroleum-based fuel.

It was a loud neighborhood affair when cranked. It smoked, it was stinky. In winter, the door locks frequently froze, so if the car had been left locked, you might not get in. We loved it and kept it for 11 years. The car was almost hand-built: each 240D spent an astonishing 90 hours on the assembly line. It had shoulder belts in addition to lap belts, of all things! We’re talking 1979, when American car makers were fighting Uncle Sammy tooth-and-nail to prevent being forced to equip their products with shoulder belts. That automobile was solid as a Sherman tank. Good thing, too.

One bright Sunday morning in 1990, enroute to Raeford to skydive, I pulled the 240D out into the path of an 18-wheeler Mack truck. The truck had no time to brake, it ran over the front of the car, and pulled it beneath the truck where it somehow spun the car around and ran over the back. The solid construction of the passenger compartment and shoulder belts did their work and I emerged stunned, and without a scratch, but with a renewed interest in safe driving.

When the wrecker arrived, I asked the driver where I might take the car to have it repaired. Here’s what he said: “Mister, I’ve been in this business for 27 years, and I’ve never seen a car torn up this badly.”

All-in-all, the experience was more exciting than skydiving.

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