Cars! (1947-2021)



Twice to the Moon and Back:
A Reminiscence Upon Having Given Up Driving


Sometime in the early seventies, on the long way back from somewhere; during a child-crushing passage of boredom, the children asked: “Daddy, how far have you driven?” After some mental deliberation involving imperfect memory and some suspect arithmetic I announced: “Well, I’m about halfway back from the moon.”


It has been said of the Allied Victory in World War II that credit was due the mechanical skill and know-how of men who had grown up in close proximity to the farm contraptions and the jalopies of their boyhoods. They seemed to have an edge over enemy troops in the business of keeping the engines and wheels of their heroic efforts in motion. 

How then could we imagine that our grandchildren—in two generations—would never know the joy, the pain, the frustration, and the grimy knuckle-busting satisfactions of working on cars? I think that the success and the pervasiveness of the age of technology and of social media has robbed them of something essential. To be fair, though—the modern car is virtually impossible to comprehend. Unless one is a professional mechanic, trained in technical school, or in a modern shop, today’s kid has scant possibility, or even an interest in, an activity as remote from today’s skittering thumbs as can be imagined: the delights and miseries of futzing about with cars.


1947-1948

In 1947 I paid ninety-five dollars for a 1925 Nash four-door straight-eight sedan, best described as the typical gangster car of Al Capone’s Chicago. It was my age (22) and might have seen 150,000 miles. It had a spare tire on each running board, a luggage rack in back, dual ignition (sixteen spark-plugs!), and, having no starter motor: crank to start.

I parked it in a small space near the house. I was shy about discussing cars with my father knowing that a serious lecture on responsibility would have to be endured. Better just to buy one. Several days later he asked me, “Do you know whose car that is out there in front?”

Cranking required a throttle lever on the steering column and another to advance and retard the ignition (spark) timing. Throttle advancement ensured that the engine, once started, would be “revved” up a bit, and retarded timing—delaying the spark from its running position before cylinder top-dead-center—prevented early firing from unexpectedly snapping the crank backwards. Many a thumb or forearm had thus been broken. The Nash ran reliably but poorly, generating clouds of blue smoke indicating the excessive burning of oil.

And, so, my adventure began—with a ring and valve job. I was handy with tools; knew something in principle about engines, had flown B29 combat missions as a radar navigator in the Pacific in 1945; but little in detail about cars. Access to the valves required the removal of the engine’s cast iron “head,” but new piston rings were more of a challenge—requiring oil pan removal, dissembling the rod bearings from the crank-shaft, and pushing the pistons up and out of the cylinders. I found that I needed mysterious special tools of which I had never heard—valve-spring lifters, ring compressors, torque and tappet wrenches, and ridge reamers.

Our schoolroom was the local auto parts store and our teachers the intimidating men behind the counter who treated us, at first, as though our trade was hardly worth the instructional hassle required. We found obtaining special tools especially daunting owing to the embarrassment of having to reveal not only our ignorance, but that, in our penury, we couldn’t afford them. But gradually rapport was forged allowing us occasionally to borrow what we needed, provided we guaranteed—by bicycle—a timely return. Gradually we became more and more the beneficiaries of useful and friendly advice.

My job was straightforward with one exception: an exhaust valve so badly burned that simple regrinding could not save it. A wide tour of the auto junk yards of Greater Boston proved fruitless and so I was stuck unless… unless I could make one of my own. That summer I had a job at Northeastern University as an assistant in the mechanical engineering laboratory running the various engines and test equipment for the students. One job was the making of steel tensile test specimens, and so I learned how operate a metal turning lathe.

Exhaust valve
Exhaust valve

Exhaust valves must be of high-temperature resistant steel. Figuring that truck valves might, in general, be bigger than car valves I went to the parts desk at the Reo dealership, put my valve on the counter, and asked whether an exhaust valve could be found with my valve “inside” it. Once the counter man got the idea he produced several and with my ruler and micrometer we soon found one. On the lathe I turned down the shaft and head, cut the required grooves and bevels, and “ground it in” with the others where it served for the rest of the life of the car.


1948-1950

The Nash “threw a rod” and died on the famous hills of the Cornell University campus; succeeded by a 1934 Pontiac business coupe bought from a fraternity brother. I brush-painted it blue. It had four-on-the-floor—on a trip to New York City spattering dark transmission oil on the nylon hose of my unhappy passenger. At the fraternity house one night that spring I had a visit from the Campus Police who wanted an explanation for its having been found upside down in a major campus intersection. Two men and a woman had been seen leaving the scene. I never found the culprits though they were undoubtedly among my “brothers.”

Ithaca winters were snowy. Before snow tires we had chains, a lattice of links draped over the rear tires and fastened—with freezing fingers—by awkward hooks, all the while on your back in the snow. Inevitably they developed loose ends to flail against the inside of the fender. The bang, bang, bang of loose chain ends in the cold air is one of the lost sounds of winter.


1950-1952

Upon leaving Cornell at graduation I gave up the Pontiac for a 1939 Studebaker Champion business coupe—gradually the model years were approaching the present. I had this nice car for several of my early years in New York City. It was the same age as the Pontiac we had in France in 1939. I have a memory of “doing” the brakes—or maybe it was the universal joints—while parked on a side street on Manhattan’s upper West Side.

In the winter of 1952 I quit my job at Kearfott in Newark and, to my father’s alarm, became a ski-bum at Stowe, Vermont for three months. My job at the Stowaway Inn kept me in shelter and food; as an auxiliary on the ski patrol my lift tickets were free; my only expenses being cigarettes and gas for the Studebaker.

I have forgotten to what malaise it ultimately succumbed.


1952-1953

I had always a yen for an antique car. An urge finally satisfied by getting a 1929 Model-A Ford from an old guy in the Bronx. It was a convertible roadster with a rumble seat and, yes, crank to start.

It needed a new clutch. Serendipity had it that where I had lived on Barrow Street at 6th Avenue was a tiny gas station where I sort of knew the proprietor from having parked the Studebaker there. He let me do the clutch job practically on the sidewalk.

Later I was lived on Waverly Place. A subsequent valve and rig job took several days with two wheels on the sidewalk in the midst of an al fresco art exhibit.

I drove to Boston that summer with a girlfriend. Coming back down a long hill on the Wilbur Cross Parkway in Wallingford, Conn. the timing belt broke. We had to be towed and took the bus to New York. I always note that spot whenever driving between Boston and New York City.

Late that fall I drove it to Toms River, New Jersey to winter over at my sister Holley’s.

Sadly, in the spring I was T-boned by a couple running a red light on Second Avenue. They fled the scene with a leaking radiator; nobody had taken their number so I followed the water trail as far as I could until I lost it. The frame was bent beyond reasonable repair and I had to junk it.

To this day I have a recurring dream that I’m in my Model-A driving merrily along.


1953-1956

By now I was working on the Plaza at 58th Street in Henry Dreyfuss’ famous industrial design office. I became friends with an interesting man, Roland Stickney, who made beautiful and detailed renderings with colored pencils and tempera for presentation to clients of the various products that we were working on. In a previous life he was famous for renderings of the body designs of classic cars for the clients of custom carriage work designers. We had a mutual interest in cars and wasted lots of time talking about them. To replace the Model-A he suggested that I look into getting a small Canadian 1950 model called the Morris Oxford. I did and it became known among my friends as “Morrie the Ox”.

With a homemade rack on top Morrie made many winter trips to the ski country in Vermont, often as far as Stowe where I had been a ski-bum in the winter of 1952. And it made summer weekend camping trips to nearby State Parks.

Note the slot between the doors. Before hand gestures and blinking turn signals cars—especially foreign ones—had lighted “idiot sticks” that flicked out like finger posts.

Morrie gradually sickened and reached a point where a broken tooth gap in the flywheel too often stopped just at the point where it was needed next to engage the starter pinion. That meant to start you had to push it in gear to reposition the flywheel. It was by pure luck that it started for the buyer to whom I sold it—I yet feel a small pang of guilt when I recall this episode.


1956-1959

Enter my first brand new car: a 1957 VW Beetle. Roland had convinced me that the best thing I could do was to buy a Beetle. It was in this car that I first set eyes on the cliffs at New Paltz in September 1956, and two years later that Crissy and I set off on a trip to Maine.

Beetles then were still sufficiently rare that one honked and blinked at passing brethren. Its one odd failing was occasional fatal carburetor icing—a problem unique to airplanes—on cold damp days.

While slowing down it had to be double-clutched into first, although brave aficionados claimed that this was not really necessary. It was a sprightly beast and I loved it.

In the summer of 1958, driving home somewhere north of Ellsworth, Maine, Crissy and I had a near fatal single-car crash wherein the right front wheel dug in to a soft shoulder and catapulted us into the air. We landed on the left rear roof and miraculously rolled back onto the wheels. When the dust had settled I found myself in the back seat with a broken tooth, and Crissy sitting on the pavement, her arms reaching up to and still clutching the steering wheel. We were totally shaken but essentially uninjured.

No police showed up. Gradually the curious onlookers dissipated leaving us alone.

The car needed attention. The right front wheel was bent both inwardly canted and pigeon-toed. The windshield was crazed, the roof bashed in, and the rear window popped halfway out—like the bow-tie askew on a dissolute reveler. There was a gas station within considerable walking distance so it wasn’t long before I had the flat fixed and the wonky wheel remounted.

It seemed that with some futzing around we might be able to drive it. It proved a tedious process: jack up the wheel, turn the adjustment nut extending the length of the steering tie-rod, jack back down, test drive a few feet, repeat. Eventually we got it—no-hands—to track straight, though seriously knock-kneed, and cautiously struck off for New York. The driver’s side door had to be tied shut and the pressure on the crazed windshield bowed it in alarmingly so we wedged a stick inside for support.

We limped along to spend that night in Wellesley, concealing the bashed side of the car from fatherly view. At the VW place once safely back in the city the service manager, clipboard in hand, took one look and shouted, “Hey fellas, come take a look at this one!” Amazingly, it was repaired. I kept it that year but it was clear that all was not well and the time had come for change.


1959-1961

The new Bug, a 1959, was black, had a bigger rear-view window, and a fuel gauge—this last, a sign of the smug American dismissal of practical German asceticism.

Of course, immediately I bought lap-belt kits and installed them in the front seats. [For sixty-two years since then I have never driven an un-belted mile.] Three-point belts—too hard to install from kits—arrived after 1959, and were not mandatory until 1966. In later years I was amazed to pass jacked-up pickup trucks, equipped with ostentatious roll-bars, and driven by un-belted jocks expressing their American Exceptionalism. Freedumb!

By then we had our daughter Holley who, with her paraphernalia, took over the back seat on vacation trips and to the family’s summer retreat in Connecticut.

As yet, unforeseen, this car’s demise was already written in the stars.


1961-1968

We had twins!

We bought a new black 1960 Ford Econoline van. In 1963 it saw us through our big move from New York City to Line Street in Somerville, my trip to the eclipse of 1963 in Maine, and then to the new old house in Weston, Mass.

Years later one morning after much cranking and choking the car failed to start. The fuel pump had died. So how was I to get to the service place? Towing was expensive so the miser in me came to the fore. I found an orange juice can and a short stub of copper tube which I soldered to a hole punched in its bottom. A length of rubber tubing with an adjustable lab clamp completed the assembly. With the air cleaner off I supported my fuel filled gadget over the open carburetor air intake and by fine tuning the drip I could get the engine to run in fits and starts and made it haltingly to the garage.

It was in this van that, on my fortieth birthday in January 1965, we ran out of gas on the thruway in New Hampshire on the way back from a diversionary ski trip in support of a surprise party planned by Crissy and the children—before cellphones! Ponder that, ye moderns.


1968-1977

Next a new, green 1970 Dodge Tradesman van. I have no recollection as to why we switched from Ford to Dodge. It had what became, in the car world, a famous engine—the “Slant Six.”

Over the years this car made many trips to climbing at the ‘Gunks, to the family’s Windrush, and to the North Country in summer and winter. It wasn’t set up for camping but by laying cupboard doors across the tops of the reversed middle and rear seat we could uncomfortably sleep four with sleeping bags on air mattresses. We passed one miserable, well below zero night in a parking lot at Stowe that the children have not forgotten.

No one anymore worries about not starting in below zero weather. No one anymore puts the battery in the kitchen sink in warm water overnight. No one’s radiator freezes. No one anymore carries a spray can of starting ether—with the air cleaner off, squirting into the carburetor—a good way to start an engine fire.

I spent endless hours over its nine-year life replacing the driveshaft universal joints, doing the brakes, and replacing spark plugs and fan belts. On at least four occasions we had to replace the alternator on the road—so often that I learned never to travel without a spare under the passenger seat.

Later the throttle butterfly would stick closed preventing starting. The engine cover and the air cleaner had to be laboriously removed in order to tap it free. Eventually I drilled a hole all the way through both cover and cleaner to accommodate a stiff wire that could reach the butterfly. [See Comments below for a remembrance of this stick by my old friend Steve Angelini.]

It was in this car that we were driving home from Connecticut on the Mass Pike on the day of the moon landing in July 1969. During the final crucial seconds every car, almost in unison, pulled onto the shoulder to await the fateful words: “Houston, the Eagle has landed.” In bitter retrospect, that was when America was great.

“eclipse, wE MADe It!”

And in 1970 the twins and I went to Nantucket Airport to photograph the flash spectrum of the solar chromosphere at the total eclipse of 1970.

By 1977—separated from my family—I lived on Soden Street in Cambridge near Central Square.

During the second oil crisis of 1977 I installed an auxiliary gas tank. That winter twice, twice! while sleeping peacefully in rural New Hampshire I was awakened by a slight rocking and by gurgling sounds. Realizing someone was siphoning gas I arose stealthily, slipped into my shoes, and smartly smote the metal side of the interior. BAM! Amid clattering sounds they fled in panic.

They sought gas for their snowmobiles. In one case it was the kids next door, reprimanded and provided with a lifelong “remember the time when” story. In the other, some kid had to explain to his father: “What happened to our gas can?”

Eventually, again, I was T-boned at a snowy intersection in Allston, and this time it was my fault—sort of. The RMV wanted to penalize me, in a way that I have now forgotten, but I was allowed to make a case at an official hearing. I had a photo of the site showing snow partially obliterating the stop sign. It was enough to get me off.


1977-1988


After months of plotting advertised used van prices vs. mileage on an Excel spreadsheet I suddenly found an obvious outlier. I jumped on it, rushed to see it, and a few days later rode my bike the 25 miles to Salem to pick it up. On the way back to Cambridge a mouse emerged from the air vent and clung desperately to a windshield wiper before being swept away.

It was a maroon 1974 Dodge Tradesman needing DIY work for camping: side door windows, roof vent, rear seat belts, sleeping deck cum rear seat conversion, curtains, bug netting, etc. Almost immediately someone stole the battery from the Soden Street parking lot but after that it made uncountable trips to the ‘Gunks, to the rivers of New Hampshire and Maine, climbing in West Virginia, and beyond—all the while we listened endlessly to the McGarrigle Sisters, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Beatles, and my burgeoning collection of classical tapes.

In 1980 I moved again for two years to Concord, and eventually back to the old house in Weston.

Seven years later the first of two disasters struck. A broken timing chain stranded me on Route 9 at a ramp causing an embarrassing tie-up. Adding insult to injury a passing truck tore off my side-view mirror.

The engine had to be rebuilt. I no longer had the time and the will to do it myself. It took $2,500 and three weeks during which time I rode my recumbent bike the twelve miles to Boston every day, sometimes stopping at the Waltham body shop on the way home to check on progress.

Then in 1988 I parked it one night in front of my daughter Holley’s apartment on Clinton Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. I had removed most items of value, including my bike and, as a precaution, the distributor rotor. In the morning the van was gone! The thieves had towed it! I lost all my tools. The real bummer, though, was the loss of my music tapes—I never replaced them; I miss them to this day.


1988-1991

Just then, as luck would have it, some friends of friends were selling a Dodge 1980 Aspen wagon. It had the famous Slant Six engine with which I was familiar and so I bought it almost sight unseen. Two could comfortably crash in the back; it would do until something better came along. It was my first with automatic transmission and power steering.

I gave it up three years later when that same automatic transmission went south.


1991-2005

After hours of study and measurement in the dealer’s lot I decided on a new 1990 Dodge Caravan. It was to serve as a camper as well as a passenger car so I had to be sure I could engineer a conversion without removing the rear seat. In order to sleep two and to provide for cargo I needed a removable deck in back integrated with the folded seat. The result was a pretty good kludge that often drew admiration.

A roof vent, curtains, mosquito netting, etc. completed the work. The foam pads could be folded away. The deck had two leaves; the rear most, when turned over, became a table for cooking. With a new 2×3 pine rack I could secure two canoes, kayaks, or bicycles on top. It was not as commodious as the wide old Tradesman, wherein one could stretch out crosswise, but it was good enough.

After many miles the alternator failed on a Sunday in Milford Mills, New Hampshire, requiring a bus trip to Boston. It was towed to the apron of a closed garage. The next day a faithful housemate drove me all the way back so I could install a new alternator.

Early in the morning twilight at the ‘Gunks we hit a deer causing significant damage to the right front. It was weeks of relying, again, on the recumbent bike.

In the end, after fourteen years, it died, not surprisingly, of cancer of the frame.


2005-2015

I found my next Caravan at a tiny used car dealership in Somerville—a 2000 I think. It was less boxy and more curvaceous than the its predecessor, rendering the space inside less useful—an unfortunate trend that I see all around me these days. A kind of mindless dumbing-down of utility.

By chopping and bending here and there I got the previous camping amenities shoe-horned into the new volume. I never got around to adding a roof vent—open windows and insect netting would have to suffice.

There is little as exciting as—parked at a ‘Gunks scenic overlook, snug in a sleeping bag—having a raging tempest of thunder and lightning rocking you awake to the roar of rain on the roof.

Finally, sharing the genes of its predecessor, it too, succumbed to the cancer. A cancer so pervasive that there remained no solid means even of jacking the car to change a tire.  No longer could it pass a State Inspection.


2010-2015

It was instantly and shockingly obvious that I would have to replace it.

My service shop of fifty years, Regan’s Service of Auburndale, had recently begun to dabble in used cars and Pat was quick to beckon me to view his collection. He had a 2007 Subaru Outback and without hesitation flung forward half the rear seat to show me how one could sleep full length. The irony, of course, was that I knew in my secret heart that I would never again sleep in a car at any length. And I never did.

After a useful modification to the roof rack and the addition of a deck in back I added some prosthetics to make easier my finger access to the steering column [a wrist support/hand lever] and dash controls [golf tee glued to the windshield wiper stick]—dictated by the recurrence of an old shoulder injury.

You can’t really work on cars anymore and the Subaru was no exception. You can’t even change the spark plugs, let alone see them. On some new car models the parts under the hood are packed so tightly that you could roll a golf ball across the array without losing it into a crevice somewhere.

For five years all went well until a moment’s inattention steered me into a waiting telephone pole which was severed cleanly at its base while, for its part, maliciously destroying the right front suspension.


2015-2021

I replaced it with a nearly identical 2008 Outback.

One million miles. Fifteen cars in seventy-five years. That’s about five years, and sixty-seven thousand miles per car.

Ineluctably, the time had come. My son has driven it away forever. 😦


Twice to the moon and back—a journey of nearly a million miles filled with fun, adventure, misadventure, and the joy of freedom on wheels.


Header image at top of post: My aunt Edith H. Church in her 1923 Dodge touring car, with Edith Horton and Becky Harris.


I’d love to hear your own reminiscences of cars past, in the Comments below

13 thoughts on “Cars! (1947-2021)

  1. Bill loved reading a narrative of you life through th vantage point of car ownership. Marshall and I remember well the incident of adolescent gas siphoning. He may comment with his own memories of that incident.

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  2. Thank you for reading and for your kind comment, Elias. You’re around the same age as my four driving-but-non-car-repairing grandchildren. Glad you have passengers who’re impressed with your skill, best of luck out there on the road! Cheers – Bill

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  3. I don’t know you like the other commenters do — I came across your blog by chance — but I found this totally enthralling and wistful.

    I’m 27, I’ve driven a used 04 Chevrolet Cavalier since I was 19, and I feel the terror of the unknown any time its maintenance forces my attention. Passengers are impressed that I drive a stick. The accelerator once came off while trying to gain speed on a left-hand on-ramp…at least the shoulder was wide. I’d go on but my girlfriend is calling.

    Cheers

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  4. What a wonderful reminiscence, Bill! I remember rides to the Gunks in your van with those tapes playing in the background. How dare they steal that treasure. Dick remembers helping you change an alternator on one trip to the Gunks and also helping you install a roof vent in the blue Dodge van. Oh, the memories. Thanks so much for sharing.

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  5. I love this so much. I wish I’d gotten my dad to write the history of his cars. I think I’ll start my own right now. My husband and I courted as teenagers in his yellow classic bug, called The Blinkie, in the late 70s, in Weston. Not an easy car in which to court.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. What a nice narrative, Steve.

    If your VW engine conked out occasionally–and mysteriously–was it in cold damp weather? If so probably the same carburetor icing as mine. The sudden expansion of the fuel/air mix caused a cooling below freezing. Airplanes have something called carburetor heat to fix the problem.

    My daughter has set up a way that you can add your “comment” to my site. Just go to the bottom. You can cut and paste yours into the comment box there.

    Love to you and Sonya,
    Bill

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  7. Cars”

    What a great narrative, Bill.

    I had some idea of the extent of your inventiveness and talent for fabrication but the extent of your auto-lineage never occurred to me.

    My first car was a 1957 Beetle too! Amazing. Although I didn’t latch onto mine until 1968. It was light blue with a folding sunroof. The front hood was dented inward leaving a gap in the “frunk” for cold winter winds to blast through a gaping hole where the radio once resided. The windshield came standard with a huge coast to coast crack. The engine would decide to take a nap in transit for no decipherable reason but then restart shortly after or with a one foot out the door push start. That car got me through BC and carried me to most of the Four Thousand Footers of the White Mts. that I bagged during my college years. I paid $125 for that wonderful wreck.

    You had so many chariots but, sadly, unfortunate luck with each of them. I came along when you had the 1970 Dodge Tradesman with the “dipstick” poker that reached down through the engine hood inside the cab to tickle the carburetor butterfly into cooperation. I thought that was so creative that I made a prod of my own even though I didn’t need one…just in case. I still have that instrument in my toolbox. Oh, the many, many Gunks trips in that van laden with tense excitement and anticipation of the routes we’d be doing. “Those were the days. my friend….We thought they’d never end.”

    Sonya’s first “Bill Mobile” was another Dodge twenty years younger, The ’90 Caravan with the modified living quarters in the back. She also recalls the 2007 Subie with the prosthetics you designed for your reluctant shoulder – which, sadly, signaled the end of your climbing days. My shoulders are heading down the same road. Now Sonya is researching assisted living for her mom and has considered Youville House. However the trip into Cambridge several times a week would be too much of a commute for Sonya. Youville House sounds absolutely perfect, however.

    “A mindless dumbing down of utility.” Indeed!
    I so agree and have often said as much that the excessive stylization of cars, vans and trucks has increased their bulk while limiting their usefulness. My ’90 Toyota pickup was tiny compared to my 2011 Tacoma pickup but the interior truck bed space of the Tacoma is so much smaller that I had to cut down the rear deck frame and platform from the 1990 truck making for tight quarters for two small people.

    I love that you have kept an archive of personal vignettes every one of which is engrossing and of special interest to anyone who has known, admired and loved the author as I have.
    I hope you have a few more tales to enchant and thrill your faithful reader with.

    Thank you my friend,

    Steve

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