Vehicular homicide: The slow death of the ‘POS’ mountain car
The prototypical image of the “Aspen car” is undoubtedly the rusty, rear-wheel-drive pickup truck with a broom strategically placed so that anything from sawdust to dog hair to life’s worries could be swept away at a moment’s notice. You know, like something from the TV show “Northern Exposure,” in which vehicle-based image was, if it existed at all, an anti-image. Cachet via premeditated lack of cachet.Those halcyon vehicular days are long gone, of course, replaced by fuel-injected, all-wheel-drive modernity. But there are still folks hereabouts who hearken back to mountain-country days of yore – either by choice or fiscal necessity – preferring to hit the road in venerable vehicles that boast rust, primer paint, suspect emissions and carburetion so old it ought to be coal-powered.As more and more of us trade in our snaggle-toothed Volkswagen Bugs, Jeeps and other assorted beaters – long known as “piece-of-shit” (POS) mountain cars – for Outbacks, Range Rovers and Priuses (Prii?), we decided to celebrate a few of Aspen’s remaining landmark cars.
Willie Waltner’s ’61 Willys Jeep is from old-time mountain country central casting.Waltner bought the Jeep, which has a WONKA license plate, in 1985 for $1,200. He has driven it almost every day since.”I have always liked old cars,” says Waltner, a 30-year Aspenite who makes his living as a computer geek. “I used to have ’48 Jaguar Coup. I’m mechanically competent, so I’m comfortable working on cars.”Waltner has kept his Wonka in near-original condition (i.e.: he has opted to not spent any “restoration” money on it).”I did have a Buick V-6 installed,” he says. “That was a simple bolt-in conversion. Other than that, I’ve really not had to do much. I don’t know how many miles it has on it, because the speedometer has been broken for many years. I don’t take it out of the valley much anymore, but I have driven it to Boulder, and my son had it down at college in Durango for a year.”Waltner feels there’s much that’s lost with new vehicles.”Most everyone drives automatic these days,” he says. “I feel it’s a handicap to not learn to drive stick. Plus, new vehicles pretty much look and feel the same. I like the personality of older vehicles. They might not be as efficient, but they have something else. I’ll never sell this Jeep.”
Kiefer Mendenhall needed a new gas cap for his ’77 Suburban one time. When he went into a local car parts store, the clerk immediately recognized the vehicle.”She told me it was the ugliest car in Aspen,” remembers Mendenhall, who makes and purveys Aspen Mulling Spices. “I was flattered.”Mendenhall bought his Suburban 28 years ago.”It was a genuine piece-of-shit mountain car when I bought it, and it’s even more of a piece-of-shit mountain car now,” says Mendenhall, who for many years owned Wax and Wicks in Aspen. “It’s rusted through, the windshield is so cracked it looks like a road map, and most of the trim has been peeled off. People in Aspen know me by my car. It’s a joke, but it’s a badge of honor to me to be driving this old Suburban in a town filled with new Range Rovers. Thing is, I bet I have not spent more than $150 on it in the last nine years.”Mendenhall’s uglymobile only has about 130,000 miles on it, despite its venerability.”I don’t drive it past the ABC any more,” he says. “But I drive it around town all the time. It has stickers on the back from where my kids went to school. There’s a Philips Exeter Academy sticker, as well as stickers from Harvard and Cornell. There s also an Aspen State Teachers College sticker. Their nickname was ‘the Brooms,’ because everyone up here used to have a broom in the back of their vehicle in those days. I thinks that’s appropriate.”Kill the CelicaIn the buttoned-down world of financial advising, cars are usually of the new and shiny variety. Trent Powell decided when he moved to Aspen four years ago to buck that trend. He bought a ’75 Toyota Celica from local legend Jan Johannsen for $1,500, and, despite the pleadings from his fellow financial advisors, he has stuck with that car ever since.Now, with the car approaching 170,000 miles, the second gear fading into obscurity and the risk to fellow motorists on the rise, he plans to sacrifice the Celica for the greater good.”It has been a great car,” says Powell, who works for Raymond James . “I bought it at least partially because I did not want to get caught up in the whole new-car Aspen scene, where people spend ridiculous amounts of money on their cars because of image or because they think you have to have a new Range Rover in order to make it in the mountains.”The Celica, a ragtop of all things, now has 167,000 miles on it, and Powell feels its productive days are done.”It’ s definitely getting to the point that it’s dangerous to drive,” he says. “So I’m going to sacrifice it. We’re going to have a ‘Kill the Celica’ benefit on Saturday, May 27. I’ll charge $25 or so for people to be able to take a few swings at the car. I know a lot of my friends and co-workers have been wanting to beat this car to death for years. All proceeds will go to the Aspen Camp School for the Deaf.”Powell, who is hearing-impaired, envisions a fitting sendoff for what has turned out to be a great little mountain car.
In response to our call for local car stories, we got an e-mail from a lady named Kelly (no last name given). Here it basically is:I bought my 1992 Honda Accord because some little old lady creamed the first car I ever had (a Volvo) that my parents gave me when I graduated from college. It was scary buying my first by myself (none of the men in my life, my dad and my boyfriend, would help me!), but an old boyfriend had bought a Honda, and I assumed he had done his research on what were good cars.So, off I went to get a Honda. When it started getting close to 100,000 miles, I began to worry … shouldn’t I start looking for a new car? Don’t they conk out at about that mileage?”No,” I was told, “that is American cars. Japanese cars usually go 200,000 miles with good maintenance.”
Tim Anderson rives a piece of Aspen history. A “mansion maintenance person” who takes care of a 15,000-square-foot house at Smuggler, Anderson is the proud owner of the old Grog Shop delivery vehicle – a bright-orange ’79 Suburban adorned with the most de rigueur of Aspen vehicular accouterments: Tiger stripes.”I got it because it was given away in a raffle, and the person who won it gave it to me,” Anderson says. “It gets driven almost every day. Actually, I’ve given it to my girlfriend to drive. She loves it. It has a million dents, but it only has about 100,000 miles on it, because it was only ever used to do deliveries in Aspen.”Anderson feels that, by owning and operating a genuine POS mountain car, he is fighting the current of trendiness that has, in the minds of many, swept Aspen down some sort of irreversible cultural flash flood.
“I like making a statement,” he says. “And, if I’m not making a statement with the old Grog Shop truck, then I’m at least getting some laughs.”Anderson takes his statement-making seriously enough that the Grog Shop-mobile is not his only period car.”I also own an ’82 Chevy pickup that’s not exactly new and trendy,” he says.Life’s a blurOK, so Eric Pekkala’s ’68 Corvette doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of the old-time POS mountain car reincarnate. But, it still maintains enough in the way of personal panache that it sticks out among Aspen’s ubiquitous Prii and Range Rovers.Pekkala is a longtime local furniture builder who comes from a family of car enthusiasts.”My grandfather bought the ‘Vette new,” he says. “He was a car collector. At one time, he had more than 40 cars. When he started selling off his collection, I bought this one.”Pekkala is the first to admit that his ‘Vette, which boasts a 427-cubic-inch engine that produces a mind-boggling 560 horsepower, is not exactly everyone’s image of the perfect High Country ride.”It stays in the garage in the winter,” he says. “I drive a Ford F-150 in the winter. In the summer, my ‘Vette is great. 1968 was the first year Chevy introduced the new Stingray body style. It’s a T-top. I take it up to Independence Pass every once in a while, but, since it only gets nine miles to the gallon, that’s an expensive trip. I get up and back pretty fast. This car was designed for speed.”Like a lot of locals who have opted for older cars, Pekkala is comfortable with a screwdriver.”I grew up working on cars,” he says. “That’s one thing … if you’re going to own an older car, you had better feel comfortable under the hood. It’s hard to work on new cars, because of all the computerization. Most people now, if their car breaks down, they’re in trouble.”
Jim Hayes has called Aspen home for 56 of his 85 years. And, in a way that is both typical and atypical of POS-mountain-car culture, he has been under the hood all that time. One of the fast-dying stereotypes of old-car culture is the yard that boasts a menagerie of five or six vehicles in various states of disrepair, the owner’s hope is that, at any one time, one of those vehicles will start and run.That stereotype is centered around a kind of mountain sociology where aging hippieism meets traditional redneckism.Hayes defies those stereotypes, but his yard is home to four to six cars at any one time.Hayes is a master goldsmith who raised five children in Aspen. He developed a comfort level with engines back in the military.
“I was flying a single-engine plane 10,000 feet over Texas, and the engine started sputtering,” Hayes remembers. “I had to land in a cow pasture. It was tough, because I had to weave through the cows as I was landing. I had been trained to work on the engine. I walked several miles along a fenceline until I found some bailing wire. Then I walked back to the place and fixed the fuel line.”That gave Hayes the confidence to fix any engine under any circumstance. Right now, Hayes is building from scratch an engine for an old VW bug. He also has an old Camaro, and old Mustang and an not-too-old Cadillac. At this point, it’s the Mustang that’s running. The VW, which just had a new turbo-charger installed, is almost ready to hit the road, the Cadillac needs some minor maintenance and the Camaro needs new tires.”I have owned more than 30 VW Bugs,” Hayes says. “All my children had Bugs when they were in college. They all learned how to work on them.”That aside, Hayes has always taken pride in taking care of his kids’ cars.”When they were off at college, one of them might call me and say that their Bug had died, and I’d say to pull it off the street in a safe place, and then I’d drive wherever they were and put a new engine in it, right there on the street,” Hayes says.If there is one observation Hayes makes about new cars and their owners these days, it’s that they don’t know a valve cover gasket from a bad case of hemorrhoids.”If you understand the fundamentals of how a car works, you can work on it, but it’s a lot harder on new cars,” he says. “They rely so much on computers that most people can’t work on them. Even mechanics can’t diagnose problems on new cars without a computer. I have trouble understanding why someone would want to drive all over the place and not be able to fix their car.”
If there is one type of vehicle that dominates the old-school landscape in Aspen, it’s the Toyota LandCruiser. Statistics are hard to come by, but it’s quite possible there are more old LandCruisers per capita in Aspen than anywhere else in America.And a lot of people feel the reason for that is John Guenther, owner of Pitco Automotive.Guenther has fixed cars in Aspen for 30 years. For 15 of those years, he only worked on LandCruisers. And though he now works on pretty much anything with wheels, he still has a special fondness for ‘Cruisers.”I have always liked them,” says Guenther, who mainly drives a ’95 ‘Cruiser, a vehicle considered by most ‘Cruiser aficionados to be almost embarrassingly “new.””People like them because they are rugged,” Guenther says. “Everything on a LandCruiser is built up. The axles, chassis and gearbox are all very heavy-duty. The major problem is rust. The Japanese just never put that much emphasis on rust protection.”There’s no doubt, though, that older ‘Cruisers are going through a cachet-based renaissance.”There’s an image,” Guenther says. “People consider them the ultimate mountain vehicle, and they see a lot of other people up here driving them, and they want one.”That “want” translates into ‘Cruisers not only maintaining their value, but increasing their value.”It’s insane what people are paying for them,” Guenther says. “For what people are paying for totally restored old LandCruisers, you could almost buy a new one.”
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