Lum: Gas guzzlers I have known
During the war, we had a nondescript gray Plymouth sedan — vintage 1937 or 1938 — lined with a fuzzy material that also covered the scratchy seats. It had straps hanging by the windows which you could hang onto when flying around a sharp corner, not that my parents did a lot of flying.
No one could buy a new car because there was a war on and parts and tires were in short supply, as well. We were on a first-name basis with all the mechanics at Scerbo’s Garage, where the car spent most of its waning days in various states of disrepair.
When I was a freshman in high school, my grandmother — the rich one — bought us a 1951 Studebaker Champion. I was at that tender age of unrelenting acute mortification and this puke-green automobile with its bomb-like nose was the most embarrassing thing that ever graced our driveway.
However, free is free; we kept the car and I had to learn to drive in it. Back then, driving meant using a stick shift and poking your arm out the driver’s window to signal left, right, OK to pass and “I’m stopping,” sometimes with wild circles indicating erasure of the previous message (“Right — oops, no, I meant left.”).
The first car I ever owned was a 1946 Dodge convertible purchased in 1957 for $150, which distinguished itself by having 27 flat tires in 30 days (or was it 30 flats in 27 days?) when my ex-husband Burt and I were barely keeping all of our vehicles going until we left New Jersey for Alaska. That car had a name: Slewfoot.
The other vehicles in our fleet were a Ford woody station wagon with toadstools growing in the rotting wood, an unremarkable and often inoperable dark green Chevrolet sedan and an open army surplus Jeep that spent more than a year dismantled on the kitchen table until Burt — quite miraculously — put it back together.
All of the vehicles had major imperfections. The convertible top of the Dodge was raised and lowered by holding two hot wires together that snapped and sparked. A rope served the dual purpose of holding up the driver’s seat and keeping the passenger door from swinging open. We had rigorous inspections and stickers to prove the car had passed. One time I had to go into a special room to be yelled at because the only test Slewfoot passed was the horn.
The station wagon’s floor was flimsy, the muffler corroded. On a trip to Maine, flames began shooting through my feet. “Then throw some water on it,” Burt snapped through my screams. He finally fixed the muffler by wrapping an opened tin can around the worst holes, but I could see the pavement whistling by beneath the hole in the floor.
The Jeep had no top or windshield wipers. If it rained or snowed I served as wiper, standing on the passenger seat with a squeegee. The Chevy had no license plates, but in a pinch we could switch plates with one of the others.
Once, driving through ritzy Mountain Lakes in the illegally licensed Chevy with an expired inspection sticker, a traffic cop waved at me to stop. I pretended I didn’t hear and kept going. As I passed him, he said, “You have to pull over” through the open window, but still I kept going. I could see him dancing in the street in my rear view mirror.
I drove the half-mile straight to my apartment, idiotically parked the car in full view in my driveway and sat — shaking — in my pitch-black bedroom closet for half an hour, waiting for the law to arrive. It didn’t.
We were leaving for Alaska soon so we didn’t want to put our precious savings into the maintenance of conveyances that we were going to sell as soon as our new Dodge Power Wagon arrived to take us out of Dodge. It finally came and we skipped town forever.
Su Lum is a longtime local who may go into the MGB’s, the VW’s and the ghastly Fiat another time. Her column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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