Monday, August 26, 2013

First Car That Wasn't

A chick-magnet in its day

Driving past a consignment car lot the other day, I saw a father and son looking over an older car. I’m guessing the kid was a senior in high school, looking to get his very first set of wheels, and the old man was there to offer sage advice. The scene took me back to my own first, temporary car.

Financing my first car was a simple matter: I would work in my father’s store, gratis, for approximately the rest of my life. Another stipulation to the deal was that the old man would have the final say on the selection of the vehicle. The terms of the agreement sounded fine because, in my mind, getting a car was tantamount to having girls fall all over themselves for a chance to spend time with me. 

I’m not sure why (particularly since we weren’t Catholic), but Dad felt obligated to prepare me for priesthood by picking out a car that would ensure celibacy. At a used car lot just a couple doors down from our store, Dad found a 1959 Renault. The guys at Wheel, Screwem & Goode Used Cars had the car priced at a reasonable $175 - “As Is” (such as it is). Being the consummate horse trader, the old man got the final price down to $125.

My chariot was not quite what I had envisioned. The black finish was dulled from years in the New Mexican sun. Likewise, the interior suffered from sun damage. The inside of the car smelled like the aftermath of a conflagration at a vinyl factory, and the cloth headliner turned to dust with the least provocation. The windshield had been through so many sandstorms it was practically frosted. All of that, however, was merely cosmetic. Dad’s concern was the loud knocking that emanated from the engine. 

“The salesman assures me it’s not the engine bearings, but that’s bullshit. I’m going to rebuild the engine,” Dad explained casually.

Rebuilding engines is something at which my father excelled. Unfortunately, that meant I would be without the car for at least a week while Dad did his mechanical magic. I begged for the opportunity to drive the car around for the night. 

“Please? I want to show it to John.”

“Just to John’s and back. Go easy. I don’t think that engine is going to make it much longer.” 

My best friend, John Toledo, was also a mechanical whiz, and I wanted his opinion. He was also very gifted at getting us into trouble with what, at the time, sounded like great ideas. Upon hearing the engine and the salesman’s assurance that it was definitely not bad bearings, John came up with his own cure. “It probably just needs to be run hard.”

“But I’m not supposed to go anywhere with it. And my dad said to go easy.” 

“Well, if it’s not the bearings, it must be a gummy tappet. We give it a good run and things will loosen right up. That way, we’ll save your dad a bunch of trouble, and you’ll have your car right away.”

With such sound logic I figured it would be foolish not to give it a try. We headed out of Silver City on Highway 180. The plan was to climb a few hills between Silver City and Bayard, racing downhill as fast as possible. The first hill should have provided all the warning we needed. The engine clacked and banged ominously as we inched our way up the hill. Flies splattered themselves against the rear window when they couldn’t turn fast enough to avoid the collision. Horned lizards streaked past us on the side of the road, stopping now and then to point and laugh. Finally, we crested the hill. 

“Okay,” John shouted over the banging engine, “give her the gas, and haul ass!” I held the accelerator down all the way as John called out our increasing speed. “Twenty. Twenty-five. Thirty! THIRTY-FIVE!”

I don't know... I think I've got this.
Somewhere between thirty-five and forty miles per hour there was a deafening explosion from the rear of the car. I looked in the rearview mirror just in time to see pieces of the engine flying through the thick smoke pouring from the rear of the car. Then there was dead silence, with the exception of giggling horned lizards. After grinding to a halt, a quick look in the engine compartment revealed one of the pistons had not quite punctured the outside of the car’s body after exiting the engine.

Even though John verified my claim that we weren’t even going forty, very little of what Dad had to say when he showed up is suitable for print. Perhaps one of his gentler comments will suffice: “You wouldn’t have sense enough to pour piss out of a boot, with instructions written on the heel! 

The Renault was tethered to the back of Dad’s truck for the tow back into town. I feel certain that car had never achieved speeds that fast, even in its prime. John didn’t pay much attention to the speedometer on the way back. I believe he closed his eyes while shrieking in terror. I know I was tempted.

We left the car on the curb at the car lot. The next morning Dad and the salesman had a little chat. Dad got his money back and the salesman said he was going to get a new mechanic. And me? Eventually I got a 1965 Corvair that was dubbed “La Bomba.” But that’s fodder for another post.

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