Fifty Ways to Junk Your Flivver

Episode 1, in no particular order

I’ve been rereading Never Look a Gift Hearse in the Grille and other stories about cars by my friend Frances A. Hogg. I’d recommend it highly. It’s a great memoir of growing up in Michigan in the hippie days. You’d have to search for it on Amazon, but they’ll think you mean Gift Horse. Of course not, who would want one of those?

I’ve been thinking recently of all the vehicles I’ve owned, loved, hated, modded, hot rodded, broken and outright ruined over the past half century. (And if you don’t know what “flivver” means, you haven’t been around for half a century.)  I count only 22 vehicles of all colors and persuasions, one twice, so I had to double up my efforts to ruin a few of them.  A few lucky ones had it fairly easy and got away from me mostly unscathed. Others suffered severely. They probably had PTSD, even begged their new owners to send them to the crusher. Some probably committed suicide long ago, and I just hope no humans were harmed in the process.

An early vehicle that served me well, to the best of its meager abilities, was a 1971 Dodge pickup. Those were the days when cars and trucks were simple, and pickups were work horses, not the soft, expensive, luxury, status-seeking dilettantes they are today. This particular unit reflected its era: an unbreakable slant six, three on the tree, a rigid steering column that would impale you straight through the heart if you ever ran into anything, and a solid steel dashboard to finish off your unlucky passenger. It had an AM radio, and I think it might have had a lapbelt to firmly hold you in place should the gas tank inside the cab, right behind the bench seat, happen to explode. But I wouldn’t bet either way on it. There were certainly no 3-point harnesses or airbags.

It had belonged to a contractor I’d worked for. He died, I bought it from his widow around 1977 or so, used a rattle can to paint over the company logo on the doors, shod it with retreads, and for the next few years I had such low confidence in its durability that I would change the oil by recycling the used oil from my 1978 Buick Regal Sport Coupe into it. (I ran it through a coffee filter first.) But hey, it was good oil—Arco, infused with graphite. It came out of the can so thick and black you’d think it was tar oil. But the Dodge just wouldn’t die. Eventually I started treating it better, and bought it brand new oil, and even a new oil filter… occasionally.

In addition to hauling me and my tools to work every weekday, we used the truck to tow a small sailboat we used to own, and even a parade of popup campers, venturing a couple hundred miles or more Up North… with a good supply of hand tools in the back just in case of inevitable breakdowns. I even treated it to new king pin bushings once. (It had a solid front axle that needed some attention; I went cheap with the brass ones.) But the pickup was almost unstoppable. Bonus: nobody would ever pull out in front of me—one glance at this wreck and they knew I either couldn’t or wouldn’t stop for them; I obviously had nothing to lose. (Well, except my life: see “steering column” and “dashboard” above.)

It did, however, have a very strong inclination to return to its natural element: rust. One day I was driving to work on a country road when I hit the bottom of a significant dip and the steering wheel jumped up a few inches. Strange. Actually, that wasn’t true. The floor beneath the seat had rusted, broken loose and dropped down a few inches. Rust never sleeps. Back at home (a few days later), I cut and drilled a sturdy length of angle iron, raised the floor up with a hydraulic jack and a 2×4, and bolted it all back in place. By that time I needed a raincoat and swampers to drive in wet weather—icy winter salt water spraying up through the floorboards was not pleasant.

Eventually I sold it for a couple hundred bucks at a garage sale, and still saw it tooling around town for the next couple of years. I didn’t ruin it, it just aged out. My only modifications (I hesitate to say “improvements”) were a CB radio (those were the days!) with a 6-foot whip antenna on the passenger side, which would unscrew in the wind and flop down to slap the shins of any unwary pedestrians on the sidewalk; and a front “spoiler” I fashioned out of a 6” steel wall stud and screwed up (so to speak) below the radiator. That was more of an affectation than a functional, aerodynamic, gas-saving appendage.

So all in all, it was a good truck, and I didn’t ruin it too badly.

But there were other vehicles that didn’t fare so well in my so-called care.

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