I have been enyoying Marc’s Saturday Cars Of A Lifetime (COAL) series. He recently recounted his experience with a Pontiac Acadian (Chevette to those of us not from Canada). Among is memories were the need for regular push starts and multiple other little niggling things that one must put up with when driving a $250 beater. This got me thinking of the things I willingly put up with in my own youth. The combination of old car and not a lot of cash made me quite OK with many things I would never deal with now.
My second car was a 16 year old 1963 Cadillac that cost me $400. The big black Cadillac’s primary capability was to require a $100 repair every 4-6 weeks. Which for a college freshman in 1978-79 was not nothing. And which was why I never fixed the windshield wipers. When the interior of the car was cold the wipers didn’t like to turn on. I would wiggle the switch every which way and they would finally start to wipe. And then would not turn off. Once the car started blowing good heat they would park themselves and all would be fine and dandy. A replacement switch from a junker didn’t fix it. They therefore stayed unfixed.
Later in 1979 I bought a 1959 Plymouth Fury. It was far from a beater, but was about as presentable as a 20 year old car in the rust belt could get. But it was not without its little problems. The heater controls were an early application of vacuum actuators for directing air flow. Pushing the button for “defrost” ducted air to the windshield. Pushing the button for “heat” changed nothing, so I got good at reaching under the dash to move the little lever that the vacuum system wouldn’t move.
I had to replace the gasket in the fuel tank sending unit to fix a leak. The wire into the sending unit had a dodgy connection and whenever it got damp (as from driving in the rain) the fuel gauge would swing to “full” no matter the actual fuel level. Easy, right? Just fill the tank and you’re fine. Except that there was a second leak from the rubber hose at the filler neck so I never filled it more than 3/4. My solution was a long wooden stick that I could run down the filler pipe until it hit the bottom of the tank. Sort of a dipstick, but for gasoline. Hey, isn’t that how they do it for the big tanks at the gas station?
In 1980 I paid $550 for a 1971 Plymouth Scamp. It was an interesting combination of worn and presentable, but it was a good one that set a 5 year length-of-ownership record I would not break for decades. In the big jobs of starting, stopping and steering, the Scamper was dead reliable. Reliable enough that a friend and I actually did a bunch of bodywork to it and gave it a paint job. Even when I was a broke kid I had some standards. But being a Chrysler product of the 1970s, some of the minor stuff was a little more of an issue.
Like the time a buddy and I decided to hook a small boat trailer onto the big hitch on the back. The there must have been a wiring issue with the trailer (or something wrong with the hookup on my car) because a tap on the brakes sent the ammeter diving to the bottom of the gauge – until something blew. It turned out to be not a fuse. I chased the short into the base of the steering column and was stopped by my inability to get the steering wheel off. For several months (until I had money for a puller and time to use it) every stop would be accompanied by a pull on the headlight switch to turn on the taillights (by day) or a couple of blinks of the emergency flashers (at night). This one actually turned out to be a burned out connection in the flasher switch, a problem that I actually fixed.
But I never replaced the passenger side sealed beam unit that could be turned on and off with a smack. Or a bump in the road. Once I discovered that a honk of the horn would create enough of a vibration to turn it back on after it blinked off, well, I just saw no need to fix a problem that could be controlled so easily.
I also never replaced the wiper arm. I probably sprung one of the little spring clips that held the wiper arm to the knurled hub at the base of the windshield when I took it off for painting. The problem was that use of the wipers let the arm work its way off the hub until the wiper arm would be flung from the side of the car and into the road. Always in the rain, mind you. Instead of buying another wiper arm I got into the habit of smacking the base of that wiper arm with my fist whenever I walked past it. Problem solved.
As I got older and drove better cars this sort of thing sort of stopped. At least until my ’93 Crown Victoria turned the corner from nice car to beater. Three teenage drivers in a row will do that to a car and now they can recall keeping a drivers window up with a plastic suction cup stuck to the glass until Dad found the cash to get the broken regulator fixed.
So what about you? I am quite sure that many of you put up with some really annoying idiosyncrasies with your cheap old beater and semi-beater cars. So let’s hear about them.