I love driving cars. I always have. And I don’t just mean cars that are rewarding on twisty back roads, but all kinds. You see, I suffer from a kind of automotive ADHD, which requires that I experience driving as many different cars as possible, just to experience that indescribable subjective feel that seems unique to every model. I have enjoyed almost all of them, for one reason or another. There is only one that stands out as a the one that I simply despised every time I got behind the wheel – my college roommate’s ’62 Chevy Bel Air.
My college best friend Dan came from a family that teemed with interesting wheels. His father’s Mopars were new experiences for me, as were the International Travelall and Scout. Added to my father’s tendency towards big FoMoCo stuff and my mother’s family’s stable of late model GM cars, my early driving experience was pretty varied.
In the summer of 1980, Dan told me his father had been in for a haircut and learned that the barber had bought an old car from an elderly customer who had given up driving. It was a white 1962 Chevy Bel Air two door sedan with maybe 80,000 miles on it. The car was exceptionally clean and had clearly been well cared for during its long life. He bought it from the barber for maybe $600 with the idea that Dan would drive it.
Dan needed a car because his ’71 Duster had just gone away. It was a car purchase which I had aided and abetted, but should not have. If cars had the same kind of “life remaining” indicator that cell phone batteries have today, this Duster’s would have been flashing a red 3% the day he got it.
The Chevy was a good car – for Dan. Me? I absolutely friggin despised the thing. Perhaps I should start by reporting that I had only recently let go of a 1959 Plymouth Fury sedan, a car three years older and in about the same condition. The Plymouth drove very much like the late ’60s domestic iron that I was used to. The Chevy was (as we say in Indiana) a whole nuther thing.
First it was the driving position. As I would ooze into a seat with all the support of a bowl of Jello, I sat very, very low in the car. If that wasn’t bad enough, the steering column and steering wheel were really, really high. I felt like a 5th grader behind the wheel every time, as 5’11” me tried to scootch and hike myself up in the seat. I also understood why every little old lady I had ever seen piloting one of these was peering out between the steering wheel and the dash – there was no way anyone under, say, 5’8″ could comfortably see over the steering wheel without a big damned pillow to sit on.
Next came the steering. It would be awhile yet before Chevrolet would invest in a decent power steering system that integrated the power assist into the steering gear. My ’59 Fury was (like almost every other power steering car I had ever driven) set up for a steering ratio that took four complete spins of the wheel to get from full left to full right. The Chevy took six. Think about that, you young folks. A tight parking lot maneuver that requires full steering travel? Close your eyes and start counting the spins . . . 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4 . . . 5 . . . 6. This was a car with power steering! I was surprised that the steering wheel lacked those big pegs that any decent schooner should have.
During one of the high-level editorial conferences that we have here at CC, it was pointed out to me that Chevy’s factory power steering used a slightly faster steering gear which provided a sports car-like five turns of the wheel. Some further research makes me suspect that Dan’s Bel Air might have been built as a manual steering car with the slower steering gear (and, according to one source, a two inch larger steering wheel) and that Chevrolet’s highly advanced external assist power steering system was bolted on at some point by the dealer. The happy result being all of the disadvantages of slow manual steering and of numb power steering, conveniently combined in one (not terribly delightful) package. So, in fairness, the Bel Air’s steering may not have been representative of the entire breed. But Dan’s father didn’t find some other ’62 Chevy. And the one he did find had the least pleasant power steering I have ever experienced.
Next came the suspension. Admittedly, my Fury’s torsion bars and leaves were ahead of the curve for an American 1959 car, but the Chevy felt like a 1952 instead of a 1962. Loose, floaty, and body roll that made you physically lean into a turn like a motorcyclist. I think sailors call it “hiking”, where you need lean over from the high side of a sailboat so that your body weight can keep the boat from rolling in the opposite direction. I guess this near-barrel roll maneuver was what they meant by “Jet Smooth”. And smooth it indeed was, unless you hit railroad tracks or a pothole, which made the structure shake and judder more than seemed right.
Finally, there was the combo of the 235 cubic inch Blue Flame Six bolted to the venerable Powerglide. It always started, ran and shifted, but once again, I felt like I had regressed to the early 1950s. The car was slow, slow, slow. But it made up for it by being unresponsive with that 2 speed automatic. What could have been charming in a car from early in the Eisenhower Administration was much less so in a car out of the Camelot years. However much a rev-happy 283 or 327 might have worked with that tranny, the old Blue Flame (which did not even have a full flow oil filter) simply begged for a three speed with a clutch pedal. Of course, adding a manual column shift to the wild gyrations required to steer the thing would have made for an exercise program that could sell DVDs in large numbers on late night television.
So, there it is. It was a good car, an attractive car, and Chevrolet sold a bazillion of them. But it was the single most miserable thing I have ever had the misfortune to operate. Even today, some thirty five years later, I cannot look at a 1961-64 Chevrolet without reliving the sensation of windmilling the steering wheel while leaning sideways with six little blue flames fighting a losing battle against a Powerglide. No wonder so many people drank and drove back then.
But enough about me. Tell us about the car that you have hated driving more than any of the others, and what made you hate it so much.