Yep, I’m going to beat you over the head with the AMC hammer again. Don’t worry though, I won’t wax poetic over how this machine is technically superior to a Maverick, Duster or Nova, if that were possible. I won’t tell you about any of the youthful shenanigans that certainly shortened its life. In order to avoid repeating myself, I’ll instead take this in a different direction; I’ll explore what it is about the owner-beater relationship that made it worthwhile. There has to be some rational explanation to driving these things.
Half the fun of owning a beater is its origin story; this is the most crucial element of the owner-beater relationship. We’ve all heard a hundred different variations of the “little old lady car” and “barn find” stories. Buying a rotten hulk from a farmer’s field also makes for a good story although it’s fraught with its own set of problems. But since these are rather cliched, the more original the better.
In the case of this Hornet, the seller sought me out as I had a bit of a reputation as a AMC
weirdo aficionado. It’s not every day that you’re hanging out at a car show next to your Gremlin X when a pretty young blonde girl offers you a ’70 Hornet for $200. Sure I’m interested, what’s your number? Win-win!
The next necessary element is a major obstacle that needs to be overcome. The vehicle must need some work that would otherwise render it un-driveable. This might take the form of needing to pass a safety inspection or just needing the vehicle to move under its own power. The key is to spend as little money as possible while defeating unseen forces. These forces can take the form of evil government inspections, lack of funds or just a figment of your imagination. The more elaborate the scheme to overcome the obstacle, the better.
The transmission for this Hornet came in its trunk, that’s why it was $200. It was also a Borg-Warner Crap-O-Matic, which had become quite rare at the time and therefore expensive to rebuild. Even with a cash discount, it cost me $700. Fortunately, I was well versed in the driveway transmission bench press and had her running in no time. The usual full tune-up and various odds and ends were fixed in order to be granted my passed safety inspection. I don’t recall any mysterious forces working against me, but I was likely cursing some higher power as I held the transmission in place with one hand while threading in the bolt with the other.
The third element of the owner-beater relationship is personalization. One must take a junk car and make it their junk car. Unfortunately this is where things start to go awry and the old guys start to cringe. It must be remembered that saving money is paramount; that’s why you own a beater. Also, youthful exuberance does not always equate to skill, and what looks good in one’s head tends to look terrible in reality. I recall many guys my age deciding they needed racing stripes on their Corollas; they always looked stupid. Other more common modifications include booming stereos and fancy rims which again run contrary to the purpose of the beater. One’s modifications must be confined to things that cost little to no money whilst making the car more unique.
By the time I had this Hornet, I had this part down pat. I threw out the hideously ugly full wheel covers for dog dishes on a black wheel, eventually using my AMC rally rims as well. I installed a modest CD player in the lockable glove box wired into half-price Sony speakers. All other modifications were purely practical, such as replacing the non-functional automatic choke with a manual choke cable. This car was unique enough already, I didn’t need to make it stick out even more.
The fourth and perhaps most important aspect of this special relationship is pride (or shame) of ownership. One needs to have a reason to love (or hate) their machine. This allows you to overlook (or magnify) its many obvious shortcomings. Imagine an old beat up ’73 Chev 3/4 ton 454 beating an ’82 Corvette in a drag race. Or maybe a ’86 Chevette boosting a 2010 BMW X3 on a cold winter morning. These are stories you could tell for the rest of your life. Another obvious source of pride is that the fact that this car is hopefully cheap to buy, own and operate. That’s the main reason for its existence. Alternately, your beater could embarrass you by refusing to start or breaking down constantly. This is the worst case scenario as it may lead to the slippery slope where you are constantly working on something that does not deserve your time or money.
In my case, the Hornet may have been ugly, slow, uncomfortable, inefficient and handled poorly but at least it was reliable. I never plugged in the block heater through the brutal winters and the 232 straight six always started. It got me through the end of my pizza delivery career without ever letting me down. It was also fun to drive just because it was that much different from everything else on the road. Combine that with the fact that I knew these cars so well that I could predict when something would break before it happened and I was in a state of beater Zen. I had about a total of $1000 into it, so it was cheap to own but not the cheapest to keep full of fuel.
The fourth and final aspect is decline, ultimately culminating with its demise. If it’s lucky, it will find a loving new owner and experience a full restoration, but that’s usually reserved for the lucky, potentially valuable few. Most will eventually reach a point where their owner decides no further investment will take place and it’s all downhill from there. This is where the owner may decide to inflict some punishment on its beater. I could never do that but I’ve heard it’s been known to happen.
My Hornet got rusty fast. It’s funny, the left front fender tops, rocker panel and quarter panel rotted through while the right side stayed solid. It chewed up three strut rod bushings and they doubled in price every time I checked. The front end needed a rebuild and since I was at the point of no further investment. I rode out the clock until my next beater appeared and the cycle began again.
I post this merely as a guide; your experience may vary. While not every element of the owner-beater relationship may always be there, I present the preceding as a guide on how to maximize your experience. I eventually drove this car right to the junkyard, pulled the battery, popped off my dog dishes, collected my $130 and hopped into my friend’s car. Oh, and I pried off all the emblems and still have them. It’s all about the memories and the story.