Foreword: Because this was 30 years ago, and my memory is hazy, this series is going to go slightly out of order. I’m lumping the next three vehicles together because they were produced by the same manufacturer, andI find it interesting to contrast them with each other.
When I left off, I had decided that sitting behind the wheel of a VW Type 2 bus was unsafe and asked my dad to sell it for me. Because we lived 10 miles from town and I didn’t want to go back to riding the school bus, I needed wheels. At this point I was heavily involved in after-school activities so my parents were incentivized to help me make this happen. Luckily my Dad’s business (a repossession agency) provided an endless parade of used vehicles for our household. At any given time my folks each had a car, my older sister had a car, and we had at least one shop vehicle to run errands with. Plus, my Dad had several dealer plates, so if we were really strapped we could slap that on one of the auction vehicles he owned and use it in a pinch.
For this reason, I drove a wild assortment of vehicles to school for short periods of time: a ’79 Honda Civic (technically my sister’s car), an early ’80’s Ford F150 (a shop truck), a Chrysler TC3 (one of the worst cars I’ve ever driven or worked on), an Audi 5000 wagon, several Chevy Caprice Classic wagons (my father has a soft spot for these, more on this in the future), an ’82 Dodge Ramcharger, an ’82 Dodge Mirada (say what you will, this was a terrible vehicle) and finally, the tow truck, an ’81 Ford with a Holmes wrecker setup and an orange gumball on the roof. It should also be said here that for years my father was a Ford man, but when he bought the business we became maker-agnostic, with, perhaps, a slight Chrysler lean.
Image: Barnfinds.com. Mine did not have the fancy hubcaps.
Now that we were down a car, I needed something quickly. My Dad had a fourth generation (’78-’85) Mazda B2000 used as a shop truck, and he handed me the keys when my Mom needed her Dodge back. As I recall it had a simple 2 liter gas engine, a five-speed stick, a bench seat, and absolutely nothing else. No radio, no rear window, no A/C, and a broken heater with October bumping into November. Being a repo, it smelled funny, so I spent a long cold afternoon hosing out the interior so that I didn’t smell like the upholstery funk after driving it. I had it for a few weeks until it either needed to be put back into service or he got rid of it, but I don’t remember exactly why.
Image: topclassiccarsforsale.com. Mine did not have the fancy racing stripes.
The next summer, in between dedicated cars, he gave me the keys to an identical black B2000 in better mechanical shape. I drove this truck during one hot summer to and from my job as a golf-course ranger, which was, in retrospect, one of the easiest and most ridiculous jobs I’ve ever had: cruising an 18-hole loop around the course and yelling at old drunk men for driving across the putting greens. It paid reasonably well but wasn’t steady enough to make me rich, so I got another job as a barback/busboy. There I got paid from a share of what the waitresses were tipped, so I learned early to be quick on the draw, making sure they always had clean tables, full water glasses, and an extra hand when it came time to clear the plates.
There was little Zoom-Zoom to be found here.
Lacking any source of air conditioning, I beat the summer heat by rolling the Mazda’s windows down and turning the balky radio up as loud as possible. Being a 5-speed stick, it was slightly more fun to drive than an oxcart. The gearing was low and then got ridiculously high somewhere around 4th, so I found I had to get the engine screaming in 3rd to stay in front of it. It featured black fabric seats and worn carpeting that smelled funny, and which got even more stinky as the heat of the day wore on. No amount of cleaning could make this stink go away. It had a steering wheel made of or coated with some form of black rubber that heated up in direct sunlight and then melted off onto one’s palms, so it looked like I’d arm-wrestled a Sharpie upon arrival to work.
Bench seat? Check. Seat belts? Check. Get to work, son.
It took a righteous beating from a 16-year-old punk, though, and held together admirably well as I bombed it up and down the lumpy back roads of Putnam County that summer. At some point that fall, I bought my next car and/or my father decided he wanted his utility truck back, so I turned it back in and moved on.
This is the spitting image of my truck.
At the beginning of my sophomore year of college, perhaps to celebrate the highest GPA I’d ever earned in fourteen years of school, my Dad handed me the keys to yet another Mazda and told me to take it with me. This could also have been in response to the painful and expensive series of train rides I needed to take to make it home each break (although I’m not complaining: to be able to walk to the train station in Baltimore and make it all but 15 miles from my house in New York State via rail is a miracle here in the USA).
This was a fifth generation model, an ’86, and it had about 90K on the odometer. Compared to the black pickup, though, it was a Cadillac. The body and interior were in better shape. Where the earlier generation was crude and truck-like, this was more refined. The seating was more comfortable, allowed for better vision, and they didn’t stink! The interior was made with more care than the previous generations, and allowed for creature comforts, although there was no A/C. I was lucky it was equipped with bucket seats and a console instead of a bench, because there were more places to hide valuables inside–no small consideration in Baltimore in 1991. It was miserly on gas. It had modern tires. The clutch was smooth and geared reasonably, but more generous than my sister’s Civic, which had a sweet spot that was measured in millimeters. And all my crap could fit in the rear bed–perfect for a dumpster-diving art student with a ground floor apartment.
Image: Barnfinds.com. I did not have the fancy gold stereo you see here, or the compass mounted on the dash tray.
I fit my well-used Blaupunkt into the dash, stuck some small speakers behind the seats, and shampooed the upholstery to a state of near-cleanliness. Over the next three years, my little mule got me to and from my parents’ place in New York through all kinds of weather, moved countless classmates between crappy apartments, carried bedfuls of people to and from parties, hauled construction debris and camping gear, and never complained. Somewhere within that first year my Dad found me a cap that fit the bed, which helped with keeping my junk dry.
In ’91, my roommate Pat and I drove it out West in a meandering, aimless two-week spring break journey our sophomore year without incident. For this journey, we had to choose between his Scout and my Mazda, and the gas mileage and utility of the Mazda won. We made Graceland our primary destination but wanted to see how far we could get on $400 and PB&J sandwiches. Our plan was to take back roads and interstates as much as possible so that we were seeing more of America than the passing view from a highway. This meant we made lousy time but enjoyed the trip. We stopped at a college in Kentucky to visit a cousin of his, hit on as many of the girls as we could, and struck out. Continuing on to Graceland on a cold, drizzly afternoon, we paid our money to see the King, and came out…underwhelmed?
The bed was just long enough for camping to avoid expensive motel rooms, but we found out the hard way about the effect of corrugated metal on restful sleep. I don’t often thank Wal-Mart for anything, but their parking lot camping policy is excellent.
Looks comfortable, right?
Driving out of Memphis, we continued westward, looking for landmarks and attractions using a five-year old road atlas. We stopped at George Washington Carver’s birthplace and stopped to have a peanut butter sandwich in his honor.
This is the biggest scan I’ve got, sorry.
Driving on a back road near Perry, Oklahoma, we happened upon a set of hand-lettered signs along a field. After stopping on the side of the road and snapping half a roll of 35-millimeter film, we saw a local police cruiser heading towards us in the distance, and decided to get back on our way before we had any run-ins with the law. Years later I found an article on Roadside America about these signs that cleared up some of the mystery.
Our westward progress was slow but we saw a lot of the country before finally turning for home in Texarkana, Texas. The only issue we had with it was due to driver error when I bent a leaf spring hanger backing it into a service station bollard in a driving rainstorm. The rear end was cockeyed for the rest of the trip but we made it home with no problems.
Apart from a vapor lock problem with the carburetor one summer I never had major mechanical problems with it. Upon graduation, my father signed the title over to me, and I used it heavily for the next three years while I ran a contracting business. As it rolled past the 175K mark, however, it started to blow more and more smoke, and I found myself adding oil weekly, which meant the rings were going. Grudgingly, I placed an ad in the Baltimore Sun and within a day I had three people call me to set up appointments. The first guys to arrive showed up in a slammed Nissan minitruck painted teal over maroon and spoke little english; I knew what my little mule was destined for when I signed over the title. I like to think she’s still on the road somewhere, lowered an inch or two above the ground, painted like a back alley puta, cruising the minitruck section at car shows.