“In dreams begin responsibilities” – W.B. Yeats
Being young is about dreaming. And our cars were often the vehicles of our dreams. Not so much the splendiferous cars we dream of having; more like the cars we did our dreaming in. We dreamed of a life of freedom and adventures (well, at least we did back then), roaming this beautiful earth, exploring its glorious mountains, oceans and deserts, sleeping wherever nightfall catches us. But there was another dream intruding too: to make something of oneself; to use our faculties. Back then, the two seemed rather mutually exclusive. So I set out to follow the stirrings of my dreams, in a 1968 Dodge A100 van. I had the first dream in mind when I chose it and outfitted it. But then dreams often have surprise endings.
After my last Beetle blew its engine, I decided I really wanted something that would accommodate bigger dreams; the then-current equivalent of the Conestoga wagon: a camper van. I can’t really recall why I didn’t buy a VW bus, the obvious choice for the job and the times. Maybe it was that blown engine. So when I stumbled upon a rather well-worn ’68 Dodge A100, its indestructible slant six called to me.
These old-school compact vans that Detroit was cooking up then were rude and crude; the most primitive thing imaginable. I should have looked for a Corvair Greenbrier, but craigslist hadn’t been even dreamed of yet. With their beam axles front and rear, noisy interiors, rough and bobbing ride, they would soon be eclipsed by a much more modern and palatable design, starting with the 1968 Econoline. But they were cheap, simple, and easy to fix.
From the beginning, it did facilitate a dream I would later fulfill more fully: carpentry and remodeling. The Dodge was a delivery van, with only side-door and rear-door windows, and a totally bare metal interior. So I bought my first saw, and paneled its insides with clear plywood, and built a bed across the back, although it was to short for me to stretch out in. Even took the plunge of cutting into the body for new windows; the kind that let the fresh air in.
And when I was done, I followed the old maxim: “go west young man” to its ultimate conclusion: the California beach. I guess I must have missed an exit. I was vaguely looking for an opportunity to start a career. What I found instead was clothing-optional Black’s Beach near San Diego. After spending two months watching pelicans skimming the waves and hang-gliders surfing the breeze off the cliff tops, I had a great tan. But I was broke. And jobs in San Diego in 1976 were as scarce as covered bodies on Black’s Beach. San Diego then was the destination of choice for folks on unemployment. Since I wasn’t in that category, I took what I could find: driving a taxi.
The creaky 1970 Chevy assigned to me must have had at least a half-million miles on it: straight-six, two-speed Powerglide, manual steering and un-assisted drum brakes. The tired Turbo-Thrift six moaned and groaned like a mortally-wounded cowboy in a spaghetti western.
Time is money in the cab business. My driving style constantly tested the adage’s veracity. At 85mph, the yellow Biscayne shook and quivered like an overweight middle-aged belly dancer. The motions made it even harder to read the map that kept this newbie from getting lost in San Diego’s endless canyons.
Driving a cab is like being trapped in an endless Fellini movie. The ever-changing cast of eccentric characters occupying the back seat evoked pathos, fear, lust and loathing; sometimes all at once. No wonder I wanted to get lost in California’s deserts and mountain wilderness on weekends.
the source of my back problems?
My ‘68 Dodge camper-van was my Dakar-Rally wanna-be truck. The slant six’s torque rivaled a Farmall tractor. The 90” wheelbase was shorter than a Wrangler, and it had a beam front axle. The only thing missing was four-wheel drive. But that didn’t stop me. I lowered the air pressure heading out across the desert. And I carried a shovel and carpet strips to put under the spinning rear wheel if I got stuck in the sand.
Only once, on a breathtakingly clear and starry night in Death Valley, I couldn’t make it up a long, boulder-strewn steep trail. I had to back down a half mile, without any back-up lights. Fortunately, my night-time vision was better than my judgment. At least back then.
Those nine months in San Diego were laid-back, but taxi driving didn’t offer much of a future. My older brother showed up one day, heading to Los Angeles to put a new TV station on the air. I tagged along.
The station was owned by the Transcendental Meditation (TM) organization, so things were… quite different; in lots of ways. Like hiring unskilled kids like me and paying us peanuts. Hardly anybody knew what the hell they were doing; it was a perpetual comedy of errors. Instead of broadcasting Maharishi’s endless lectures, we should have just turned the cameras on ourselves and invented reality TV. The ratings would certainly have been higher.
I was sent out with a group of five to open our San Bernardino secondary studio. I had zero experience with tv; we unpacked cameras and read the directions on how to operate them. But I saw opportunity; next thing I knew, I was doing it all, thanks to no unions or job descriptions. And my old Dodge got a new career (and Earl Scheib paint job) as the station’s news van. Who could have dreamt that?
We all lived in a rented a house way up in the mountains by Lake Arrowhead, to get above the San Bernardino smog. It was so thick back then that we’d literally measure it by how many blocks we could see down the street. Never once that whole summer did I have this view; it was just a blind plunge into a smoggy abyss.
Highway 18 to Lake Arrowhead is a beautifully-engineered road: long switchbacks connected by large-radius hair-pin curves. The now-tired Dodge was burning oil; it would foul its plugs during engine-braking. So I turned off the motor and coasted the entire way down the mountain. The grade was just right to keep the boxy van between 55 and 75 mph. It was a highly stimulating way to greet the morning.
I wasn’t the only one coasting. Kids would hitchhike rides up the mountain with their custom-built low-slung bicycles (I can’t find any pictures anywhere). Then they’d fly down as fast, or faster, than the Dodge. Leave it to California kids to exploit every opportunity for wheeled thrills.
Seeing those fearless teens flying down the mountain, living out their wild dreams, while I was coasting towards a real career in my shirt and tie, provided a moment of clarity – for the first time in my life, I felt old.
A great piece! The most conservative of vehicles meets an aimless free spirit, and the two come together in a most unique life-path. Thanks for sharing it with us.
I was wondering when we were going to get around to hearing how you became involved in the TV business. It doesn’t surprise me that one of your COAL’s ended up figuring into the equation significantly in one way or another.
I had a few van adventures in my youth as well, and am ready for some more! I spotted this Alfa yesterday, any of you experts know the year? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZ0XE9tstQc
Cool story Paul, wasting a van interior by using it to deliver stuff shows a lack of imagination turning it into a living space is way more fun. It could even be the reson Ford Transits and Bedford CFs were 6 feet wide inside. Driving in cities with hills can be enlightening I was cruising down Maquarie street in Hobart when I first saw a 7foot scateboard with 6inch wheels, it overtook me and I was doing the speed limit 60kph I sped up to catch it interested to see how well it would cope with traffic lights on red but as we approached the oneway system the pilot hooked right up a steep driveway to stop it didnt look as if he had any controls like brakes, he didnt.
Very enjoyable reading… At the same time I was trying to imagine what was playing on the FM radio.
I would bet it was pretty much everything on the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack. This was in the post-Beatles pre-Punk, proto-Disco era. You had Zepplin, Foghat, BTO, Bay City Rollers, The Eagles, early KC and the Sunshine Band…basically what every classic rock station plays now along with a bit of funk (Shaft!) and maybe a crossover country hit like Rhinestone Cowboy. Back then there was more, way more variety and less heavy rotation of the bands you’ve learned to hate b/c of that rotation. I’ve gotten to where I loathe local radio and just plug my .mp3 player into the car stereo.
I have an idea for a CC, Paul. CC radios. Everyone was ripping out their crappy stock AM radios for something better. Hell, my Dad’s ’78 Monte Carlo had the ultimate in stereo suck – AM/8-Track. No FM, I swear to God. If he would have still had it when I started driving, I would have gone for the Realistic FM Converter and the Kraco Cassette 8-track adapter.
Here’s a pic I found on eBay for a NOS AM / 8-Track stereo for a 77 Pontiac Grand Prix. It can be yours for only $599.
Those Dodges were pretty unstoppable… I bought my 68 for maybe $300 in 1984 or so. A former school district vehicle, it had that same dark green paint – under a lighter-green paintbrush job. Wrong size front hubs, if you tightened them all the way the wheels stopped turning, so we didn’t. Paneled it, picked up a curbside sofa, and I was all set. Passenger side windshield was fogged plexiglass. Brakes leaked, and you filled the reservoir through a little hatch in the driver’s side floorboard. Painted it purple to go to some Prince concerts in several cities. Then painted it with the logo of the radio station I was working for to get free parking anywhere. When the accelerator pedal rod broke, I drove home with the hood (between the front seats) open, manually advancing the throttle. The clutch pedal connected to the clutch with a ridiculously long metal rod – which broke while camping 200 miles from home. I had my friends push-start it, then shifted the three-on-the-tree clutchless and got home without stopping once. These really were vehicles for the fearless. Thanks for the reminder!
Nice job Paul.
WOW,wot a great story paul..california back then must have been incredable…the place of limitless dreams for us liveing in rainlashed dreary england we all fantasised about the us esp california..you are very lucky paul to have been and seen that time i bet you had some great adventures..and the vans cool
Food or nude beach, food or nude beach, hmm…
I’ve seen that model Biscayne, with manual transmission of course. The bench seats were meh, didn’t have much interior room for its size, but it was the first V8 I’d ever seen. Driving it as a taxi without power assist would’ve been hell. Of course, all I could see in the car at the time was the V8…
PS: I’m not as frequent on the site as I used to be because of a very hectic continuing education program that will hopefully brighten my financial prospects. Maybe some day I’ll be able to reminisce on a life well lived, like you. Cheers to CC!
I cant write worth a damn, but these Dodge A-100 stories in many ways remind be of misspent youth. We acquired a very similar A-100, down to the same window options, in San Diego. For less than the cost of an Earl Schieb I painted it myself. It was the 273 V8/727 LoadFlite version that could easily pull mountain grades. That was a crude machine, not even a square inch of curved glass for one thing.
It explored the most of the Pacific coast for a few years. Another hangout was Big Bear, a bit east of Arrowhead. Snow, and the “Arctic Circle” part of highway 18 schooled me on just how little rear wheel traction these things had. I’m still up here, a block off of SR 18, in Running Springs.
Mine was orange. The good old slant six. For some reason it had a 727 torqueflite bolted up. (Perhaps the last time Chrysler installed too much transmission instead of too little). That left the driveshaft just over a foot long.
Being a lot shorter than you, Paul, I could comfortably sleep cross wise on top of the rear-facing tool cabinets that I built in. All that weight down low in the rear counterbalanced the front engine so that, quite by accident, it handled pretty well. (A carpenter friend flipped his. I think his tools were stored in bins up near the roof).
I owned serveral vans over the years and this one stood out as my favorite.
Great work, Paul, on both the writing and the living.
What a Great Piece! thank you Paul. It really brings out the life of that Dodge intertwining with your life. It was quite a good fit for that time in your life.
I am so glad the smog has improved, having lived in the LA area for the past 30 years myself. I can only imagine how horrible it would be now, if it had only gotten worse.
Came across one of these just up the street a few years back, in remarkably good shape.