(first posted In 9/30/2013) June, 1971 I was living like a bum in the area of New York City that used to be known as Spanish Harlem. As a 26-year-old British immigrant, I dreamed of driving fast, dangerous cars and visiting all the contiguous states as cheaply as possible. My dreams seemed impractical, but an outfit named AAACon could make them happen. The “AAA” in their name suggested that they were a part of the American Automobile Association, but of course, they weren’t. As for the “Con,” I don’t know what it meant, or maybe they just weren’t being very subtle. They operated out of a one-room office that was almost as small and sleazy as my apartment. A receptionist leafed through a magazine while a couple of young men who looked like failed real estate salesmen talked on phones. My task was to get one of those guys to let me have a free fast car to fulfill my dream.
Suppose you were in the military, living on the East Coast, and you were posted to California. You didn’t want to sell your car, but you didn’t want to drive it there, either. So, you opened the Yellow Pages to the section headed “Automobile Drive-Aways” and found AAACon, which promised you a bonded, professional driver who would deliver your car for you. The cost was surprisingly reasonable, because the “professional driver” would be a youthful deadbeat like me, and AAACon would not pay him anything. They simply acted like a matchmaking service, putting the driver and the car owner in touch with each other.
I was bonded to the extent that I gave AAACon a $150 cash deposit. The car owner would refund this directly to me when I completed my mission. AAAcon told me, basically, “You have seven days to get this car to California by whatever route you choose. We have taken your photograph and fingerprints, and if you don’t deliver on time, we’ll report you to the FBI. Now get out of here.”
Persuading AAACon to do business with me was the difficult part. The employees made no secret of their total contempt for the lowlifes who came knocking at their door. You could walk into the claustrophobic little waiting area, hot and humid and full of second-hand smoke, and you could say, politely, “Do you have any cars?” And the receptionist would say “No, but you can wait if you want.” So you would wait. An hour later–same question, same response. And then, for no rational reason, two hours later, it would be, “Yes, we have a car.” Naturally I wanted to know what kind of car, and where it was located, and where exactly it was going, but AAACon wouldn’t tell me that. They took my $150 and my fingerprints, and then they told me the details.
One of my first rides for them was a ’68 Olds 442 convertible with a Hurst stick shift, located in New Jersey. A convertible? Would that, er, be air conditioned? AAACon didn’t know and didn’t care.
I already had a traveling companion lined up. Her name was Gail, and I’d found her through an ad in the Village Voice. She dressed like a hippie love-child (this was 1971, after all) but had a dowdy, melancholy look which I found totally unattractive. All I cared about was whether she had gas money. She said she did, and she didn’t mind sharing a car with a stranger.
When we went to get the car, the owner gave me a doubtful look. “You sure you can drive a stick shift?” he asked. “I grew up in England,” I told him. “I learned to drive on a stick shift.” I didn’t mention that I normally shifted gears with my left hand, while driving on the left side of the road. Nor did I feel inclined to say that I was using an international license, as I had never taken a US driving test.
taking a break (photo by author)
Soon we were cruising west on Interstate 80. The gearshift turned out to be almost irrelevant. The engine delivered so much torque, you could burn rubber in almost any gear. You certainly didn’t need to downshift to overtake other vehicles. Just hit the gas, and the car seemed to be saying, “Yay, it’s party time! Leave this to me!” The brakes were inadequate, but that just added to the excitement.
We stopped at a Howard Johnson’s around sunset. Gail had been sitting in the back seat strumming a guitar and singing “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” It occurred to me that if she drove, she wouldn’t be able to play the guitar anymore. “Can you take over for a while?” I asked. She looked doubtful. No one had thought of asking her if she could drive a stick-shift, and now her answer was, “Oh, I’m sure I can learn.”
We tried it in the parking lot. When I told her to put her left foot on the clutch, she stepped on the brake. After we got that sorted out, I told her to let the clutch up veeery gently while pressing the gas pedal veeery slowly. You know the rest. The tires screamed. We fishtailed across the parking lot, skidded sideways, and almost hit a chain-link fence.
Our real problems didn’t begin till we took a back road in Colorado. Climbing through the Rockies, with the windshield covered in dead bugs, we emerged from shade into afternoon sun. Bug juice turned the windshield into an impenetrable sheet of silver. I slowed to a crawl, trying to see ahead through the glare, but it was impossible.
Suddenly–bump, bump, bump. The Olds nosed down at a horrifying angle. We were sliding down a slope of dirt and rock at about 45 degrees. I yelled something inarticulate and slammed on the brakes. It made no difference. We kept sliding. I hauled on the steering, turned the car at an angle, and finally we stopped. I threw open the door, feeling very vulnerable in a convertible with no roll bar. I fell onto the ground and saw we had stopped a dozen feet away from a sheer drop.
Shock is an interesting human reaction. I discovered that the phrase “weak at the knees” is not just a metaphor. After five minutes, I was able to stand up. As for Gail, she just looked confused. “What happened?” she asked. I pointed back up at the road. There were highway repairs. One side of the highway had been literally carved away.
I crawled up the slope to the road. No cell phones in those days. I flagged down the next car, which happened to be driven by a sheriff’s deputy. He said he’d stop at the next town and call the crew who had been doing the repairs. It was a Saturday, but one of them would come up here, probably. They had a heavy-duty back-hoe which could tow the car up the slope.
So, we waited. Gail pulled her guitar out of the car and did a few more Bob Dylan numbers. As the afternoon light faded, the largest mosquitoes I have ever seen began moving in.
Finally a guy from the repair crew cruised up in a Chevy Bel Air, with his dumpy wife in the passenger seat, as if they were just out for a drive. “Jesus Christ,” he said, when he saw what had happened. “We should have put up a barrier.” I shrugged. I might have been able to see it through the glare, but, I might not.
The man went and started the backhoe. “You take over here, honey,” he told his wife. “I’ll run that cable down and hook it to a rear spring.” He seemed to know what he was doing. This was a relief. I wouldn’t be stranded in Colorado. The FBI wouldn’t come looking for me when AAACon reported me missing. I wouldn’t go to jail.
The cable wasn’t quite long enough. “Come forward a bit,” he told her. The backhoe started moving forward. “How do you stop this?” his wife called down to him. “It’s just like driving a car,” he told her. “Just hit the brake.”
“Which one is the brake?” “It’s like driving a car!” he repeated. His voice sounded a little strained.
It was one of those moments where no one can quite believe what’s happening. The backhoe was moving slowly but relentlessly toward the edge of the road. In five seconds … four … three … it would go tipping over the edge, careening down the slope, taking his wife with it, like in a Road Runner movie.
“Put your foot on the brake!” the guy yelled. “Oh, now I’ve got it.” She stopped, finally, at the brink.
No one said anything. The unbelievable moment had passed, and we were back in the normal everyday world where women were not killed in tumbling backhoes. The guy attached the cable, took control of the backhoe, and pulled our poor 442 back onto the highway.
After that, the only problem was the lack of air conditioning. I saw an area on the map labelled “Mojave Desert,” and thought, “I suppose that will be hot.” To a British person, 85 Fahrenheit is hot. For most of the day, while superheated air blasted in through the open windows, we poured water over each other.
We stopped at a gas station where a guy in a cowboy hat was fulling his pickup truck. I was naked from the waist up, with my long hair soaking wet, and I was barely able to stand straight. “What’s the weather like up ahead?” I asked. “Hot,” he said, with a laconic grin.
Some small, independent gas brands still existed in the early 1970s. The absolute cheapest was called Oriental Blue Streak Major Quality Gasoline. Their stations were spaced about one tank-full apart, all along I-10 through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Just when you were getting worried about the needle moving closer to the E mark on the gauge, out in the middle of nowhere you’d see one of their white-painted adobe shacks with a hand-painted sign shimmering in the heat. Their third-world bathrooms were a nightmare, but we were sweating so much, we had no need for bathrooms.
That night I parked off a back road. The night was so pleasant, I decided to sleep on the desert sand. Wow, I thought, this is really it! This is the West, just like in a movie! Somewhere in the distance, I heard coyotes whooping. I wondered if they would eat people. I was an ignorant Brit, so what did I know? It never occurred to me to think in terms of snakes or scorpions.
In the morning, I found that the sand was deeper than I had realized when I parked in the dark. I tried to get the car out, but the torque was so extreme, the slightest touch on the gas would put the 442 into its “Yay, it’s party time!” mode. Trying to reason with it was futile. By the time the rear wheels were in up to the axle in sand and the morning heat was near 100, a guy driving a tractor stopped and towed us out. He was too polite to say anything, but his look of contempt said it all.
I dropped Gail somewhere in Los Angeles. I was convinced that she had stolen money out of my pants pocket while I was sleeping in one of the rest areas, but I couldn’t prove anything, and in any case, I felt guilty that I had almost killed her.
I ran the 442 through a car wash a couple of times, and delivered it to its owner–in Malibu, as I recall. He walked around it, looking for damage. None was visible, amazingly enough. “So you didn’t have any problems?” he asked. “Well, there’s some irregular wear on the front tires, there.” He frowned. “Wonder how that happened.”
Well, hmmm. Maybe the front end became misaligned when I drove his car off the side of a mountain? Or maybe it happened when the guy with the tractor towed us out of the sand? I decided there was no point in getting into any of that. He was so relieved that his car had turned up on time, without being stolen, he was happy to give me the $150 delivery fee.
I went to stay with some friends in Laurel Canyon. A few weeks later, I stopped at the Los Angeles office of AAACon, looking for a car that I could drive back to New York.
The trip taught me one thing. In the 50+ years since then, regardless of circumstances, I have never tolerated an accumulation of bug smears or dirt on a windshield. If I can’t see ahead clearly, and if the windshield washers won’t do the job, I stop and clean it by hand. Passengers sometimes give me an odd look. Like–does this guy have obsessive-compulsive disorder, or what?
It’s more like a religious ritual. Paying homage to the Spirit of 442, to show my appreciation for not being killed on that day in Colorado.
Thanks, loved your story.
Great story! I have obviously lived a very sheltered life. (And I may actually be thankful for that – I haven’t decided yet.)
This was also a major case of the reverse CC effect, as I got an exciting ride in a ’71 442 W30 on Saturday. On Saturday I was at a picnic with my sons’ Boy Scout troop and one of the dads showed up with his toy. Bone stock except for Cragars and an Edelbrock carb. Nice metallic gold, with good patina. He offered me a ride, and laid 100′ of rubber down the park exit road, starting at a small speed bump. He was amused by my look of (almost) terror as we came to a blind crest in the road..
Oldsmobile Girl Magnet!
that one seemed to be a tow magnet
Rocket Power !
Great story and excellent writing style. Totally enjoyed it.
Another great read thank you Charles.A friend of my brothers had a brown 442 which nearly tore my head off when he floored it,stunning looks and performance where did Oldsmobile go wrong?
Fabulous story. My, what a sheltered life I have led.
Yes, but you’re alive and sane. Quite a few folks took some big risks in their youth and didn’t make it.
Another excellent read. In the 3rd installment on your dad, you alluded to the fact that you moved to the US and drove across the country. I was hoping that you would recount those adventures. You mentioned a Chevelle though, so I assume there is more to come. 🙂
I would welcome other stories of driving cars cross-country for Auto Driveaway (which still exists, I think) and similar companies. I have a few such stories myself from the 1980s, but they’re, ahem, boring by comparison to this one – although I did drive two small front-drive Oldsmobiles owned by then-Burger King regional manager Herman Cain and his wife, one from Minneapolis to South Jersey and another a few years later in the other direction.
Sometimes you’re the windshield…sometimes you’re the bug.
Glad it all worked out well.
Great story. Much enjoyed!
Wonderful story and one I can really understand. Whenever I road trip, I FULL bottle of Windex and HUGE roll of paper towel goes in the trunk. Perhaps I am obsessive, but I really detest any distraction of my visual field when I drive and that includes dead bug guts. I do think that my caution may have prevented a similar mishap once or twice!
This story could go head-to-head with “On the Road” by Kerouac. Too bad Gail was such a dog. But she probably would have given you cooties or worse.
This story is a lot easier to follow than the writings of my famous cousin, too.
Kerouac? He grew up in the neighborhood next to mine in Lowell, MA.
Great story, looking forward to the next installment.
Great job Charles!
At first, I was like, “awesome…this is going to be about a 403-equipped ’79 Trans Am!” but it was actually far more interesting than I would have imagined. Great story!
403 … Olds Power !
But did you ever get to deliver a car from Denver to SF in 15 hours?
“Vanishing Point”? That’s the second thing I thought, but my already wordy reply precluded me from bringing it up.
While reading it, I was thinking of Kowalskie and that Hemi Challenger, too. A great story by Charles; I had no idea there was a business for this type of service. Would have liked to have seen a picture of Gail, though.
All;s well that ends well, Charles. You weren’t chased by the law, didn’t have to listen to some bad Delaney and Bonnie music in the desert and you didn’t smash your client’s 442 head-on into the blades of 2 Caterpillar D9 bulldozers at 140 mph! 🙂
There were five (although the producer claims eight) Challengers. At least one was not originally white from the factory and had to be repainted.
The whole project was started simply because Chrysler offered them up to a producer and asked if he could make a movie with them. None of them had a Hemi. Most were 440s, with one 383 (an automatic) surviving in reasonable condition.
IOW, pretty routine stuff for the time.
I love it. “Hey, we have these cars, wanna make a movie out of them?” Sort of like an old school version of the new Camaro in Transformers.
IIRC, all the Challengers were returned to Chrysler after filming, and probably sold to the public as used cars. The actual car that was smashed into the bulldozers was a Camaro.
“The actual car that was smashed into the bulldozers was a Camaro”
This factoid shouldn’t have made me grin and laugh. But it did. 🙂
I argued for YEARS that it was a Camaro that was smashed. Vindication was SWEET!! 🙂
“I had no idea there was a business for this type of service”
Several of the cars entered in the 1970’s Cannonball Runs were cars of this type (ie being transported for cross-country for owners)
There is NO SUCH THING as a bad Delaney and Bonnie song, ‘specially when Clapton was doing his thang.
Kevin, Maybe it’s my VHS copy of the movie, with it’s less then stellar and muddied sound track, but watching and listening to that scene of the band wanted to make me get into a vintage Challenger and drive into the blades of a D9 Cat Bulldozer at 140! 🙂
I don’t think Eric was in that scene but I’ll have to go back and double check on that one. I understand too, that the Bramlett’s daughter is now in the present day Fleetwood Mac, taking the spot of Christine McVie. Gone with the 70’s are great road trip movies…..and great rock and roll bands!
Vanishing Point hadn’t come out yet when Troy, Pete and I headed for Denver. We were planning to enter the Cannonball we’d heard about. The car we were going to use was my ’63 Buick Electra convertible with a 425 and every accessory. With a tall rear end ratio and a pumped engine we figured 30 to 33 hours possible cross country. We decided to do a trail run of 1500 miles to see if we could do it. That run would be Kowalski’s opposite, San Francisco to Denver, if we could, in 15 hours. Troy normally drove a ’59 VW bug and Pete a ’60 MG-A, so neither was used to constant running at 130+ mph. We got on the road, I drove from the start until Little America in Wyoming, at an Indicated 140 mph most of the way except for food and gas stops (had a Riviera speedo in it) We had no conflicts with anyone, police or otherwise, just high speed running. In Wyoming, before Little America, a Wyoming state Police car came up on us from behind. It was driving like a cop behind me so I slowed to 115 mph when he caught up to us and stayed alongside, pacing us for a half hour. Then he honked, I looked over, and he waved, accelerating to around 125, soon taking an exit, we resumed speed until gas, food and me changing driving duties with Troy at Little America. The weather was warm/hot, but the evening near perfect. Once back on the road, Troy wasn’t sure about driving over 90 mph, bu within half an hour we were at 130+ mph, humming along. We arrived in Denver 15 hours after leaving SF, including near 3 hours of food and gas stops with absolutely no conflict or drama. For much of the trip though, we had seen horrendous tire marks all over the road, and wondered what was going on. We found out when we saw “Vanishing Point”, seeing the familiar areas with Challenger and police sliding all over. Confident we could run the Cannonball with a good chance of winning, we headed home to Cal. On the trip back, the timing chain slipped at 120 mph, a valve hit a piston, the piston broke in half and went through the side of the block, 80 miles west of Salt Lake City. The tow truck picked the Electra up wrong and bent the rear fenders, then at the repair shop a Buick sideswiped the drivers side of my car.. Once we found it couldn’t be driven, we got a huge U-Haul to tow the Electra home. A sand storm hit about where the engine blew and wiped out most of the shiny stuff. I had the car insured and was able to restore it. We were going to enter the Cannonball the next year Before we could, as Troy was riding his Honda Gold Wing home, a drunk college student doing 140 mph on the wrong side of the highway hit Troy head on, killing him instantly, He was 25, they never found one of his arms. The college student went on to kill 5 more people over the years until he finally died in one of the wrecks Pete and I just didn’t feel like doing the Cannonball without Troy. We already knew we could do it. Every once in awhile, we talked about the vast difference between Kowalski’s experience and ours. Since then I made many high speed cross country trips. Now that I’m older, I’m not sure I could stay awake long enough. Now I put it on Cruise-Control just over the limit, and look outside as I drive, there’s actually scenery out there instead of a blur.
For many years of owning my restoration/detail shop, I would pick up collector cars from all over the country for local car collectors who either didn’t have the time or didn’t want to pick them up themselves. I’d fly there and drive back. There was a ’49 Cadillac, ’57 Imperial, ’38 Buick Century dual sidemount convertible, all in restored or new condition There were many others, and many Ferrari’s, Mercede’s and more sports cars. The only ones to not make it, an early Countach quit every 60 miles with 3000 miles to go. And a new Maserati Mistal Spyder quit halfway back and had to be replaced. I still love a road trip.
Once when I lived in Southern California for 9 months, I was making a monthly trip north to my Lady and business before driving back down. On the on ramp a lovely young woman had a sign for Chico, where I was headed. I told her she’d never believe it, but I was going there. Much weirder, when we got near Chico, I ask where she wanted to be dropped off. The address she gave was across the street from my house. She was a student, and across the street, student housing.
Sleeping on the ground in the desert…. the snakes I could put up with, the scorpions, absolutely not – horrid little creatures!
My family moved to Detroit in 1981, from the Bay Area (a real-life nightmare on the “Paradise Lost” scale-which I wouldn’t recognize for several more years), and my father employed a similar service to deliver his former company car [’78 (?) Plymouth Gran Fury – yes, a Brougham – with every single option known to man at the time… silver with burgundy interior & vinyl top, 360 2bbl V-8 auto]. I was only 13 at the time, but remember the “driver” was a German student attending college for 6mos/traveling 6mos at the expense of one of the governments involved (most likely the Germans). I remember him as a stereotypically tall, blonde, blue-eyed kid…
We arrived at our new house to collect the keys, etc. and my father, a well-seasoned traveler, due to his job, already knew where to get a top notch meal in town (Ann Arbor, in this case). After learning the kid really had no place to stay for the night, Dad offered to let him unroll his sleeping bag in the living room, and invited him out to dinner with us, at a local German restaurant he’d heard good things about. He gladly accepted both offers. My mother was MORTIFIED!!! Dad was a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” kid who earned his college degree via the G.I. Bill; Mom was an academy girl from relative Old Money… I was 13 & didn’t care. I was getting dinner at a restaurant with an exotic guest, from Mars, for all I knew. Driver/student/traveller from actual Germany pronounced the meal authentic & very good, which was more likely good manners than actual truth. Nonetheless, The Old German became a family favorite for years, although it was always a chore to convince my mother that’s where she really wanted to eat.
We dropped German student back at the house, and next day keys were on the kitchen counter, German student had disappeared never to be seen again, and our moving truck still hadn’t arrived.
Turns out the truck had overturned on a highway in Utah almost 2 weeks prior, and my family was forced to live in hotels (relatively luxury hotels, thanks to a cranky mother, and a business-savvy father) for the next couple weeks. The moving truck finally showed up with all our smashed, demolished furniture (and, my suspiciously missing HO scale electric trains). Folks did ok regarding the insurance settlement, but my brother & I slept on a couple cobbled together beds until we each moved out.
Sorry to be so long winded. The dinner out with the German guy (“You can’t invite a genuine ethnic fellow out to dinner at an American ethnic restaurant!!!”) is what stands out most… and how often does such a simple business transaction become something one remembers 32yrs later?
Is this story really true?
My guess would be yes (see below)
Yes, the story is true! I used to write notes on a portable typewriter every night, on my cross-country trips. So I have a lot more detail than is appropriate here.
Inappropriate detail is always welcome here at CC.
problem is that there are very few mosquitoes in colorado….
Of course the story is true. If it were made up, Gail would have been totally hot and horny.
Great story! I could identify to an extent with your slide down the slope, but knew you and the car would be OK. My sister did the same thing on an unguardrailed switchback road in Colorado with her ’73 Olds 442, only she waited a day and a half before some one came along and yanked the car back onto the road. The Olds went on to give many more years of service… My sister learned not to take “short-cuts” in Colorado
How odd — the one car I ran off into a ravine requiring tow truck extrication was also a ’73 Olds 442. I was on an icy Alabama road & knew I was going to take the plunge 10 seconds prior — it was a long ten seconds.
The car stopped nose down very gently and was vertical enough to cause hinge damage had I opened the door — my body-to-ground interface was probably more negative than the car-to-ravine interface was.
Amazingly a very small chunk broke out of the bottom of the (unobtainable) grille despite the fact that no wrecker could touch it for the next two days. Dreams of subsequent vehicles landing on top of my car kept me from sleeping those following two nights.
’76 Cutlass Supreme in my case. Driving around rural roads with some buddies drinking beer, got too close to a greasy muddy edge, and slowly slid down into the ravine. The posi had no prayer. The floor mats went under the wheels and no help. Eventually a couple of guys in a pick up gave us a ride to the city in their bed. Around 4:00 A.M. I was in the do-it-yourself wash cleaning massive amounts of mud off the Cutlass.
I briefly had a ’73 Supreme and know well the fragile grill and fiberglass center piece under that front bumper.
“We should’ve put up a barrier.” Understatement of the year 1971 or what?
Glad you pulled out of it alive!
Now, where did I put that Windex?
Great article, thanks for writing! Also once I saw the part about you being a Brit I read the rest to myself in James May’s voice. Bloody Nora!
A great read. So many what ifs. The accident had been more serious, the back hoe had gone down. Or, if the girl had been more to your taste and a connection had been made – even if temporary. And, if the car had a damn AC unit!
Midwest winter grime makes me a fanatic about a clean windshield. It I can’t see out the entire glass, I know we are in the dead of winter, and I want that window clean just to get rid of the reminder of the $%*& time of year. Bug smears, especially if a few drops of rain fall and the wipers are stated, can be terrorizing!
Like others, I have become almost obsessive about having a clean windshield. If not every day, at least a couple of times a week.
My windshield story goes back many years. Prior to an Ohio to Texas trip, I cleaned the windshield, then used the Rain-X. Spent well over an hour on the windshield. I hit heavy, heavy rain in Missouri that went on for hours! A major downpour. Heavy traffic on the road with plenty of semis and all kinds of vehicles. Of course, every vehicle had their wipers going, naturally. Except me! Never turned them on for even a second. I had done such a good job with the Rain-X, that the rain rolled right off and I had positively great visibility. This is NOT a paid endorsement. I became a believer because of that experience. Had my wipers become non-functioning, I still would have been OK. For real.
I bought Rain-X mail order from an ad on Ted Turner’s Channel 17 in 1975! Drove from Florida thru Georgia in a rainstorm so heavy, I couldn’t see the road, BUT could see out of the windshield perfectly, and never turned on the wipers. Have been an avid user ever since! I fully concur w/ Litewerks assessment. BTW: The interior anti-fog Rain-X was a dismal failure!! 🙂
Just to say … I really appreciate all the comments.
These days I get into trouble in a 2013 Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart. I suspect it’s actually a little faster than that Olds 442, after its weird funky automatic clutch kicks in, but it’s a whole lot safer. I miss the Detroit iron, but not enough to drive it anymore.
A friend of mine had a similar down-the-side-of-a-hill experience, he was driving on a rough track around the side of a hill on a farm when the back of his ute slid out and he went backwards down the wet grassy hill. He had enough time to try driving forward as well as braking as he went slid towards what he knew was a 50′ plus cliff. He had the door ready to bail out when he stopped not far from the edge.
Next problem was getting out. The farmer he had been following realised something was wrong after waiting at the gate out of the paddock and came back, but he could not drive his tractor down the hill to help or he would have slid too – which gives an idea of how steep it was. A road crew up the road brought a large excavator which inched itself down using the dozer blade and bucket, chained the ute on then dragged it back up the hill. A very lucky escape…
This is a great read, I was spellbound, what a hilarious story, really well written and nicely done. I look forward to more of your creative pieces!
I remember these off-branded gas stations out in the desert here in California, there was one called “Terrible Herbst,” whoever he was, on the way to Las Vegas. Maybe it’s still around. Your terrifying ride down the mountain reminded me instantly of a similar incident in the very first month of my very first job. I was in Las Vegas to do some real-estate research, having flown there from L.A., and picked up a rental ’72 Mustang fastback, must have been a 351, bright yellow. A little beyond my conservative taste back then, but it looked like fun. I was with a colleague from my office, somewhat older guy, really wild and crazy type. We were done with work around 5 PM one day, and he wanted to go off-roading back across the California/Nevada border to see if we could find a tiny railroad way station where he had spent time as a child, his father having been some sort of railroad station master. It was early summer, so it was still light, and we found our way off the interstate onto some dirt roads that no one had been on in a very long time. I got that Mustang really cranked up, we were tearing along, when suddenly we hit a patch of soft sand in the road. The car careened back and forth in an “oh s___” moment, it did a 90 degree turn all by itself and we plowed head-first into a sandy embankment, out in the middle of absolute NOWHERE. The engine stopped, and we sat there in utter silence, peering at each other through a cloud of dust so thick you literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face (the windows had been down). Sheer terror soon gave way to uproarious laughter, he got out and relieved himself by the side of the car, saying he couldn’t take it any more. I was in a blind panic, wondering how in the hell we were going to get out of there as darkness was setting in (no cell phones, of course), and if the car had sustained major damage, and if I would have a job when, and if, we ever got back home. Well, fortunately, the engine restarted, we gingerly rocked the car out of the embankment, no serious damage after all, other than a dump truck full of sand under the hood, and we got underway again, getting back to Las Vegas way after dark. There was enough sand and dust inside that car to plant a crop. I did my best to clean it up with hotel towels, and returned it to the car rental drop the next day, and never said a word. I was so relieved to get on that plane and out of there, and I never went off-roading again in a place so remote we never would have found. A great memory, thanks for bringing it back so vividly!
I worked at a Terrible Herbst for about 3 months in 1975. The giant flag flapping in the wind constantly annoyed the shit out of me. There were a bunch of them in the Vegas area and I spent a lot of money on gas with them.
And they are still going strong:
It really wasn’t an “off brand”, I believe it was Shell gas, as good as it gets for gas, as far as I know.
There are over 100 of the gas stations/carry outs. And the one I worked at on Tropicana is still there! That place sold a lot of gas, but the one at Maryland and Sahara was busy as hell, and probably still is. I bought most of my gas at those two places during my 7 years in Vegas. The giant flag was just torture after a while..Flap flap flap flappapapap. I wanted to blow my brains out after a shift there. It never stopped flapping.
Funny. When I was in high school in Vegas in the early 90s, every kid who could got a job washing cars at Terrible Herbst in Vegas. For some reason it considered far cooler than flipping burgers.
I had my ’74 Roadrunner driven from Detroit to Las Vegas in 1975 by some English guy who absolutely burned up the brakes going through the mountains along the way. He didn’t seem to understand all he had to do is put it in 2nd and let engine braking slow the car down. So on top of paying whatever it was it cost me, I had to completely replace the brakes, even the calipers were so messed up from heat that the piston was stuck in one, and very slow on the other. The front wheel bearings were darkened up, but seemed ok. I replaced them anyway. About 7 years later, I had my car put on a transporter for, I think, $850 and brought to Toledo. It came through fine, except it was covered with sap and bug juice.
As the owner of a 68 442 four speed convertible, I probably can appreciate this story more than most. Thanks for the good read this morning…..and yeah, it smokes the tires through 1st, 2nd and well into 3rd. 😉
I remember AAACon! I sat around the office for quite a while trying to get a car to the West Coast. Finally gave up and hitch-hiked. The guy that recommended them to me was a British guy… probably @nrd515 ‘s friend 😉
In 1969, under remarkably similar circumstances, a friend and I took a repossessed Plymouth Barracuda from Dayton, Ohio to Denver, Colorado. In Denver we picked up a Mustang to take to L.A. Along the way, we were arrested in Vandalia, Illinois, picked up two underage runaways in Wyoming and drove into the surf in California. I’ve been sober ever since.
There’s something about cross-country trips that seems to invite weird life-threatening events and unwise decisions. I don’t think I ever had a totally uneventful coast-to-coast journey. More stories are on the way….
Having experienced Colorado roads myself (OMG Trail Ridge Road), and being from a lake plain (flat) area, your experience was the nightmare in the back of my mind when on the Trail Ridge Road!!!)
Before audio sound systems became common motoring equipment, I remember vast stretches of the West as radio wasteland.
You counted yourself luck to find a single intelligible AM station. Programs you’d never listen to at home such as Tradeo abounded.
What was Tradeo. People calling in trying to sell their junk on the air.
“I’ve got a used hamster cage with a wheel that I’ll take $5 for. I’m also throwing in two hamsters. One of them doesn’t move anymore and might be dead, but they’re free. Call XXX-XXXX”
You’d listen for as long as the signal lasted out a weird combination of curiosity and boredom, then search for the next signal.
Gotta love the empty spaces of the West.
I hopped in the back seat of a brand new yellow one when I was 10-my 1st but not last musclecar ride. I still recall how stiff it was compared to the folk’s land boats.
First, great story. Nicely drawn vignette of that time.
I went to a driveaway in a not-very-nice part of Chicago to get a car for a move. Inside the dingy little office, I looked at the chalkboard with various cars and destinations for a while, then the secretary said, “Those haven’t been changed in years.” And offered a Citation hatch headed to Mass., perfect for my move to NYC. I only needed to show my license and the keys were in my hand.
Also, if you are driving in a place that won’t get below freezing, a good cheap windshield washer fluid is a tablespoon or so of laundry detergent and a gallon or so of water. Usually I just add water to one of those big economy jugs after it’s been used up. Will clean the bugs off nicely and can be used more liberally because it’s cheap cheap. It will lend its scent to the interior of the vehicle when applied.
Last year I bought All original 1979 6900 miles Hurst/Olds W30 Gold/White combo Not T Top. Only 2500 of these were made. Its essentially an G body Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais with 350 4B engine Hurst Auto shifter , Hurst Tuned suspension, Dual Exhausts , power windows , Factory AC , Factory AM/ FM Cassete / Buckets / Rear Deffoger /
The car is a real beauty I don’t drive it much Its Not meant be daily I fo have other cars.
Too bad that wasn’t actually Gail in the lead photo…
Great story, also really enjoy the tale of your father at GM.
Driveaway cars were a wonderful thing. I used them as an inexpensive moving van in the early 1990’s during a time I had itchy feet – two trips from Portland OR to Chicago in a ’92 Taurus & ’86 low mileage Cutlas Cierra (which broke down along the Oregon Trail). One from Chicago to Sarasota Fl in a ’88 Seville (it’s electronic dash went dark on the third mile in it) and the longest trip from Sarasota to Corvallis OR in a ’88 Lincoln Town Car. It wasn’t until 2010 that I would do another 2000+ mile trip in a car – that time only as a passenger.
Charles, you are Raconteur Par excellence! Thanks for a great read. As for everyone’s comments, I find the stories terrific. I guess all of us, or many of us, have stories f our youth behind the wheel, We lived in The Bronx and spent our summers, or a part of our summers in the 194’s, in The Adirondack Mountains of New York State. By 1952, my grandparents had bought a home in The Town of Luzerne, NY in the heart of what was known as “Dude Ranch Country” and my brother and I and our cousins enjoyed respites from New York City. In 1954, Grandpa bought a 1954 Plymouth Belvedere Four-Door Sedan painted blue and white with matching blue and white interior. Nothing much on it except automatic, radio, heater, deluxe steering wheel (horn rim). In the summer of 1958, when I was fifteen, my cousin John asked me if I would like to learn to drive. Silly question! So, he took the Plymouth with me sitting as a passenger until we got onto the road below the family two-story log cabin. Then, I took the wheel. Everything as fine as we passed Painted Pony Dude Ranch. Then the road turned to soft dry earth, which we knew. A mile or so later I misjudged the curve ahead driving around it at 30 MPH. We veered 90 degrees to the left nd off an eight-foot embankment into, fortunately, loads of brush. Now, how were we going to get the Plymouth out of there? We walked to someone’s home where we used the phone to call into the Village of Lake Luzerne to a tow truck operator. He said “Eight dollars.” We said okay and walked back to the car. John waited with the Plymouth while I trekked the three miles back to the house, checked the scene for observers, slipped quietly in the front door making sure not to let the screen door bang, softly went up the stairs to my room where I retrieved eight dollars from the money that my parents were sending for me to have extra spending cash. Carefully slipping out of the house, leaving the screen door to shut softly, I slipped down the hill on the heavily wooded side of the house, onto Painted Pony Road and back to the Plymouth. When I got there, the tow truck was arriving. It was (TA-DAH!) a post-WWII Dodge Power Wagon! The man hauled the Plymouth out, we inspected it for damage. None was found because the car landed in all that overgrowth. John drove the car home. It was a whopper of a summer. Just a few weeks later we would be back in The Bronx for a church ceremony in the Armenian Church for the fortieth-day passing of my dear Grandpa, who had died that summer on Bastille Day. My brother asked me on the Friday night if I would like to ride on his new motor scooter. It was past 11:00 PM. What did I say? What would you have said? By midnight I was unconscious after we got hemmed between a drunk driver and a concrete island on Sedgwick Avenue in The Bronx. I awoke in Fordham Hospital the next morning. I had sustained tow brain concussions, a broken left wrist, nondisplaced fracture of the left upper arm and, as I would learn within a year, a life of pain in the shoulders and back. When I finally commenced driving as a licensed driver, I was a very sane driver and that has persisted. Well, other than trying to see how fast my slant-six 1966 Dodge Coronet two-door sedan would go on The Taconic State Parkway (108 MPH, by the way down a hill). KEEP THOSE STORIES COMING CHARLES AND FELLOW CC’ERS!
I remember reading this via the archives some time back. At the time then, I had no experience with the desert southwest. I do now, and am able to add that I-10 thru the desert is not a travel to be taken lightly. This July I moved from Chicago to just south of Tucson to be near my elderly parents. Before the drive, I read up on dust storms. Thank god I did. If one ever encounters one, you are supposed to pull off the road, and shut all lights off. This is to prevent being rear ended by other drivers following your lights. Just outside of New Mexico, heading towards Wilcox AZ, monsoon rains were beginning to form. Mom was driving her car separately behind me, and we wisely invested in CB radios for the trip to keep in touch on a whim. Needless to say, a massive dust storm formed from the storm, and before we knew it, we were instantly ingulfed in blinding white dust. I immediately told Mom we need to pull off and turn off the cars. As I am speaking to her on the radio, she screams… A semi tractor had lost sight of the road and nearly sideswiped her car barreling into the storm. I see other unwise drivers forging on into the whiteout from my car, hazard flashers disappearing quickly into the abyss. It took nearly 45 minutes for the dust to clear. Once safe again, we headed on. Maybe 5 miles ahead, a pileup became apparent. Some of the cars that kept on during the storm fell victim to a curve in the road and a semi that firmly missed it and got stuck just off the shoulder. Growing up in Minnesota, driving in blizzards were similar in blinding nature, but nothing this bad. The importance of visibility while on the road was amplified to me during this dust storm. I agree with Mr. Platt in that I’d rather be seen as obsessive versus hurt and or dead.
NRD515 mentioned about some English guy that took the brakes out of his road runner on a drive from Detroit to Las Vegas.
Where were YOU in 1975 Charles???
This had me on the edge of my seat the whole read through. Excellent read – I’m glad this one was re-posted.
I thought it might be worth to mention the cameo of a 442 in Chicago clip “Stay the night”.
GREAT story, reminds me of why I never tried a drive away service : I was worried something bad would happen and I’d have to ay for damages .
I too am always washing the windshields of other people’s cars, they’re never happy, I’m always glad we never hit anyone/thing when they were driving with the glass occluded .
Please bring on the stories and no, none are too long / detailed .
@ Charles: DITTO to everything that has been said about your story! You have provided an entertaining experience for those of us who, for whatever reasons, did not/could not/would not have done as you did! 🙂