Memories are deeply bound up in smells, sights, touch, and for us at this website, cars. All those senses—and more—were deeply stimulated on a perfect crisp late fall day in 1976 when I drove a ’72 Dodge Polara like this on a memorable first trip to the Grand Canyon after a night in a pumice-crete house. So when I spotted this one sitting beside the highway in a little village in Nevada, it jolted a flood of memories, and I had to stop and refresh them a bit more, as if that was necessary.
My girlfriend, her mom Elinor, and I all had recently transplanted to San Diego in the summer of 1976. That fall we decided to visit the grandparents, Lester and Rebecca, who lived in Chino Valley, Arizona, a couple hours south of the Grand Canyon. Her grandfather had been an engineer with Anaconda Mining Co. When he retired in the early 1960s, they bought a few acres of scrub desert in Chino Valley, moved in a used trailer and lived in it while Lester designed and then the two of them built their future house.
It was built out of pumice-crete, which uses crushed pumice as the aggregate, and results in a much lighter product and has four times the insulation value of concrete. The Romans were using it 2000 years ago,; the huge dome of the Pantheon would have never been possible for them to build except for the lightness and strength of pumice concrete.
A railroad gondola car full of pumice was ordered from New Mexico, to as close to the site as possible, and then it was trucked to their site. The house Lester designed was a one story flat-roofed structure.
They built the wall forms from wood, and Rebecca, well in her 60s, climbed up with a ladder to pour bucketfuls of the mixture from a small gas-powered batch mixer. No concrete truck, no pumper, no nothing. Just two retirees doing it all from scratch. It took them a couple of years building it by hand; just the two of them.
Once the forms are pulled off, pumice-crete looks like this, although the color varies depending on the pumice used. And the lighter the pumice, the greater the insulation value. Pumice-crete houses have become fairly common in the Southwest, due to their many advantages and longevity.
The unique characterizations of pumice-crete stuck with me, and when I added a lover level to one of my moved houses, I went a step further and used large blocks of Rastra Blocks, which are hollow lightweight blocks made of recycled foam pellets and cement. The hollow chambers in the center get rebar and concrete; placed by a pumper, thank you.
The flat roof of Lester’s house was different then typical; it was made from a number of pre-cast wide T-beams of the same material, spanning across the walls, and butted up to each other. They formed and poured these themselves on the ground, and then Lester used a front end bucket on an old tractor to lower them into place, while Rebecca was up there on the ladder guiding them into position. And so forth.
They showed me pictures of the process, including one of Rebecca up on the ladder with a bucket of concrete mix, so for me this is a vivid visual memory. I was hoping to show them to you as well as the finished house. I’m still in touch with my former GF, and she looked for them, but couldn’t find them among what’s left of her mom’s stuff. Too bad. It was a wonderful house to be in; the pumice concrete ceiling had a nice brown nubby texture, as did the outside walls. It was also very comfortable and didn’t cool off in the chill of the high desert fall night. A really well designed and built house. How many retirees today would do such a thing?
The next morning we all set off for the Grand Canyon, in Lester and Rebecca’s base-trim 1972 Dodge Polara, blue and white two-tone, just like this one I found on the web. It looked just like a cop car. Lester was not in the best of health by this time, so someone suggested I drive. Maybe it was me? Always happy to oblige.
I slid in behind the wheel. It felt familiar to me, as it had the same dimensions and feel as Elinor’s 1969 Plymouth Fury, which I had driven on my first high speed dash across the heartland just a couple of years earlier.
The dash was…well, it was a long way (downhill) from what a Polara dash had been in the mid sixties. Dull and cheap.
But who was going to ever look at a dash on a beautiful crisp fall morning out on the Arizona high country? There is nowhere I’d rather drive briskly than across the high deserts of the West. I’m still doing it. And sometime paying for the consequences. But given my passengers and the fact that there was only a 318 under the hood, it was one of the slower drives in that setting. But the newness of the terrain more than made up for that. I was falling in love, deeper and deeper by the mile.
As we got closer, the trees started getting taller. And the sky bluer, as if that were possible.
Back then, one just drove right up to the South Rim; there weren’t more than a couple of dozen cars parked there on this weekday in November. Quite different than nowadays. Needless to say, my first view into that abyss was mind-blowing. It’s a bit like an inverse mountain range; that’s the first words that come to me in a quick way to describe it. I’ll leave it to others with more eloquent words. But one never forgets that first look over the South Rim.
We drove down along the rim a little ways and pulled over at a picnic table.
I got the picnic basket out of that grand canyon of a trunk. Rebecca, in the ways of a woman who had gotten up early every day of her life, had made and packed it while we were still sleeping in that snug house. And we sat there eating ham sandwiches and pickles, gazing into the Technicolor folds of that ultimate geological layer cake. And we washed it down with coffee from the Aladdin thermos.
We pulled up to their house by late afternoon, and the Dodge crackled a bit as its engine cooled off. The next morning we piled back into Elinor’s little Corolla, which would make some equally indelible memories on a trip to Death Valley just a few weeks later. She had traded her Fury in on it back in Iowa, after horse-trailer duties were no longer required. But the blue and white Polara would soon enough find its way to San Diego too, as Lester’s failing health resulted in them moving in with Elinor. He passed away not too long after. But Rebecca lived to be high into her nineties, and drove the Polara until pretty late in her life. And even after she passed, it sat in Elinor’s driveway, its blue paint fading steadily. It hardly ever got used.
I almost asked her for it, and I’m sure she would have given it to me. But I had no place to keep it in Santa Monica; I was struggling to find places to park my Peugeot 404s. It eventually got hauled to the junkyard in some kind of program California had to incentivize the scrapping of old dirty gas guzzlers. Or something like that.
I haven’t seen a ’72 Polara since. That is, until our recent road trip through the high deserts of Western Nevada and California. Do these big old Mopars have some kind of affinity for that kind of country? They were certainly well suited for it; big, wide cars for big, wide-open spaces. And giant holes in the ground.
My college roommate and best friend had a 72 Polara station wagon during our senior year in college. It was that butterscotch pudding color that Chrysler painted so many cars in the early 70s, and none too attractive (though in gorgeous condition for what was an 8 or 9 year old midwestern car then).
I remember it vividly. As you say, there were so many things that screamed cheap in the interior of those fuselage C bodies, but on the other hand it really felt sure-footed out on the road. His was a 360 and had a pretty good appetite for fuel, not a great thing in 1981-82.
At the time the pre-fuselage C body Mopars were on the ground in great quantities and I never felt a real desire to go newer then. But I would own that wagon in a heartbeat today. Even in that miserable butterscotch color.
I meant to add a bit more about how these cars felt on the road. You’re right, they were sure-footed. They felt distinctly different than the BOF big cars from GM and Ford. More of one piece (which they were), and not as much insulated from the road. What come to mind is that they felt like a Valiant or Dart on steroids, which was not so much the case with the competition. In fact, that’s a quality I would say was rather distinctive and unique about Chryslers: they all felt a lot more familial than the cars from GM and Ford. Which of course makes sense on several levels, but it’s like they were all just a size variation of the same basic car. You’d never say that about an old Falcon and an LTD, or an early Chevy II and an Impala.
Maybe because the entire drivetrain and suspensions on MOPAR cars were size variations on the same theme from alternators, starter motor, torsion-bars, torqueflights, placed on a sub-frame and hung off a unit-body.
Studebakers, more sloppily and with a bit more parts variation (autolite & delco-remy in the same company?), also were of a similar theme, building to the Avanti which were the first ones that were actually fun to drive (as opposed to having been fun to be in).
Not maybe; obviously and definitively so. That’s my point. As a smaller company, Chrysler couldn’t afford so many different basic variations as GM and Ford
To me, the commonality of all Mopar’s of this era is the nylon-y, gear teeth-clashing sound of their starters when cranking. Reminds me a little of pulling the T-stick rip cord on the old Kenner SSP racers, in rapid fire
I remember a similar sensation in driving characteristics between my 1969 Torino GT and my brother’s 1971 Charger SE. It was amplified more by the fact that my Torino had a big block and the Charger had a small block. That lump of FE on top of the front wheels made that Ford plow like a farmer in spring. I’d driven other Torinos with small blocks and they seemed to handle better than mine.
But the sensation the Charger gave me was something I’ve never quite forgotten. Having only experienced Fords up until I was about 16 years old, the Charger was different. The Fords seemed quieter and almost subdued; the Dodge had more road noise and responsive, but not twitchy.
Maybe that’s why I have a soft spot for fuselage Mopars…
What I distinctly remember from my sole experience with an early-70s Dodge/Plymouth wagon was the smell.
We had a ’68 Country Squire LTD wagon at the time (summer of ’79) and for some forgotten reason it was inop in the middle our our family moving from Georgia to South Carolina where my Dad had just become director of a Voc Ed school. The school had the wagon as a “runner” car, so we borrowed it to run down to GA and back with another load for the new house.
I’d be hard-pressed to describe the aroma of the car – it wasn’t unpleasant, but definitely was different from the Ford. Kind of like how old air-cooled Beetles have a very distinctive smell.
At any rate, Dad got the LTD running again so that was my only trip in the Dodge (or Plymouth, whichever it was). It was white, and probably had the 318 with few other options.
FYI… that ’69 Fury link seems to be a dead one.
Because it’s scheduled to re-run later today. Stay tuned.
Posts that are currently scheduled can’t be accessed.
Great history lesson on concrete. If pumice is not available, one can get the same effect using Vermiculite as part of the aggragate. It makes a remarkable lightweight insulating concrete. It’s adjustable, the more the Vermiculite, the lighter the concrete. Of course, it loses strength as it loses weight, so caution is required.
Interesting. The Olds Delta 88 next to the Polara in the 1st picture is the same year, 1972.
I thought that was a 73 Newport at first. I had to blow the photo up and take a closer look after reading your comment. That is one of the most blatant rip-off jobs ever.
Awesome, I haven’t seen a 72 Polara in forever.
South Rim has the best initial view, but for hiking Zion is my favourite. Gotta get back to that Observation Point trail someday 🙂
Loved this read. The Technicolor, inverse mountain range looks like something to behold in person.
Fascinating story… I’ve never heard of pumice concrete. It certainly sounds like the perfect material for that area of the country.
Even more fascinating is that my older brother and I rolled up to the south rim in August ‘76 in his green ‘70 Plymouth Fury III coupe. He was on his way to stay with our aunt & uncle in Phoenix so that he could begin college in the fall. Seems we missed crossing paths by only a couple of months.
While I was in Phoenix, our aunt & uncle took us on a day trip to visit the Mexican border at Nogales in their ‘74 or so Plymouth Gran Fury. Those big Mopars certainly ate up the Arizona miles comfortably, especially when equipped with Airtemp A/C, like the Gran Fury had.
Oh but I have a soft spot for these old mopars. My father, who was a cheap bugger, bought the dregs of the auto fleet of the firm he worked for. As he was a mid management kind of guy, a perk to him was to be able to buy the ex sales vehicles after they were deemed expendable. His ‘68 Fury 1 was replaced with a ‘73 Polara, which was in turn replaced by a ‘76 Monaco. The Polara, dark green metallic and cloth inside was unkillable, as it later went to sis after her destroying several Vegas. She tried valiantly to kill it too, with a deadly combination of mechanical apathy and sloth, but it just refused to die, despite her NEVER putting oil in it, to the point the dipstick got rusty. When it did finally get oil, it was always out of the pail of “recycled” oil that cheap dad got for bugger all. One thing I remember about all of these big mopars was with the ignition off, if you turned on the flashers, it energized some of the keyed circuits, so as a kid having fun, I would turn on the radio and wipers along with the flashers, so the thing would sit there playing music, flashing and wiping to the flashers beat. The fun you find as a kid! I later went on to own a few big Chryslers in part due to fond memories of dads frugal nature, but never would dad experience the same kind of reliability and pure freedom of worry that those big boats gave, as his firm embarked on purchasing Chev Malibu’s in the late ‘70’s and the 265 v8’s just gave him no joy. Dad was cheap, yes, soulless, no. If it didn’t have a 318 or better, it just wasn’t a car to him. Can’t say I disagree, even now.
I discovered the emergency flasher/radio/wiper trick in my dad’s colonnade Monte Carlos of the ’70s! Would crack me up watching the wipers jerk across the glass in time with the flasher signal, accompanied by staccato bursts of voice or music from the dash speakers. In the Montes it only worked when the flasher button was held partway in.
I agree 100% with the description of the Grand Canyon as an “inverse mountain range.” I’ve hiked to the bottom and back twice, and that is the exact impression I got from that vantage point, especially from places where you can’t see the rim. Just marvelous in every way (except the part where the upward climb happens at the end, when you’re the most tired!).
About the car, to me the white vinyl roof really looks best on a blue car, and likewise a blue car looks better with a white vinyl roof rather than black (if it must have one at all).
Their car was just painted white on top, and I think the one in the pictures is the same. These are pretty low-end versions.
The fuselages as a whole were such a varied group of cars despite sharing some overarching styling themes. From the baroque, though attractive, Imperial and hidden-lamp Monaco at one extreme, all the way to the plain-Jane and not particularly attractive Polara pictured here. Though seeing any one of them in the metal would be a rare treat these days.
I really like the looks of about half of the fuselage cars, but those utilitarian dashes keep me from ever really wanting one.
You had me at fusey. You kept with with great storytelling.
I can’t find a photo of my baby-blue 1972 Dodge Polara, either. It was a former police car, repainted in that dainty color for resale!
Granted, it had the police suspension, but it sure felt like one solid chunk on the road.
That big instrument panel “pod” looked impressive and swoopy to the driver, but the passenger only saw a plain expanse of padded vinyl. All the controls were driver-centered including the HVAC panel. What many who never drove one don’t know: the deeply-hooded instruments were lloodlighted, not transilluminated.
That they were when I first went looking for bulbs to light the dash. Actually prefer them since one doesn’t have to pull the gauge cluster out to get to bulbs on the back side. The 73 has the same dash and a heck of a lot of the saem stuff. I love how the arm rests spanned many years.
Something about that era of Mopar interiors that appeal to me even though I know they were not of the highest quality. The designs seemed modern, more so than anyone else’s at the time.
The Maryland State Police bought Dodge Polaras in 1972, the only year they ever did. The typical 440 4 barrel police setup. Cops at the time loved them, especially compared with the Ford Customs that came before and after. They talked of the good handling and solid feel. Although emission controls started to sap performance in ’72, these were faster than the Ford 460’s that followed them.
The dash on the Polara may have have gone downhill from what it was in the 60’s and looked dull and cheap, but to be fair, in my opinion, that wasn’t unusual in 1972. I can’t think of a single dashboard in the 70’s that looked better than one from the same model in the 60’s.
Never heard of pumice-crete before, quite an interesting process. Probably works well in a dry desert climate. Wonder how well it holds up to earthquakes? Too bad the photos are gone, amazing a couple in their ’60’s could tackle such a job. Today I doubt any couple in their ’60’s would even attempt do what they accomplished.
Most of the houses I recall in SoCal and those out in the desert were wood frame and chicken wire/stucco designs. A friend in Palmdale’s newly acquired dog freaked out while in his garage and dug a hole big enough to get it’s head out and was in this position and barking like crazy when we returned from a short trip to the store.
I always liked the fuselage era Chrysler’s. Even the police versions were good looking.
Here’s a detail of the slightly odd front end of the Polara with its outer headlights separate from the inner lights and grille. This wouldn’t last long – for 1973 the Polara got front impact bumpers and ended up looking like an Oldsmobile.
And now the ’73…
The 72 Polara was not particularly attractive – it always reminded me a bit of Droopy Dog. But it at least had some kind of theme going on. The 73 tried to be attractive in a normal kind of way but couldn’t pull it off.
Ah, concrete structures and fuselage Dodge Polaras. A memory for Paul is also one I share, but in a different way (and has motivated me to make my first CC reply).
As a late teen I owned a poop brown ’73 Dodge Polara with a black vinyl top. It had a 360 V8 two barrel carb, auto, a/c, AM radio, and semi-bucket vinyl seats in front. The car was my second, purchased from long time friends of our family after my first car, a ’65 Pontiac Star Chief, blew a head gasket in its 389 V8. A heartbreaker, as I loved that car, even if it was a huge four door chrome land barge.
Not long before the Polara entered my life my mother had introduced me to a group of people near Denton, TX who were building an earth sheltered housing community out in the rolling prairies north of town. These homes were of the “earth ship” variety in that they were constructed of ferro-cement in a free form, often dome-like fashion, water sealed, and then buried, albeit plenty of apertures for light were designed in so the homes were not merely artistic bomb shelters. I soon learned the same founders of the community we had come to visit one day were starting another, and I jumped at the chance to be in on it from the beginning. I put money down on a 3/4 acre site situated on a windswept hill that was mostly barren of trees, with dreams that my own earth friendly self sufficient lifestyle house would soon rise from – or rather go into- the ground. I was just seventeen years old.
Since at the time I lived in Dallas, some 35 miles south, a car was vital if I had any hope of taking my 3/4 acre lot from barren prairie to self-sufficient paradise. I was in high school only 1/2 days and worked the rest, as I was in the work program learning the HVAC trade. So I already needed wheels and had income to support it completely. On weekends I wasn’t working I’d pack the car and head up to my little 3/4 acre paradise, pitch a tent, and spend the next two days clearing rocks and making plans, while getting to know others in the community I had bought into, who largely turned out to be held-over hippies from the ’60’s and 70’s still hoping to live out an ecological dream in a nation going ever more the other direction. The roads leading to our lots were dirt, pock marked with stones and ruts, but the Polara ate them up like no big deal. On certain occasions where I’d just drive out there on a whim without much prior planning, I’d spend the night in the car on my land…it seemed colder than being in a tent but the spacious back seat was not bad to sleep in.
The outcome of all this is that I never did get the house built, but I did get a big hole dug, which soon collapsed in a huge multi-day rain event. That took the wind out of my sails, and alongside a friend convinced me to join the Navy. But Paul’s remark about big old Mopars and big country struck a nerve with me, as that was my experience! Wide open prairie in a big old car with a pioneering dream of house building. Only a few years later when driving across country in a brand new pickup truck to meet my new ship in San Diego did I match the thrill of tearing across open desert for miles on end, wishing it would never end. I still love driving through the desert to this day.
Thanks for spurring some great memories, Paul. This is why I love Curbside Classic.
Thanks for sharing them, Cameron!
Yes, I read quite a bit over the years about those houses, starting with The Whole Earth Catalog. Some of them worked out ok; others decidedly not. The water proofing was the big challenge (among others). A good idea, but not quite as easy to execute as many might have hoped for.
For certain it looked good on paper, but as one of my neighbors found out upon burying his house, not so well in reality. He had formed a quanset shaped frame out of rebar and mesh, which we then mudded in stages. Weeks, even months of stages. Turns out that results in a ferro-cement shell full of “cold joints”, since the entire form was not mudded in one day. This results in a loss of monolithic strength the concrete could offer if it was curing and drying at the same rate. Long story shortened: his house cracked. Big time. Bummer.
Water sealing was indeed another challenge, which few of my neighbors were able to pull off well. In fact the community pretty much died not long after I left to see the world by seeing the sea, which is sad because it would have been a funky place to still visit had it taken off.
I would not trade that time for anything, nor my days with the Polara. It never stranded me, even with 100+k miles on the odo. The automatic choke never worked right and would stall the engine in traffic, but I solved that with a manual choke kit, only after valiant but failed attempts to make the auto choke work correctly. It was a solid riding car and after a tranny rebuild shifted smooth as glass. In the end it succumbed to a broken timing chain while I was in boot camp and my brother was driving it. I agree that the dashboard wasn’t much to look at, but when seeing it again in photos, man do the memories around that car come back!
Yes, cold joints are not good.
I had the same choke issues with the 360 two-barrel in my ’77 Dodge Chinook camper. A couple of times it tried to kill us, by flaming out just as I was pulling into a highway from a campsite. I also eventually put on a manual choke. That helped, up to a point.
Bought a ’72 Polara 2-door new…360 V-8. Loved the car, but when the “gas crisis” hit, I traded in on a ’73 Mustang convertible with a 6 cylinder & 3-on-the-floor manual transmission. My girlfriend and future wife, lived 1/2 hour away, so thought buying the Mustang would save me a bunch of money. Looking back, not one of my best vehicle purchasing decisions.