The Cars Of A Lifetime: 1968 Volvo 142S – What Is This Pedal For? (Car No. 1)

[I am pleased to present a new weekend CC series, The Cars Of A Lifetime, the highly engaging stories of the (very) many cars in Michael Freeman’s (junkharvester) life. Biographies and Autobiographies have always been my favorite (non-car) reading genre, as I find authentic lives fully lived more compelling than fiction. And when they combine both, it really turns my torque wrench. I cut my writing teeth with my Auto-Biography, and when Michael sent the first two of his stories to me the other day, I was instantly hooked, as you will be too. His refreshing candor and grit in dealing with the challenges that old cars and circumstances throw his way is full of life’s highs and lows, and deserves an audience. I have no idea what’s in store for us past the second chapter, but I can already tell that  this is going to be a wonderful trip, told in the voice of a natural story-teller. I can’t wait for the next one. PN]

Introduction (confession): I have owned allot of cars, so awhile back I decided to make a list of all the cars I have owned. But as I stared at the finished list, I thought every one of them has a story or two associated with it. So I started writing about each car. A few days ago (May 2011) when Paul was  feeling very overwhelmed with, I thought, maybe I should let him look over the list and see if he can use any of those stories. Paul looked and asked if I could contribute them each week as an Auto-Biography. Some of these stories might be boring [not likely. Ed] ; some might be at least mildly entertaining.  In many ways each car is like a stone of remembrance for a particular epoch of my life. I have never purchased a new car; I have never paid more than 2500 dollars for a car; and I most likely never will. I like a car that has a story to tell me, a car that has lived a little, and feels like it. And I suppose as much as I wrench on and mess with each car, it shapes me in turn. Sometimes that’s for the best, other times, not so much. I will let you be the judge of that.

1968 Volvo 142S, my first car. (The pictures here are not of my car; Paul shot these) My good friend and church youth pastor Lynn gave this car to me for 10 dollars. I was seventeen, and I had no idea how to drive it. You see, I grew up in a car-free family. Neither my father nor my mother ever possessed a driving license or had the faintest idea of what to do behind the wheel. I grew up in the city where it was not uncommon to be careless, one simply took a taxi or a bus. So I spent a fair amount of time riding in Checker marathons and GMC fishbowl window Metro buses.

The Volvo had somewhat of a history with me. I remember once while riding along with Lynn driving (before it was mine), it suddenly started thunking very badly. The more it revved the worse it was. We got back to his house that way but it was terrible, turns out the center bearing was shot and the drive shaft was just flinging around willy-nilly under there. So Lynn replaced it with one he made of wood! It would start to smell smoky if you drove it too long though, so he finally got a real one.

After he gave the old Volvo to me, I taught myself how to drive in it, having not grown up in a car owning family, this was rather difficult.. When I got it, it was full of degrading white plastic and spiders on the inside, and it was spray can flat black on the outside. It was a stick shift too!  One night I just got in and started it up. I had seen this done but did not know about the clutch. I soon figured that out, sort of. Which helped me to figure out about using the shifter. But I had to ask some friends to explain it to me before I really got the concept of the balance of slip and power required to make it work well.

Eventually I was cruising around the parking lot of our apartment complex at night getting all the way up to 2nd gear! I did not want to leave the lot because; A. I had no license or permit, B. I had no insurance, C. The tags were expired, and D. the gas gauge did not work. So I took off down the road anyways!

Cars were passing me on an urban street, they were going so fast. But when I looked down at my speedometer it said 20. The sign on the road said 35. So I attempted to speed up. It took a long time because I did not know to shift down. Then came a stop sign. I stopped OK but getting going again was tough.

Eventually I made it out to the country and some hills. Coming up to them I wondered if the car was like one of the lawnmowers I was using at work and if the throttle would automatically increase with load; it did not. So I learned about the gas pedal and the shifter a little more.

I ended up on a gravel road going about 80mph. I had no idea that this was not a safe speed. I saw the turn I wanted to take but it whizzed by. I slammed on the brakes and did a complete 180. So I learned about gravel a little bit. I made it back in one piece that night and parked the car for a few days.

I took it around the neighborhood once in the daytime and happened into some fellow teenaged boys with a Honda Civic. We talked a little and they challenged me to race. I told them I really didn’t know how to drive well but they said they would go easy at first. So off we went down some winding residential streets. I really did not know what I was doing but when I caught up to them at the end of the street they told me I had not done so bad.  They did tell me that I needed to learn to straighten the curves. I nodded naively, but I really could not figure out exactly what they meant or how such a feat was possible without a bulldozer, until I watched some real races. On my way home I spent abut half an hour trying to get over the crown in the road unto which I was turning. Eventually I had to take a speeding start at it. So I thought maybe driving was not really my bag and I parked her again for awhile.

Eventually the travellin’ bug bit me again. So one sunny Saturday I drove her out to the country again. But this time I ended up in a little town, Stayton Oregon. I pulled up to the one light and a police car pulled up right next to me! So I stopped at the little convenience store. He pulled right in next to me. I got out; he got out. I went in to the store, so did he. Luckily he was just stopping to shoot the breeze, he never took notice of me. So that was the last time (except for once when I was late to work) that I drove it.

At some point the overdrive stopped working, and then latter it just wouldn’t start, but of course I had never put any gas in it. Eventually I sold it to my neighbor for 300 dollars when I left for college. A funny thing happened though. I missed that car a lot and about a two years later my mom called me in Oklahoma to tell me she had received a letter telling her the County was going to tow it off of the side of I205 in Portland. I got on the phone to a Portland tow truck company and asked if they could tow it to my my mom’s house; “sure” they said. I got a call back about 45 minutes latter from the driver. He told me that he had started to tow it when a man came running out of the bushes yelling at him not to tow away his car. So I told him it was OK not to tow it; he did not charge me for the trouble. And that was the last I knew of her.