COAL: An Unexpected First “Car”


(David Saunders has owned a remarkable series of cars, so we’re going to take a second look at them. This series first ran in early 2014)     I was always a firm believer that one’s first car should be something special. I had grand visions of cruising with the top down in a classic MGB or prowling the streets in a gen2 Camaro with a fire-breathing V8. But youthful dreams all-too-often fail to materialize. So when I ended up with the old family hand-me-down, I was initially disappointed. But I got over myself and realized it had a gobs of character and made for a vantastic first vehicle.

A Whole Lada Dreaming

I literally counted down the years until I could get my license and a vehicle of my own. Even at elementary school age I tried to convince my father to let me have a junk car, just to have and tinker with in the backyard. Not surprisingly I didn’t get anywhere with that one. Unfortunately, I come from a long line of non-car people who view vehicles merely as transportation at best, and an unnecessary financial burden at worst.

So it wasn’t exactly a great shock that once I got my full license there was strong resistance to any car purchase as a follow-up. My father is also an accountant, so it had to be justified against a quantifiable need.  Need to get to school? Great! Here is a bus pass. Want to drive across the city to see a friend? Well you can borrow the family’s second car if it is currently unused. I had to concede that I didn’t in fact need a car but I still wanted one in a bad way.


His logic didn’t exactly stop me from snagging Friday’s newspaper every week to scan the classified ads. I had no interest in dull family saloons, but gravitated to interesting or sporty numbers. There was a grotty MGB-GT with wire wheels that sung a siren song to me. Even now I can remember the exact shade of blue it had. No doubt it would have ended in tears as at this time I didn’t have a gram of mechanical experience. Goes to show that parents do know a thing or two even if we aren’t quite ready to hear it.

Chevrolet Camaro 1980 Z28

Another candidate that sticks out in my mine was a black on black 1980 Chevrolet Camaro Z28. It claimed to have warmed-over small block V8 developing 300hp, and was cheap enough to fit my budget. Seeing as I had a thing for the late second generation Camaros with the urethane nose and rear bumpers this one seemed just the thing for me.

Austin Marina

All ads were just merely read and dreamed about, but I once called the number on an ad for a 1972 Austin on the hope that it was a Mini but turned out to be a Marina. These days I’d probably rather have the rare Marina, but then I deemed it unworthy even for daydreaming.

I had a decent pot of money saved up from summer jobs as I was quite fugal even as a teenager but every time I brought up a possible car to purchase the answer usually came back something along the lines of “is it big enough to live in as well?”

1980 Dodge Maxivan

Ironically, my first car was indeed big enough to live in. My 18th birthday was coming up and I only wanted to be able to buy my own car without having to move out. I was going to university the following year so I couldn’t afford a car and to be out on my own at the same time. My parents surprised me by bringing up the possibility of giving me the family’s old 1980 Dodge Maxivan. It had been our family’s second vehicle for many years before being demoted to the third vehicle status after the addition of a Plymouth Turismo. This is the one and only photo of it taken many years after my ownership. It didn’t have the rust or saggy rear suspension under my watch.


While it was a bit disappointing not to have something different than the old family hack, I finally had something that was all mine. It was a long wheelbase Maxivan with a 360cid small block V8 backed by the usual three-speed TorqueFlite automatic.  Given that it was a Canadian market van, it still had the higher compression engine that specified leaded gas when new. By this time leaded gas was gone from Canada (it lasted a little longer here than the US) so I used an additive with each tankful that supposedly protected the softer valve seats. If I neglected it, then the van would randomly die when running, and I’d have to wait until it cooled off to try again. Looking back, I suspect it would have been just fine if I’d run on something higher than 87 octane gasoline, as my additive was likely mostly just an octane booster.

Dodge van interior

On the inside it had wood paneling with brown shag carpet and burgundy velour seats. The front seats were caption style that in theory could swivel around but didn’t have enough side clearance to actually do so. The rear seat was a big bench that could fold down to a rather uncomfortable bed.  The dash was a plain Jane plastic affair, with the gauges separated into several round, deep-set pods.

While it guzzled fuel, the van was generally very reliable … except when it rained. For some odd reason it just didn’t want to start when it rained or it was really damp. I do remember taking it to a few different mechanics but none could diagnose the issue. Fortunately, Southern Alberta isn’t a particularly wet climate so I just worked around it. At the time I worked at an amusement park just outside of the city and sure got some odd looks when I requested to be let off work early any time it rained. Luckily this also coincided with when they needed less staff so it worked out.

1971 Dodge Tradesman Maxivan Balto

At some point one of my friends nicknamed it “The Cheesewagon” because of the orange color.  There were some good times had in the Cheesewagon, as it could carry many more folks than there were seat belts or even seats. A quick stab of the brakes would send everyone unbuckled flying inside; endlessly entertaining for teenage minds.

Then there was that first drive after a heavy snowfall. Being a bit inexperienced, I just cleared the snow from the windows and set off. At the first traffic light I had to slam on the brakes when someone decided they must do a left hand turn directly in front of me. A huge avalanche of snow poured down off the roof right onto the road in front of me. I didn’t exactly get out and measure it, but given that we’d received five to six inches of snow and then multiplying that by a very long roof there must have been at least a four foot pile left in front of me. To this day my wife wonders why I insist on brushing the snow off the roof before pulling away.


There were more great memories made in that van, as I met my wife while I owned it. We took several camping trips in it, although she was somewhat less than impressed when I openly wondered if it would start after an overnight snowfall on long weekend trip. I did eventually give in to the desire to buy something that was a little more practical for everyday use a few years later. The van had very low mileage for its age, but the orange paint turned off quite a few prospective buyers and it proved a bit of challenge to sell.

The new owner was the local blues musician Johnny V, who was retiring his old and very rusty Ford Econoline. He had driven it all over Canada and the above photo is actually from the time of his ownership, as I’d see it around once and a while. It has been a many years (probably well over a decade actually) since I’ve been, by so I searched his name online and found his website but also a news article that he passed away this April. I hope the van served him well and he enjoyed it as much I (eventually) did.