COAL: 1965 Buick Sportwagon • My First Car

In 1967, dad and mom had finally had enough of that unreliable 1958 Plymouth.  They felt we needed a new family station wagon, so we returned to the Buick family to get a two-year-old 1965 Buick Sportwagon.  We still were going back and forth between the home in north Seattle and the weekend place on Whidbey Island (35 miles and a ferry ride away). The wagon was needed to haul three kids plus groceries plus bikes plus other stuff we’d carry back and forth most weekends.  Pictured above are Mom and my sister Helen at the Whidbey house,  about to go to Church.

The Buick Sportwagon (and related Olds Vista Cruiser) were introduced in mid-1964. They were based on the GM intermediate A-body wagons in the Special and F-85 lines.  As I understand it, the idea was to turn the third seat forward on nine-passenger models and get away from the dizzying rear-facing third seat.  The wheelbase was stretched from 115 to 120 inches.  And to give adequate headroom for adults in the third seat the roof was raised behind the second seat, with tinted windows at the leading edge and the sides.

Here are two pics I grabbed off the internet.  It’s a little hard to tell, but the regular Special wagon (below) has shorter rear doors than the elongated Sportwagon (above). I’m not sure, but I think the extra room went behind the second-row seat, to give the third-row passengers some extra footroom.  The increased height of the roof on the Sportwagon meant more headroom for passengers who were essentially sitting atop the rear axle.

In any case, ours was a two-seat wagon, not a three-seater.  The car had a voluminous covered storage area below the rear deck where the third seat would have been stored.  It was useful for hiding stuff from prying eyes, although my relentlessly middle-class family never carried anything particularly valuable in the cars.  Cheap as always, Mom furnished the weekend home with used furniture; castoffs from friends, and stuff she picked up at Goodwill.  So no need to hide anything expensive in what was “her” car.

Originally, Buick planned to offer this wagon standard with the Fireball V6.  Motor Trend did a pre-release comparison between the V6 Sportwagon and an Olds Vista Cruiser with their V8, and found the Buick barely adequate for normal driving due to the weight of the car.  They noted that the V6 had to work so hard to move the car that gas mileage was no better than the Olds V8.  So by introduction time, the 300 c.i. V8 was made standard.  That’s what our car had.

Here are a couple of shots from the internet of a similar car to ours.  I don’t know what the name of this odd shade of green paint was, but you certainly don’t see that in today’s world of silver; white; grey, and black cars.  Ours had a nice quality vinyl interior; carpeting, and power windows and tailgate window.  The previous owner had disconnected the power windows in the rear doors, presumably for the safety of their kids, but the driver’s switches could raise and lower those windows.  Our also came with the two-speed Super Turbine 300, with the unique Switch-Pitch variable stator that gave a little extra oomph when accelerating in direct drive.  Over the years the car was pretty reliable—a big change from our 1958 Plymouth, which broke down with distressing regularity.

The story of how this car became mine is a sad one.  Shortly after the picture which opens this COAL was taken, Mom started exhibiting the first symptoms of multiple sclerosis, and my sister Helen started showing the signs of a form of schizophrenia.  Mom started having difficulty walking and using her right arm, and Helen had to drop out of college.  My older brother Jim (who had a form of autism then called Asperger’s Syndrome) couldn’t handle things, so he went to live at the family home on Whidbey Island to avoid the stress.  That left dad and me as the two drivers in the family.  I was allowed to drive the Sportwagon to high school, because I was sometimes needed to deal with a medical emergency concerning mom or Helen (or both).  Dad was traveling a lot for work in those days to make extra money for the medical bills, so it was up to me to drive Mom to the doctor or drive Helen to the psychiatric facility when she had a breakdown.

As an aside, in 1970 Dad traded his 1963 Buick Electra 4-door hardtop for a 1967 Electra coupe.  Ours was dark blue, like the four -door above, but a coupe, like the white one.  It had a black vinyl top, vinyl interior, power everything, Super Turbine 400 3-speed automatic, and the new Buick 430 V8 that replaced the old “Nailhead” engine.  I loved that car!  It was fast; luxurious, and sporty.  And I loved those wall-to-wall tail lights!  Whenever dad was away, mom let me drive that car; I felt like king of the world when I drove it.

In my first COAL episode I told the story of when I “drove” our 1953 Buick through the garage doors—twice.  The ’67 Electra is another player in the continuing saga of Crutchfield car crashes.  One morning I was headed up the hill from my house to high school.  Someone came down the hill and didn’t see me coming, so he slammed into my left front fender trying to make a left turn in front of me.  I was OK, but the car was a mess.  The first person on the scene was my next-door neighbor, our high school Principal Mr. Waller. He got me calmed down and took me to school after the car was towed away.  That afternoon, a girl in our school had a medical emergency and had to be taken away in an ambulance, complete with police assistance.  Rumors were running wild, so Mr. Waller got on the public-address system and explained what had happened.  He added “Here at Shorecrest High we watch out for each other. Just this morning I helped one of your classmates who was in a bad car accident.”  My sixth period physics class, who knew the story, broke into laughter and applause; I was mortified.  The senior class voted me “Worst Driver” that year.

The University of Washington Campus. Dad’s office is in the building to the left.

After graduation, I enrolled in the University of Washington.  I had been admitted to Stanford, but Mom and Dad felt it was best if I stay in Seattle.  I moved into the Delta Upsilon fraternity on campus—they felt it was important for me to live away from home, even though it was only 12 miles away. By this time mom was confined to a wheelchair and could no longer drive, so the 1965 Buick went with me.  Parking was limited, but the fraternity gave me parking privileges in return for making runs to a day-old bakery place to get bread and rolls to feed the brothers. I felt a bit ashamed driving a mommymobile, which my pals dubbed The Green Slug.  They had cool cars—Mustangs, Camaros, Javelins, a ’57 T-bird, and a 396 El Camino.  I would put the back seat down in my car and pretend I was driving a two-seater sports car; nobody was fooled.  But I was popular late at night; we could pile lots of guys into my car to make a run to the local burger joint, Herfy’s.  This was frequently done after some of the guys had taken ‘a walk on campus’ (meaning they snuck out of the drug-free chapter house to smoke weed). When they got back they had the marijuana munchies, so off we went in my car in search of junk food.  Since I didn’t do weed, I was the designated driver.

In 1970 my grandmama Helen, who lived a few miles way from the family, decided she had had enough of the dismal Seattle winters and moved back to Los Angeles, where she had lived for years.  Grandmama used to drive with her knees while applying make up.  She raced like the little old lady in the Jan and Dean song.  She also said that it was a “rule” that when making a left turn against traffic that you only had to let three cars go by and then it was your turn to move.  How the driver of the fourth car would know they had to yield, she never explained. So I was asked to drive her down to California, since Dad didn’t trust her to make the trip alone.  I got to drive her 1960 LeSabre coupe (just like this one).  For seventeen-year-old me, it was my first long road trip.  I loved loafing along in that big ol’ Buick with gobs of power.  It was decidedly less fun than it could have been. because Grandmama cried the whole way from Seattle to Portland. She was going to miss her son and the old schnauzer who was too old for the trip and had to be put down.  She stopped sobbing long enough to direct me on how to drive and to nag me about my driving.  When we stopped for the night Dad got on the phone and told her to get off my neck.

A couple of years later, Grandmama came up from California for a visit. I was away at school but came home for evening to have dinner with the family.  When I got there I saw Dad’s Electra in a crumpled heap and Grandmama nowhere to be found.  Apparently she got confused by the parking brake release, and got out of the car to bend down and figure out how to disengage it.  She’d left the car in Drive, and when the parking brake was released the car started to roll, dragging her under and running over her left leg, and then smashing into a light pole.  She was in the hospital for several weeks, and then recuperated at my folks’ house.  She bitterly complained that because of her injury she wouldn’t be able to wear “cute shoes” anymore.  Mom, who had a frosty relationship with her in the best of times, finally retorted “Helen! At least you have hope of walking again.” Mama didn’t take no mess from anyone.

Mom passed away in 1972 at the beginning of my sophomore year.  I was devastated, and the impact of her death worsened my sister’s condition.  For the next three years I would drive The Green Slug back and forth to have dinner with dad once a week or to help cope with my sister.  In 1973 I was bringing Sister Helen home from the psychiatric facility in a snowstorm.  I slid in the snow and crumpled the front fender for my car.  Dad was away at the time, so I dealt with the insurance issues and got the car fixed.  He was not at all amused when he got home.  Also in that year I was on a road trip with fraternity brothers in Spokane.  A bunch of us piled into Tom Hullinger’s 1972 Celica to go drinking in Idaho where the drinking age was 19.  We got tanked, and on the way back to where we were staying Tom lost control of the car and we tumbled down a hill, rolling over six times and ending upright.  I remember my head smashing the back window as we rolled over (I was in the back seat). Miraculously, nobody was hurt.  From then on I had a personal rule: never drive drunk or get in a car with a drunk driver.  Which meant for decades I was the designated driver.

I drove The Green Slug until my junior year of college. For my 21st birthday, Dad gave me $1,000 to buy my first real car.  He had in mind something sensible like a two-year-old Buick Special. I had other ideas, which I’ll discuss in my next COAL episode.

COAL № 1: Buicks Aplenty; a Fiat, and a Pontiac • The Early Years.

COAL № 2: 1958 Plymouth Custom Suburban • Dad’s Biggest regret