Here’s the first car that I legally owned (as opposed to driving a car registered to my parents). When I turned 21 in 1974 Dad gave me $1,000 to buy a car of my own. He’d done that with my older brother, who chose a rather mundane 1963 Ford Custom 500 sedan, courtesy of our neighbor Bill Pierre, who owned one of the largest Ford dealerships in Seattle. When it was my turn, I wanted something more sporty than a boring sedan or my old Buick station wagon.
At the time I was living in my fraternity house on the University of Washington campus. My fraternity brothers drove cool cars, like Mustangs or Camaros or Javelins. I had a general idea that I wanted something that was sporty; economical, and had a manual transmission—my loathing of my Buick’s two-speed Super Turbine 300 was at play here.
This was long before the era of Car Max or Carvana or the internet, so I started scouring the used-car section of The Seattle Times classifieds, and the cars-for-sale booklets you found in newsstands. My first search was for a pony car.
I really liked the lines of the 1967-9 Plymouth Barracuda, even though I knew it was basically a tarted-up Valiant. I also wanted something that was economical, since this was the time of the first oil crisis. Gas was up to 50 cents a gallon! As a cash-strapped college student I didn’t want a gas guzzler. Alas, all the cars I saw for sale were either automatics, or manual transmissions behind big-block V-8s. I didn’t need a vroom-vroom speed machine, so I searched elsewhere.
A friend of a friend of a friend advertised a Fiat 850 sports car in the University of Washington student newspaper. I loved the odd, ugly-duckling look of it, so I went and checked it out. It was in rather tattered condition, and it needed a new top. The existing top had a hole in it, and there was mold inside. Now, if you have spent time in Seattle you know we have cold, drizzly rain about six months of the year. A convertible with a hole in the top just wouldn’t do. Plus, dad reminded me of our family experience with a Fiat when we lived in Europe. He said “Steve, FIAT stands for “Fix It Again, Tony!”. So I passed on that one.
Another friend of a friend of a friend had a 1967 Datsun 1600 for sale, so I checked that one out. It was silver, just like this car. It had an OHV 4 cylinder engine and a four-speed stick shift. It also came with a tonneau cover that snapped into place over the interior, which I thought was neat. So I took it for a test drive.
Now, I had never driven a stick shift car before, except when I had to move cars in the fraternity parking lot. Seattle has a lot of hills, and on the test drive I ended up at a stop light on James Street heading uphill from downtown. That is a very steep street. I stalled the car several times trying to get going. The owner was super annoyed with me. He told me to use the parking brake to hold the car while I got it going. After a few tries I got the hang of things. Dad was not thrilled with my choice, suggesting instead a nice, practical A-body Buick Special like the one he bought for Grandmama. I was 21 and headstrong, so I took the $1,000 and bought the Datsun. It was even titled in my name, making it the first car that was legally mine! I was so excited!
I drove that car for about a year. It got good gas mileage, and was a lot of fun to drive. During sunny days in the middle of winter (a rarity in Seattle) I would put the top down, put on the parka I wore skiing, and run about with the heater of high. The only impracticality was that the spare took up most of the space in the trunk. I ended up stuffing the spare tire on the package shelf behind the seats, where it JUST fit. The car was fairly reliable. The only issue I had was when the clutch went out. I contacted a foreign car repair shop down the hill from my fraternity house to come look at it. He put the car in reverse, and used the starter to back the car out into the street. He shifted to first, got the car going, and coasted it down the hill to the repair shop. It set me back $200, which was a lot for me at the time. But that was the only major problem I had with the car.
Around this time I was dating someone who lived in Chehalis, Washington. That’s about 80 miles south of Seattle. One time I was coming back into town cruising along I-5 about 70 miles an hour. Unfortunately, this was the era of the 55 mph speed limit, and I gulped as I sped past a radar traffic cop. I quickly got off the interstate before the state trooper could get back to his car. I waited a few minutes to see if I was followed. After awhile I headed back north on the interstate. I passed the same trooper in a heated argument with the driver of a silver Datsun 1600 he had pulled off to the side. I was lucky!
The little car served me well during my senior year of college. I commuted from home to the University for the fall term in 1974 – my sister’s psychiatric condition had worsened and I wanted to help. Alas, she took her own life the following spring. Dad and I were devastated, but we realized that her prognosis was so dismal that this must have been her way out.
In 1975 I graduated from the University of Washington with a B.A. in economics and history. And since this is a Crutchfield story, there is of course some family drama involved with that. I was in line waiting to go into the commencement ceremonies when I noticed the lady who later become my stepmother coming out with a police officer looking for me. It seems Dad had a heart attack climbing the stairs in the auditorium. Stepmama-to-be was taken by the police officer to the hospital, so I had to trek across campus to get Dad’s car and meet them there. I was in a daze, and when I got to the hospital I went running up and down the corridors asking for Dr. Crutchfield (Dad had a Ph.D in economics). I kept getting odd looks, and a nurse asked if I belonged in the psych ward. It was then that I realized that I was still wearing my cap and gown. Oops!
Dad recovered, aided by one of the first heart artery bypass operations. That August, I sold the Datsun to the little brother of a friend, since I was heading back east. I had been accepted into the Ph.D. program at Yale, where I would study for my doctorate in economics. I would be living on campus, and so I would not need a car.
Next up: a pair of Pintos, and a several cross-country drives.
COAL № 1: Buicks Aplenty; a Fiat, and a Pontiac • The Early Years.
COAL № 2: 1958 Plymouth Custom Suburban • Dad’s Biggest regret
COAL № 3: 1965 Buick Sportwagon • My first car
Ed Hardey’s COAL about the Fiat 850 Spider
Paul’s post about the Datsun Fairlady/1600
Great car, great post. I can sympathize with your struggle up James Street. As a grad student I had to walk seven blocks up James Street from my bus stop downtown to my office in Harborview hospital. One morning, inspired by my daily trudge, I decided to look at the Wikipedia article for “Grade (Angle)”. I found unexpected validation when, loo and behold, I found the article included an old picture of the very same hill I climbed daily (attached).
Wow, from the cars in that picture it looks like it was taken in the 1970s.
I got stuck on James Street where it passes under I-5. At rush hour. Horns were honking and drivers were getting angry because I was blocking access to get to I-5 north.
I’m really enjoying your stories, though I am sorry they are tinged with what must be sad memories too. But, that’s life and if you are like me, you can recall when long-ago things happened by which car you were in, or which car was in the family driveway, etc. My older son recently graduated from Yale, so I am looking forward to some stories involving The Hav and cross-country drives!
Many years ago I was discussing how to handle a stick shift on-a-hill start up with a girl friend who had inherited a manual Omni/Horizon from her mother.
“Hills are easy” she proudly explained “I find the perfect spot of raising the clutch until the car doesn’t fall back or go forward and I hold that position until I can continue”.
“Gee” I said, picking my words carefully and not wanting to spoil what I hoped would be a nice romantic weekend, “that’s got to be rather hard on the clutch”.
I don’t recall the details, but I do not think she kept the car very long.
Your trials and tribulations starting up a steep hill with a stick used to be the acid test of getting a driver’s license, harder even than parallel parking. Now, I suspect many road test instructors may not even know how to drive stick.
Down here, you can’t take a driver’s test with an automatic, unless you are disabled and are applied for an automatic only license. There are several steep grades in Montevideo where instructors would take you to make sure you were able to negotiate without stalling, as stalling would most times make you fail the test.
I did that 40 years ago with a 1970 VW, which had a functional gearbox. But a few years before, post war Jeeps were the instructor car of choice, so, no syncros….
This sounds like another life chapter with soaring highs and crashing lows. Graduation from college is an exciting time, full of possibilities, but then family health issues crashed in hard.
You also describe my alternate life plan. I was an econ major (maybe 7 years behind you in graduating college) and I had at least two profs who told me I should go to grad school in that discipline. I have sometimes wondered what my life would have looked like if I had taken their advice.
This is one of my favorite Japanese cars of the 1960s. I say that without ever having driven or even ridden in one, but this is a car you can just tell from looking how it drives. Or so I tell myself.
J P – I originally thought I’d go to law school. I fancied myself a Perry Mason defending innocent people. Then I took the law school admissions test and watch the movie “The Paper Chase”. So I switched to going for my PhD in economics instead. It also meant I had to go out of state, it wouldn’t do to study for a doctorate in the same department where Dad was a professor.
As it turned out I ended up writing my dissertation on a topic where Dad was the world’s expert. And for much my my career I was “His Son”. Later in life as I made my own name Dad got asked “Are you Steve’s father?” That pleased us both.
My FIL happens to have one of these that he used to race! It doesn’t run anymore but man, he loved it (still does). Hemmings did a piece about the car a decade or two ago titled: Driven to Win – 1967 Datsun 2000 if anyone is interested. Before I met my wife I didn’t realize Datsun made a cool sports car Pre-Z.
Thanks for another great chapter that emphasizes (as Importamation said above) the place that cars fill as markers in the even grander story of life’s ups and downs.
I never personally thought about economics as a career, but I will say that I had several very enjoyable years early in my career managing an economics research institute at the state land grant university out here in MA, and found economists to be quite fun and interesting folks to work with. At least the ones in my institute were mostly classic data nerds (and all of the good stuff IMO that goes with that) back before “nerd” only meant stuff relating to IT. Good times that ultimately pointed me toward other social sciences, but always with an appreciation for the ways that an economist looks at the world.
There’s an old joke: If you laid all the economists end-to-end they’d all point in different directions. 🙂
And another joke that I claim credit for:
How many economists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
None – assuming that the original light bulb was still working.
Good choice for your first car. Maybe the owner knew the clutches in these were a bit weak when you were on James St?
Economics? I end up reading articles on economics a lot in my daily rounds at the NYTimes and Bloomberg. It speaks to me; but then so do many other fields. No wonder I never went to higher education; I’d never have been able to decide what to study.
Following in your dad’s footsteps can be tricky; glad it worked out for you two.
I thouroughly enjoy your articles, Steve. They are food for thought, help put one’s own reality in perspective and appreciate the good things we have. And of course, there are the cars.
Keep up this excellent work!
“Give me a one-handed Economist. All my economists say ‘on hand…’, then ‘but on the other…”
Sorry about the loss of your sister at such a young age. When someone takes their own life it often creates a void with more questions than answers. Around 15 years ago while visiting Seattle I had an interesting experience. One day I found myself stopped going up an incredibly steep street. This was confirmed when I looked at the sidewalk and it was a stairway. My body was tightly strapped and locked to the seat by the seatbelt pretensioners. Not Fun! Then the cop directing traffic signalled us to proceed. Two 3,500 rpm clutch launches and I still stalled out. With cars behind me and a cop now staring at me I floored it, dropped the clutch and laid a patch of rubber all the way up the hill. The cop didn’t do anything likely because of my out of state Minnesota plates.
@ Steve: I had the same “hill” experience in San Diego. I can’t remember the name of the street, but somewhere I have a picture of a plaque on the building wall denoting its’ steepness, which guaranteed you to roll back somewhat. In heavy traffic, I had my passenger release the handbrake, when I spied a break in the traffic and we were off! 🙂
Thank you for an enjoyable COAL.
We never had these Datsuns here. Or maybe they were sold new but I had never seen one when I when searching for a two seater 30 years ago. They look pretty good, maybe a bit small.
Back in the late 1970s, I was the assistant to the service manager at a large BMW & Datsun dealership, and part of my job was assigning customer cars brought in for service, to the right mechanic. This was after Datsun of America had ceased supporting the 1600 and 2000 roadsters [type SPL & SRL 311 Datsuns]. This meant that other than a few parts that happened to fit other Datsun models like filters and ignition parts, the only way to obtain repair parts was to order them from Japan and wait months to either get the parts or be finally told they were no longer available. Nissan also had a restriction in buying parts outside of the Datsun supply chain unless Datsun in Japan didn’t have the needed parts.
The dealership was located in a very upscale area just north of Washington DC, and sports cars of all brands sold well. This meant we had sold plenty of the 1600 and 2000 roadsters and still had owners bringing them in for repair & service. Problem was, among the approximately 20 Datsun mechanics, the long wait for parts meant none of the mechanics wanted to work on those cars if the work involved more than simple services like an oil and filter change or a tune-up.
Even being assigned a simple brake system overhaul on a 311 was cause for a mechanic to suddenly come down with a terrible cold and go home. When people would call to make an appointment to bring their car in for repairs, I used to tell customers with roadsters needing work, to park their car in the used car lot and come see me, because even the sight of a 311 in the service lane would cause consternation among some of the mechanics.
Fortunately for 311 owners, this lack of spare parts early on, spurred a good size aftermarket industry, along with multiple independant Datsun parts suppliers who scrounged all over the world for NOS Roadster spare parts.
I’ve had the opportunity to drive a 2000 Roadster on multiple instances, as my restoration shop used to service and repair it. I always enjoyed taking the car out for test drives, and felt it was quicker than the early 240Z cars that replaced it.
I remember these well, in the very early 1970’s you could always find a screaming deal on a Datsun 1600 Roadster (? “Fairlady”?) with a bad clutch ~ I was told the engine had to come out to change said bad clutch so I never tried one .
They must be pretty good as they’re legendary vehicles now .
I’ve long hear the 1600 was nearly the best of the British roadsters, bested by only the 2000, which IIRC even had a rare, at the time, 5 speed. But from the above, I had no idea how close the parts situation made them to the legendary MGs, Triumphs etc. Unfortunately not in a good way.
If the garage was down the hill from a fraternity house at the UW, then I’m guessing it was near University Village.
Thank you for a very heartfelt story – and many sorrows about losing your sister and witnesssing your father getting a heart attack – that puts your academics and career back in perspective.
Just visited the UW campus – your alma mater – what a lovely campus!