Today’s COAL chapter focuses on the first car that was truly mine and mine alone. Having spent my early – high school – driving years behind the wheel of my family’s diminutive Fiat 128 “Little Car” it only seems fitting that my next ride would end up at the other end of a pendulum swing. From the 1900 lb., 157” long Fiat to the 4200 lb., 221” long LeSabre. I was now driving twice as much car.
I started college in the Fall of 1979 and for unknown (including to me) reasons I decided to ship myself 600 miles south to Emory in Atlanta. Prior to this point, I’d been to Atlanta a couple of times on family vacations. It seemed like an ok place if one could judge from my memories of Six Flags and Pittypat’s Porch (the former being an amusement park, the latter a tourist-trap restaurant questionably themed around pre-immolation-by-Sherman Atlanta). In other words, I knew next to nothing about Atlanta yet decided that it would be a fine idea to spend the next four years of my life there. Ah, youth…
With all of the confidence that my inexperience could muster (i.e., a lot), I committed to Emory and my parents drove me there in the Big Car (Town and Country).
The first opportunity to return home was Thanksgiving, and I flew. I re-united with my high school pals that weekend – they were all going to school in the northeast – and started to feel the initial pangs of “being too far away” from home and friends. This was exacerbated by the fact that Atlanta in 1979 was far from being the world-class city that it is today. In 1979 it was still quite provincial and lacked all that had fascinated me about living in DC — restaurants, museums, screenings of obscure foreign movies, etc. On campus there simply was very little to do besides frat parties and I suppose studying (neither of which excited me). If I was going to survive in Atlanta, I figured I’d have to find a way to explore the surrounding area and just where I could get via public transportation (buses and the 6-station, just opened, MARTA subway line).
Naturally, my parents heard my kvetching, and after paying for two round-trip plane tickets between Atlanta and DC, my dad hatched a plan. He suggested that I take a car back to Atlanta after I came home for Spring break. A car could be had for about the cost of a couple of plane tickets, and if he was going to be paying for the tickets otherwise…
The car he had in mind was 9 year old Buick in “Platinum Mist” (silver) for sale by from some guy at work. It had around 72K miles, the “small” 350 V8, a set of cockeyed aftermarket bumper overriders, and relatively few factory options beyond air conditioning. Even today it seems to me that he got a screaming good deal at $395.
Well, maybe, maybe not. He got the brakes done on the day he bought it because the gas station/inspection place recommended that. And like that, I had my own wheels.
As with most schools, Emory freshmen couldn’t have cars on campus. But asking around, I learned that if I parked off campus, alongside the road that led up to the Centers for Disease Control HQ, I’d be fine. There seemed to be no restrictions on long-term street parking, and that road was always lined with students’ cars. True, there was an active railroad track that you had to cross to get from campus to your car. But aside from the periodic train (which moved slowly enough that you could often jump on and then through) this wasn’t an issue.
I drove the Buick non-stop from DC to Atlanta that March. I guess I was drawing upon my recent experience driving out west because even as an 18-year-old, the idea of a 10-hour drive never concerned me. I loved to drive, and so off I went.
With the car within reach, but parked safely across the tracks, I started to spend most of my spare time driving around Georgia and doing a lot of things that most Freshmen didn’t do…such as going to Kroger’s on a weekly basis to buy groceries to feed myself (since I’d opted off—after my first quarter—of the truly horrid college meal plan). The Buick gave me freedom that I now suspect was exactly what the college didn’t want Freshmen to have; because that spring, rather than creating a lifelong bond (through captivity) with the college and its students, I basically succeeded in living/experiencing an independent life by fleeing campus as often as possible.
At the end of that first year, having developed some clearer thoughts about what I wanted out of my college experience, I loaded up the Buick and headed back up the east coast. I didn’t return to Atlanta for maybe another ten years…by then it was for a business trip. So there.
Back then, Emory had some kind of nutso academic calendar where its school year ended almost a month before most schools in the northeast. I used that month to find another college for the fall. In September, I started school in Massachusetts and got on with the rest of my life.
The college to which I transferred had few issues with student cars on campus. Or, for that matter, few issues with almost anything. In fact most students, most weekends, left campus for Boston or NYC, each only a couple of hours away. Many hitchhiked; there was generally a line of students along the Rt. 9/I-91 south ramp each Friday afternoon. More took the bus, but nearly everyone was happy to have a friend with a car. I was happy to be the guy with a car…a great big giant car that could take at least four companions (six at least once) so if we split the gas, no one ever had to pay much for their weekend travel. I had high school friends in NYC and was making new friends in the City, so I always had some reason to go and somewhere to stay. I was in the City (we called NYC simply “the City”) most every other weekend. When not in the City, there were trips to the Cape, Connecticut, Rhode Island, etc. on one person’s pretense or another. I always found a way to make a weekend out of it and ferried all of us back to campus for Monday.
It was great.
My school also had the majority of its students living in on-campus group apartments. Each apartment was responsible for its own grocery shopping. While there were usually a couple of kids in each apartment who had cars, I without a doubt had the largest car for carrying a group of people plus all of their groceries. Therefore regular grocery shopping trips were also enabled by the Buick.
Oh and two full kegs fit in the trunk. Just for what it’s worth.
As befitting any college friend, in the same league as a favorite dog—we also had lots of dogs on campus, some of whom also regularly rode in my car—the Buick was given a variety of pet names during its college years. It was the Oriental Pleasure Palace (a princely pavilion enhanced by a piece of theatrical gel glued over the map light, and turned on during late night drives to bars, etc.); The Car for the Man Who Knows Who I Am (a paraphrased nod toward Chrysler’s famous pitchman for cars that answered his “demands”); and of course, the Low Rider. That last name acquired after we somehow (Somehow? Yes, you know how….) hatched the idea to spend an evening slowly driving around campus with giant speakers wired into the car’s aftermarket stereo:
In my case, the low rider effect was accomplished through several people dancing on the hood, thereby lowering and bouncing the car. No permanent dents resulted. Light girls, heavy steel. It’s all good.
We had a blast. It filled an evening—at least that’s how I remember it—and was something that other college friends could not have pulled off with their Corollas and diminutive first-generation Civics. The little cars of that era were indeed tiny compared to the mighty LeSabre. I recall being encouraged once to push a Civic sideways across a gravel parking lot when its owner had the audacity to intrude upon the Buick’s parking spot. Those bumper overriders came in handy after all!
While I loved any and all opportunities to drive, the miles added up quickly on the Buick. Naturally, this proved to be a rolling learning experience. When I first got the car I took it to dealers and gas station mechanics for service such as tune ups and oil changes. But despite this regular maintenance, the Buick accumulated a constant stream of annoying problems. Things like broken alternators and voltage regulators (which generated one memorable drive home from the CT coast with virtually no headlights), vaporizing exhaust systems, and a whole range of fuel system problems. These sucked up a disproportionate share of my small campus job income. Therefore, like so many before me, and despite my very limited mechanical skills/knowledge, I started down the road of DIY.
Working on your own car as a college student, at least one in the early 1980s in the Pioneer Valley of Western Mass, wasn’t difficult. There turned out to be quite a few garage spaces back then that catered to the do-it-yourselfer who lacked their own tools and driveway.
This one which I frequented at UMass Amherst emphasized what we would now call STEM skills, with a dose of some bastardized variant of Marxism.
By 1981 when a radiator hose burst and the Buick dumped all of its coolant somewhere in Southern Vermont, I had enough confidence to attack rebuilding the top half of the engine at a self-service Womyn-owned auto service collective (fish, bicycles, men, who needs ‘em?) in Northampton—the UMass workshop being a more expensive towing charge; hitchhiking back and forth between campus and the over the course of the three days it took for me to do the work.
On what in retrospect seems like automotive life-support, the Buick soldiered on through its next 50K miles and my 3 years of college. At the time, my philosophy was that since I didn’t have the money to buy a replacement car, and no real income to get a loan, and I had sort of figured out how to keep patching this one up, I’d just do that. In retrospect, I believe that was the same logic that my parents had employed with several of their cars (the Plymouth and the Simca) as well. I suspect we weren’t the only people at the time thinking this way. I wonder how and when things changed.
Nevertheless, looking at the pile of receipts from my Buick years, I’m astounded by the frequency with which certain jobs were required. Exhaust systems and tune-ups seemed to require nearly constant attention. It appears that I installed about four exhaust systems during my ownership. Those things must have come pre-rusted from Midas. In contrast, I just did the first exhaust work on my current car at 212,000 miles. No, they don’t make them the way they used to.
I graduated from college in 1984 and got the only job I seemed to be qualified for: selling toys and greeting cards in a local variety store. Then again, in 1983, in the midst of Reagan’s Recession, any kind of job for a 21 year old was a good thing. Even better if the job came with a built-in after-closing happy hour where employees could indulge in illicit (then, not now) activities with the boss and talk about his car that was way cooler than mine.
From the looks of it, definitely cooler, but not really much bigger.
It was also during this time that I spent weeks trying to figure out how to rescue a pair of 1956 Fleetwood Series 75 limos that were slowly sinking into the ground at an abandoned used car lot in Northampton. The first of many cool vehicles that have gotten away.
My big American car phase—and the Buick specifically—was still ongoing when I got married shortly after college. So the Buick was part of that (although a brace of Dagmar-clad formal limos would have been even better, I’m just saying). I’m not sure why I don’t see too many decorated cars related to weddings nowadays. Maybe destination weddings have diminished the number of people who drive away from the reception in their own cars. Not so in 1984. Anyhow, my friends decorated the Buick for us.
For some reason, they chose spray snow as their writing implement. (“We couldn’t find any shaving cream!”…but somehow they found spray snow in May?) Guess what? That stuff doesn’t wash off of cars. And so the Buick was now proudly tagged “Luv Mobile” for the rest of its motoring days. I preferred TCFTMWKWIA.
The rest of its motoring days were not long.
By this time, the Buick’s floors were definitely resembling those of the Flintstone-mobile. I patched them with simple aluminum sheets, pop-riveted in to get it through MA inspection – which at the time focused almost exclusively on rust damage. That worked for maybe a year, but not longer. My wife had a much newer vehicle (a truck!) that could get us around. But the need for two vehicles was keen. Fortunately, my move from the greeting cards/toy store to something somewhat more respectable (sorry, Cadillac Steve) occasioned a radically different vehicle. Next week.