COAL: 1971 Chevrolet Kingswood Estate – Wood You Want This For Your First Car?

Mine looked just like the one in the advertisements.


(welcome our new Sunday COALer)

It was the Spring of 1983. I was about to graduate from High School and had been accepted into the Computer Science program at the University a few towns over. I was seventeen and had my driver’s license but just hadn’t needed a car up to that point. Now a I needed something to get me to and from school and whatever part-time job I could land.

Student loans and financial aid covered a lot, and as long as I was pursuing a degree I could live at home rent-free (with free meals). It was my parents’ quiet incentive: Go to college or start paying rent. It worked on my older siblings and it worked on me.

So what to drive? My parents drove full-size cars and I used them on occasion, but for myself I wanted something smaller and cooler, like a Chevelle or a Nova. No funny foreign cars need apply in those days.

Practicality (meaning having no money) reared its ugly head, however. My parents rarely bought brand-new cars, but my mother always had the “nice” car and my father drove the “old” one. The neighbors were selling their 1975 Lincoln Continental sedan, and that became my mother’s “new” car. My father kept his 1968 Bel Air because of the low miles, which meant…

Buckle your seatbelt or you’re going to slide across that seat when you make a hard turn.

I was the proud(?) owner of a 1971 Chevrolet Kingswood Estate. A wagon was not exactly the cool wheels I was hoping for, but free is free and it would get me to a job where I could hopefully save up for something better.  The car itself was in fairly good shape, painted in that metallic gold from the advertisements, with a generous slathering of fake wood paneling on the sides. There was no rust to speak of, but the lower half of the clamshell electric tailgate no longer went down after someone had rear-ended my father a few years prior. The cosmetic damage was minor and he never bothered to get it fixed.

My tailgate didn’t disappear, nor did I have the roof rack.

I got a part-time job as the stock boy for a greeting card store at a nearby mall and was soon attending classes. I made new friends, started volunteering at the school radio station one night a week (spinning classical music, no less) and life was good.

I met my friend Karl in a European history class. He, too, was driving an old family wagon: A 1972 Chrysler Town & Country. Naturally, boys being boys, we had to pull them up alongside each other to see who’s was longer. The Chrysler won, of course, which Karl still delights in reminding me.

At some point the water pump needed replacing. I was not good with mechanical things, but my older brother replaced it for me. (My father would later joke that he was going to leave me his tools in his will because he knew they would stay in pristine, unused condition). That night I picked up my friend Mike to work our shifts at the radio station.

Near the end of our drive home I was feeling good about having a working car again. We were on a fairly deserted stretch of straight highway, it was 1:00 in the morning and the speedometer said the car could go to 120, so I thought, “Why not?”

I put the pedal to the floor and we were going 85… 95… 100… and then POOF! A cloud of smoke billowed out from under the hood and all of the lights in the car went out. I managed to steer the car into the breakdown lane. A passerby stopped and gave Mike a ride to his parents’ house nearby. His father came by and the car came to life with a jumpstart.

It turned out that while replacing the fuel pump my brother had accidentally wedged a battery cable next to the engine block. When the engine got hot enough the cable melted and the battery was drained in an instant. He replaced the cable and all was well. I might have neglected to mention to my brother or father exactly why the engine got hot enough to melt through the cable until somewhat later.

Aside from that my time with the Kingswood was uneventful. Joke as I might about the wagon being a girl-magnet, a year later I had some money and I was thinking again about Novas. My father had other ideas, which I’ll cover in my next COAL.