The Fever. The pattern had become quite apparent to me. Each spring and each fall I got the
almost irresistible urge to buy a car. Six months was pretty perfect timing, really. The weather was great those two times of the year so that the jobs that any new-to-me car would require could be done in comfortable weather, neither freezing or profusely sweating. And six months was about the time it took to fully experience what my new-to-me car had to offer. There was no bigger thrill than the initial period of infatuation with a new car. Smelling its smells, listening to its sounds, feeling its surfaces and otherwise wallowing in the newness of the experience. It was kind of like a series of extended test drives, except that I was responsible for all of the repairs.
By this time, I think I had done a full brake job on every car but the Cadillac(s). Plugs, points, air filters, wiper blades, and probably two or three batteries. Had someone run a business that let a guy swap interesting old cars every six months for a fixed monthly fee, he might have had me as a customer for life.
In the spring of 1980 I was ready. Ready for what? As much as I loved it, I felt that I had inhaled or absorbed all the newness that my 59 Fury had to offer. I could have paid for a transmission rebuild but chose not to. I rationalized to make it about the gas my V8 Plymouth was using, but I really didn’t drive enough to make that a major factor. And anyway, it was spring and I was restless. I was also finally ready to become a Mopar Man. Technically I was a Mopar man already, what with my 1959 Plymouth Fury and all. But that was old-school. I was ready to become a REAL Mopar Man, and that was going to require something with a real Mopar starter.
I found my next car as I generally did at that time, pretty much by accident. Another of my Sunday drives through a car dealer lot got me again. Bill Gaddis Chrysler Plymouth in Muncie was a favorite. First, it was a chance to check out new Mopar stuff, but they tended to have some interesting used cars. I had a near-trade experience when I found a silver 1961 Plymouth Belvedere sedan in their lot. A slant six with the pushbutton TorqueFlite, I asked and they let me take it for a spin. It was tighter than my 59 Fury sedan, uglier than my 59 Fury sedan and slower than my 59 Fury sedan. None of the dash electricals worked and to top it all off, one of the wheelcovers tried to escape during my brief test drive. I no longer remember, but I probably tried to offer my 59 as a trade, and undoubtedly the salesman was not interested. My guardian angel was on duty.
But one fine May Sunday I found the real thing. A 1971 Plymouth Scamp, Tawny Gold Metallic with a dark brown vinyl roof and beige/gold vinyl interior. A slant six/Torqueflite satisfied my desire for economy. Also, the front fenders (where these often erupted in rust) were perfect (though the rear quarter panels were more typical with a little Bondo in their history). By this time, I was well acquainted with the slant six because of some cars that my roommate Dan had driven (found by his father Howard). I had driven both the red 72 Duster (six auto) and the red 74 Charger (six 3 speed).
I was really excited that it was a Scamp (a Dart Swinger would have been just as good) because I really liked the square-cut lines on them. These early ones still had vent windows (I was a smoker and this mattered) and I couldn’t get enough of that concave back window. There were only two problems. First, the car had something like 96K on the odometer and looked a bit more used than most of my prior cars. However, the car drove right and that slant six both idled and ran as smooth as a baby’s butt. Second, I did not have the $1095 the dealer was asking.
A call to my mother arranged a loan to bridge me until I could sell the car she still called Moby Dick. She hated Moby and would have loaned me almost any amount of money if it meant my getting rid of it. I managed to bargain the dealer down to $875 (if memory serves) for a cash deal and I was now a real Mopar Man. With a classic Mopar to boot, for the next several months until I finally managed to offload it. At 9 years old, this was the newest car I had ever owned. I immediately set to work on the little things it needed – It needed tires and one flying saucer wheelcover from the junkyard to replace the mismatching cover (from a 68 Chevelle) that irritated me every time I looked at it. I then installed the Brand X am/fm/cassette unit I had taken out of my Mustang before that ill-advised trade. Look at me, another new car!
I have never been one to name my cars, but I did eventually take to calling this one The Scamper. The Scamper would become my loyal companion through thick and thin for the next five years – busting through every JPC auto ownership record and setting a standard that would not be broken for quite awhile.
I owned that car long enough to start doing the same repairs more than once. I went through two sets (or was it three) of used tires – the seconds being my first-ever radials, which were transformative. Exhaust systems and brakes and the cheap rebuilt starters got done multiple times, plus there were the usual things like U Joints, valve lash adjustments and such. That was the car I really came into my own at wrenching upon. Like when Dan and I tried hooking his father’s boat trailer onto the really solid hitch out back. That part was fine. The part where we hooked up the electrical connector less so. “Hmmm” I thought the first time the car’s sensitive ammeter dove hard to the “D” when I applied the brakes. A different word came to my mind when it did it again then bopped right back to the middle. OK, a fuse will be an easy fix. And would have been had I not been dealing with the little Hercules of a fuse, the strongest fuse ever made – the one that would stoically withstand a fatal jolt of electricity while refusing to give up. Death with honor! Disney could have made a great movie about that fuse. The rest of the electrical system was not so valiant. (Sorry). The short traveled past The Little Fuse That Could, barged up into the steering column and murdered the emergency flasher switch, that was surely taken by surprise.
I made do for awhile without fixing it. I was at school and lacked my tools and a decent place to work. The lack of functioning brake lights (another casualty of the dead flasher switch) was a problem that was solved by pulling out the headlight switch when braking. At least during the day. If there was someone behind me at night I would start doing alternating turn signals. So long as I could get traffic behind me to notice that I was about to do something, I trusted that they would pay enough attention to figure out what that something was. The real fix was accomplished several weeks later, which required removing the steering wheel and dropping the column (supporting it from a rope tied to the vent window frames) in order to get to that switch and its wiring.
The Scamper had been a fairly high trim car with the light package that included the fender mount turn signals. It had always irritated me that they never worked – someone had cut the wires, probably when replacing the fenders that were so un-rusted. A trip to the Direct Connection parts counter resulted in a special-ordered light kit that gave me everything I needed to re-activate those oh-so-cool fender-tip turn signal lights. Life was good. And I was quite proud of my fix of the worn lower door hinge that caused the same droopy door that irritated me so on the Mustang. The right number of washers used as shims between the door and the hinge for each hinge bolt lined the door up just fine.
As the rear quarter panels continued to slowly melt away I had the good fortune that my friend Lowell had just graduated from technical school with his credential in body and paint work. He had the tools and I had a summer job at an auto supply warehouse which allowed me to buy paint and supplies at cost plus 10%.
We spent a week of after-work bonding time. Bondo-ing time, actually. No, it was better than that. It involved metal snips, a pop riveter, fresh sheetmetal, filler and sanding. Lots and lots of sanding. Lowell’s air sander and a borrowed compressor made the job so, so much easier.
I will confess to being quite pleased with my reproduction of the body character line that went from an outie to an innie at the leading edge of each rear wheel opening. That part was all me. We got the car ready for paint and took it to his then-girlfriend’s house where her father had a pretty good compressor and spray setup in his garage, including an old furnace blower to blow paint fumes out into the neighborhood as it sucked (not nearly enough) good clean air in through a furnace filter in an open window. The neighbors were surely delighted.
Several hours later the Scamper emerged in its fresh Tawny Gold Metallic acrylic enamel.
The color was a touch off (it was a whisker more greenish, a whisker less brownish), but I learned a hard lesson about color variability in mixing and spraying metallics. All in all, it looked fabulous. Until the brown vinyl roof started to peel later that year.
The following summer we all had a mini-reunion as we stripped the vinyl off the roof, filled the hidden welds and painted the roof with a 1972 Chrysler butterscotch color that was really close to the painted parts of the interior. It seemed easier to leave the chrome edge trim there and go with a contrasting color rather than to fill all the extra holes and try the impossible task of blending the body color.
The Scamper saw me through the last two years of college and a senior year pizza delivery job. Sadly, I broke a band in the transmission when trying to rock out of a snowbank one cold night at work and the car would no longer go into reverse. A local transmission shop fixed me up for about $350 and I was back to delivering pizzas. I remember thinking about how much money I could have saved if only I had bit the transmission bullet two years earlier on Moby. Oh well. That was also the winter that the plastic gear on the distributor disintegrated one subzero morning. A junkyard distributor was an easy fix – once I figured out what the problem was. It was too cold for the university to hold classes, but not too cold to replace a distributor in the alley behind our apartment.
The Scamper then saw me to law school where it stuck by me for the entire three years. The car looked reasonably presentable and I came to appreciate the low-stress way of doing its job compared with the newer cars of my roommates. A 75 Mustang II, an 80 Monza hatchback and a 77 LTD II sedan – none of the three held the slightest bit of interest for me, as I had the Scamper and it had me. My friend Lowell also had a Mustang II in this period, and he was always jealous of how smoothly the Scamper idled.
When the differential started to howl at the end of that first year of law school, I never considered an alternative to fixing it. A junkyard differential/leaf spring combo (because I discovered a broken spring in the process) had me back on the road. When that diff started to howl too, I finally broke down and took it in for some professional attention, which put the little car right again. And little things that would have irritated me before became kind of endearing, like how I must have sprung the retaining tab on the driver’s wiper arm because it kept wanting to work itself off. I got in the habit of periodically smacking it back on. I think it only flew off a couple of times while I was driving.
In the last 2 or 3 years, I had stumbled upon a hack that really made the car sing. Cold starts had always been immediate, but it was a different story when the engine was warm and the weather was hot. A second heat shield gasket under the carb solved that, and with an interesting side benefit. Howard had taught me the magic of the “road tune” – forget about factory timing marks. Just advance the timing until it started to ping a bit on a test drive, and then back it off a touch. That double gasket did an interesting thing besides insulate – it would allow the engine take an extra 8 or 10 degrees of timing advance without knocking. Both fuel mileage and performance really jumped in the summer time. I noticed that the transmission shifting was affected a bit, so I scribed a line at the original setting for the kickdown linkage and slid it down a bit until the shifting felt right. In the fall it all went back to factory because the setup took super long to warm up in cold weather. I never figured out why the double gasket allowed such aggressive timing advance, but it did.
As I came close to graduation from law school, my Mother was quite convinced that the Scamper was beneath my new station in life. I was coming to agree with her, but for the first time in my life I was not that eager to get rid of my daily driver. I readied myself to ditch it, but every time I got in and fired it up, the slant six would purr as smoothly as ever despite now having 145K on it.
The car and I seemed to understand each other. But every relationship must come to an end (especially when half of the relationship is a car). I was approaching graduation from law school and the start of a career and it would soon be time to move on from the cheap wheels that had served me so faithfully.
This last photo was taken Thanksgiving weekend of 1984, at what would turn out to be the start of my last six months with the car. I had forgotten about this photo, and had also forgotten that the one place on the car that had not been rusty when Lowell and I had our epic Summer O Bodywork was now doing what the quarter panels on A bodies always did. It was just a little slow at it. It was going to be time for new (or at least nicer) wheels and I began a transition into my next car – details to come.
Every car has a personality and The Scamper was no different. I eventually decided that The Scamper was like the title character in the movie Rudy. Lots of other cars came out of their factories better looking, more luxurious or with more performance and sex appeal. But The Scamper had heart and would come through when the cool cars failed. Like the sub-zero Christmas Day of 1983 when out of four cars in the driveway, all much newer and more expensive, The Scamper was the only one that would start. At the end I got over five years and about 50,000 miles out of a car that many would have considered used up when I got it. My days as a serial car philanderer may not have been completely over, but I had learned what a good relationship with a car is supposed to be like.
Around May of 1985 I was beginning my first career job. It was then that a friend bemoaned how a drunk driver had plowed through his yard and creamed his old but faithful Toyota Corolla. “I just hate having to buy a car when you need a car” he said. “They know you’re desperate and they screw ya.” Ed was a lawyer who had come from steel mill country up near Chicago (a place we in Indiana call “The Region”, though locals pronounce it “Da Region”) and he was a practical dude. I told him I could solve his problem, and I did. He bought the Scamper for $575 to drive while he took his time looking for a new car. I later asked how it went and learned the horrible end of the Scamper – After it had served its purpose (Impeccably, I should add) Ed had it up for sale and some guy wrecked it during a test drive. Dammit. The most heroic car I ever owned cut down in a stupid traffic accident.
Several years later I was driving past a sleepy little used car lot. It was one of those lots where cars at the bottom of the bottom wait for some poor soul willing to sign over a disability check and make weekly payments. I did a double take. There was a 71 Scamp in Tawny Gold Metallic with a 1972 butterscotch roof, a color combo sported by no other Scamp in the world. I pulled in but nobody was there. It was The Scamper, all right. With a different engine – someone must have been fooled by the oil pressure light that never worked, or maybe the wreck broke something. And the rear floor was spongy as the hidden rust kept up its work. I knew it was time to move on and I sadly walked back to my car (I don’t even remember which one) and drove away, feeling like I had abandoned it. But I did not. It was only a car and its time had come. By now it was the second half of the 1980s and almost everything from 1971 had been put down years earlier.
I still occasionally have dreams about The Scamper. Usually it involves me opening the door to a garage I had forgotten about, and there it is, still waiting for me. It starts right up and I am reminded of the feather light power steering and the smooth idle, and I wonder why I stopped driving it. And then I wake up and remember that The Scamper has been in Mopar Heaven for at least a quarter century. And I am sad because I really, really loved that stupid little car.