COAL: 1971 Volvo 164 • Dreams Deferred Indefinitely

Anyhow. I was living in Toronto and it had been nearly a decade since I’d left the 164 at the shop in Wisconsin. It was past time to repossess it. So in May 2008 I drove down (politically) up (geographically) to Michigan and joined forces with a properly equipped member of my chosen family—we’ll call him Slim—and we set to a crosslake mission to recover the pieces of my car from the unstable, armed dude we’re calling Darryl. We used a borrowed Dodge D250 whose owner had recently bought it for $250. It had neglect roughly commensurate with the missing zero in that price. This truck would tow a borrowed trailer, which Slim put new wheel bearings in before we got going. We spent two days getting ready, which included a great deal of discussion and rehearsal for the unpredictable interaction we were getting ourselves into.

The Badger is still coal-fired today, but now it has modern combustion and emission controls; at that time it didn’t.

We awoke at 4 Friday morning, got in the truck, and headed for Ludington, where we meant to get on the SS Badger to go ‘cross the lake to Wisconsin. I’d misjudged the distance, so we were running very short on time to get there for the 8:00 dock call. Just when we began questioning whether we’d make it, the truck decided to start misfiring and cutting out. I called the boat when it became apparent we’d not make it before 8:30. Of course they couldn’t delay the boat, but if we could make it before the 9:00 departure, they’d let us on, they said. We got to the dock, sputtering truck and all, at about 8:50 and change. You don’t load your own vehicle onto the Badger, you park it and they load it. We were a lot nervous that the truck wouldn’t start for them, but it did, so it and we got on the boat and had a lovely 4-hour crossing on America’s only remaining coal-fired steamship. I highly recommend the Badger; it’s a whole hell of a lot better way to go between Michigan and Wisconsin than getting stuck in Illinois’ permanent traffic jam. I’d booked us a stateroom which kind of reminded me of my first-year-of-university dorm room, but while I was tired from the early getup, my nerves were too jittery to allow much of any sleep.

It’s a…


…great big rilly cool lamp!

The tension ratcheted up a notch when the boat landed at Manitowoc and it was time to see whether the truck’d start for the unloaders, which it did without complaint. It got us about ¾ mile before it cut out again…directly in front of an auto parts store. We took up a sizeable chunk of the otherwise-empty parking lot and started poking around under the hood, taking note of old age here, there, and everywhere. I went in and bought a distributor cap and rotor, eight spark plugs, some transmission fluid and engine oil, carburetor cleaner and assorted other bric a brac. We topped up the fluids, I cleaned the throttle body as a show of goodwill and put in the cap and rotor, and we decided to save the spark plugs for later. The truck seemed to run significantly better, which I’m sure it did, until it didn’t. It cut out again.

Slim drove the persnickety pickup skillfully, we found a motel and parked our stuff there, had one quick final rehearsal, then drove to Plymouth. We had with us a bag of Hippie Chow to use as a peace offering for Darryl and scorched-earth insurance policy for ourselves.

We arrived at the shop to find Darryl’s 78-year-old mother industriously using a Shop-Vac to vacuum the front lawn. Ahem. Seems the snowplow tends to distribute pebbles in the lawn, so obviously the right tool for lawn pebble abatement is a Shop-Vac, and logically the right person for this asinine task is Darryl’s 78-year-old stroke-survivor mother (…doesn’t everybody?).

Darryl was his usual self. His son—the one who drunkenly barged into the 164—was on a first-name basis with alcohol, hard drugs, a lengthy rap sheet, prison time, and other suchlike, so Darryl had custody of his 15-year-old grandson we’ll call “Helmutt”. Helmutt was fiercely smart.

Inside, the shop looked like cyclones had hit it annually since at least the dawn of the Nixon administration, except for the thick layer of pungent, oily, black dust on everything not moved for more than a month. The shop had a waste-oil heater: oil drained from engines and transmissions and rear axles got burnt—lead, zinc, molybdenum, cadmium, and all—to make heat. Thassallright, though; Darryl just filtered his air through cigarettes, cigars, and a little brass pipe.

When we arrived, Darryl was feverishly working to assemble the engine, as though he could somehow make up for nearly a decade’s inaction in a day and a half. I’m not sure why he was bothering. We said our hello, made an offering of a portion of the Hippie Chow, and endured with a smile a great deal of irrelevant babble. After we got done going on a tour of the property (chickens, ducks, fish in a pond, highly numerous parts cars slowly returning to the earth, and old truck trailers that had to be worth at least $50K in scrap metal doing likewise), we returned to the shop, where Darryl had amassed perhaps 70% of the parts belonging to my car in a space just inside the shop’s roll-up door. Certain costly items I’d bought or otherwise paid for over the years were conspicuously absent, such as the engine management system and the overdrive unit, but I forcibly kept my mouth shut. We all agreed it’d be easiest to return the next morning to get loaded up, so as to avoid trying to put the car on the trailer in the dark. The truck started, and Slim and I went off to find some supper.

So Friday was a sort of semi-moist/damp run: Not quite a dry run, not quite the final show. Saturday morning was the real deal: back to the shop to pick it all up. Helmutt was not only smart, but very helpful; despite the disarray in the shop, he seemed to know exactly where everything was. Even the stuff that had been casually stashed for years. Even the stuff that had been deliberately stashed for days. Slim did a masterful job of keeping Darryl engaged in conversation while I quietly asked Helmutt “H’mm…have you seen the overdrive? Any idea where the engine management system is? How about the starter?”. Those parts and others materialised in Helmutt’s capable arms and were discreetly loaded onto the pickup. I will always suspect that Helmutt knew exactly what was going on and quietly chose to side with us rather than with grandpa Darryl.

Darryl gave me a handwritten invoice, itemised after a fashion—the first he’d ever given me—for something like $6,500. I’d forgot my wallet and chequebook on Slim’s kitchen table in Michigan or somewhere; I didn’t have them on me, so all I could do was remove my left boot, retrieve the $376 wad of sockdamp cash, and give it over.

There was drama. Darryl tried to scare me with gun-related threats. And he wouldn’t allow me to unbolt my custom-built alternator and new air conditioning compressor from the parts car he’d bolted them to years before. But Darryl was no match for Slim’s talent for moving things along; he pointed out that if we wanted to make the boat’s departure, we’d have to leave in a hurry, so we gave over more Hippie Chow and departed. Slim wisely reminded me to wait before celebrating; we watched our rearview mirrors all the way to the dock, but Darryl didn’t follow us. At the dock, it became apparent the truck’s fuel line was leaking. Fortunately, the Badger crew agreed with our assessment of the leak as minor; a drip pan would suffice. I went in the office to get our tickets changed from Sunday to Saturday—Slim hadn’t told any lies; he was absolutely correct that if we didn’t leave Darryl’s quickly, we wouldn’t make the one and only Saturday departure of the Badger. Y’don’t mess around with Slim.

When I returned to the dock, a Polish immigrant and his wife, evidently both avid Volvo fans, were taking turns snapping photographs of themselves in front of my 164. Forlorn and incomplete as it was, missing one headlamp and assorted front trim, they still thought it was cool. And they were right!

Would the truck start back up…?


…Yep, it did, and the truck-trailer-car assembly went backing…





We had a delightful crossing back to Michigan. Pulled into Ludington proper and had an absolutely perfect dinner of hot turkey with mashed potatoes and vegetable medley. Split pea soup on the side. The back half of the restaurant was taken up by the owners of the motorcycles parked outside; we’d seen them pull up en masse to buy Badger tickets while we were disembarking. It was only after dinner when we had just set out for the home stretch that Slim advised me not to scrutinise the trailer’s tires too closely. That sounded like good advice, so I followed it. The truck misbehaved all the way home, but we didn’t care. We stopped every hour or so to let it cool down and resume readiness. We got home late at night, but we got home, and finally the long nightmare with Darryl was over, mostly. He carried on e-mailing me demanding to know when he was going to get paid; I guess it’s true what they say about the duration of a minute depending on which side of the bathroom door you’re on.

The car and mountain of parts went into Slim’s barn, where it stayed for another decade. The informal idea had been for him to put it together, but that didn’t happen on account of the perfectly valid reason that he’s got a marriage, job, home, barns, and cars of his own. So life kept on going on, the 164 stayed asleep in the barn, and life went on some more.

By 2018 I felt boxed in and spread thin. And even without budgetary concerns, there was awholenother stack of questions: we wave a magic wand and the 164 is whole and picture-perfect tomorrow morning; hop in and drive anywhere. Now what? Would I drive it? Surely! I bet it would put a smile on my face. I bet it’d be fun to take it on a road trip. My daily driver was (and still is) a stultifying genericmobile, to the degree of being dangerously boring to drive long distances. I had no doubt the assembled and tuned 164 would be just the opposite. Those curvies in the mountains of the BC interior would probably be a total hoot with the M410, climbing and descending. And the soundtrack to it all…!

But I couldn’t figure out just how a vintage Volvo could possibly fit in my life, even a super premium extra-cool one with all the goodies, built with skill and talent and passion and love. I think I’d want to give it back at the end of the trip. Where was I going to park such a one-of-none without it attracting vandalism because people suck? How was I going to stop it quickly deteriorating in use as a daily driver, how was I going to insure it adequately, and what shop would fix it today or tomorrow with parts from where?

So I was feeling, as I say, boxed in. Flailing and taking on water. Hard though it was to admit, and much though it torqued me to acknowledge, my active, hands-on, seated-in participation in the old car hobby really was substantially a thing of the past. And here was this 164, which hadn’t actually, practically been mine since late last century, tying me to grand dreams gone amok in my early 20s, sidetracked by my father’s death and my mother’s meltdown in my mid 20s, derailed through my 30s by my poor choice of contractor, de-prioritised by my marriage, and finally fetched up on the shoals of realism in my 40s.

I needed an exit strategy, and Slim and I devised one. The car didn’t travel very far to its new owner; the old-Volvo network is like that. I understand the odds, oddly, are increasingly good that the car will get put together in the foreseeable future. There’s a real chance perhaps one day its new owner will toss me the keys and let me take it out for a drive. I’d like that.

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