COAL: 1978 Chevrolet Van – The Iron Maiden

We had been comfortably cruising around in the coolest car Dad ever owned – a 1974 AMC Matador Oleg Cassini coupe – when he decided to go into business for himself as a cabinetmaker. He needed to haul lumber and finished pieces, so he traded the Matador for the uncoolest car he ever bought: a 1978 Chevy van.

This great white whale was meant for hauling and had only two seats. That wouldn’t do for a family of four, so Dad, safety always uppermost on his mind, got a back seat from another van and leaned it against the side wall. My brother and I had a great view out the sliding-door window, but the first time Dad made a hard left turn, the untethered seat slid straight across the van. We were lucky to have only banged our knees.

It was 1980, and a simpler and deadlier time. Integrated front-seat shoulder belts were still a fairly new invention, and rear seats still had only lap belts. Most people didn’t bother with either of them; at the time, compulsory seat-belt laws were still years away. Mothers carried babies in their laps in the front seat, and kids rode loose in the back of station wagons and in pickup beds.

Remarkably, we had only one other close call. It happened one icy day when Dad tried to change lanes and instead put the van sideways down the busiest street in town. Somehow the loose seat slid forward only a foot or two and didn’t topple; what’s more, we even managed not to hit anything as Dad wrestled furiously with the steering to put the van right again.

When I said that Dad wrestled with the steering, I wasn’t kidding; this was, after all, a stripper with Armstrong steering and “two-sixty air” – no air conditioning, but cool enough on a hot day if you drove 60 miles an hour with the two windows down. The van’s only amenities were its automatic transmission, power brakes and AM radio.

Dad’s furniture business never took off, so back he went to an eight-to-five job. Soon after, he bought another car, this time a dull Escort hatch, which banished the van from the driveway onto the side street. One night, a young heavy-metal fan with a can of green spray paint stopped to paint the name of his favorite band on the van’s flank. Dad drove it that way for a year before finally having it painted, and that’s how we all came to call the van “The Iron Maiden”.

I had my first driving lessons in the Iron Maiden with its super-stiff manual steering. Although most other manual-steering cars I’ve driven steered easily after they got rolling, the Iron Maiden’s steering was difficult at any speed; I needed to use both hands just to change lanes. Once time a tire blew while I was driving it, and I needed every bit of my strength to steer the van straight!

After using the Iron Maiden less and less, Dad finally sold it. None of us was particularly sad to see it go.

On the other hand, we all still speak fondly of the Matador.

(Photos are of the Iron Maiden itself, that I took as a teenager.)