COAL: Cars Of My Father, Part 2

Only photo I could find of actual car. Note the obligatory CB antenna on the trunk lid.

Picking up from where I left off on my previous post, let’s peruse some more of the cars owned by my father over the years.

1978 Chevrolet Monte Carlo

As I previously mentioned, my dad owned a roofing company when I was growing up. My dad purchased the business from his father (my grandfather) in 1974, but this was no handout. The roofing company was my grandfather’s retirement nest egg, and he wasn’t about to let it go to his son (or anyone else) for anything less than its full market value. Dad had to heavily leverage himself in order to purchase the business. Suffice it to say the airplane had to go (regrettably never to return; My mom’s piloting days were done). This also meant that Mom had to drive the 1971 Galaxie 500 until it was pretty much used up (which back in those days was after about five or six years), while Dad had to make do with a variety of company pickup trucks for his personal transportation needs. I already discussed some of the traumas this caused in the first part of this post.

By 1978, the business was doing well enough that we were able to move to a bigger house in a nicer part of town, and Dad was able to treat himself to his first new car since 1971. Like most of his subsequent cars, it was leased by the business to reduce his personal tax burden.

So we headed out to Tynes Chevrolet-Cadillac in Delaware, Ohio to pick out a car, a shiny new 1978 Monte Carlo (I would always accompany him on his new car purchases from then on). This was the first time I had ever been in a new car dealership, and in my 10-year old eyes, it was way better than any candy shop or toy store.

1978 was the first year of the post-Colonnade Monte Carlo. While to my modern eyes the 1973-77 Colonnade Montes look far better than their bland successor, at the time the Colonnade look was getting stale, the 1978 model seemed clean and contemporary by comparison, with its crisply folded lines.

Dad’s MC was very well equipped and being his first new car in seven years, it was full of wondrous gadgets I had never seen before, like a tilt steering wheel and an 8-Track player that I thought was cleverly integrated (you pushed the tape through the radio dial, which was actually a hinged door). My Dad didn’t own any 8-track tapes at the time, to the dealer threw in a demo tape with a Cadillac label that was presumably only supposed to be proffered to Cadillac purchasers.

It came in what to my eyes was a rather unusual color combination: It was red with a white landau roof, and a whorehouse red tufted velour interior. This was our family car, but it didn’t bother us too much that the back seat passengers had to crawl through a narrow opening and navigate a web seat belts to get in and out of the back. This was the peak of the Personal Luxury Coupe era, and only losers and cheapskates drove 4-door cars. It was probably safer for us kids too, as 4-door cars of the era locked the child safety locks that modern cars have.

Being a GM car of the 70s, and the first year of a new model generation, the car was not without problems. The 3.8L V6 seemed very rough (especially compared to the V8 in the Galaxie). The car frequently shook at idle and under acceleration. The frameless door glass didn’t seal very well and leaked wind (and occasionally water) at highway speeds. And those plastic rub strips around the front bumper started to discolor and fall out almost immediately.

It’s kind of amazing what people put up with back then: The late ’70s and early ’80s were truly a low point for Detroit.

1985 Chevy Van 20 Conversion

Internet photo, but virtually identical to the one my dad owned.


I’ve already covered the next several vehicles by Dad purchased is other COAL posts (a 1981 Plymouth Reliant and a 1981 Pontiac Bonneville Diesel), so I’m going to skip ahead a few cars here.

I gotta admit, I did not see this one coming. Every time I thought I had my Dad’s car-buying habits figured out, he would come up with something like this, just to keep me on my toes. If you didn’t live in the midwest in the ’80s, this one is going to be kind of hard to explain.

In Ohio during the ’80s, conversion vans were everywhere. Forget about Cadillacs or Lincolns: Nothing had said that you had arrived like arriving in a full-sized conversion van. Just as the Brougham Epoch was winding down for cars, conversion vans came along and picked up the torch with their pillow-tufted velour seats, captain’s chairs, recessed lighting, and inexpensive (probably pine) wood trim, screwed right into the factory dashboard and trim pieces.

This was a pure Clark Griswold move on the part of my father: He had visions of lots of family bonding taking place during road trips in this rolling living room. He wasn’t wrong: At the time, we were doing lots of traveling (between summer vacations, high school activities, and lots of college visits for both me and my brother). My dad would even set up the table in the back and use it as a rolling office while I chauffeured him around in summers. To be honest, there are far worse ways to ply the freeways.

This was the vehicle in which I experienced my first blowout, which happened when I was chauffeuring my Dad around one summer. It was surprisingly uneventful – not at all like what you see on TV with cars spinning out and rolling over upon losing a tire. Like most conversion vans, it has the spare tire mounted outside the rear door. What it lacked, however, was any kind of jack or lug wrench. Luckily a kind semi truck driver pulled over and helped us switch the tire.

Very similar to the interior of my dad’s (minus the playboy accouterments and mirror on the ceiling).

The van was a breeze to drive, at least on the freeway. Around town, it was a different story. The forward seating position (relative to the front axle) meant that you had to turn into corners and parking spots much later than you were used to. Rear visibility was non-existent: Backing out of a parking spot was always a white-knuckle experience.

This vehicle had other demerits. The “doghouse” over the engine intruded on the front seat legroom (although it did do a better than expected job of keeping noise and heat from the engine compartment out). It was equipped with a 5.0L 4-bbl V8, good for a whopping 160 hp and 245 lb-ft of torque. While it wasn’t exactly slow, it certainly wasn’t fast. It was equipped with an early version of GM’s EEC (Electronic Engine Control), and from the day we got it, it never really ran right. We experienced constant problems with hesitation and backfiring that the dealer could never fix, so we just learned to deal with the problems and the constantly illuminated check engine light.

The (non-powered) sliding side door was heavy and tricky to operate, especially when parked on a hill. And for a vehicle that was supposed to encourage sightseeing, visibility was extremely limited through the four gun slot side windows and their accompanying blinds and curtains.

Like many vehicles, the Chevy van served a certain purpose at a certain point in time. Once my brother and I had gone on to college and left the nest, the van’s raison d’être had evaporated: Indeed, its girth and inefficiency had become a liability at that point.

That’s all for now. Come back next week for Part 3 to see what he replaced it with.