COAL, Part 1: Growing Up – One Good Car Then a Whole Lot of Rubbish

I think that I only have two memories from when I was three years old. The first was of my dad coming home from work, putting me in his car and circling the house at speed while I laughed and jumped in the front seat.  There is also a memory from about the same time which involves the neighbours bringing me a cat.  One thing for certain is that the cat outlived all of the cars in this introductory post.  By the look of the old photos I’ve been looking through to put this together,  cats and cars seem to have been pretty pivotal in my life. Which is odd as I’m not sure I like either of them most days.

I was pretty excited to be chosen as a COAL contributor.   I have been reading these most excellent stories from some talented writers for a long time.  I’ve read about: tales of perseverance through all manners of automotive comedy and tragedy, quixotic quests, demonstrations of excellent negotiating skills, some great road trip stories, tales of marital dissolution and  the various and sundry  life lessons learned by all of you.  Many of the stories have shown some of you to have a keen eye for automotive excellence.  Most of you seem to end up somewhere along the line with, if not the car of your dreams at least some approximation of it.  Sadly, I’m not sure any of the above applies to me. Especially the part about having a keen eye for automotive excellence.  

Cars are not my hobby. I’ve been driving for 40 years and only bought only one car that I really picked out rather than let circumstance guide my choice for me.  I ride a bike to work.  I drive like there is an egg on the gas pedal now. I even quit working on them for a while until I decided that I’m too cheap to pay a mechanic.  Even so, I seem to have a lot of car stories in me. I have a good memory or at least a reasonable approximation of it and I remember a lot of automotive misadventures. So, anything I write about I hope is more or less accurate. It’s lucky that I have a set of old photo albums that will guide me through this journey.

I think like most of us, my first ideas about cars began with my father, who we will meet a few times in the course of these stories.  He had grown up in the economically decaying North East of England, gone to trade school, seen the world in the merchant navy, and concluded that he wanted a better life for himself than mid-1960s England was capable of providing.  In England he was an avid motorcycle rider. He had a few motorcycles, a BSA Shooting Star in the picture below, and reveled in the high speeds and relatively uncongested roads of the time. He was really good at fixing them and tuning them to run faster.  I note that he had no helmet, no gloves and cobble streets to contend with which must have been hell to ride on in the wet.


Not too long after I was born, he packed up and headed for Canada.  Skilled tradesmen were in demand here, so much so that when he got off the Greyhound in the wrong town, he was offered a solid job within the day anyway.    He promptly bought a car as cars were a necessity in the small mining town where we had settled.  I’m thinking of the automotive landscape and all the cool cars available in 1966 or so and I’m really not sure what the motivation would be to choose a 1962 Valiant Signet. I’m guessing that my mom was intimidated by the size of cars in the new country after learning to drive in a family Morris Minor. All my parents had in England was the bike and I believe a Messerschmitt three-wheeler.  Anyways the Valiant was white with the toilet bowl deck lid and had a red shiny interior that got very hot in the summer.   It was in pristine shape at the time. They liked the car to go with their exciting new life in a new country.    Dad never rode a street motorcycle again after tuning and souping up a Triumph for a young man who went out and killed himself on it at a high speed.


Not that I remember much about it but we had been living at a small rental house located at a scrapyard and repair service run by an old fellow by the name of Mr. Kuppenbender.   He still had a 1930s Packard tow truck into the 1970s and a lot full of what would be classics now but at the time were junk.  He fixed cars well into his 70s.  His last car was an 81 Mustang V8 as he had no use for front drive or any other new-fangled inventions.   But the salient point to this story is that he also had a gas station out in the country that didn’t sell gas anymore.  My dad bought the old gas station from him complete with a yard full of junk, some old sheds, a shack and a 1950 Ford 3/4 ton. For $4000.  Although I don’t remember much about the old F-2 it was my first taste of helping to “repair” a vehicle.  My dad would get into and fiddle with the key and pretend it would not start. I would hop out kick the tire and due to my expertly place kick when he next turned the key all the way it would fire right up.  I’m sure this is when I first began to fancy myself as a bit of a mechanic. 

Being older now it’s my bias that small children back in the day were more easily amused than today’s or maybe had better imaginations out of necessity.  My favorite toy was an old truck engine block that sat in the yard. I sat on this hunk of iron and “drove” it daily. I sometimes repaired it as well.  Not sure why my parents would have thought this was a good idea. I can see in the picture that we didn’t have a dryer and I can remember a big old wring mangle style washer on the porch. I checked and the Kozy Coupe wasn’t on the market until 1979. Maybe that explains it.   Maybe they got tired of me sitting on it or it was just an eyesore. One day a wrecker came and picked up my “car”.  And that was that.  You always wonder what may influence you later in life.  I’m wondering if the fact that the wrecker that came to fetch it was a red 1967 Chevy had anything to do with me only having one GM in my life.

Returning to the subject of the Valiant, I can’t remember much of the many trips we took in that car.  My dad was determined to explore as much of this new country as he could in short order.  The Valiant and the big smelly blue canvas tent in the trunk took us to all the National Parks within reasonable driving distance.  I know when I was 4 I had eye surgery and had to be taken to the doctor who was a 9 hour round trip away, multiple times for a year.  I’m not sure how many miles the Valiant had on it though I know through most of its hard life the little slant six purred away no matter what the weather and what the abuse it took.

It’s a cliche to make fun of people nowadays who order up the most capable 4×4 available for going in the bush despite never using the capabilities. It’s a cliche that I would enjoy mocking more if sadly I wasn’t one of those people who will absolutely never again get a truck without a rear locking differential or that’s what I remember thinking last time I truck shopped.  I’m pretty sure that my dad would agree with me if he were around. One of the things about his new country that he was very quick to embrace was fishing and hunting.  However, in the 1960s his off-road vehicle was conveniently enough the same Valiant that he drove to work and mom drove us to the store in.   I know exactly where the picture below with the deer on the roof was taken.  I wouldn’t take a car there in the winter.   I definitely would not dent the roof tying a deer up there either.  My Mom was some mad.

Eventually even Valiants get tired.  I doubt I knew what the job entailed at the time  were but I remember my dad doing the rings to cure some oil burning.  The car sat there for while he took the engine apart. I also remember taking a family trip into the bush with my very small brother, sister and my mom. Way up on a mountain the Valiant quit and could not be restarted. Leaving us very stranded. My dad had to jog out 10 miles to a phone, encountering a bear along the way which he just ran past. Lucky he was in good shape. Mom was left up there with three small children to amuse on a hot day for 5 hours until were rescued by a friend with a nice blue 1966 GMC pickup.  She was again some mad.  This must have been in 1972 or so and 11-year-old cars in our climate were pretty elderly.   So, it was time to replace the Valiant.

One complication was that my dad had no money to spare. He still had a good job, that wasn’t the issue. However, the shack was too rudimentary to live in so he designed a house he wanted to build after seeing a picture he liked in a Popular Mechanics book.  He decided to do this without borrowing money so for many years every cent went to the house.  I built a motorcycle shed a few years ago and the weekly Home Depot trips for supplies were enough to cause me ongoing financial angst; the regular arrivals of the 1965 GMC five-ton from the local lumber store that he had to pay for out of pocket would have finished me.  So, due to all the financial constraints caused by the construction he started bring home all sorts of sad automobiles. I think $500 or less was his max price, though $100 was more in his price range. There was a red Valiant wagon that I’m not sure ever went anywhere. Must have used as parts to keep the white one going.  A blue 1965 Valiant 4 door that would make it to town and often not back.  My siblings, Mom and I would more than once end up sitting in town and waiting for the end of the day when my dad was finished work to get a ride home with him. One of the rules I think that I am going to impose on myself is to never buy a third anything as it never seems to work out as we will see later. 

My Aunt and her family had also been part of the great immigrant wave of the 1960s. Unlike my parents, they did not enjoy this cold new country and decided to move to Africa.  They gave us their 1961 Dodge Seneca wagon. A big ugly black and white thing.  I have one memory of that car. On the way back from a long trip it started smoking from the rear end.  A few miles from home the differential was glowing red as we climbed a hill at 10 miles an hour.  A man thought my father was unaware of the issue and started running up the road behind us waving his arms.  The Seneca gave one last loud bang stopped and starting rolling back down the hill towards him where he was forced to start running back down the hill.  As kids we thought that was hilarious.  A kind friend of my mom’s came to rescue us in her immaculate white Pontiac Parisienne.

I’ve forgotten where in the sequence it happened. but somewhere along the line he acquired a 1962 International truck from a neighbor for $200. Had to be 1972 as the neighbour had just got a nice two tone green new style Dodge pickup with a canopy. The International was way better than the Seneca of course, though it had its share of issues as well, chief among them was severe death wobble shimmy and a three on the tree with linkage that kept getting stuck in second.  Usually at inopportune times as the fix involved climbing underneath the truck to free the linkage. It must have worked well enough for the 3 or 4 years it was around as I don’t remember being stranded in it.

There were Volkswagens galore. I really can’t remember how many.  My Dad continued to be avid fisherman and hunter and he liked the Bugs for off-roading as they would get more places than the International could.  One think that he really liked was high-revving engines. Or more correctly, he really like to rev engines as he really seemed to fear damage from lugging. This applied to any engine;  long stroke, short stroke, overhead cam or pushrod, even diesels.  Probably for this reason he got very good at changing out the air-cooled VW engines as he was pretty good at melting them.  Our favorite VW as kids was a pink Baja bug with a fabric sunroof which allowed us extra fresh air while we sat in the car and waited to be rescued from yet another mechanical failure.   Which would allow us another nice ride in the neighbor’s Pontiac back to the unfinished house and a yard full of semi-functional cars as can be seen in the below picture.

I think the final straw for extremely cheap and worn-down cars for both my parents was a 1963 Fairlane wagon.  It cost $200 and was a miserable thing.  It didn’t have much for an exhaust.  It once stalled 22 times, us kids counted, in the first 200 yards past our house. With all the noise it sounded like a stock car but it had no way to back up the noise with performance.  Pretty sure it was a 260 V8.  I remember being at school near the end of the day and my mom pulling up and the teacher looking outside to see what the commotion was as it sounded like a race was starting in the school drop off zone. Lucky we were used to it.  One mortifying day my dad, who was driving a car full of teenagers he was coaching,  ended up at a red light next to some muscle car or other.  He gunned the Fairlane getting ready for the stoplight drag.  Where the light changed it made it halfway across the intersection died and had to be pushed to the curb.  He found it funny.  Not owing money was a lot more important to him than having a good car was.

My wife and I have talked about our upbringings.  Our dad’s both had the same profession. Both built their own houses.  She has no recollection of being stranded all over in terrible cars.  Her Dad had cars that worked, Chevrolets as a matter of fact.  Now I look back at all the times we were rescued perhaps a few more GMs would have been a better strategy.  The  Valiant was delivered to Jack Kuppenbender’s scrapyard where it sat for a few years until it was bought by someone who was going to restore it.  I hope it is out there now.  I remember the Ford F-2 leaving under its own power. I think the old Cornbinder did as well. Everything else was scrapped or parted out.  My Mom and Dad stayed married. My dad continued to rev the absolute crap out of anything he got behind the wheel of.   And the cars to come next, while not ever as nice as the first Valiant, were usually a step up from the old yellow Ford wagon.  And most importantly, to me at least, I learned to drive a car around the yard and started to learn how to fix them as well.