COAL • Laurie’s Cars: ’63 Volvo, ’71 VW, ’71 Wagoneer, ’78 Caprice

In 1984 my sister was 11 and I was eight, mother got her law degree and set out to have a go at being a lawyer, and with both parents downtown at work every day—dad’s own law degree dated back to 1966 or so—someone would have to look after my sister (11) and me (eight). Somehow or other, Laurie was found and hired—along with her cars.

Laurie was 25 and drove whatever she could afford, which was never much. When she first signed on to take care of us two overprivileged, mouthy kids, she had a 1963 Volvo P220—an Amazon wagon, that is. The body was straight, intact, unrusty, and (re-probably-re)painted a vivid sky blue. The grilles and other trim parts were missing, and I think I recall the red rear reflectors and their plinths hadn’t been reinstalled after the repaint. The Volvo looked, sounded, smelt, acted, and was radically different to any car I’d previously experienced, and I fell fast and hard in love with it. The differences between it and my folks’ ’78 Caprice and a ’77 Cutlass and their former ’70 Dart pretty much meant I got to discover “car” all over again.

For starters, its starter was very quiet. I now know the quietness was by design; the Bosch direct-drive starters Volvo used through the mid-late ’80s weren’t very loud. And unlike my folks’ automatic cars, the Volvo had a manual transmission that sang harmony with the 4-cylinder engine, and a backangled shift stick that looked about three feet long. There was a cool chrome horn ring.

There were these neat front 3-point seatbelts that fastened by attaching a big chromed-metal clasp to a loop on the floor. There was a cool ribbon speedometer. The radio was wayyyyyyy over on the passenger side (and it always only ever seemed to play Huey Louis’ “If This Is It” and Jefferson Starship’s “Sarah”, mostly because that’s what the radio stations always only ever seemed to broadcast). Wing windows! I hadn’t seen them since the Dart!

The speedometer worked (sister and I saw it touch 60 one day on the interstate and tattled to our parents about it because 60 is more than 55. Eeeeesh…!) but the rest of the gauges didn’t. The original upholstery and foam were torn up under fuzzy seatcovers. Chunks of missing foam showed through the padded dashboard’s cracks.

Laurie called the car Jackson. But no amount of “Come on, Jackson, I know you can do it!” cajoling would persuade it to start one night when it was time for her to go home. Plenty of cranking—slowly, with a worn starter fed through iffy cables by a marginal battery starved by a feeble generator—but no vroom. Not even so much as a putt.

I had very recently become interested in engines, starting with the one on my folks’ Craftsman lawnmower, which I had persuaded my dad to take in for its first tune-up, some five or six years after it was built. It had come back running much better, and one visible change had been the new air filter.

I just barely didn’t need tiptoes to see the Volvo’s twin SU carburetors; their pancake air filters were crusty like concrete—the same way the old one on dad’s lawnmower had been before the tune-up. No way could I reach to do anything about it myself; I told my decidedly unmechanical father to remove them. He was “reluctant to fool around with parts of the engine”, he said, but I was persistent and Laurie really did have to get home, so eventually he compromised by taking off just one of the air filters. The longsuffering B18 chugged to life at the key’s turn.

I’m quite sure that air filter was never reinstalled or replaced, and it’s a good bet the carb dashpots were bone-dry empty of oil, the points were badly burnt, the plugs worn and dirty. The radiator leaked. That neato chrome ring on the steering wheel was just for looks; the horn didn’t work. The brakes squeaked. The clutch chattered. The rear axle howled. There was a hole near the top of the gas tank, and if it was quite full or the car was at the right (wrong) angle, well…good job Laurie had quit smoking. There was a panel of three Suntune gauges slung under the dashboard; engine temperature was one of them. I remember because the slightest uphill would cause it to climb fast enough to watch. “Ooh, look, it’s gonna get to 200!” I said one day near the top of a not-very-steep three blocks. Laurie wasn’t as amused: “Stop it! You don’t know what’ll happen if it hits 200! Maybe the engine blows up!” The car was a tired old hoss, always near the ragged edge of at least one kind of breakdown. With a job that centred round driving, I’m sure car failure was on a long list of fears constantly hanging above Laurie’s head. The Oldvo was what she could afford, it managed to get the job done most of the time, and I thought it was the neatest car in the whole wide world. It had the first set of Cibie H4 headlamps I ever saw, one of which got replaced after a burnout by a sealed beam, because who knew any better? Those Cibie lights had probably been installed at least two owners previously.

Laurie lived 12 miles away from us, on a pretty steep hill. One morning she started the Volvo, backed out of her parking space, went to put the car in First, and the brake pedal hit the floor. The car carried on reversing until stopped by whatever she hit, losing a taillight and gaining some ugly dents. She and her husband also had a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle, and she started driving that while they saved up to do something about the Volvo.

The Beetle’s bright yellow paint was a bit dull and chalky, and it had nose rust, but the car was reasonably clean and straight. This was the first VW I got to ride in, and it came at a perfect time: I’d just discovered and fallen (hard) for the “Herbie” movies. Here’s me with my Pinewood Derby Herbie:

Laurie’s yellow ’71 didn’t look or sound quite like the movie car (no exhaust whistle, and it couldn’t do the neat tricks), but it was close enough to tickle my imagination. It had fun details, too—another set of unusual seatbelt buckles in the back, engine sounds from the rear, trunk in the front, and why did they print the shift pattern with diagonal lines like that, when I could clearly see Laurie moving the gearstick only north-south and east-west?

Like the Volvo, the Beetle was mechanically a bit marginal. It made alarming, loud PopPopPopPop! noises when accelerated from a stop; for this reason Laurie called it The Clunker, even after something was eventually done about the popping noises. I don’t know what they were—it wasn’t backfire or muffler explosions; my best guess is a large exhaust leak near the engine.

One day someone rear-ended the Beetle and convexed the engine cover. A light blue one from a later-model car was swapped on. Wrong colour, but it had the four sets of air louvers, which I thought looked better than the two sets on the original ’71 panel.

By and by the Beetle went away. I don’t recall the circumstances or the proximate cause, but its replacement was a 1971 Jeep Wagoneer. This was much more like my folks’ cars—column automatic, 360 V8 engine in front, power steering and brakes—but still a new experience, sitting up high like that. There were stretchy dark blue covers over the bench seats, and the armrests were a little crumbly, but the rest of the interior was in pretty good shape, including that nifty midmod instrument panel.

I loved the little green glowing circle that illuminated the driver’s selection on the clear plastic prindle perched atop the steering column. I was less enthusiastic about that weird sideways-pointing shift stick on the transmission tunnel, for the transfer case.

This would’ve been around 1985-’86, and at that time Wagoneers were very hot with the trendy Wendies. That crowd had fancy new ones, though; Laurie’s ’71 would’ve been turned away with a scornful sneer by the valets at any country club worth its œuf à la neige. It had been rode hard and put away wet. It didn’t have much of a muffler or tailpipe to speak of, it started hard and ran rough, it dieseled when shut off, it was rusty, the gold paint was faded and dull, the grille was bent, and otherwise like that.

Its state of repair eventually grew bad (and loud) enough that my parents belatedly told Laurie to take it in and have the shop call them for payment. I don’t know how much they wound up spending, but the transformation was astounding! The Jeep had gone away a bellowing, coughing, sputtering thing, and it came back running like new. It started immediately, idled and ran smoothly and quietly; there was a new muffler and tailpipe, and an engine mount broken almost all the way in half had been replaced.

Moving parts everywhere had been lubricated, so door hinges and latches and locks, the ignition switch, dashboard controls, window winders, and other stuff worked without brute force. The transmission—a Turbo Hydramatic 400—still had a not-entirely-healthy whine in 2nd gear, but the overall effect was just marvellous.

Laurie was over the moon. The first time she took me somewhere in the rejuvenated Jeep, she said “Look, watch this!” She shifted to Park, switched off the ignition, and as the engine obediently cut off she said “Park! Stop!” She no longer had to switch off the key with the transmission in gear to fight the engine’s run-on tendency.

I don’t imagine feeding the big 4WD Jeep was very affordable, though, and when my folks decided to replace their cars, they sold Laurie the better of the two, the ’78 Caprice. It served her well, and sister and I got a close-up class in necessity-driven applied frugality: yes, there were rust spots beginning to appear on the sheetmetal. No, they weren’t going to get fixed because that costs money. The tailpipe fell, and Laurie clambered under the car with an unbent wire shirt hanger to lash it up again because shops cost money. We weren’t wealthy, our family, but there was never any worry of insufficient money for an unplanned expense, nor any necessity to drive a car past its best-before date; no constant worry of when and how it would next fail us, and no doubt that when it came time, the old car could and would be replaced by a newer, better one.

Those privileges were well out of Laurie’s reach. I hope my parents paid her as well as they could; she sure as all hell deserved it.

Through it all, I long maintained my keen desire for a Volvo Amazon wagon. There was another one nearby, a longtime fixture at a house about a mile from ours, not far and across the street from the Happy Canyon shopping centre. It was a darker blue ’67, 4-speed with overdrive, in ziploc condition, and the (original) owner sold it about a year before I could’ve been in a position to buy it. If he hadn’t, certain upcoming COAL instalments might could’ve been very different! Fair number of stepstones before we get to those, though; next week I’ll tell what replaced the ’78 Caprice.