(first posted 2/2/2013) The story of dad’s wagon is the story of a loyal friend–one that was always there, but was largely unappreciated until later in life. At least that’s how I, as an adult looking back, feel about it now. But in the ’80s and ’90s, to a teenage kid growing up as a car guy it was merely a tool for a job, like dad’s saber-saw. You asked for permission to borrow it (or not), used it, and then put it back where you found it (or not). It was the most unappreciated car in the family fleet, but one so closely linked to the memory of my dad that I honestly can’t think of one without the other being there. I am truly grateful to have known and spent time with both of them while they were here.
The story begins in the summer of 1987. My father, sister and I were on the hunt for a “new” station wagon. Dad decided that his ’81 Subaru wagon was in need of replacement (this is the only picture I could find that showed the front half of it). As a military man in the National Guard, he put a lot of miles on a car–seemingly going to every Army base in the east–and his trusted Subaru wagon was starting to look the worse for wear. The Subaru was a five-speed 4WD wagon with cream-colored steel wheels and a tubular brush guard on the nose. It was a cool little wagon in its own right, and it rewarded my dad with a quarter-million miles of service. Too many winters in suburban Philadelphia had taken their toll on the old Subie: Rust was setting in, and its constant need for expensive exhaust parts and CV joints was starting to add up.
I didn’t realize it then (buying a new car was quite the event in my household, and my sister and I were caught up in the excitement of the day), but that trip to the “golden mile”, in Springfield, PA, would be the last time we’d see the Subaru’s funky plaid seats. (Find a picture online and check out those seats!)
Springfield’s “golden mile” was a large collection of car dealerships on Baltimore Pike in Suburban Philly, not far from our home in Collingdale, PA. Some dealerships are still there, but today it’s more a collection of strip malls and box stores. We stopped at a few dealerships that day but ultimately wound up at the used-car lot at Key Buick, a cool-looking place built into the side of a hill. There was a ramp around back that allowed them to park new Buicks on the roof.
My dad had decided that he wanted a car with a V6 power plant capable of pulling a boat. Keep in mind that this was the 80s: The threat of another energy crisis was always just around the corner, so no V8’s were in the cards, and back then nobody drove a truck. My dad, as a recently divorced father of two, was not in the market for a new car; thus was the new, space-age Taurus wagon out of our range. Also, dad never seemed too keen on the idea of a minivan. That left the GM midsize wagons as the likely candidates.
As we walked down the aisle of used cars, parked with their noses out on the street, we were awash in a sea of GM A-bodies. Being the car geek I was (and am), I immediately went to work opening doors and popping the hood of every car on the lot looking for V6s. I don’t remember how many I looked though as my dad, my sister and the salesman (no doubt annoyed with my enthusiasm, and probably equally annoyed that I knew more about the cars than he did) followed. I eventually came across the one we would take home: a 1984 Pontiac 6000 LE station wagon. With its fleece-like maroon interior, power everything, soft touch padded dash, light faux wood grain sides on maroon metallic flake paint, roof rack and wire wheel hubcaps, it looked so plush and luxurious compared with the old Subaru.
Picture: hartog’s photostream
While this isn’t our car, it is a well-preserved example, sporting the same equipment and split bench seats, in white with a brown interior.
For some reason, I always felt that the split grille with its Pontiac center-arrow gave it a sporty look next to its A-body siblings. It kind of harkens back to the face sported by the Trans Am and other Pontiacs through the latter half of the 70s. Best of all, it had GM’s 2.8-liter V6, which delivered both a boat-pulling 120 hp and fuel economy in the mid-20s! After the salesman demonstrated the slick tailgate that let you open the rear glass or the entire tailgate, and the fold-up rear facing seats, we were hooked.
Picture: hartog’s photostream
My most vivid memories of the day were of sitting in the driver’s seats of a Thunderbird in the used-car lot and a brand-new, white 1987 Buick Regal Turbo-T with T-tops in the showroom–experiences that undoubtedly fueled my love for both those cars. Although much later I would own a Thunderbird, thus far I’ve been denied a Grand National.
The next thing I knew, we were saying our sad goodbyes to the Subaru and heading home in our new-to-us Pontiac wagon. I remember becoming acquainted with GM’s all-American style on the ride home: the flat speedometer, plush seats, the pull-out knob for the lights, the multi-function turn signal stalk with wiper and cruise control switches, and the three-speed automatic with its column (not floor-mounted) shifter. It seemed like the polar opposite of the Subarus, Hondas, Mustangs and Beetles that had preceded it.
The Army mechanic who serviced it for my dad in the early years was less than enthusiastic about it: In his own words, “GM V6s are garbage.” Typical of early A-bodies, the wagon was not a trouble-free car, although it would prove far more durable later in its life. Once, the alternator crapped out on a trip to the Jersey shore, thus costing us a day at the beach. There were also intake manifold leaks, multiple trips to the dealer involving Check Engine lights, and that awful computer-controlled carburetor, with the electric choke that never worked right. But the greatest flaw was the brakes: No car that I had driven–or ever would drive–had worse brakes. The pedal had a spongy, over-boosted feel, and in anything but dry weather it would lock up the rear and try to swap ends. It was ultimately fixed by changing the proportioning valve, but not before the chrome rear bumper of a 70s-jellybean Chevy Nova had left its impression in the front bumper:
But as was typical with my dad, this setback became a father-son project opportunity to fix the still new-looking wagon. There’s my dad posing with the crunched fender.
After a junkyard fender painted by our Army mechanic, a new bumper and brackets and a new left grille, she looked as good as new. It’s funny and fitting that the only pictures of the car during the early years were taken because of an accident.
Cars were always my hobby, but home improvement was my dad’s. Dad would finish the basement in our house in Collingdale by carting home all of the necessary supplies inside (or on the roof rack of) the wagon. After I got my license, I would often borrow the wagon to scrounge though junkyards and swap meets to find parts for my project car, a 65 Mustang; my dad’s project, a 49 Plymouth; and parts to cheaply keep my ’82 Honda Civic on the road. The wagon was the vehicle of choice for carting me and my like-minded friends whenever we needed something that wouldn’t fit in my Honda.
During one of my dad’s trips home from Fort AP Hill in Virginia, the electric fan switch stopped working and the car started to overheat in traffic. Dad couldn’t pull over since he was going through cattle shoots for miles. He had just made it to an exit when the overheated engine seized solid. But after it cooled down, helped by a little WD40 in the spark plug holes and new oil and coolant, it actually started and drove 150 miles home without incident. I’m pretty sure it had suffered a cracked head or block from the experience, but we never did fix it, since by this time it was our secondary car. My dad did, however, replace the faded original faux woodgrain with darker self-adhesive vinyl from a craft store.
My ’82 Honda and a 1949 Plymouth project car, a running car that my dad owned for a while, are also present in this picture under the maple tree. The old wagon soldiered on, just like this, for years longer as our family hauler. After I installed some load-leveling coil spring shocks in the back, it could pretty much take whatever you could fit inside or strap to it. The wagon moved me to my first apartment in New Jersey in 2001, moved me back to PA in 2003, and even moved us into our current house in 2004.
Here it is, sitting next to my 95 Thunderbird, in 2002. Such a contrast; that boxy, formal GM style of the 80s juxtaposed with the swooping curves on the Thunderbird of a decade later.
By the mid 2000s, the wagon was still kicking but getting pretty rusty and tired. It would run on five cylinders until it warmed up; after a few minutes, the sixth would gradually start firing but always, the power was down. Still, the car would regularly help my dad and me by hauling whatever we needed for our seemingly endless home improvement projects. My dad loved to push the limit of his little wagon. Here it is, still at work in 2006, holding a 32 ft. extension ladder on its roof rack (not recommended).
I enjoyed getting to push the limits of the wagon with him. All the replacement windows and drywall in my house arrived here in (or on) the wagon. The 289 V8 for my Mustang was transported, with transmission still attached, by the wagon. Even plywood and drywall came home on the wagon. There is nothing I enjoyed more than pulling up to the contractor loading area at home improvement stores, right next to a Ford Super Duty or a dually Dodge being used to haul a few bags of mulch, and helping my Dad strap eight sheets of drywall to the roof rack (also not recommended). In case you were wondering, eight sheets of drywall is as much as a GM A-body roof rack can take without bending in the surrounding roof area.
Our wagon’s peeling vinyl wood grain, scratches, and worn and abused interior were badges of honor from many battles fought. The Pontiac wagon from 1984, with the “garbage V6” brought back from the dead with WD40, was unstoppable. Our family had no truck; our family needed no truck.
In June 2007 my dad was diagnosed with Stage Four cancer and was given about a couple of months to live. Both he and his wagon soldiered on as well as they could, even as his health deteriorated. He was still working on his house and still helping me with mine even while getting chemotherapy and regular radiation. That’s what he loved to do, so that’s what he did for as long as he still could. After he could no longer drive, the wagon sat idle for a couple of months–probably the longest period of its entire life that it had sat still. On October 6, 2007, my father died at home, his family by his side.
Later that day I walked back to the maple tree next to the driveway and saw the wagon sitting there. It looked tired. I sat in its worn interior, put the key in the ignition, and turned it. The engine cranked slowly, but did not start. I tried it again for another five seconds, until the battery had nothing left to give, but still nothing… not even a kick or cough from the engine. I thought for a moment about attaching jumper cables to my car and trying again, but I didn’t. Looking back now, I think it was probably best that the wagon’s story ended there on that day. A few weeks later, the wagon was hauled off on the back of a Ford Super Duty flatbed (how insulting) as scrap metal.
During the preceding weeks, I had thought long and hard about keeping it, but why? I have no time for the projects I have now, and what good would it do me to watch this old car rust away in my driveway? The reality is that it’s probably difficult if not impossible to restore such a rusty and abused old car–especially one from a generation of disposable cars that (almost) nobody cares about anyhow. I consider myself very lucky to have had many of my father’s tools passed down to me, and that got to spend the time I did with him–still, I must admit that there are times I regret not keeping his wagon.