I reference my parents’ 1977 Plymouth Volaré coupe a lot because that was the first car with which I had developed a love/hate relationship. My years as a toddler starting in the mid/late-’70s are filled with memories of riding in the Volaré as my family’s “nice” car, despite the fact that our ’71 Plymouth Duster, six years older, proved itself to be, far and away, the more reliable car.
I loved the Volaré because it looked the part of an up(per) scale ride, with its richly colored burgundy paint, white, pebble-grained bodyside moldings and vinyl half-roof which stretched from the A- to the B-pillars, and deluxe wheel covers complete with the Plymouth “frog-legs” emblem in the center. I also hated it because it was the source of considerable stress on my parents when it broke down (which was often enough), which then left us kids feeling “shook”, in current urban parlance.
The summer following my third grade year of elementary school, our family took a one-hour drive south from Flint to Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the annual Ann Arbor Street Art Fair – which is still a major draw and celebrated cultural event that brings artists of all media and spectators to “A-Squared” from all over the state. We met long-time family friends, the Hackmanns, there, walked around, and made a fun day of it. (I also remember this being the first time, as a kid, that I had ever seen the “f-word” printed on a t-shirt in the same font used on Ford’s blue oval insignia. My mom probably clutched her pearls, but I don’t remember her actually saying anything about that shirt, even if I probably snickered.)
After we had parted company with our friends, we piled into the Volaré, then just six years old, and headed back toward Flint on US Route 23. Our family of five made it about halfway home before our Volaré said, “Nope. I’m tired. Pull me over.” Unacceptable.
CC Readers, let me take you back to a time before cell phones, when major highways and interstates in Michigan had call-boxes with little, blue lights on them, every mile or so. While my dad left my mom, older and younger brothers (then age 14 and 5) and me in the Volaré with the hazard blinkers on, and with my younger brother whimpering softly like Randy Parker from “A Christmas Story”, I sat in the back seat of our temperamental Plymouth, literally wondering how all of this was going to turn out, as if there was actually a possibility that this situation would not end well.
I realize that some of you must be wondering if I’ve mistitled this piece. Enter our knight in shiny, lacquer-finished, landau-topped, tail-finned, chrome-plated armor: the Hackmanns’ early-’70s Buick Electra 225 hardtop. To be completely honest, I’m pretty sure theirs wasn’t a ’73 like our featured car. I seem to recall it had the horizontally bisected taillamps and a few other minor details of the ’71, but it was dark out, cars were whizzing by as we sat on the shoulder, and I was a freaked-out kid. Let’s just say that the sight of our olive green example in these photos shared enough DNA with the Hackmanns’ car so as to have triggered these memories.
There was a collective sigh of relief in our car once we saw headlights slowly approaching us on the side of US 23. Let’s also take a moment to remember that this (true) story was set in the ’80s, long before kids like my brothers and me felt like we had to wonder if something bad was about to happen to our parents at the hands of a stranger as we sat stranded on the side of the road.
After we had all piled into the Hackmanns’ Electra (all seven of us fit because my younger brother was on Mom’s lap), I remember several sensory details. The textured brocade upholstery in the back seat felt much nicer than even some of the living room couches I had sat on before – almost like it should have been covered in plastic. The inside of the car was utterly silent like a cocoon, even under acceleration in the passing lane. I might have even craned my neck from the middle of the back seat to get a glimpse out of a window to make sure we were still moving. There seemed to be so much room in the interior of that car, even with four adults, a teenager, and two young kids inside. There was also that wonderful, 1970s-GM-interior smell, which I might wear as a cologne today if something like that actually existed.
It was then that I realized that, save for our piano, the inside of the Hackmanns’ Electra was probably nicer than our living room. I’m not going to lie. It was. I’ll bet that if Pastor Hackmann had turned on the AC Delco factory sound system, it would have made our Fisher hi-fi sound like an artifact from the Sloan Museum in downtown Flint.
These C-Body Buicks may have been among the largest full-size passenger cars that GM ever produced, may have consumed half a dinosaur’s worth of fossil fuel between fill-ups, and may have external dimensions that would make them nearly impossible for the average U.S. citizen to park – but I’ll always remember the time it had felt like last night, a Deuce-And-A-Quarter saved my life (with apologies to funk / post-disco group Indeep). Sometimes, it’s true – there’s not a problem that cubes can’t fix, and four hundred fifty-five of them boasting over three hundred horsepower came to the rescue of the Dennis family on the side of US 23, early in the summer of 1983. For forty minutes or so as we rode in silence back to our house, the inside of that Electra had felt so comforting, and almost like home.
Lakeview, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, December 15, 2019.