Just Empty Every Pocket

[C. E. Richards is the author of this submission]

“Just empty every pocket.”

“Huhwhat?” It took me from my reverie and mental calculations.  I was looking at locking mounts for radios.  $189.95…no can do.  Maybe next month…but then, when would I be able to get the electric radiator fan…?

“That’s what it stands for, you know.”  The kid was watching me from the parts counter.  He was favoring me with a smirk that would have taken first prize from the Cheshire Cat. “J.E.E.P.  Just Empty Every Pocket.”

He was wearing a cap – “Jeep, It’s a Disease!” True, that…what other car can lead a middle-aged man…a veritable nation of them, actually – to places like these, to buy horrifically-overpriced hardware?  To tear apart and re-engineer a car that’s  perfectly good…well, that is debatable.

It’s also the attraction, I guess…to a kludgy, crude, obsolete, overpriced, wonderful vehicle.  I know it’s the attraction for me.

Like most foibles, it goes back to the formative years, potty-training days and all of that.  Literally, in my case.

IN 1962, MY FATHER  became the neighborhood’s first proud owner of The Miracle Car.  Like many goods, The Miracle Car was somewhat overrated by admen, and this pinnacle of American Motors engineering hit the roads of America like the Titanic hit the iceberg.  It disappeared almost as fast, but in its passing, the AMC Rambler Classic of that year left some lasting memories, likely toxic ones for the ill-fated company.

I was a tot of four, and already gifted with words and showing a talent for mimicry.  This amused family and neighbors…most times.  My father, alas, was a harried young chemist-turned-salesman, and with little sense of the needed discretion around young minds.

Two days after proudly purchasing The Miracle Car, my old man went out to the driveway with the idea of going to town for some need or other.  He opened the driver’s door…and there it bound up.  It would not close.  No matter how hard he yanked.

He tugged.  He yanked.  He kicked.  He swore.  I watched…hey, this was getting good! You never knew when my daddy would say funny words or do funny things.

Presently he stalked off in a rage to the gardening shed, to return with a mall and wedge.  Jesus H. Christ,, if he had to rip that door off, he was gonna do it!

In a white-hot temper, he fixed the wedge, and swung at it with a twelve-pound sledge…with predictable results.  The wedge went flying; the sledgehammer misdirected and caught his ankle right on the bone.  The tools and he went down in a crash, as profanity spilled from his mouth in blue streamers.

And I was in stitches.  Rolling with laughter, I kept repeating my father’s brilliancies at the moment of climax.  This went on for some time, but age has mercifully allowed me to forget the ending of that little episode.

But all that was just a start.  That car was interesting.  It was your basic lemon – there was no predicting which way it was going to break next.  Whether one wiper would fly off…arm, pivot and all…the transmission up and refuse to move…the parking brake fail, unattended, on a hill, or the engine need replacing.  My older brother learned mechanics on this car…just by watching my dad try to cut the costs of repair by doing much himself.

And me, I got a taste for the primitive.

SIX YEARS LATER, 1968, the old man got a new job and felt he could go on a limb for another car…another two, actually, since he lost the company car that went with the previous job.  First, he replaced The Miracle Car with a ’68 Ford.

The car started, when the key was turned to Start.  It ran when needed.  There weren’t any wires dangling, smoking, from under the dash.  Borr-ing.

The other…my old man once again displayed his sense of adventurism in automobile purchases.  He’d read a fawning write-up in Popular Mechanics about this great car from that upstart car company, Kaiser.  So my dad chose to buy the original Sport-Utility Vehicle, the Jeep Wagoneer.

That thing was rough-riding.  Noisy.  Primitive.  Unreliable.  Wonderful!  It was an adventure traveling in that thing, looking over other cars, feeling the truck-leaf springs flex and lift at highway speeds.

I don’t think my dad was surprised to learn, a year later, that AMC was buying Jeep.  I do know he was disgusted.  When he finally could trade it in, he was loud in his relief…and I shed a silent tear for the end of an era.

For I’d learned to drive on that thing; it was my first that way.  I’ve been trying to recreate that sense ever since.

I’VE OWNED MORE cars over my lifetime than some used-car dealers.  Some were good, some bad, and some just plain stupid.  But I keep returning to the Experience.

I’d gone the gamut with everything from a Super Beetle, to a Yugo, to a Chevette and a whole series of Pintos.  Some were good and saved me money.  The Yugo was a laughable mistake, a rolling joke, a hole in the road one tried to patch with cash.  But these didn’t do it.

Then, jobless and miserable, young and broke, and on foot…I found It.

Someone had put an old Postal Jeep for sale in his front yard…first $50 takes it.  I had the first $50.  Sitting tall…sliding doors that could be left open while driving…loud, crude, trucklike.  By the time I got it home, I knew I’d found It.

My old man knew I’d lost it.  He couldn’t believe, all by myself, I’d found such a garish piece of crud…with the hated name of AMERICAN MOTORS on it, yet.  A Jeep again…

Didn’t matter.  I loved that thing.  Fixed it.  Patched it.  Ruined good clothes going to a job interview in it, in a slush-snowstorm.  When the body finally rotted apart, I replaced it with a fiberglass Jeep body.  What other car engenders such loyalty, that the owner will literally buy another body for it?  I loved how it would fit in half-a-parking space, as I would spite jerks who take up multiple spaces..

It had the world’s best theft prevention system:  it was totally undesirable.  I made a bet with a friend who lived on the outskirts of the ghetto, that I could leave the car parked, running, keys in it, and it wouldn’t be stolen.

We put it to the test.  We parked the thing, idling, sliding doors open, in a rough section of Cleveland, and went out for a few beers.  A few turned into a few more…we were gone about three hours.

I won the bet…sort of.  The car was there; but some joker stole the keys.

Life goes on, and that bastardized mail truck went out of my life.  I’d gone through another string of cars, most of them good, most of them TOO good.  Then, like a blast from the past, I found It once again.

IT WAS SITTING in a bank-repo sales lot in the seedy part of Vegas, when I found it.  I was in town on a business/pleasure combination..and also revisiting my old stomping ground.  Once long ago, I worked in the Nevada desert…and Vegas was my weekend destination.

Anyway, there it sat.  A red Jeep, apparently cared for…until recently.  Peeled column…the repossession hadn’t been voluntary.  No plastic windows to go with the canvas top.  The door uppers were also missing.  Price: four G’s.  Non-negotiable.

The now-legendary AMC four…their 232/258/4.9 six, the engine that started life as a replacement to the failed Rambler aluminum six, the engine outsourced to Doehler-Jarvis.  The replacement, by all appearances, aped a Chevy six…and was unremarkable in its day.  Who would have guessed it would have a forty-year production run, become known as THE Jeep Engine, and become the progenitor of the last engine designed by AMC, and one of only two exclusive Jeep engines…the 2.5 litre four?

What could I say?  It was rust-free from the West.  I opted to drive it home – in early October, with all the risks that entails

Armed with five gallons of water (presumably for me) and a cellular phone, and no way of closing out the weather, I headed into the Mojave Desert, in a car I’d driven only eight miles previously.  Talk about the blind luck of fools…

Talk about durability.   The tragedy of AMC Jeep was, on its deathbed, they’d finally gotten it right.  Reliable power trains; the XJ-body Jeep; the new Renault-birthed car which had issues, but in turn cross-pollinated into the Chrysler LH platform.

I crossed the Mojave.  I crossed Mormon Country.  After an overnight, to stretch and to thaw, in Grand Junction, Colorado, I crossed the Front Range of the Rockies, where at the portal to the Eisenhower Tunnel the temperature was 28 degrees.  By the time I got to Golden, where it was a balmy 65, I was literally hypo-thermal.  Blue lips and euphoric.

Four days I crossed the nation in that open Jeep.  Such a burden…I was so bothered by the lack of windows, the lack of creature comforts, I took the lower doors off and stuffed them behind the seats.  Yee-HA!

I had NO idea why I bought that car.  I still don’t.  I had two other cars, and had to borrow to buy this one.

But this one’s a Jeep.  Open body, sans doors.  Pavement whizzing right by your left shoe.  Kidney-killer ride, bugs in your teeth.  Ain’t it great?

Is it reliable?  It turned out to be THE least-expensive car I’ve ever owned.  When I’d take it apart, it wasn’t to fix it – I’d see a thousand things I need to do to make it run better, last longer, look cooler.  I got started changing out a leaking radiator…and ended replacing the front-end sheet metal.  But, what the hey…the radiator to fit the new grill was a few bucks cheaper.  And now it looks like a traditional Jeep…

Every time I’d get a few hours downtime I’d remember the next couple things I need to do to this thing.  Every time I’d be in town, I have to stop by the off-road store…searching for something or other.  Quick-release for the folding windshield, electric cooling fan…you name it.

There’s thousands of us.  There’s almost a dozen Web forums for Jeep enthusiasts to compare and discuss their modifications and their tribulations.  Can you say that about a K-Car?

And that’s the appeal.  Of these crude, wasteful, reviled  SUVs and off-road cars in general, and the Jeep in particular.

Supposedly unsafe at any speed and eternally under fire from the government, which the Jeep was created to serve in the first place.  A symbol of independence, of non-conformity.

Not because it’s quiet, comfortable, reliable or practical.  Not because it’s cutting-edge of the latest auto technology.

Because it’s not.

[The depicted cars are not the author’s actual cars. Photographs by Paul N. or from other sources]