Writing about the Karmann-Ghia that got away and the frozen glue incident got me thinking about the cars that have passed through my life. I have always loved cars and have enjoyed the experience of almost every one I’ve driven. Some of them have left me with stories to tell, and I’ll be sharing them in some of my upcoming posts.
We had been comfortably cruising around in the coolest car Dad ever bought – a 1974 AMC Matador Oleg Cassini coupe – when he decided to go into business for himself making furniture. He needed to haul lumber and finished pieces, and so he traded the Matador for the uncoolest car he ever bought, a 1978 Chevy van.
This van was meant for hauling and so had only two seats. That wouldn’t do for a family of four, so Dad, safety always uppermost on his mind, got a back seat from some other van and leaned it against the side wall. We had a great view out the sliding-door window. But the first time Dad made a hard left turn, the seat slid across the van. My brother and I were lucky to have only banged our knees.
My younger readers are probably rightfully horrified by the risk Dad took with us. But automotive sensibilities – and safety laws – were different in 1980. Mothers usually carried their babies in their laps in the front seat. On the road, you routinely saw kids loose in the backs of station wagons and in the beds of pickups. Cars had gained front shoulder belts during the 1970s but rear seats still had only lap belts. Most people didn’t wear seat belts anyway, as laws compelling seat-belt and child-seat use were still years away. These were simpler, deadlier times.
We rode around untethered for four years. Remarkably, we had only one other close call, on a snowy day when Dad tried to change lanes and put the van sideways down the busiest street in town. “Hot damn!” he called out. Somehow, the loose seat slid forward only a foot or two and didn’t topple, and we managed not to hit anything as Dad wrestled furiously with the steering to put the van straight again.
When I said that Dad wrestled with the steering, I wasn’t kidding. The van had what we used to call “Armstrong steering,” meaning no power assistance. We also used to say that the van had “two-sixty air” – no air conditioning, but you could stay cool on a hot day if you rolled down its two windows and drove 60 miles an hour. The van’s only amenities were its automatic transmission, power brakes, and AM radio.
Dad’s furniture business never fully took off and so he got a job again. The regular income enabled him to buy another family car, but he kept the van. The new car got the prime driveway spot, relegating the van to being parked on the side street. One night, a young heavy-metal fan carrying a can of green spray paint stopped to paint the name of his favorite band on the van’s flank. Dad drove it around that way for a year before having it painted, and that’s how we all came to call the van the Iron Maiden.
I had my first driving lessons in the Iron Maiden with its super-stiff manual steering. Most other manual-steering cars I’ve driven steered easily after the car got rolling, but the Iron Maiden’s steering was difficult no matter the speed. I needed both hands even to change lanes!
Dad had a bad habit of driving on tires until they were bald. I borrowed the Iron Maiden one day to go downtown for something. Halfway there, the front right bald tire blew. It took considerable strength to keep the van straight while I looked for a place to pull over! I managed to turn onto a side street and bring the van to rest, but I dug that front wheel into the curb a little bit, making it impossible to get the jack under the van’s frame. I walked the two miles home to get our bumper jack – and rode back with it on my bike, because it was easy enough to carry the bike home in the back of the van after I put on the spare!
Dad used the Iron Maiden less and less and eventually traded it in on a hatchback. None of us were particularly sad to see it go.
We all still talk fondly about the Matador, though.
I also still talk fondly about my first car, an old Ford Pinto. Yes, I said fondly! Read about it here.