In Cars

On Twitter, @OTooleFan was talking about some of the worst automotive disasters, like the AMC Pacer- celibacy on wheels- and the Yugo. For more of these, I suggest you read Car Talk’s Worst Cars of All Time. Now, a lot of cars stood out as truly bad, but almost any car you drove from 1973 to 1986 was like a prank an auto exec was playing on you. I had a ’76 Pinto Wagon as my first car, and the only fun I had in it was when it was parked. It was rust brown with fake wood panels, a folding rear seat and a roof rack. It looked like the Family Truckster from National Lampoon’s Vacation.

Come to think of it, the round headlights and grille remind me of my current ride, a Mini Cooper S. Maybe that’s why I like it so much. But anyway, the wagon may not have exploded like the Pinto hatchbacks did, but it was a dung cart of fun to drive. Steered like a cow, but it knocked down a parking meter I hit chasing my girlfriend, with nary a scratch. It wouldn’t go a hair above 55, which is probably why my father picked it. He had used it for lugging his construction tools around, but I recommissioned the folding rear seat for other fumbling teenage endeavors in Lover’s Lane, which for us, was a shady spot over by a railroad trestle. Despite being hindered by a catalytic converter and smog equipment that was probably a pipe filled with Henry Ford’s old sweat socks, this car wasn’t that bad. It had vinyl everywhere, but other than burning more oil than BP barbecuing a sea turtle, it ran okay after months of abuse. I replaced the steering column with a junk yard part, but it did well for a 12 year old car.

My next car was a ’79 Mustang six-banger. While this was a far cry from the horrible Mustang II era, it was put together more cheaply with lots of plastic than that Pinto. The one luxury I remember was a silly light panel that would tell you when your tail lights, head lights, or other light bulbs were out. Nice touch. It ran like a champ, and was my first Mustang. A mere eight years old, it was already rusting through quarter panels. The speedometer only went to 85mph to appease Ralph Nader, but that just made us want to pin the needle. By this point we had the wonders of unibody construction, meant to save us in accidents. My first accident bent the car in half and required $700 of repair for a little fender bender. That would be $3000 today. But it sure beats the days of my favorite car I used to own, the 1965 Mustang convertible. It had no seat belts, and a dashboard made of steel. The steering column pointed at your heart like the sword of a  bloodthirsty Mongol. To steal Jay Leno’s only funny joke, if you crashed it, they’d just hose you off the dash and sell it to somebody else.

I loved that car because it was smoking hot, Silversmoke Gray with a red interior, my first V8 engine- a 289 2 barrel carb auto. Less horsepower than my Mini has today, and awful, awful handling, but what a blast to drive- because you were constantly putting your life in your hands. The master brake cylinder only had one chamber, so any leak in the brake lines put you in a suicidal charge toward the enemy front. Sure, it had an emergency brake but the cable was frozen, so I ended up throwing the car into reverse, bouncing my nose off the horn, and suddenly going backwards. The transmission held up, amazingly enough. I could change the oil by crawling underneath it without a jack. I had to raise the power top manually, there was a rust hole in the passenger door, but I didn’t care. Because it was a blast to drive, and simple to work on. The only problems I had were gas and brake lines older than I was constantly leaking all over the place, a leaky fuel filler cap getting water in my tank, and a complete inability to back out of a parking space if there was more than a sprinkling of snow on the ground. So on second thought, thanks Ralph Nader!

Soon, cars went from simple machines, sort of like tractors, to add with sleek fins and chome bumpers shaped like tits (the infamous ’60 Cadillac and its “Dagmars” named after a Swedish comedienne’s rack). But after the muscle era faded, they became annoying household appliances, like a push-button blender with wheels. This was the era of the K car and the Yugo, when the best-loved car was… the Taurus. Shaped like Mork from Ork’s Eggship, it at least gave a passing nod to the concept of aerodynamics. Everything was made of shoddy plastic that would dry out and crumble like sawdust in too much sun. They gave us automatic seat belts that would try to strangle you, but pop off their rails and let you smash into the windshield. You may complain about daytime running lights and nanny devices, but just try finding the damn headlight switch in a car from the late ’70s. And the high beams? Try the floor, next to the emergency brake pedal. Oops, I was trying to flash my highbeams, and locked up the rear tires! What a calamity! At least nowadays, when someone plows into oncoming traffic it was because they were playing Farmville on their iPhone, and not because they pressed the wrong button.

© 2010 Tommy Salami