Sunday, May 31, 2009

Crimp My Ride

My dad isn't going to like this post, so I apologize in advance, Dad.

Whenever I am reminded that my dad traded in a '64 Chevy Chevelle Malibu SS

for a '72 Vega Panel wagon (ours was green, but this was the best picture I could find online)

I wonder what the attraction was, other than maybe it would be nice to have a working transmission, and it must have been cheap.

Of course, I wasn't into cars much as a kid (or as an adult, for that matter), and I wouldn't have known what to do with what was later regarded as a minor classic car if I'd had one. I drive a seventeen-year-old Japanese subcompact (like I stole it!), after all. On the other hand, the stories are too rich not to share. The Vega was the original mixed bag for me and my brother and sister; it got us where we wanted to go, but the cost in effort and aggravation was ridiculous. It taught me far more about what goes on under the hood than I really cared to know, and it's been the source of endless tales of automotive misadventure ever since.

I actually like the Vega panel wagon's looks, it was relatively cool for the time and the econo-box class, with styling echoes from the Camaro:

The next year they gave it an ugly grilled nose and it wasn't nearly as pretty. Looks were one thing, but the problems under the hood were quite another.

The Vega's engine sucked so hard that weather maps would have a low pressure system marked on them wherever we drove it. The aluminum block just wasn't hard enough to keep cylinder wear from making the thing burn oil in no time at all. I started driving the beast when I first got my licence in 1978, while I was in high school, and by then it had maybe 60K miles on it, which was considered past the upper limit for most Vega engines of that vintage. I wasn't going to let that stop me, though. It ran on about the same mix of gasoline to motor oil as a lawn mower. If it didn't have enough high-viscosity stuff in it, it'd smoke worse than a bingo nun with a three-pack habit. I kept a case of Valvoline SAE 50 in the back along with a pour spout and ran through the stuff like it was ginger ale.

After a while the 50 weight wasn't enough and I started pouring in STP or Motor Honey. I got a little behind on the oil one time and actually got pulled over by a state trooper who pointed at the blue cloud I'd left rising over the road, as far back as I could see, and he told me to get out and walk the rest of the way unless I could fix it. No ticket, just a warning. I walked across the street to a service station and picked up a two dollar bottle of motor gunk and that did the trick for the next few miles.

Naturally, the spark plugs got fouled in a hurry on that kind of diet, so I was unshipping them and cleaning and regapping them on a regular basis - the socket set slid around in back with the empty motor oil cans. Every once in a while the engine would go from firing on four cylinders to three, and I knew I'd need to fix it when I got home. Once it got down to two cylinders, and I had to pull over and fix it right there, 'cause it couldn't do more than about 25 mph and was rattling like a stepped-on snake.

This was the car that I and at least a couple of my siblings learned to drive in, and it got all the abuse that you'd expect from inexperienced drivers. It had a three-speed stick, and we destroyed the clutch at least twice, including once while I was in rush hour traffic on an arterial and barely managed to coast it from an inside lane over to the side of the road between some passing cars. My sister managed to kill second gear one time, and we drove it like that for a while after, just revving it really high in first then lugging it in third. My brother and I got reasonably adept at fixing it, including unshipping the tranny and replacing bits, but they got harder to come by in the '80s. I snapped the clutch cable on it once on a freeway onramp, which in the days before cell phones meant I needed to hike a ways, but fortunately a cop showed up before I'd gotten a hundred yards. Officer Friendly put in a call to my dad, who came out and in a virtuoso effort managed to drive the thing five miles back home just manhandling the gears, and getting some lucky timing on stoplights.

My brother drove it while I was away at college or driving the other car we inherited, and he managed to get the thing past 100K miles before it gave up the ghost completely. I think it died in a grocery store parking lot, and we hauled it home behind the van with our tow strap, which had seen a bit of use in that capacity by then. I called around to a few yards, and one of them offered us twenty bucks for it over the phone if we had the title. We figured what the hey and towed it over there, and got a bit of an argument when we arrived, from someone who loudly asked his colleagues what idiot made the mistake on the phone and for a while assured us they could offer little more than a plugged nickel, but I managed to talk them out of the twenty, since it probably had half that in gas in the tank anyway. And that was the end of the Vega, but the stories live on.

And the next car my dad got? An '82 Chevette Diesel. Oh, my.