Clunkers & Creampuffs

Chapter 20: Personal History of Clunker Ownership

One used-car owner's chronology of clunkers

by James M. Flammang

Some clunker owners have considered their troubled
vehicles to be an alternative art form – living on
borrowed time. But eventually, a junkyard was the
next stop for most of this author's clunkers.

Like most American boys reaching driving age in the 1950s, I developed a fascination – indeed, flirtation – with cars early in life. In what must have been 1947, I remember sitting on my father's shoulders to get a better view of the new Tucker Torpedo at Chicago's Amphitheater. Even earlier, I'd been enthralled by a photograph of Tom Mix, a well-known actor in Western movies of that era, posing with his personal car: a 1937 Cord, one of the most beautiful classics ever. Of course, part of my fascination might have been due to the huge twin steer horns mounted on the Cord's front fenders.

I first got behind the wheel at about age 10, but only briefly, and restricted to First gear. I learned to drive in earnest with my family's 1936 Plymouth, happily manipulating the long floor-mounted shift lever. By age 14, I was driving almost regularly, mostly chauffeuring my father around for his part-time job as a bill collector. He never seemed to enjoy driving and welcomed the opportunity to let me take over, even though I lacked a license. An attempt to get me a "hardship" license, on the grounds that my help was needed for his employment, failed. Worse yet, the state of Illinois raised the minimum driving age to 16 – shortly before my 15th birthday. On the very day I turned 16, though, I was at the Department of Motor Vehicles, ready and quite experienced, to obtain my first actual, official license to drive.

My affinity for jalopies can easily be traced to my father, who, through the 1940s and early '50s, drove a series of elderly, much-used sedans. Not until 1953, when he bought a 1948 Dodge that was in reasonably good shape (and cost substantially more than his previous machines), did that string of junkers come to a halt. After the Dodge gave out, though, another string of decidedly imperfect automobiles came into his possession.

Early in my grade-school days, our 1936 Plymouth became a sought-after adventure by a batch of my playmates, most of whom lived in the same apartment building we did, in a working-class Chicago neighborhood not too far from Lake Michigan. Periodically, my father would drive all of us to the public library, which was a couple of miles away. I've no idea how many 7- or 8-year-old bodies were packed into the back seat of that Plymouth, but nobody ever complained. Instead, they reveled in the fact that one of its four doors was held shut with rope, among a variety of other little imperfections. Overall, it was nothing like the automobiles owned by most of their parents. Every library trip seemed like an urban adventure.

Not many students in my inner-city high school owned, or had any interest in, the classic and foreign automobiles that I read about in Motor Trend, Car Life, or Road & Track magazines. Among my classmates, perhaps the most interesting cars were a '36 Ford sedan and a '48 Chrysler New Yorker convertible – both notable today, but not all that special in the mid-Fifties. No one drove a Cord or a Packard to high school. Few had the slightest interest in such glorious machines. Those of us who did usually set aside the notion of owning one, in favor of something conventional (and cheaper).

My first car, a 1948 Chevrolet obtained when I was 16 and a senior in high school, had lost most of its maroon paint to rust and corrosion, but ran well enough for a few months. Then, it grew harder and harder to start, under any circumstances. Eventually, its radiator suddenly seemed to crave plenty of water. One night on a dark highway at 2:00 a.m., the engine died with a loud clang and bang, never to function again, likely (I learned later) the result of a cracked block. A long walk along the highway, with a seemingly endless wait for a restaurant with a public phone to open, resulted in a call for help. A bit later in the day, that Chevrolet coupe undertook its final journey – hooked to the back of a tow truck, en route to the scrap yard and establishing an ownership pattern that would last for a couple of decades.

After a several-month period of carlessness, punctuated by inspections of a couple of interesting but seemingly impractical vehicle choices, I wound up with a perfectly plain 1950 Chevrolet 150 two-door sedan, lacking even chrome trim around the windshield. Like other teenage fools at the time, I did something stupid: painted the entire body with grey primer, atop the original paint, which was still in reasonably good shape. Not sure why I disposed of that one, but I imagine neighbors were glad to see it go.

Next came a Buick Special sedan with a smashed grille, owned by a family friend. That, too, went to the scrapyard even though it was still operative. The 1950 Studebaker Starlight Coupe with farsighted wraparound back window, brought a $15 check from the junkman, if memory serves. Or, at least, that much was promised. The fact that it lacked a spare tire knocked something like $5 off the original offer.

Clunkers that were junked or crushed while still running included a pair of step-down Hudsons – a model that I coveted after reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road, which included a description of the brand-new Hudson Hornet driven by Dean Moriarty, the fictional version of writer and beat-generation icon Neal Cassady.

Along with the above-mentioned Studebaker, those were some of the cars I most regret having destroyed. Each had foibles, including a major oil leak on the first Hudson. Even though a friend took care of that leak by replacing some oil-carrying hoses on the engine, I didn't keep it much longer. Never did figure out why I was so eager to get rid of cars that had no serious problems; or that had been repaired to almost-acceptable condition, either professionally or with the help of a friend.

My 1957 Volkswagen Beetle with oval (not split) back window and screechy reverse gear actually went to an early "bug" enthusiast who intended to keep driving it, rather than to any eager junkman. Not so, the 1955 Nash Ambassador with fold-down front seatbacks that formed a bed, plus a broad rustout on the rear fender that had been "repaired" using a panel of wood – painted white to try and match the surrounding metal.

A few years later, my 1966 Chevelle station wagon stopped dead on the Interstate heading into Chicago. Evidently, it had "thrown a rod." Even though this incident occurred prior to my series of auto mechanics classes, I knew that wagon wasn't going anywhere on its own power. My friend, who'd been following along in another car, wound up towing the now-defunct Chevelle a dozen miles or so, to my rented garage, employing a simple rope. I had to remain behind the wheel of the Chevelle, carefully striving to maintain tension on the rope as we inched along the multi-lane highway and into city traffic.

My 1965 Chevrolet window van never gave out, but its manual transmission served as a nasty obstacle to safe, effortless driving. If you didn't manipulate the shift lever just right when shifting from First to Second, the transmission would lock up – in no gear at all, with the lever rigidly immovable. How to remedy the situation? I'd have to crawl under the van and give a rod on the shift linkage a tug, until it snapped back into operative position; and then crawl back out again to resume the drive.

Just imagine this happening during rush hour on a super-busy Interstate in downtown Chicago. Which it did, during a trip back home from neighboring Indiana where I'd gone to buy some parts for one of my deteriorating Studebakers. I can only shudder when I recall crawling underneath, while stopped in one of the center lanes, cars whizzing past on either side. Then, when the shift lever was operative again, the engine failed to start. Had a good samaritan not come up behind me and begun pushing the van until I let up on the clutch and the engine caught, I can't even begin to imagine what might have happened.

Once upon a time, I was having brakes on a 1948 Dodge sedan adjusted at a nearby gas station. After the job was completed, the mechanic warned quietly: "Not much brake there." He was right about that, as I discovered when pushing the brake pedal for the first time, only to feel it descend instantly, all the way to the floorboard.

Driving that Dodge home was especially challenging – unnerving, actually – since (1) the hand brake was no help; and (2) because the clutch incorporated Fluid Drive, I couldn't even expect any engine braking to take effect when letting up on the gas.

Turning an urban corner one day, a loud snap from the front end and a strangely disconnected feel of the steering wheel told me something had gone wrong with my 1950 Ford V-8 sedan. A steering component, it turned out to be. The Ford still steered normally if one wanted to go to the right. (Or was it the left?) But the steering wheel produced no response if a turn in the opposite direction was required. Didn't get much farther with that Ford, managing only to maneuver it into a parking spot, from which a tow truck would be removing it later on. It took a while to decide whether that tow truck should come from a repair shop or the representative of the junkyard. To no one's surprise, I chose the latter.

Rust was always a concern in the upper Midwest. While attending body-shop classes in the 1970s with my severely rusted 1963 Studebaker GT Hawk, a fellow student looked it over and shook his head. "Looks like it will leave the body behind if you hit the gas too hard," he warned.

Several of my budget-priced acquisitions turned out to be non-starters in wintry Chicago weather. No surprise there. All too many times during my ownership of a minimally rusted but temperamental Studebaker GT Hawk (with the R-1 Avanti engine), during the night I'd have to put on a coat and venture outside to start the engine and warm it up for a while. If I didn't, that energetic but finicky V-8 would flatly refuse to fire up in the morning. Sometimes, it would refuse regardless of my late-night procedure. Long afterward, I learned that this was a common problem with some Studebaker carburetors, which allowed gasoline to seep out of the fuel bowl overnight, leaving none to fire the engine in the morning.

Having never owned a convertible, I found a tempting 1967 Buick Skylark soft-top one day and couldn't resist. Unfortunately, I failed to look closely – or even glance at, apparently – the underside. Traveling down a long gravel road during a vacation in northern Michigan one day, a big bang came from the rear. Bending down to take a look, I observed with despair that the gas tank was sitting considerably lower than normal. To make a long story short, as they say, the underside was so severely rusted that one of the tank's metal straps separated from its mooring, allowing the fuel tank to hang precariously.

What to do? We were a considerable distance from the nearest town, but I drove – mighty carefully and slowly – back down that gravel byway until we reached a gas station. Amazingly, one of the employees was adept with a torch and had a suitable strip of metal that could serve as an impromptu replacement for the original. He did a masterful job, and the tank maintained its secure position until I had to get rid of that open Buick. Not because I was coveting yet another jalopy this time, but because my wife and I would soon be leaving for a five-month stay in Mexico, where we would be riding trains and buses, not automobiles of any vintage or condition.

As a long-standing fan of French cars, especially little ones, I simply couldn't resist the lure of a 1957 Renault Dauphine, despite the fact that it refused to start. Only after hand-pushing it back and forth in a back alley several times did the tiny four-cylinder engine finally catch hold. After paying the $60 or so asked by the owner, I managed to get it home – where it sat, idle, for months. Even the attentions of a mechanic, making a home visit at the request of a friend, failed to stimulate the Renault into action. Only on one occasion did the engine actually start, as if by magic, and remain operational for a drive around the block: one of my most enjoyable round-the-block drives ever. Before long, I sold it to a friend, who sold it to someone else, who kept on driving it for some time – despite the fact that its three-speed manual transmission lacked a First gear.

Something similar happened when I encountered a 1960 Volvo PV544 on a used-car lot for $300. A bargain, at that time. Except for the fact that its long, floor-mounted gearshift lever banged back and forth like a forest creature struggling to escape from a nasty trap. Why was it misbehaving so intently? Only three of its engine's four cylinders were operational, the fourth having suffered loss of a functional piston. That meant major work, which would come to cost considerably more than the car's asking price. Still.... I wound up the proud owner of the Swedish-made two-door, able to drive it home because that shift lever settled down when the car was rolling along at steady speed. After paying the hefty price for that serious engine work, that PV544 provided a welcome helping of Scandinavian pleasure – for a while, anyway.

My 1958 Plymouth Plaza, as ordinary a car as any that existed at the time, appeared to be a tad more reliable than my usual modes of transport when I bought it in the mid-1960s. Unlike all the previous clunkers, which seldom were called upon to serve as long-distance conveyances, the Plymouth was to be my chosen means of heading west, hoping to start a new life in southern California. Amazingly, it provided yeoman service, with only a handful of troubles along the way. A clogged fuel filter had to be replaced in St. Louis. The tailpipe fell off somewhere along Route 66 in New Mexico. Nothing to fret about.

Upon arrival in the West, however, I noticed that I seemed to be sitting lower in the driver's seat than when I'd left Chicago. Sure enough, a quick evaluation revealed that the three-position bench had sunk by 2 or 3 inches, doubtless the result of rust down below. After a couple of months of driving, I would have been obligated to have a rudimentary emission-control setup installed. Instead, the Plymouth – like most of its predecessors – was consigned to the crusher, just before that dream of a new life in sunny California faded into the sunset and I headed back to Chicago. By aircraft, this time.

A friend once remarked about my propensity to get rid of a car that might be made to run again with a simple, low-cost repair, such as replacing the ignition points. I still have no explanation, all these decades later.

I was almost invariably the final owner of each of these less-than-fine machines. Next stop: the junkyard or the crusher. Or, in a couple of cases, selling the non-functional vehicle to a friend for a dollar, or simply giving it away to someone who might be able to get it back on the road. When a relative paid the requested dollar for my suddenly-immobile 1961 Volkswagen Microbus, its engine instantly frozen tight, I wound up helping him remove and repair the rear-mounted powerplant. He wound up driving that bus for several more years, including a long trip or two. Meanwhile, I'd moved on to a couple of new wrecks that had caught my eye.

As a clunker aficionado, I often managed to overlook obvious mechanical flaws that would have made most potential buyers turn and run. In contrast, I would be smitten with the prospective purchase's sheetmetal, quirky look, orphan brand, or outsider image. Why be content with a humble Ford or Plymouth when, likely for a lower price, a Renault 4CV, Simca, Goggomobil, Citroen Traction Avant, Fiat roadster, Volvo PV544 (shaped like a shrunken 1947 Ford Tudor), Volkswagen Microbus, or Czech-built Skoda might be sitting at the back of that used-car lot. Way back. My only regret is that I didn't own each one of those foreign beauties at some point, regardless of their condition.

More than once, when I was ready for another jalopy, I came across a desirable antique, sometimes in passable condition. A 1932 Buick caught my eye at one dealership. A 1948 Lincoln sedan with pushbutton doors, too. I almost got my hands on a red 1948 Oldsmobile convertible. So, why did vehicles of that ilk not become my next daily driver? Because I was still in my teens, and even though I lived alone, I listened to my father's firm opinions on such matters; and he was a strong believer in ordinary, practical machines, not offbeat foreign or luxury-level vehicles.

Except for a close friend who owned a Jaguar XK-120 sports car and a Mark IX saloon (sedan), most people I knew, including the old-car enthusiasts, had ordinary automobiles. One owned a 1930 Dodge for a while; another a '38 Buick. Such cars were available for reasonable prices, but more exotic vehicles were not all that cheap or profuse in Chicago during the late Fifties. Those that existed were generally in sad shape.

By the Sixties, a 1930s auto was not hidden away in the back row of the used-car lots, but prominently displayed right up front if it was in any kind of desirable condition. Besides that, most of our parents put their foot down at the acquisition of anything out-of-the-ordinary, pointing out the logic of owning a vehicle which can be repaired anywhere, has no strange features, and won't draw weird stares from the neighbors.

My lengthy experience driving enfeebled cars that had to be handled in a certain way came in handy during a couple of short stints as a truck driver, when I was handed the keys for a day of toil with a truck that barely qualified as roadworthy. UPS trucks, for instance, always looked bright and shiny on the outside, but their mechanisms could provide some unpleasant surprises.

Clunkers: a different style of driving

Driving clunkers year after year is a different experience than most modes of motoring. A sense of acceptance, of dealing regularly with the unexpected, blends with an awareness and concern for mechanical functions that doesn't ordinarily enter the mind of motorists who operate ordinary, reasonably functional, machines. The clunker driver has to pay close attention to how the car behaves, how it must be handled and babied, how it deviates from the norm.

Every outing can turn into a new sort of adventure – which of course might be either pleasing or perplexing. The engine may or may not start, with no way to predict success. On the road, it may balk and hesitate, emit surprising sounds and unfamiliar odors. We learned to cope with balding tires, leaking fluids, and so much other evidence of neglect and disrepair.

My first car, the 1948 Chevrolet described above, came with a vacuum shift, intended to make gear-changing with the column-mounted lever nearly effortless. Only a tiny movement of the lever was needed. When the engine became reluctant to start, though, the hopefully-helpful shift mechanism turned into an agonizing albatross. The starter no longer sufficed, even if it cranked the engine properly. Only a push, by hand or with another vehicle, prodded the coupe's six-cylinder engine to take hold.

Because of a design quirk, the vacuum-operated shift only worked with the engine running. With the engine shut off, the lever could not be moved. So, if I left it in gear and was alone, how could I get that engine to respond? How could I push on the clutch pedal while outside the car, trying to push it by hand, swiftly enough to fire? I devised a series of steps:
1. Always leave the shift lever in First gear when the car was parked.
2. If at all possible, park on a downward incline, however slight.
3. Position the bumper jack between the clutch pedal and the driver's seat.
4. Extend the jack far enough to keep the clutch pedal all the way to the floor.
5. Get out of the car and start pushing.
6. When sufficient speed is reached, jump back into driver's seat.
7. Carefully get my left foot onto the side of the clutch pedal, keeping it down toward the floor.
8. Remove the jack.
9. Let up on the clutch pedal, carefully, hoping that I'd given the car enough momentum for the engine to crank and start.
10. Relax and keep driving, until the next time the car has to be parked somewhere.

Whew! Can't believe I did all of that every time I drove, for a couple of months. It didn't help that the city of Chicago is mostly flat, with few inclines to provide assistance.

Click here for Overview: Casual History of the Used Car

Click here for Chapter 1: Early Days - Rich Men's Playthings, Poor Men's Dreams

Click here for Chapter 2: Ford's Model T and the Masses

Click here for Chapter 3: Production and Prosperity

Click here for Chapter 4: "Easy" Payments

Click here for Chapter 5: Family Cars and Family Life

Click here for Chapter 6: Five-Dollar Flivvers

Click here for Chapter 7: Rise and Fall of the Used Car

Click here for Chapter 8: Saturation and Salesmanship

Click here for Chapter 9: A Global Blowout

Click here for Chapter 10: Selling in Hard Times

Click here for Chapter 11: Wheels for the Workingman

Click here for Chapter 12: Okies, Nomads, and Jalopies

Click here for Chapter 13: Motoring in Wartime

Click here for Chapter 14: The Postwar Boom

Click here for Chapter 15: Chromium Fantasies

Click here for Chapter 16: Dealers Face Image Problem

Click here for Chapter 17: Wheels for the Fifties Workingman

Click here for Chapter 18: Teens, Rods, and Clunkers

Click here for Chapter 19: Everybody Drives

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