(This is part 4 of a multi-part series. If you wish to start at the beginning, click here)
My parents divorced when I was about four. Post-divorce, dad went through cars a lot faster than mom, and his were arguably more interesting and provided an array of “first” car experiences.
Most exotic of this era were a couple of Porsche 914s: an orange 4cyl and a final year (1976) brown 914-6. My memories of the cars are limited and I don’t really remember the orange at all. I can picture the Brown, primarily by its color (Brown was “the” car color of the 70’s). First experiences in the 914: A 2 seater (cars came without back seats?), mid-engine (why did they put it there?), and a car that was unusual and exotic for the time, but kind of ugly too? I believe it may have had a wooden steering wheel (Nardi?) which seemed novel. First experience for “spirited” passenger rides: I remember dad letting loose flying down Ward Parkway in Kansas City toward Meyer Circle (a roundabout that invites tests of lateral g’s and grip; infamous enough that one homeowner on the circle, tired of having cars spin out into their front yard at 1 a.m., erected a stacked stone retaining wall a couple of feet high. I guess some people go to town hall meetings and others just take matters into their own hands).
The 914 seemed to have no trouble negotiating the curves, tires screaming on the asphalt, two young brothers around 5 and 8 years old in the front seat thrown sideways against the door like a Hoffmeister Rotor, whooping and hollering, “faster, faster!” (Ok, maybe not me so much. I mean, it was a little scary, uncertain…and unbuckled). Usually the 914 was good for a couple circumnavigations around the circle before dad decided not to press his luck too far.
(what traversing the circle felt like in the 914 to a 5 year old)
Though the physics demo was fun, for a long time I harbored a secret grudge that the only Porsche that has ever been in our family (to date) was the ugliest, lowest power one (with a VW engine, no less). “Why couldn’t you have had a real Porsche?” I silently lamented over the years. In recent times, I’ve been noticing 914s are crossing online auction sites for big money. This 914-6, in particular, almost hit six figures.
I was astounded and had to send the post-auction link to my dad, putting in the body of the message, “Too bad yours wasn’t a six!” (not remembering the details of his car). He replied, “It was a 6.” The next time we were talking on the phone, I asked him to tell regale me again with the story of his 914 ownership (including the forgotten orange one) and how he sold it. He told me that after enjoying the 914-6 for a few years he was ready to move on. He put a classified ad in the KC paper and two people (who he actually already knew) immediately called him to say they were hotly interested. This surprised me the first time I heard the tale, thinking used 914’s weren’t that loved or desirable. How wrong I was. As dad tells it, “I sold it for what I paid for it and could have had a bidding war, but the 2 buyers responding first (from the KC Star classified ad) were both friends and I said first one here with a check gets it. It sold that afternoon.”
Dad continued to have pretty decent autos over the next several years. He really liked his yellow 1980 (or ’81) Buick Electra Park Avenue. Unfortunately, this single surviving pic doesn’t represent how luxurious that car felt. I remember the butterscotch leather interior, power windows and locks (up, down, up, down – this was our entertainment kids), dad in his business suits, a carton of Carlton cigarettes a near permanent fixture on the front bench seat, and the tasteful looking (but probably fake) wood grain throughout.
The Park Ave had a big sunroof (first sunroof) and dad let us stand up in the front seat, poking our heads and hands into the sky while he drove through the neighborhood. On some occasions, I would sit on his lap or scoot over to the driver’s side while he drove around Kansas City, holding the steering wheel for early driving lesson practice. “Can I steer?” was a frequent plea from my brother and I, and he often obliged us. I’m amazed, then and now, how much latitude he let us have with the wheel. Unsafe? Of course, but it was good early instruction in lane maintenance, staying away from curbs and cars, and he was always there to take the wheel if our aim was errant.
There followed a mid 80’s Buick Century, grey with brown interior—It seemed like a plush car, but not as nice as the Park Avenue. Dad probably asked too much of it. He liked to spend vacations fishing on Missouri lakes when he could get away, so he attached a trailer hitch and towed his boat behind the Century. I can remember once trying to find a place to launch his boat after some heavy rains. He misjudged the angle of the makeshift launch ramp and I was horrified to see water come pouring into the rear footwell. Oh well, that’s what towels are for. Another time, while driving home from the lake, the (?I-4) engine protested the towing load, overheating quite badly and leading us to wonder if turning the heater on (in 90 degree summer) would help. It kind of did, but even with the windows down we roasted and eventually had to pull over to cool down.
Dad would eventually move on from the Buicks, and also his job, by the mid 80’s. For many years, he held serve as an ace in accounting, running his own firm. But the hours were long, the bloom was off the rose, and he looked to career change. He took his cash reserves and started his own oil drilling company. In that business, you need a truck, so in came an ’82 Ford F series diesel (first).
I don’t think he had it too long and memories are limited to a certain highway trip: Dad was pretty good at being an early adopter of technology. (His was the first house in the neighborhood we knew of to have a cable box—the kind with the slider across 15 channels...and a cord that stretched almost to the couch! I mean, the rest of you plebs can get up and turn the knob for your 4 local channels. Not us. Well, at least, not during our every other weekend visits). But, the particular piece of technology I’m referring to in this car memory was some newfangled gadget called a “radar detector,” or as it was presented to my brother and me, “A Fuzz Buster.”
It sounded so rebellious: Fighting back against police radar? Calling police “The Fuzz?” Slap your grandma! One rural Kansas day, we were riding in the truck with my dad on our way home on the interstate, having completed a check on one of his drilling sites. Dad was not above speeding, but at that moment his “Fuzzbuster” lit up with its single white bulb light and shrill alarm wail and
he let off the gas pedal. My brother and I instantly perked up, scanning the highway horizon and cocking our heads left and right like pigeons, trying to find “Smokey.” We didn’t see a damn thing. “Are you sure that works, Dad?!” we jeered as a guy in a sedan went screaming past us in the left lane. Dad smiled calmly, “Just wait.” Sure as smoke, within 30 seconds a Highway Patrol appeared heading opposite on the other side of the interstate. In a flash, the trooper had whipped his cruiser through the grass median in an ambitious U turn and floored it coming back our way. The pigeons (bro and I) watched with eyes big and mouths agape as he flew by with lights blazing, and nabbed the guy that just passed us. We cheered for my dad that moment like he was a returning Roman Conqueror, and the value of FuzzBusters was indelibly seared into our psyches.
Please join me for part 5 of Life in Cars.
Vehicle(s): Porsche 914, 1980 Buick Electra Park Avenue, 1982 Buick Century, 1982 Ford F Series Diesel
Facts/Opinions: You might think dad was somewhat reckless in a lot of the things I described above: unbuckled drives, standing up through a sunroof or letting kids steer a moving vehicle, indirectly encouraging flouting of speed limits, but it’s a bit of a mischaracterization. Most of the time we did wear seat belts (though not everyone of the era did) and dad allowed some of the things because he was fully in control of the vehicle. He had excellent driving skills and knew what he was doing. By allowing us some freedoms growing up, I felt more courageous as I learned to do the skills of the world, and not to live in fear and behind a protective bubble. Ok, it was a little reckless.
Representative Song: Dad is a serious car crooner. In fact, he would belt out so many songs, years ago my brother put all we could remember from the old days on some CD’s as a gift: Golden oldies like: Chantilly Lace-Big Bopper; Speedoo-The Cadillacs; Five O’clock World - The Vogues; Where Have all the Flowers Gone? - The Kingston Trio; Blue Bayou - Linda Ronstadt; Angel in the Morning - Juice Newton; You’ve Lost that Lovin Feelin - Righteous Brothers; Summer Time Blues – Eddie Cochran; I Fought the Law - Bobby Fuller Four; The Battle of New Orleans - Johnny Horton; 50 Ways to Leave your Lover - Paul Simon; Big Bad John - Jimmy Dean; Cool Water - Hank Williams
But, I’ll pick the craziest one he would sing to that each time made my brother and I lose it with laughter: Mr. Custer by Larry Verne: