Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The return of the French kid and the story of the $1 car

Well I finally made it back from France. And just in time too, as the new school year had already started. As luck would have it, I was already behind. My Mom and Step-Dad picked me up at the airport. She says (to this day) that she walked right past this gorgeous French looking kid…wait…that was her gorgeous French looking kid. They picked me up in a new white Renault 10, except it had a crashed rear quarter panel with a huge Band-aide sticker on it that said OUCH. They had an accident some weeks before (just after they had bought it) and my Mom’s back was messed up. I started school, but after about 4 weeks, it was decided that she was having a tough time taking care of me, so they sent me down to my Dad’s house in Kentucky.

Crap! I went from Paris France to NYC to Lexington KY all in the space of a few short weeks. Back then, it was like getting sent back in time. My Dad and Step-Mom enrolled me in school and I dutifully got myself up, dressed and rode the bus for my first day at my new school. I walked into the class and they collectively took one look at me and gasped. I was immediately sent to the office. I had arrived in my best hip multi-colored bell bottom pants, gold and turquoise Nehru shirt and long Beatle haircut. At the office, they were shocked that a hippie had been allowed into school. I was immediately sent home with the instructions not to return until I could be dressed properly. Ahhh, the progressive mind set of the late 60’s south. I missed my home back in the city.

My teacher though was very nice and as I recall, pretty easy on the eyes too. And of all the strange things drove a Renault 8. In Lexington KY, in 1969…she must have had the only one in the state. She took an interest in me, after all I had just spent several months in France, and she thought of herself as somewhat of a Francophile. One day she informed me that her car was not running well (imagine that…) and I told her I thought I could probably fix it. After all, I had just spent the summer in France and figured (by osmosis maybe) that I could. She politely declined my offer…which I am sure that was better off for everyone. Eventually I was returned to NYC once my mother got to feeling better.

Back at home in NYC the Renault finally went into the body shop for repairs and my Step-Dad needed transportation, albeit if only for a few weeks. So now we finally (in a roundabout way) get to the story of the $1 car. My Step-Dad had a friend that needed to get rid of a car, but it was not much of a car…a 1963 Pontiac Tempest Convertible. As I recall, it was dark blue and had a white top. At least I think it was a white top, it was so faded and stained it was a mish-mash of beige. And it barely ran. Between the need of massive engine work (the rings were shot) and the need of copious amounts of oil, it was not what you would call a strong runner. Then there was the transmission…it was a 3-Speed automatic and shifted on the column. But the torque converter was about shot. So to keep it going, the engine had to be revved continually and when the throttle was pressed it took 5-10 seconds for the torque converter to stop slipping and actually begin to move the car forward. It was one great ride!

One very cold winter night we went to see M.A.S.H. It was below freezing and between the heater not working and the many rips in the top, it was frigid in the car. Piled inside with heavy coats and winter gloves, steam floated around our heads with each cold exhale of breath. On the way home we pulled up to a stop light and a ’55 Chevy Bel Air pulled up alongside. It was a pure hotrod, gleaming purple paint, jacked up in the back with huge Cragar Mags and two young guys inside. As we sat waiting, my Step-Dad had to keep the motor revving so the engine did not die. The guys in the Chevy thought we wanted to drag. My Step-Dad revved the motor, wah-cha-cha-cha-aaaa. The Chevy revved the motor, Varoom-Varoom-VAROOM! The light changed to green and the driver of the Chevy side-stepped the clutch and the two huge rear tires struggled for grip through all the torque. But once they hooked up, it left two long black streaks as the Bel Air shot forward. Back at the stop light, the old Tempest tried to move and slowly, slowly as the torque converter stopped slipping the car inched forward.

We arrived at the next red light and the Chevy was waiting. Once again my Step-Dad had to keep the engine revving and once again, the light turned green and the torque of the huge Chevy motor spun the two huge rear tires, caused the earth to change slightly in its rotation. Two black streaks and a cloud of smoke later, the Tempest slowly chugged away inch by inch. We arrived at the next light, the Chevy was waiting. But now the two guys were laughing and pointing, they realized that we had not been racing at all, we were simply trying to keep the poor car going. The light turned green, but now they simply trundled away while the Pontiac struggled for torque…and drive.

A few weeks later, the Renault repaired, my Dad called his friend to see if he wanted the car back. In fact he did, the agreed upon selling price…$1.

Until next time.

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