After a one week break to look at some really ugly cars, it is back to the stories that I have dredged up from my foggy memory. I would like to thank everyone for participating in the poll and it looks like you agreed with me, the Pontiac Aztek is one truly hideous car. As a matter of fact I saw a burgundy one today (see my comment below regarding burgundy cars...) and it was just butt ugly. Surely as the owner walks up to it asks themselves why they own such a piece of shit. And shaking their heads as they use the key (not the remote as it is no doubt broken) wonder where it all went very wrong... In a couple of weeks, we will take a look at the worst of the current cars. Yes, crap you can actually go out and buy right now, off the showroom floor.
Now on the the story....
At one point my Mom thought we could actually afford a new car, so we went shopping. Her budget was not exactly what you would call very big so we had three choices: a Ford Pinto, Chevy Vega and an AMC Gremlin - classic cars all! These were the top of the heap, the bomb, the…running out of complementary words here. No beating around the bush - shit…they were beyond crap. In response to the Arab oil embargo and the first wave of cheap foreign cars from Japan, these cars were a rushed into production as an attempt to compete in a changing world. Not their best effort… Even today, I cringe when I see one; they do not bring back great memories, just bad ones.
We test drove the Vega first and my Mom hated it. It was clanky and rough and just felt cheap (which it was). Next was the Pinto. I remember the one we looked at was the special USA Edition, white with tiny red white and blue stripes and it had oversized USA stickers affixed to the sides. It seemed sad and desperate, an attempt to lure American buyers to buy American versus the new wave of imports. The USA theme was continued on its interior with a red, white and blue motif. And she almost bought it, but just could not get close enough on price.
That left the Gremlin. This bad boy was mustard yellow with racing stripes down each side. They were supposed to make it look like it was going fast and I think that maybe it was helping ...a little. The way I look at it, those racing stripes were just helping the car along towards a patina of rust that was sure to quickly follow. I have a fond memory of the test drive; I sat in back with the sales guy. If central casting in Hollywood put out a call for a mid-70’s car salesman, this guy nailed it. He was a fat guy with a Dunlap. Oh, you do not know what a Dunlap is? It means your belly had done lapped over your belt…a Dunlap. Brown polyester pants (several polyesters died in the making of those pants…), a pale faded yellow short-sleeve shirt, bursting out with a peak of belly fat in between the buttons and a short wide brown striped tie. He had close cropped gray hair and huge bushy mustache and he reeked of stale cigarette smoke. This guy screamed for all the world to see that he was ready to make a deal and he did not care how much he had to screw you over to get it.
The test drive itself was awful. The car was slow, rough and the interior was terrible, like the designers haphazardly placed the controls on any surface that looked remotely accessible. The back seats were hard as a board and were bolt upright. I squirmed around trying to get comfortable and I distinctly remember the salesman, arm draped over the rear seat declaring indeed how comfortable they were. He actually made a comment to my Mom telling her how safe and relaxed I would be in the back seat. I glared at him and then shook my head at my Mom as she looked at me in the rearview mirror. She did not buy it.
Things did not work out that time…thankfully. And we did not buy any of those classic iconic automobiles. A couple of months later, my Mom got a great new job at an ad agency that did product development for large national accounts. For the first time in a long time, we had money. We moved into a prestigious apartment complex and she enrolled me in the best schools in the area. And my Uncle asked to buy Old Blue back, he missed it. So it finally came to a head. We had to get new car, so we went shopping again.
Our list was longer this time; it included VW, Honda and Toyota and believe it or not FIAT. There was a dealer close to our home and it also sold Alfa Romeo and Lotus. While she test drove the FIAT and negotiated with the dealer, I spent a long time sitting in both an Alfa GTV and a Lotus Europa. The Alfa was silver and it just looked fast just sitting there. It just felt right; all the controls close to hand. I loved how the shift lever protruded from just below the main instrument panel. You had to reach up to it. I spent a long time pretending to shift gears, imaging myself driving it. It was no Lamborghini or Ferrari; those cars were long ago and far away. Well they were in St. Louis anyway…
Then I sat in the Lotus. Low slung and only inches from the ground, its tiny interior seemed to fit me like a glove. I had started my growth spurt and was maybe 5’7” so it felt like it was built for me. Thank God I was not taller… The thin form fitting seats hugged me tightly and the tiny steering wheel and stubby gear shift felt readily to hand. This was one of Mr. Chapman’s creations and like he said; all you had to do was “just add lightness”. It had just what it needed, nothing more. It felt like a race car, at least as close as I had ever been to one. I no doubt asked my Mom to consider either the Alfa or Lotus but I think the price and especially in the case of the Lotus, the practicality left them out of the new car conversation.
She ended up buying a Fiat 124, burgundy with a tan interior and you guessed it, an automatic too. I am telling you those early automatic versions of European cars were all slow. Geez, at this rate, we were never going to get back to my idea of what we should be driving, namely a sports car. And what was it with all those burgundy European cars we ended up with? I did not (and still do not like) burgundy cars. I did let her take me all the way to school in this car. Besides I was tired of walking the 6 miles in the snow, uphill, both ways. I needed a break from all that walking.
Until next time.