One might think that based on the posts so far that I must be a Renault fan and maybe the title of the Blog should be “My life with Renaults”. But the truth is, in our experience, in the good old U.S of A, they have not been the best, most reliable cars. Now things have changed of course and there are many a Clio RenaultSport 200 Cup and Megane RS Turbo that might help to sway ones opinion, but back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, they were in a word….crap.
Case in point, my Mom ended up with a…you guessed it, a Renault 8, burgundy with tan vinyl interior. But this one was special. See, my Mom could not drive a manual, so she got one with an automatic, probably only one of a handful in the whole country (and for good reason…). It had some buttons to the left on the cream colored Bakelite steering wheel. In theory, the driver pushed one of the buttons, maybe the one marked “D” for Drive, and once again in theory, the car moved forward. Well it did move forward but at such a slow pace as to fool many people into believing that it was in fact standing very still. Top speed - 50 MPH, but only after several minutes of nail biting full throttle acceleration, with rasping sounds emanating from the rear of the car made by something approximating an engine, making furtive enginey noises. We believed it had the potential to reach 60 MPH, but only when travelling downhill on a very steep hill with a very strong tail wind pushing. It was in a word…crap.
In ’71, my Mom and Step-Dad split and my Mom decided to move back to Missouri. I went on ahead to stay with my Grandmother and finish out the school year, and she drove the distance from NYC to St. Louis with my Aunt. They piled a load of belongings in the front trunk, placed our dog (who had a tendency to puke every time she rode in a car) in the back and started out on what was a perilous journey. First few miles - dog puked. They stopped, cleaned up the puke and continued on. Second stretch of a few miles - dog puked. They stopped, cleaned up the puke and continued on. Third stretch of a few miles - dog did not puke as she had nothing left in her stomach. Much relieved, they continued on and miracle of miracles, the rest of the trip the dog did not puke again. Moral to this part of the story…if you let the dog eventually get all it puke out of its system, they will not get sick ever again in the car….I think. In fact the dog loved going for rides in a car for the rest of her life. I guess she just had to get over her motion sickness. Go figure…
I digress - they continued on and were passed by every car and truck on the highway. That’s easy when the top speed of the Renault is 50 MPH and the Speed Limit on the highway is 70 MPH. They especially watched and prepared for when Semi’s roared past, as the wind in their wake made the Renault sway violently back and forth on the road. So much so that my Mom said that it felt as if they were in a kite, being blown by every tiny breeze…going whichever way the wind took it. The name stuck. One of the tricks they learned was that if they got in between two Semi’s, my Mom could take her foot off the accelerator a little and kind of coast along, being sucked along by the truck in front and push by the air pressure zone of the truck behind. Brilliant…if a tiny bit dangerous. Please kids, do not try this trick at home, it only worked in the early 70’s with underpowered foreign cars shaped like bricks.
We had other crappy cars during this period. Maybe it was God’s way of teaching me patience. Maybe one day I would own a great car, but the early to mid 70’s was not the time. After the Kite expired, my mom somehow found a 1957 Plymouth Fury 2-door coupe. This bad boy was two tone blue; the body a medium blue that had turned to splotchy slate gray and a dark blue top that had the aftermarket accent color of rust poking through in several strategic spots…like everywhere. It was an automatic (of course) and had this multi-colored blue vinyl interior that was so rough it wore holes in your clothing. It was the kind of awful 50’s woven plastic fabric that insured you never wore shorts. If you did, by the end of the trip, you had rash.
But the worst part? The smoke, copious amounts of smoke. It was a deep dark gray odious fume, belching out of the single tail pipe. So much so, that if you saw it you might say to yourself…”Geez, how does that piece of crap stay on the road?” I thought the same thing, as I sank lower in the seat every time we came to a stop light. Billowing clouds of smoke surrounding not only us, but every other nearby car. I prayed for an invisibility shield to make me invisible. We did actually have it…it was called a smoke screen, a clever option really. The car had a nickname too. But as there may be children reading this blog, I cannot reprint it here….email me and I will tell you. If you are of appropriate age that is.
It had one more enduring trick. During cold weather, the battery could not hold a charge and needed to be jump started. My Mom was smart, she spent $50 (the amount of annual dues back then) and joined the Triple A and one of the benefits was that they would give you a jumpstart up to two times per day. So she would call before she went to work and they would come by and jumpstart the car. As a matter of fact, they just started coming by our house every morning, anticipating the call. And if the afternoon, she would call again. They would greet her by name and ask if she was at work or someplace else. And they would dutifully come by and jump the car for the second time of the day. Such service! And for $50 too! It probably did not hurt that my mom was (and still is!) very attractive. But still, I think they may have lost money on that deal.
The ’57 Fury died. Maybe the great car pasture in the sky had called it home. Or maybe it was just the junk yard at the edge of town. Either way; the Fury and its smoke, its leg chaffing interior and its yards of rust where out of my life. So we upgraded to a 1965 Pontiac Bonneville 4-door. This one was a nice medium blue too, and actually the color had held up pretty well. My Mom bought it from my Uncle and he had called it Old Blue, the name stuck. It was an okay car, it ran reasonably well and was the size of a small state; a small state that was trying to annex a couple of counties from the state next door. It was huge. My Aunt said that the trunk was so big; a family could live in the back. Thankfully, we did not have to test that theory. But it was an old car in a new time and by now I was a teenager. I was most embarrassed by it and asked my Mom to drop me off several blocks away from school, so my friends did not have to see me get out. She had offered to take me in the Fury too. But I always declined the offer; I would rather walk the 6 miles in the snow, uphill, both ways.
Until next time.
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.
The summer of 1969; while most of the world watched the Apollo 9 lunar landing I read about it in the French newspapers. Only problem, I did not read the French language so well. So instead, my step-Grandfather, Papa, bought me an American Time magazine. That helped and kept me connected with the States. But unlike the US, where it was a remarkable event and covered by Walter Cronkite, in France it just seemed to be distant, kind of like it did not really happen, at least for me anyway. I guess it was because I did not get to witness it on TV, but got to read about it weeks later. Somehow that historic event seems disconnected.
We were staying near Canne, actually on a hill overlooking the famous coastal town. We lived in a large house located right in the middle of a fig orchard. I remember that we had fresh figs a lot… For some reason, I also remember the name of the lady who farmed the orchard and took care of the house, I remember it as Mme. Vache, which I know means Mrs. Cow. I am pretty sure that was not her name, that is just how I remember it. But the image I have of her is being one with the land, it seemed like she sprang right up for that orchard. She had a flat face and the ruddy complexion of someone who worked with the earth. But she was kind and laughed easily and on more than one occasion took this strange American boy into the orchard to help her pick figs. Honest work, rewarded with a cold drink of sweet lemon-syrup flavored water. My favorite!
My Step Grandmother, Mameé had family that also took part of their summer vacation near Canne in the village of Juan-Les-Pins. One of her Sisters had married a famous concert pianist and they had an apartment right on the beach. I remember listening to him play for hours on end. It was beyond me really, classical pieces played with perfect pitch and cadence. I was more of a Beatles man myself. On more than one occasion he took me for a ride in his 1968 Mercedes 230SL. It was cream colored with a red leather interior. It may have had a top, but in the south of France, in the summer, I never saw it. What I loved about it was it had jump seats, one directly across from the other. It was so cool sitting in the back sitting sideways. The Mediterranean Sea breeze blowing through my sun bleached blond hair. I was slowly but surely becoming a French kid.
My Step-dad had an older brother who was recuperating from an injury sustained while riding a horse. He was in a competition and was thrown during a very high jump. His hospital was situated near our house, only a short walk away. So I spent a lot time with him as his English was very good and he was most interested in this young interloper who had been deposited into France, into his family. So we debated…about everything; US Government vs. French Government, American food vs. French food, American music (really British Music) vs. French music and of course cars. He had a vastly superior intellect; it must have given him great pleasure besting a 9 year old…
He had a Citroen DS 21 and at the time my Step-dad had acquired a 1965 Lincoln Continental. So according to me, the Lincoln was the best car in the world. According to my uncle, the DS 21 was. The debate was endless. The Lincoln was powerful, the Citroen was economical. The Lincoln had Air Conditioning; in France…you did not need it. The Lincoln had power windows, doors and mirrors, the DS did not need them, because these things only broke. The Lincoln rode smoothly; the DS had a hydraulic suspension and floated on the road. The Lincoln had a leather interior and was huge beyond belief; the Citroen had front seats that made many an easy chair seem old and uncomfortable.
Weeks later, he was released from the hospital and I had the chance to ride in it with him. It did float down the road, better than the Lincoln, its front seat were a revelation in comfort, they were perfect, and it was the better car. Shit, he was right… I hated that he was right; I wanted to win just one battle.
Until next time…