I've got plenty of tales of the wretched heaps I've owned over the years, but I lack sufficient photographic evidence of my Free Beater Era. Now, however, I've unearthed this old shot of the legendary Free '68 Volvo 144.
Yes, that fine Swedish sedan, with its four-wheel disc brakes and pseudo-British Racing Green paint to go with its SU carburetors (with the world to choose from when shopping for carburetor vendors, Volvo decided to go to the UK for some reason), was one of the most character-building cars I've ever owned. It's not a great photograph, but it's the only shot of the 144 that I've been able to find; as an added bonus, it also shows a bit of the $100 '76 Nova that featured so prominently in the very famous Reno Despair Parking Garage sequence. Today, with a very nice Volvo 140 down on the Denver street to start the day, seems like a good day to tell this story:
1990: My girlfriend at the time, a 22-year-old California native, has never driven a car in her life. Imagine, six years in which a Californian could have been behind the wheel, yet she has forsaken her state's glorious automotive heritage. Unacceptable! We begin with some driving lessons in my '65 Impala sedan. These go pretty well, considering (i.e., she didn't stab me in the eye with a sharpened screwdriver in a fit of driver-training-induced rage, nor did she hit anything expensive with my Chevy), and she decides it's time to get a license and a car of her own.
Sadly, she's a dead-broke college student and I'm a damn-near-dead-broke office temp (California being in the grip of a nasty recession in '90), so we can't just go drop a couple of grand on a 10-year-old Civic and be done with it. No, it's time to beat the bushes for a car in the low, low, low sub-250-buck price range, then use junkyard parts and JB Weld to get it in quasi-roadworthy condition. "Hey, my parents have a whole bunch of old cars in the yard," she says. "I'm sure they'd let me have one."
Cars in the yard? That always sounds promising! It turned out that her family background wasn't quite what I'd expected from a philosophy major at UC Berkeley; Charlene had grown up in a double-wide in the Central Valley, the granddaughter of Okies who fled the Dust Bowl and settled in the nothing-like-coastal-California farm country near Lodi. In keeping with their Joad-style traditions, Charlene's relatives had saved every broken-down clunker they'd ever owned, going back to at least the late 1950s; when a car or truck broke down, they'd simply push it out into the couple acres of eucalyptus and wild mustard behind the trailer and buy a replacement.
At this point, we should probably have some appropriate music for the Lodi portion of this story:
A quick phone call to Pappy Joad confirmed it: yes, Charlene could have any vehicle that I could manage to get running well enough to drive down the long dirt road to the highway. This sounded pretty exciting, though the Joads didn't provide much description of the inventory. I threw a toolbox, jack, can of gas, and a car battery in the trunk of the Impala and I was ready to roll! What could possibly go wrong?
Then my inherent city-boy fear of the Central Valley kicked in; coastal Californians picture the goings-on in the rural parts of the state as being straight out of Deliverance, only with Oklahoma accents in place of the North Georgia ones in the film. I figured I'd bring my friend Chunky along; in addition to being the size of a bus, Chunky taught me much of what I know about low-budget car repair. In the above photo, we see him brandishing a cheap intake manifold for his band's gig-rig van, courtesy of Pick-N-Pull's Half Price Day. Let's go!
We show up at the famed Joad double-wide, and the vehicle inventory looks vast yet unpromising. Beetles with huge scorch marks around the engine cooling vents. Country Squires and Plymouth Suburbans with the windows busted out and families of raccoons nesting inside. A '58 Ford settled in the dirt up to the rocker panels. A Fiat 128 with the engine rusting on the trunk lid. Vegas. Pintos. A Datsun 810 wagon on its side in a drainage ditch. The distant strains of what seem to be Merle Haggard's "Tulare Dust" come from the cooling towers of the broken-down nuclear power plant next door. Hooray, a field full of long-abandoned and possibly radioactive beaters!
The most recently retired vehicle is an Olds Delta 88 of Operation Linebacker vintage. The tires look pretty good, and the rolled-up windows mean that I won't find a poop-saturated possum nest in the driver's seat. Unfortunately, the reason the Olds isn't rumbling down the back roads of Sacramento County becomes apparent as soon as I pop the hood: total wiring harness meltdown and associated minor engine-compartment fire. I could rip out a bunch of wire from some of the other junkers and rig up a crude twist-wires-together-to-start Field Expedient Wiring Harness, but experience has taught me that such rigs won't hold together for more than a few dozen miles. We move on to a Mazda GLC with bullet holes in the windshield and manage to coax the engine to life after 45 minutes of spark-plug cleaning and fuel-system unplugging, but the clutch turns out to be kaput.
We repeat this process with a few more cars, each time losing a bit more momentum. Cars that don't start. Cars that won't go into gear. Cars with no brakes. Cars with no brakes and yellowjacket nests. We decide to take a shot at the ancient green Volvo 144, which has been turned into a storage container for boxes of semi-discarded household goods. The most recent registration tags hail from 1977, which— even accounting for a few years of unregistered operation— means the old Swede has been baking in the Central Valley sun for over a decade. Still, we manage to get the tires to hold some air and a quick pull on the alternator belt turns the engine a bit, meaning it hasn't seized. More good news: the car appears to have been parked with a completely empty fuel tank, apparently having run out of gas during its final journey, so the fuel system isn't completely clogged to hell with weird petroleum products. We dump some fresh gas in the tank, hook up the battery, and crank it over. Nothing. The B18 sounds like it has compression, and the SU carbs appear to be pouring at least some gas into the cylinders (I'm having SU flashbacks due to my years attempting to use an MGB-GT as a daily driver). Got to be the ignition! Sure enough, a few minutes of futzing with the points later and the thing roars to life! Even more miraculously, the long-dormant automatic transmission shows a willingness to go both forward and backward, the brake pedal doesn't quite sink all the way to the floor, the brake lights work, and— biggest miracle of all— Charlene's dad manages to dig up the car's title. The engine has a pretty alarming front main seal leak, but a couple of oil stops on the way home should solve that problem. I hop into the Volvo, Chunky fires up the Impala, and we go bouncing down the dirt road that will lead us to the highway.
Given that I'd been using a complete beater '65 Impala as a daily driver for a year at this point, the Volvo actually seems pretty pleasant to drive. Oh, sure, the cyclone of a decade's worth of dust and trash blowing in my face isn't much fun, a way-out-of-tune B18 hobbled by a slushbox needs a few miles to get up to highway speed, the super-expired registration tags are a cop magnet, and the smell of leaking oil burning on the exhaust manifold is making my eyes water... but other than those minor annoyances, not a bad car. It even sports a working FM radio!
The Volvo rolls just fine for about an hour, and we begin climbing up I-580 to the Altamont Pass. Now we have passed from the wide-open Central Valley highways to Bay Area Commuter Traffic Hell; this is the worst part of the journey to have a mechanical problem. Just as I'm thinking this: tire blowout! Yes, the sun-baked right rear lets go catastrophically, starting a panic chain-reaction behind me as drivers swerve around big chunks of rubber and fenderwell dirt. The Volvo lives up to its safety propaganda and remains under control, and I pull onto the not-quite-a-car-width's-wide shoulder, with the primered-out Impala close behind.
Well, here we are, just short of the summit, on a blind uphill turn on one of the most congested stretches of freeway in Northern California, with one car that looks like it just left the scene of a drive-by shooting and another that looks like it just escaped the Crusher's jaws by about five minutes. The first cop that sees us is going to take about 0.005 seconds to read the situation as an all-dirtbag affair, and it's just going to go downhill from there... that is, if we don't get wiped out by some distracted Suburban driver on the way home to Pleasanton in the meantime. No cell phones, no AAA... our only hope is that we'll find both a spare tire and a jack in the trunk, which for some reason we hadn't checked before leaving. No doubt it will be full of boxes of old Christmas ornaments, or maybe a grocery bag full of wet newspapers. I'm betting on the newspapers.
The door of the Impala creaks open. Chunky falls to his knees on the safety-glass-cube-strewn asphalt: "Dear Jesus, Wotan, Quetzalcoatl, Vishnu, and the whole crew. Please hear our prayer, as we pop open this piece-o-shit Volvo's trunk, and provide us with the functional spare tire and jack that we need, lest we be completely fucked! Amen." We cross ourselves and work the trunk lock. 18-wheelers roar by, inches away. And, folks, miracles really do happen, because the only objects in the trunk are a brand-new, fully-inflated tire mounted on a Volvo wheel and a Volvo scissors jack in perfect condition! Thank you, Jesus! We never doubted you, or Quetzalcoatl, for a second! We swap the wheel and make it all the way back to Alameda without further incident.
Epilogue: With the help of cheap junkyard parts, I got the Volvo running pretty well... just in time to get dumped by Charlene, who refuses to take the car on her way out of my life. I sell it for 150 bucks to a guy who says he's going to drive it to Maine. Maybe it's still there now!