Remembrance of Vehicles Past


1980 Chevrolet Caprice Classic diesel

Ah, this was a beaut. I acquired this car in January 1991 when my grandfather gave it to my Dad, who passed it along to me. It had 130K miles on it at the time, was 24 feet long, and had 2 batteries. Once that winter I was parallel parked on a slight uphill in front of my apartment (715 1/2 S. Grant, Crawfordsville, IN). Behind me was my roommate's motorcycle, so I couldnt back up. Four feet in front of me was the landlord's car. Below me was ice. I tried to go forward, but the tires just spun. So i gave it more gas (sorry, fuel). And more fuel. And more. At this point I looked down at the speedometer, which said I was traveling 55mph. I eased up on the accelerator.

The Caprice's moment of glory came in April of that year, when Harvey, Joerg, and I made a weekend trip to Niagara Falls. We stopped at Kent State and hung around for a while. Howard said my car was excellent for "broughaming". So we rode around slouched in our seats with our arms hanging out the windows for a while. Later that night we headed on to Niagara with two others. The car was like a mobile living room. It cornered like one too.

The Caprice met its demise in June 1991 on I-70 between St.Louis and Indianapolis. I was passing a semi, going about 75, when a huge CLUNK sounded beneath us and all power vanished. Somehow I wrestled it off the road. It had thrown a rod right out the bottom of the engine. There was a big splattered stain on the road but we didnt find (or look for) any pieces. My brother Peter, his friend Stan, and I waited a few hours at a truck stop in Little Point, IN for Dad to come. We towed it home with a car that was much lighter (and underpowered as well) and got there at dawn. The parents later sold the Caprice "as is" for $250. It had 138K miles.

1980 Honda Civic hatchback

The death of the Caprice left me at my cousin's wedding in Fort Wayne, IN without any way to get back to St.Louis. But my Uncle Joe mentioned that my cousin Andy had a Honda that he was trying to get rid of, as it had failed inspection and could not legally be operated in Pennsylvania. Luckily (this will come up again and again) Indiana does not go in for frivolous formalities like vehicle inspection. Sometimes the shortest path from Indiana to Missouri is through Pennsylvania.

So I headed off to State College, PA, where Andy's car was waiting patiently. On a Monday morning U.Joe found a notary public and signed over the title. The car had 130,423 miles as I headed to Greentown, IN. It also seemed to not be very powerful. (You can stop laughing now. Of course no Honda hatchback with a 1500cc 4-cylinder is going to burn up the road. I mean even less powerful than you would expect.) I would head up a hill at maximum velocity 60mph. By the top I would be going 30-35. In addition, there was a water leak, forcing me stop every hour or so, read a book while the engine cooled, add water, and continue. This led to a more relaxing mode of travel, and I eventually managed the 520 miles to Greentown.

Once there, we replaced the plugs and wires so that the car now ran on 4 cylinders - it turns out I effectively drove a 2-cylinder 750cc hatchback over the Appalachians. We also got the brakes fixed - the guy at Dick & Walt's said I wouldn't have made it to St.Louis. I neglected to tell him I had gone much farther the day before. The next day I drove to St.Louis with 2 gallons of water and a stop every 70 miles.

That summer I was at an Washington Univ. in St.Louis. We sometimes went out to lunch in Thirsty. One day Steve Krantz rode in the back seat. I think it is OK to quote him: "This is a great car." That may have been the day that we were hauling along the expressway (well, as much as a Civic with four passengers can "haul along") and heard this terrible scraping noise. I stopped the car, pulled a piece of metal off the underside, threw it in the back, and went on. Problem solved.

1983 Honda Civic hatchback

For the moment, a brief synopsis: I bought this car in November 1991 for $1700 from a guy that lived in Elwood. This is the only car I ever conducted a search to find. It had 112,655 miles at the time. This car (Thirsty II) and I have been everywhere from Nova Scotia to North Carolina to Minnesota to Louisiana together. In November 1994 Thirsty had a stroke and sat in my parents' barn for a month while I recovered from mono. Then we put Thirsty back together but he has never run as well as before. This November, Thirsty had another stroke and hasn't moved since. Thirsty has stranded me three times, in West Lafayette(IN), Greencastle(IN), and Hartford(CT), but I still grieve over his passing. There is still hope, but I don't know how much more those old legs can take. For now, Thirsty has 176,103 miles.

Moments of Thirsty Glory:

1976 Datsun 620 pickup

Really brief synopsis: I bought this truck in April for $270. It had 297,417 miles on it, which is a real selling point for me. After an exhaustive name search, I named it Gus. Gus is a dull oxidized red with orange showing through and has a few battle scars. The hood is held down by two bungee straps and there is a hole in the passenger side floor that I could escape through if necessary. Not many people look for this feature when purchasing a vehicle, but it is an important one. Suppose you roll your truck and end up upside down in some sort of hole. You're sunk. But I just peel away a few layers of cardboard and I 'm free. Anyway, I imagine Gus will eventually kill me. He leaks brake fluid like mad and has no-power power steering and a big spiderweb on the windshield. When I pass big trucks on the highway, the hood comes up as much as a foot, straining against the bungee cords. Needless to say, I love this truck. Gus has 298,770 miles at the moment.

Gus update: As of January 8, 1997, Gus is sitting on 3 wheels and a concrete block in front of my house. The front left wheel cylinder was leaking fluid. I have a new wheel cylinder waiting to go on, but the old one won't go. It thinks it's welded to the backing plate. If anyone has any ideas for getting this thing off, let me know. Currently Gus looks like something you'd find in you grandparents' barn while playing hide and seek. "Wouldn't it be cool if this ran?" you think. Gus will rise again.

Gus update 2: Electric Boogaloo: On April 25, Dad came over and we finished the job. I had already removed the wheel cylinder, broken off the adjustor, and bought a new one. All we did was put it all back together and bleed the brakes, and Gus is once again on the road. All hail Gus!

In August 1997, Cecil broke down in northern Indiana. Gus had never been more than 60 miles from home, but Cecil was 85 miles away and needed a tow. So we went on a long trip, pulling Cecil on a tow dolly back to Lafayette. Gus performed beautifully, except he started making noises just as we got into town. When I checked the oil, it was 2.5 quarts low. Yikes! Anyway, for this act of bravery, Gus will now be known (from time to time) as Sir Gus. Another cool thing about Gus: the lip around the top of the bed is perfect for opening bottles of beer. Of course, it often drenches the opener (or anyone else nearby), but that's part of the fun.

Gus is rapidly approaching the 300,000 mile mark. I will post increasingly frequent mileage updates as the milestone nears.

16 aug 97299,063
20 aug 97299,260
24 aug 97299,385
28 aug 97299,488
01 sep 97299,631
05 sep 97299,731
09 sep 97299,828
13 sep 97299,940
17 sep 97300,012

Recent Gus voyages: Culver, Bloomington, Greentown, Danville, IL, and Indianapolis (many times). As of September 16, Gus has 304,313 miles.

1983 Honda Civic wagon

I bought this car in June. Really, I bought the idea of this car. Some friends of mine were moving and didn't want to take it with them. They had bought it brand new in 1983. Now it had 258,480 miles on it. How can you say no to a car with 258K miles? I offered $200 and it was mine. Somewhere along the way it picked up the name Cecil. It seemed a little superfluous at the time - who really needs a third car? - but with the death of Thirsty and Gus' current brake problems, Cecil has been elevated to Primary Vehicle, sort of like Gerald Ford in 1974. The only drawback is that 5th gear does not exist. This also means that the speedometer and odometer do not work. Estimated mileage, though, is around 264K.

Cecil wouldnt start one day in northern Indiana in August. Gus and I towed him home, where he sat until November. When I finally got around to it, I found the problem was a 6 dollar fuel filter.

Current Cecil difficulties:

Epilogue: 1998 Honda Civic hatchback

So I eventually became tired of my lack of long-distance mobility. Perhaps what made up my mind was a 20-hour Greyhound bus ride to New York in March 1998. At any rate, I started looking at reliable long-distance vehicles. Used Hondas aren't as cheap as they used to be, and I eventually decided go buy a brand new one. So on April 30, 1998, I came to be the owner of Nora Lee, a dark blue/purple Civic hatchback. Nora Lee and I went everywhere together that summer - Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, back to Indiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, back to Texas, back to Indiana, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, back to Indiana, Rhode Island, Virginia again, and back to Indiana. By the end Nora Lee had acquired about 15,000 miles in 3 months.

Meanwhile, the landlords were getting tired of the accumulation of vehicles in the driveway and the city ticketed Cecil across the street. Dad had recently gotten rid of 4 nonmoving vehicles, including Thirsty I, so after much soul-searching I decided to sell Thirsty II and Cecil. I put an ad in the paper in September and sold them both for $125. Actually, I sold them for $126. The guy who bought them had $60 of his own, had to borrow $50 from friends (he parked the car in front of their house as collateral), and still owed me $15. Finally he came by one day and signed over a $16 check from the plasma bank to me. I was so surprised I forgot to give him change. 

So in some sense the semi-historical vehicle tale tails off here. I still, however, own Gus, who, other than some clutch problems, is going strong. Perhaps someday I will have a farm and a barn and will restore a 1983 Honda Civic to mint condition. One can dream.

Next Chapter: on to Pennsylvania

If the story of me and my vehicles were a television series, we would be in the spinoff now. The pilot episode would have me in a Budget rental van carrying a buncha stuff and a canoe and towing (you guessed it) a 1976 Datsun pickup. So I moved to a little house out in the country near Kempton, PA, and lived with Leticia. We drove Gus around a bit that summer of 1999, until my Indiana insurance ran out. Now I have to figure out how to get Gus up to PA inspection standards. We live in Espy now, and Gus lives in the garage. Nora Lee, the 1998 Civic, rolls on, with 43,000 miles in 22 months. Studsy, Leticia's car, happens to be a 1986 Honda Civic hatchback. Sometimes she thinks that's why I like her. Life is good.

On Bastille Day 2000, we moved across the river to a farm in Beaver Township. Gus still lives in the garage, but comes out sometimes to empty grain from the barn or such. He still opens beer bottles, too. Nora Lee rolled over 60,999 miles in 3 years, then she rolled over on her top, shorly after we made the last payment. We drove Studsy home from the junkyard after cleaning Nora Lee out and found the title for Nora Lee had arrived in the mail. Two months later, we bought a 1992 Volkswagen Jetta from a farmer up near Turbotville who had kept it immaculate. As of September, the Jetta has 121,101 miles, Studsy 120,138 miles. Will Studsy catch up? Who knows? I can hardly sleep at night!

Another Chapter

It was the summer of 2001 when we bought the Jetta with 119,500 miles on it. Three years on, it nears 170,000 and has a recurring engine virus, meaning it will strand you for an hour or so at random times. In the summer of 2003, we bought a 1993 Toyota Tercel with 113,000 miles on it. The Tercel had been totalled and rebuilt in Vermont, driven back and forth to Bard College for a while, and sold to Rob, who couldn't drive it and parked it for a few months. We had to get the brakes fixed, and I drove it home with license plates borrowed from Studsy. In January 2004, we drove Studsy to the junkyard - even though the engine still ran like a (pretty good) dream, the body wouldn't pass inspection. So our combined mileage nears 300,000. When I think about it, these cars are older than most of those I drove in my 20's. Life is funny that way.