Sunday, December 2, 2012

Junker Driver


                                      Now, at the beginning of time, the '70's, I was a young man in love with the open road. I had just got out of the Army and I was following the rodeo all over the southwest. I just happened to be working for Donnie Jack, taking care of his horses. Donnie at that time was so high up in the rodeo I never saw much of him but his hairy nostrils. 
  One day he says to me, "'Mon Pablo, I wanna talk to you." He happened to be leaning against this weird looking car. "If ya wanna work for me, you gotta get around. This here old Dodge is ony got 70 grand on her. Keep oil in her and she'll last till you dead."
  "Ain't got no money, Donnie."
  "That's what I want to talk to you about. You're gonna get killed hitchin how you do ever where. So I'll make you a deal. You work for me ten weeks. I'll take fifty a week out of your paycheck. You should have enough to get by. You can bunk with Jim in the barn."
  There were two Jims: one was a horse, the other might as well have been. I liked the horse just fine.
  "Okay," I says, grateful. "Thanks."
  Once he stood up from leaning against the funny looking car, he says, "You do all right." 
  He signed over the title to me, and left me taking a long look at my first true Junker Tourismo (JT).

  
  It was a Dodge Duster that Donnie sold me. My father's car had been a '48 Studebaker Champion. Though more modern and boiled down the Duster reminded me of the Studebaker. The inline six cylinder engine, which powered both cars, though the Duster was technically a slanted inline six, was well known for crotchets, oddities, sudden skips of the engine, humping and bumping. The windshield wipers in the Studebaker ran slower driving up the hill and faster driving down the hill. But Father seemed to like the old boat; he kept it forever, and it ran lousy for a long time. It never quit completely; it slowed down, coughed and smoked, but forged ever onward. And the windshield wiper phenomenon impressed me strongly. Though a mechanical thing, it was imbued with intelligence and knew what's what.


  Like the Studebaker the Duster was a big, roomy sedan. Built like a truck the Duster was a great JT and it became the vehicle of choice for many junker drivers. In certain far away parts of the world the slant six engine is a tradition, a prized family heirloom passed on from one generation to the next. Lucky for me I ran into it and Donnie at an impressionable age. And thus as I became a grown up, I began to search everywhere for cars in the grand junker tradition like the old Duster.
  At first I wondered if I was in my right mind. But why would Donnie, a rodeo champion, jerk tiny, nothing me around? At first I was not impressed. The car was weak, rattley. I know of one Duster that on the first drive out of the dealership dropped the drive shaft on the road; it just fell out. But after the hundred-thousand mile break-in the Duster was a sturdy, gentle giant, an amazing road warrior. Modern cars aim for an astounding first impression; the sharp decline to an early rendezvous with the junkyard comes later, somewhat later, and sometimes not a very long somewhat later. A Junker Driver won't go motoring in just anything.
  Now, a childhood experience in which funds were limited will take you close, but an adulthood in which it was normal to be broke will actually get you somewhere in the junker world.
  I heard a lot about used Cadillacs. But even when the juice was 30 cents a gallon, how could I afford a Caddy? I fell in with other junker drivers—something Junker Drivers tend to do; they are like druggies in the way they run across each other. We agreed that rust was the enemy. A clean car without rust holes was in seventh heaven with God, but an old rusted out carcass was doomed to the junkyard beside Satan. A Caddy might skirt Satan's acquaintance for a good many years, threaten numerous times to fall. But they had thicker metal, or something. Eventually the engine vomited so much smoke that a rebuilt had to be installed. But once you put in the rebuilt, went through that desperate hassle, then a Caddy could be counted on for another long run. Even if you parked a Caddy outside in the weather, it resisted the deadly development of junker rust holes. It might leak in the cabin some on a long ride on a rainy day, but the water didn't spray in, soak your pant legs, irrigate your accelerator foot. But how could I ever afford a used Caddy?
  But I could afford Donnie's disgusting junker, which ran for over 200,000 miles on top of the 75,000 was already on it. Then one day it skidded on a snowy road in the Skagit, tires bald, dropped down into a big ditch. Wow, lucky! Wrecked, but she still ran fine, and I managed to drive her home all the way to New Hampshire, five gallon buckets of water in the back seat, stopping every twenty, thirty miles to load up the radiator. Then she gave up the ghost, turned into a big ball of twisted, tattered metal dropped down on flat tires, shreds of duct tape flapping in the wind. Oh my God, I thought, what next?
   Just so happened, previous to the Duster, I had lived in Germany. Everybody in Germany that I knew owned a Beetle. Beetles were a dime-a-dozen. The four cylinder opposed air-cooled engine was an absolute forty horsepower wonder. One man alone in a dark driveway could pull the engine, drag it up to the kitchen and overhaul it on the kitchen table. Once it was cleaned up and shining, it even made an interesting "ob-jec" to drink beer around. I got so I could do a successful overhaul, rather than just another crude patch job. In the long run hardly anything mechanical ever happened to them. Keep fresh oil in the engine, and the air cooler hat nicely adjusted—a little serious trick to it—and if you didn't beat on it, you could count on the little engine for most of a dog's lifetime. But watch out for body rot. Look around the door panels for dull grungy smudges. The Beetle had no defenses at all against body rot. It was like putting the lambs in with the lions. Once the body rot started, the little Beetle ended up in the junkyard fast. One poor innocent bought an old Beetle with a bad case of the rot, and he was driving down the road, went over a bump, heard a tearing sound and found himself scraping chair bottom at fifty miles an hour on the highway. Scared him plenty!
  The Honda Civic was a great improvement in technology. It was one of the first boxy front wheel drive hatchbacks. Honda sold the first few models for less than $2,000 new! Back then it was quite a stretch to the American eye to get past how tiny it was. But it had a surprising amount of room for the front seat passengers. The back seat was okay for two forty pound kids or one moderate sized family pet. But the hatchback could be used to load stuff in. Put down the back seat and you'd shoehorn in whatever you might need at college for a few weeks. They were always efficient, getting an honest thirty-five miles per gallon. A few models down the line, this was more than twenty-five years ago, they'd get fifty plus, highway. And the engine would hang on forever. This engine was a clever wonder. There have been several such extremely cleverly built and economical engines in the last twenty-five years. They had a successful run and mysteriously disappeared. I have my theory why, but you'd think I was crazy.
  Again, no protection in the Civic in an accident. In those days all the other traffic was BIG. But certain models became much coveted JTs. Among Junker Drivers you'll hear many an amazing tale.
  There were other good JTs: certain models of the Ford Mustang, or if you could get a used one reasonable, the T-Bird. You need duct tape and a pot of self-tapping screws for a GM, but most of the stuff on a Ford tends to stay put. An oddball, I'd almost say unimportant, mechanical device might fail on a Ford; a mystery might develop, which would be best ignored. Any good Junker Driver soon develops a powerful ability to ignore almost anything that doesn't stop the old boat dead.
  But for some reason in the mid eighties or so it became hard to find a good used JT. Old Shel tweaked the Dodge Omni. He called it GLH (Goes Like Hell--it really did.) But if you didn't beat on it too much it also lasted like hell. Datsun brought over a little four cylinder that was bulletproof. Some Junker Drivers stole the Iron Mike out of a TJ and dropped it in whatever they could find with minimal rust. Old Volvo fours were also much prized. Engine swapping became the unofficial automotive art of Junker Drivers. 
  I must admit I was rattled. I almost bought a Shelby Omni in '85. None of these cars were true JT's. If it was not rust, the engine was frail; if the engine ran strong, everybody worried about rust.
  I think I lost my mind. I bought the only new car I'll ever admit to buying in my life, an '85 Mustang GT, the year of a major redecoration by Ford. I have nothing bad to say about the car. It was worth every penny in fun and thrills. Hard to keep tires on her, though. That 305 loved to rev. It could really lay down the rubber. You couldn't kill the 305 if you tried. But it used too much juice. I got rid of the Mustang in '91. The market was glutted with little Asian cars, some of them pretty, but none of them were true junkers.
  Alas, soon enough I was broke again. Laid off. Big depression in Maine. Then I did the only thing I could do: not buy a truck. A good junker slaps you in the face. They are not trucks. A hound dog sniffs a hot trail; I sniff a good junker. I bought a...well, my wife liked it. It was never around the house long enough to do an oil change!
  I remember Donnie, whom I chat with all the time, though he's gone to the other world. "Damn," he'd say, "I couldn't even fit one big foot in that!"
  "Yeah! But Donnie, you keep oil in her and she'll last you till you dead."





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