Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Car That Got No Respect

No man treats a motor car as foolishly as he treats another human being. When the car will not go, he does not attribute its annoying behavior to sin, he does not say, "You are a wicked motorcar, and I shall not give you any more petrol until you go." He attempts to find out what is wrong and set it right. ~Bertrand Russell

A lot of people, especially male people, will wax nostalgic about the cars they owned when they were young. Not me. I survived the cars I owned as a young man, particularly my Corvair Monza (no relation to a Monza model brought out many years later). The Monza is not to be confused with the Corvair that starred in Ralph Nader's “Unsafe At Any Speed.” Nader was writing about the “box”, an ugly car with a tendency to turn over easily. The Monza was a sporty little number that was sufficiently low-slung that it handled reasonably well. Well, that is, unless it was raining or windy or icy. With the engine in the rear, the front wheel contact with the road was tenuous at best. A slight haze of water on the highway or a gust of wind (better yet, a combination of the two) could send you pinwheeling down the road, much to the consternation of people coming toward you from either direction.

Definitely a thrill to drive.

Of course, I had four-on-the-floor standard transmission. This allowed me to be able to actually accelerate with some degree of efficiency. It also gave me a clutch to burn out, which I did in a snow bank. My friendly local Chevy dealer replaced the clutch, apparently with some rubber bands, because the first time I drove the car after that the transmission committed suicide as I tried to merge onto the freeway. It is very exciting to have your rear wheels lock up at 60 MPH.

After some, ah, discussions with the local Chevy dealer, it turned out that they had “accidentally” used rebuilt parts while charging us for new ones. So, when all was said and done, I got a new clutch and a new transmission. But, I came to realize that my car just wasn't going to get any respect.

To make matters worse, it seemed to have the automotive equivalent of a “kick me” sign on it somewhere. I was clobbered not once but twice in the rear. Which, of course, is where the engine was. Luckily there were no serious injuries either time. Fortunately, because of the unibody frame construction, the rear area was the most solid part of the car. One of the collisions was caused by someone driving a Corvair box. After I recovered from the shock of being hit, I jumped out of the car, determined that the perpetrator should not drive away. When I looked at his front end, I knew he wasn't going anywhere. No car drives well when the front wheels are touching each other.

The front end of a Corvair was not nearly as well-protected as the rear.

All this getting belted in the rear resulted in the car being a little shorter than when it came from the factory. This point was brought home to me when I had to have the fan belt changed. The fan belt in a Corvair did something that no other fan belt in automotive history (to my knowledge) has ever done. It had to function while running at a right angle. There was a fan on top of the engine, but the flywheel was on the front of the engine (which faced to the rear of the car). When the mechanic tried to put the new belt on, it wouldn't fit between the engine and the frame. It took two burly guys, a large crowbar, and considerable muscle to get the belt on.

Needless to say, there came a point when I decided I wanted to be rid of the thing. I considered abandoning it, but with my luck, I'd get hit with a littering fine. So the car sat in the driveway while I borrowed my dad's car when I needed one.

My old high school buddy came by one day and asked me why the car was just sitting around. I explained that I was tired of getting hit, tired of belts breaking, and tired of doing the skater's waltz down the freeway every time it rained. Despite my complaints, he asked me if he could buy it from me. It seemed that he was always borrowing wheels from his sisters or his mother, and, despite making good money at construction jobs during the summer, he never could bring himself to buy a car from the used car lot.

I reminded him about the accidents, the incident of the transmission, and the fact that the brakes were squealing like a stuck pig. No big deal, he said. His brother-in-law was a genius with cars and could make it run like new.

Personally, I didn't think that would be much of an improvement over how it ran now, but I finally gave in and sold it to him for 100 bucks and a couple of stereo speakers. He took it over to his brother-in-law, who promptly put it on blocks. Every now and then, we'd do some housesitting for his sister and brother-in-law (they had a well-stocked liquor cabinet), and I'd see the car still sitting on blocks. After a while, I forgot about it.

Flash forward a few years. We had graduated college; he had gone on to graduate school, while I joined the wage-slave force. We were sitting and watching a ball game one evening, having a few drinks, and reminiscing about some of the neat cars he used to borrow from his sister. I asked how she was getting on, and he said she had divorced her automotive genius. "Really," I said. "Did he ever fix up that old Corvair?"

He paused for a moment, then his eyes grew large. “That son of a [bleep] must have sold it!” How exactly his brother-in-law could have sold it without a title was beyond me. The thing wouldn't even be worth anything to a chop shop. Even more amazing was how my friend could forget that he owned a car, no matter how cheap it was.

I guess the Monza got the last laugh after all.

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