I’ve noticed, when it comes to automobiles, that many people fit into one of two molds: either they love cars, or they hate cars. I’m an exemplar of a third type when it comes to a person’s relationship with horseless carriages. Sometimes I love them, and sometimes I hate them.
I love them when they’re cheap, they get great gas mileage, they’re useful, and they never break down. I hate them when they’re expensive, they’re gas hogs, they don’t do what I need them to, and they’re always in the shop.
Like that 1981 Dodge Aries whose drive shaft fell off in the middle of the road on the “death strip” portion of Route 8 north of Pittsburgh in about 1984. Hated that car. Loved the Gerber baby food salesman who rescued me, gave me a ride to a motel, paid for my telephone call, and stayed with me until the AAA showed up. I think it’s the last time I got into a car with a strange man. (In the sense of a man who is a stranger, I mean. Not the other sort.) His car was full of strained spinach and puréed pears, for heaven’s sake. What could possibly go wrong?
Nothing that already hadn’t, as it turned out. Awful car. Nice man.
Then there’s the first car I ever remember. Granny’s grey 1947 Rover. License plate GOV 141. Suicide doors, beautiful blue leather upholstery and polished walnut trim. She was an economy model, as the British auto industry was just getting on its feet again after WWII, but she was lovely and similar to the one pictured here.
On a cold morning, or when she was feeling a bit recalcitrant, you had to start her with a crank handle. (No “so, you’ve met my old girlfriend” comments, please.) She had mechanical turn signals recessed in the column between the front and back doors, which flicked “up and out” when you pulled the knob on the dashboard, and a lovely squishy armrest which pulled down to divide the back seat in two (it was my favorite place to sit, because I was up high and could actually see out the windows).
One day, I was driving around the old market town of Bewdley with Granny–think, Miss Marple, in her Margaret Rutherford incarnation–when a young member of the local Constabulary pulled her over to the side of the road and told she was driving too fast. “I do beg your pardon, Constable,” Granny said, smiling winsomely up at him all the while, “I didn’t think the old girl would do 40 miles an hour.”
“Well, Madam,” he replied, just as jovially. “Perhaps I could give you a certificate attesting to the fact, in case you ever decide to sell her.” Then he wrote up a ticket.
Loved that car. And my granny.
Or there’s the 1957 or so green Ford Zephyr Zodiac whose driver-side door had fallen off. When I was tiny, I used to sit between Mum and Dad, on the front bench seat (this was before seat belts, child car seats, or rules about where kids were allowed to sit), with a thick piece of rope stretched in front of us, threaded through the armrests on the passenger and driver sides, pulled tight, and tied in an enormous knot in the middle.
It was always a fun ride, during which I eagerly waited to see which happened first: whether one of the armrests would pop off due to the strain, or if the knot would come undone. In either case, occasionally, the door would suddenly disengage, fly through the air, and land in the middle of the road with a huge crash. Of course, this was in Nigeria, so no-one cared all that much. (In fact, compared to some of the other vehicles on the road, our car was in almost mint condition.)
Loved that one, too. Or at least the excitement and anticipation that attended any trip we took in it.
But I don’t really want to write about any of those cars. The car I want to write about is, perhaps, the only perfect car we’ve ever owned. A cheap car that sipped small amounts of gas, did everything we ever asked of it, and never broke down.
The ugliest car in the world. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you . . .
The 1978 Datsun F10 Sportwagon!
Here’s how it measured up, according to my specifications:
Price: It was cheap. I can’t remember how cheap, but I know it was cheap, otherwise we could never have afforded it. (At the time, we were quite penurious, and lived in a dingy, five-room house, right on top of the exhaust vents for the Liberty Tunnels, the main connecting thoroughfare between downtown Pittsburgh and the South Hills. Every so often the cops would show up to quell a near-riot at the house across the street, where, for example, the man of the house had locked himself in the bathroom, while his lady-love stood at the top of the stairs like a circus performer, with a quiver full of sharp knives, flinging them exuberantly and accurately, one-at-a-time at the door, where each one buried itself about an inch deep. Crowds would gather, supporting one side or the other, and eventually some drunken sot, usually female, would throw a punch and a melee would start. Our mortgage payment was $71.97 a month, not because we had a 500-year mortgage, but because we only paid $7,200 for the house. And no wonder.)
Efficiency: In terms of fuel efficiency, the F10 was a marvel, coming in at around 40 miles to the gallon on the highway, and almost 30 around the city. With the average price per gallon of (leaded) gasoline hovering around 65 cents at the time, you could go a long way (a little over 400 miles) for a small amount — about seven dollars, to fill up the 10.8-gallon fuel tank.
But the F10 was efficient in other ways as well. It was an early front-wheel drive model, and it held the road well. It was good in snow and we never got stuck at the bottom of our considerable hill, even in the worst of weather (it is true that we sometimes had to go up in reverse, though). It never made a fuss, no matter what we did, and when things like brake pads, and even the clutch plate, needed to be replaced, it was a relatively simple job and something we could do ourselves, so it was easy and cheap to fix.
Versatility: We do not go easy on our vehicles. And this was particularly true of the F10. We were living in a crummy little house that needed a lot of work, and for a few years it was the only vehicle we owned. Although we never carried sheep or goats around in the back of it, as I’m prone to do now, we probably had every other imaginable thing, or substance, inside it at one point or another. But its most useful feature was its roof.
You may have noticed that it didn’t come with a roof rack. We didn’t care. 4×8 sheets of drywall? No problem. Strap them to the roof. 3/4-inch plywood? Strap it to the roof. Enough dimensional, pressure-treated lumber for a six-foot-wide, 20-foot-long, second-story deck (complete with posts, railings, and steps)? Strap it to the roof (yes, this did take more than one trip). Medium-size appliances? On the roof. Siding? On the roof. Mattresses? On the roof. Never a murmur of complaint. A bit of a dent, or perhaps more of an actual sag, over time, but nothing a few good thumps with a fist from the inside wouldn’t fix, at least for long enough to make it presentable for inspection. We probably carried 90 percent of whatever ended up in, or on, the house during the eight years we lived there, in, or on, that car.
And then there were the family vacations.
In 1979, Mr. Right’s three children were 14, 12 and 10 years old. We were poor. We had one tiny two-door car which weighed less than a ton soaking wet, and came with a puny 1400cc, 80HP engine.
So, we thought, let’s buy a trailer and tow it around. Go camping with the kids. Sure! Why not?
We consulted the local Green Sheet (think Craig’s List on 8.5×11 paper, cheaply produced, and freely available at most supermarkets and gas stations, in racks at the checkout). And we found, for the princely sum of $300, a (very) used Ted Williams tent camper-trailer, probably dating from the late 1950s.
We went to U-Haul, and asked them for their tiniest hitch. They laughed at us, but they installed it. And we proudly towed our newest possession home. And tried it out on a couple of weekend excursions.
In 1980, Mr. Right and his three children took one of the most memorable (in so many ways) vacations of their lives, a six-week trip out West in the F10 and the Ted Williams camper. (I’d just started work as the receptionist at a small law firm, had no vacation time and couldn’t go. My job was to wire them small amounts of money periodically, whenever they ran out.)
The little F10 took it all in stride with never a peep.
The following year, it was New England and Maritime Canada. I did get to go on some of that trip, flying up to Boston, halfway through, for the second half of it. So, at that point we had two (large) adults in the front, and three still-growing children (15, 13, and 11) in the very cramped back seat, and the trailer, and all our stuff. Still, we made it through. (That was the year I learned to master a stick shift in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Mr. Right had gone off into the hills with the boys to hike from hut to hut for a few days, and my stepdaughter and I were left to our own devices, with an automobile I didn’t know how to drive.)
If I were to dare to utter a criticism of the perfect car, it would be that its gearbox wasn’t especially smooth, but we both survived, in no small part due to the large number of very nice men who let me drift the F10 backwards onto the bumpers of their vehicles so that I could manage the brake, the clutch, the gear shift and the accelerator in the proper sequence and with the proper timing to get the infernal thing going on a hill.
Reliability: Honestly, I don’t remember a single problem with this car, other than a few flat tires (not its fault), and the standard swapping out of “consumables” such as brake pads, various filters, a new battery, and so on, when the time was right. The body of it rusted out prematurely, but that was more a hazard of living in Pittsburgh, a city of hills, and one which uses vast quantities of salt in the winter, than it was a defect in the car. (Undercoatings and paint must have improved significantly over the past 40 years, because, in general, that is much less of a problem today, although the Western PA roads are certainly no better now than they were then.)
That about wraps up my paean to “the little car that could.” Intrepid and stout of heart. Indefatigable. Unflinching. Dependable. There’s never been another one quite like it.
In 1984, we traded in what was left of it on a larger and much more comfortable vehicle, a Nissan Sentra Wagon. That one got totaled twice (rear-ended one time, and a tree fell on it the other). In both cases, we had it cobbled back together and happily drove it until about 1998 when it started to disintegrate to such an extent that even we were ashamed to be seen in it. Somewhere in the same decade we also had a Ford Festiva (another excellent, cheap, uncomfortable little car), a small Ranger pickup, and a second-hand Chevy we bought as my stepdaughter’s first car, fondly known in the family as the Dissmobile, because no one who ever saw it gave it any respect at all.
At some point, I began to notice that my ill-assorted and extremely well-used vehicles were serving as a source of considerable amusement, not only in the parking lot at the large urban hospital where I worked in the late 1980s, but also in the one at the local community hospital just up the road from where I live now, where I started work in 1990. My car always stood out: It was either the dirtiest, or the most dented, or the rustiest, or the one with the fender whose color didn’t match the rest of it, or the one trailing the most bits of hay or mud up the road. Even out here in the sticks, my vehicle was memorable.
When I left work at the end of that day, I noticed that the IT building seemed to have emptied out, and as I exited the back door to walk to my car, I saw why. Almost the entire department was encircling my brand new car, holding helium balloons and eating slices of cake. They offered me one.
They were cheering.
As I drove away on that sunny afternoon, I felt like the Queen of England.