[Editor’s note: We’re more than happy to have Jim Van Orden back out of his retirement with some more stories from his lifetime of encounters with cars.]
Remember the cars you wanted to buy—many of which are now “classics”—but didn’t?
There were lots of them in my life…in fact, almost as many as the cars I bought. No sooner had I purchased my first car, a 1951 Mercury, than I lusted after a 1952 Oldsmobile 98.
It was faster than the Mercury because it sported a 1959 Oldsmobile V-8 displacing 394 cubic inches. Its owner claimed it had a 1939 La Salle three-speed transmission. On the test drive, shoulders pressed into the seat, the torquey V-8 lifted the front end and tires burned holes in the pavement.
“Double-clutch!” the owner yelled as I attempted to shift into second, grinding noises joining his curses. It was obvious the tranny’s synchronizers were shot.
Knowing a little about double-clutching, I made several attempts and finally got the shift lever, which flopped side to side, into gear. The car lurched again and snapped our heads. The owner’s expletives convinced me this wasn’t the car for me.
Cousin Jane’s 1948 Studebaker
Even in 1962, the heyday of muscle cars, Cousin Jane’s Studebaker, a two-door with three-speed and anemic flathead six-cylinder, was coolness personified. It stood out because it was the only one in my hometown of Maplewood, New Jersey.
I really liked that it had no rear side windows and was devoid of chrome and doo-dads. My teen brain visualized nosing and decking the car (removing ornaments from hood and trunk lid) and adding fender skirts. Maybe I could replace the engine and transmission with a Chevrolet small-block and four-speed.
But, alas, after agreeing to sell the car, Cousin Jane, a fast driver, totaled it when she flew off a country road into a ditch.
A short time later, another Studebaker—this time a 1957 Silver Hawk—came into my life when a family friend visited my parents. Like Cousin Jane’s 1948 model, it was plain looking, devoid of chrome, and had no bells and whistles. But it had what I wanted, a small but powerful overhead-valve V-8 and three-speed, column-shifted transmission.
My mind went into overdrive with thoughts of modifying the “Hawk,” including installing the supercharged 289-cubic-inch V-8 from the then-new Avanti. Or maybe I could locate a junkyard big-block V-8 from a Packard Golden Hawk. The possibilities were endless.
But as fate would have it, the family friend got divorced, moved, and was never heard from again.
My first (almost) convertible
I’ve always had a soft spot for convertibles. Aunt Floey owned a black 1950 Mercury that made my hair blow in the wind. Years later, a friend’s grandfather drove me in his 1949 Cadillac convertible with white top and red leather seats. I vowed I would someday own a convertible, maybe even like his.
While tooling around Maplewood in the Mercury, I spotted a convertible that caused rapid breathing. Being a Buick fan, I fell in love with the bulbous, over-chromed vision of automobile garishness that I pursued into town. Top down, the 1951 Buick Roadmaster convertible, red paint and chrome hubcaps shining brightly, moved slowly but majestically.
When its owner parked, I asked if he would consider selling the car. An inspection revealed it had seen better days. The top mechanism didn’t work, there were rips in the canvas, red leather seats were cracked, and the inline eight burned oil. But four portholes on each fender and a gunsight on the hood convinced me this was my car.
Jotting down the owner’s name and phone number before he left, I promptly lost the slip of paper I wrote it on. Never saw him or the car again.
Looking in the rear-view mirror, I was shocked to see a 1951 Mercury tailgating as I accelerated up a hill. The car looked like mine and was easily keeping up. Pulling over, we parked and I asked the driver “What are you running?”
Turned out he had a 1954 Oldsmobile V-8 under the hood and a four-speed GM Hydra-Matic transmission. The big-block had been shoe-horned into the Mercury’s tight engine bay, but it looked like it belonged.
Curious to know how the engine performed, I test drove a 1954 “88” model that was for sale. No doubt about it, the car had more power and was faster than the Mercury. The horsepower-hungry kid reasoned an Oldsmobile engine would make his Mercury, which was hundreds of pounds lighter, a screamer.
It didn’t take long to locate an Oldsmobile engine for sale. Sitting on blocks in the owner’s garage, it was “like new,” he said. But I got suspicious when he couldn’t remember where he bought it or the last time it operated.
My teen brain started asking silent questions. What if the engine was stolen, had a cracked block, was missing parts or…? Seeing it weighed about 700 pounds, how would I bring it home? And how would Dad react when he saw it in his garage?
The pipedream of an Oldsmobile engine in my Mercury went up in smoke.
My teen car fantasies shifted from Oldsmobiles to Chevrolets with small-block V-8s. Two 1955 coupes I tested had Corvette mills with exotic high-lift cams and multiple carbs. Retrofitted with four-speed transmissions and low gears, they were quick and fun to drive.
But the horsepower-hungry days ended when I lost my license for street racing in 1962. It took many years before I once again was infected with this affliction.
The “Grand National” 1980s
Twenty-plus years, two children, and three houses later, I was in my 40s and going through mid-life crisis. Isn’t there more to driving than slow, poor-handling station wagons that lose stop-light duels and wallow through turns, I wondered? Volkswagen knew all about my problem and had a solution: the 1984 GTI.
The test drive up and down country roads was incredible. The little GTI performed like it was on steroids, taking sharp turns with aplomb and sprinting ahead of other vehicles with alacrity.
On a whim, I decided to test its competition, a 1984 Plymouth Colt with a smaller, but more powerful, turbocharged engine. This turned out to be a good—and bad—move. Deciding to buy the Colt because it was faster and cheaper, I missed out on owning a car that would become a true classic (and worth a lot more than the Colt).
As the 1980s progressed, my tastes changed. It was time to buy a larger car with more power and style. A neighbor made the choice simple when he drove by in his 1986 Buick Grand National, which a magazine touted as the nation’s fastest production car. Deep black paint and a turbocharged, intercooled V-6 that burbled through dual exhausts captured my heart.
The one I spotted with a “For Sale” sign looked pristine. Only two years old, it was a low-mileage beauty with no dents or scratches. “Mind if I floor it?” I asked the owner. Nodding his go-ahead, I made the engine scream, the turbo whine and the tires burn rubber for 50 feet.
“This thing flies!” I exclaimed, as we pulled off the highway. But an inspection revealed serious flaws. Its low mileage appeared to have been accrued on the drag strip. Rear tires were nearly bald, the first-second shift slipped and exhaust pipes blew smoke. When the owner refused to lower the price, I walked.
Ten years later, the neighbor’s Grand National was for sale and he gave me first dibs. It looked fine but, as I learned, the car had been stolen in San Antonio. When recovered by police, who saved it from the chop shop, it was re-painted and re-upholstered. A whining turbo and noisy valves convinced me to walk once again.
The final Grand National flirtation happened a few years ago while driving with my wife, Grace, on a rural Texas highway. There’s something about the car’s styling that enables me to spot one a mile away. There it was, parked near a service station’s pumps.
“Let’s pull over,” I said, “so I can check out the Grand National.” As she had done many times before, Grace watched me inspect the car. She knew I’d return, after much ogling and drooling, with Buick stories…but no car.
“Aren’t you going to buy it?” she asked, knowing the answer.