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Classics that I hated and loved at the same time

Published in blog.hemmings.com

The “bucket of bolts” 1977 Dodge Aspen station wagon had so many squeaks it was hard to talk. My wife, Grace, and daughters, Jenne (left) and Tori, endured its bone-jarring ride and rattles. Photos by the author, except where noted.

Ever want to kick your car… or blow it up?

I felt that way about several of the two dozen cars I owned. Yet, despite their deficiencies, they grew on me. And when it was time to sell them, I had a lump in my throat. They were old friends, and I loved them.

Take the “bucket of bolts,” as I called the 1977 Dodge Aspen station wagon. Despite being only five years old, it squeaked and rattled so loudly passengers screamed to be heard. The car looked ugly, too, its brown paint hiding fender rust, scratches, and dings inflicted by New Jersey’s rough highways.

I bought the car from my father-in-law, a thrifty man who ordered it from a dealer during the Arab oil embargo. Wanting the best gas mileage possible, he opted for a three-speed manual on the floor with overdrive… a serious mistake. He soon discovered second gear had synchronizer problems and had to be “fixed” numerous times under warranty.

By the time I owned it, the “fixes” got worse and second gear sounded like a meat grinder. Adding to the cacophony of gear whining, squeaks, and rattles were tailpipe clunking and muffler banging. The latter rusted so badly it fell off one day as I drove to work.

Despite all this, the 225-cu.in. slant six delivered exceptional gas mileage. It was a “camel” on vacation drives, getting almost 30 miles per gallon, and it never dropped below 20 around town.

Slow as molasses, the car lost every drag race. But that didn’t bother me. It was an “underdog” and I felt sorry for it. Its plain-Jane ugliness made it invisible to police with radar guns. Impervious to potholes that would ruin other vehicles’ wheel alignments, its steering was precise and it stopped on a dime. As an added bonus, I never worried about it being stolen.

Why I sold it, I’ll never know. But I wanted more power, style, and speed. Stupid me.

I should have ‘Dodged’ these cars
Dodge station wagons played an important role in my young adulthood. Like the Aspen wagon, my father-in-law purchased two other Dodges that he eventually sold to me. The first was a 1969 blue Coronet with 318-cu.in. V-8 and three-speed on the column.

Overheating was its main problem. The temperature gauge rose quickly on long trips and often touched the top of its range. This was accompanied by boiling radiator water and engine pinging.

I owned three Dodge station wagons, all of which provided numerous mechanical issues. The 1973 Dodge Coronet’s manual shift linkage got stuck between first and second gears.

The problem persisted no matter how many times the radiator was flushed and the thermostat changed. But the car did well in cold weather and had plenty of room for baby seats, strollers, and diaper bags.

The 1973 Dodge wagon he sold me years later ran cool, but its three-speed manual transmission linkage constantly jammed. Imagine throwing a shift from first to second and feeling steering column linkage clash and grind. It was embarrassing to pull off the road, open the hood and, donning an old glove, manually free the linkage. Other than that, the car was dependable, had few repairs and I liked it… but not enough to keep it.

The Plymouth from hell
A car I hated but wished I kept was a 1956 Plymouth Belvedere with V-8 and PowerFlite transmission. My parents bought it from a little old lady who drove it a year and decided to store it in her garage for two years. Sadly, pistons, valves and other engine parts were damaged on initial start-up.

It sure looked good with perfect paint and chrome when I bought it in my senior year of high school. The interior, covered in clear plastic, was pristine. To make it appear fast, I set up dual exhausts with glasspacks. My dream was to install a four-barrel carburetor.

The 1956 Plymouth looked good but its first owner, a little old lady, let it sit for two years. When it was fired up for the first time, pistons and other engine parts were damaged.

Drag racing did little to improve the damaged engine, which deteriorated to the point where blue smoke and powerful, dangerous odors enveloped the car at stoplights. An engine rebuild lasted about three months, the mechanic botching the job and making matters worse.

Adding to my miseries, the brakes often overheated and faded badly. Although beautiful to look at, the car was beyond redemption and I was compelled to sell it.

The VW needed a computer
About 35 years ago, I purchased a high-mileage 1973 VW 412 station wagon from my secretary. She drove it to work one morning and it stopped running.

“You want to buy it?” she asked. “It’s a good car but it doesn’t start.” She took $50 for the car, which was parked in a foot of snow. Tires were nearly flat and it had the filthy look of a “junkyard special.”

Returning that weekend with a new battery, I put the key in the ignition and the engine “varoomed” to life, black smoke issuing from tailpipe and valves clattering. A drive around the parking lot convinced me it could be driven home.

Entering the highway, I accelerated and was rewarded with… nothing. The car had no power and wouldn’t exceed five miles per hour. It was touch-and-go along narrow roads but drivers were respectful and gave me space. After filling tires at a gas station, I called a VW dealer and was told the problem was a faulty airbox and computer sensor. Cost: $250… five times what I paid for the car.

The `1973 VW 412 wagon had a fuel-injected engine that needed a new computer. VW wanted $250 for the unit; a junkyard sold me one for $15. Photo via Summit Racing.

A call to a junkyard revealed they had a room full of computers for my VW. Five minutes after installing the $15 black box with a screwdriver, I turned the key and the engine roared to life.

The VW performed adequately and, after detailing, looked good. As proud as I was of the car, it still needed too many repairs: brakes, shocks, muffler, tires, battery… the list grew long. I cut my losses and sold the car to a neighbor’s son who offered $400.

The car got ‘Olds’ in a hurry
Despite it being a cold day, my feet were burning as I tooled along in my 1977 Oldsmobile “88.” At first, I thought it was my imagination. Then I realized my shoes were “red hot” and charbroiling my feet.

Pulling over, I got out and put my hand on the floorboard carpet. Hot! Pulling up the carpet, the metal underneath was literally red—like it had come out of an iron forge—and couldn’t be touched. Looking under the car, the heat source was obvious: the catalytic convertor had failed.

The Olds 88 was an excellent car but its catalytic convertor failed and got so hot it burned my feet. Good thing the car didn’t catch fire.

A thorough inspection of the exhaust system revealed it needed replacing, a project that cost more than I paid for the car. Other than that, the Olds was a good performer, comfortable and handsome. As much as I liked the car, it was time to sell it, which required purchasing a junkyard “cat” and, with help from a muffler shop, attaching it to the old exhaust pipe. Now fixed, the car sold for a profit.

More than the turbo ‘lagged’
The 1986 Chrysler LeBaron turbo convertible I bought for my wife, Grace, was quick, stylish and lots of fun. It was our “freedom machine” and took us on dozens of top-down drives along East Texas two-lanes lined by wildflowers and framed by fences behind which longhorns grazed.

Then one day the engine overheated, a deadly scenario for the turbo and cylinder head. Although still working, the turbo was fried and the head gasket leaked water. The sweet, but nauseating, smell of antifreeze permeated the car’s interior, making us sick.

The turbo and head repairs were excessively expensive, I thought. For some reason, the car never felt the same after that. The rebuilt turbo provided lackluster performance and the once-perfect engine was burning oil.

Grace’s 1986 Chrysler LeBaron turbo was a great car…until the engine overheated and the turbo blew up. Wish I had kept it…it’s a classic today.

A freak accident on a busy highway damaged a rear quarter panel, and our insurance covered only a small portion of the repairs. Spray paint and a crowbar improved bent, scraped metal, but I knew it was time to sell the car. The buyer, a woman who said she always wanted a convertible, didn’t care about the damage. Who knows, maybe she restored it.

Lee Iacocca got it right with the LeBaron’s design. It was a beauty…and, in my opinion, is now a classic. I sure miss it…and all the “classics” I once “hated”…but “loved.”