car talk

Posted: May 6, 2012 in Traskland
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

When I was growing up my family always had plenty of cars. Not new ones. God forbid. I can only recall one new car during my youth, a blue Chevy Impala. Maybe my sister, who actually has a memory, can clarify this. Aside from that glaring exception we were a sort of urban Island of Misfit Cars. My dad knew a lot of people anxious to sell cars, often for $1. It was illegal to just give someone a car back then. Like all things in New Jersey money needed to change hands, even if only ten dimes.

Our car cavalcade was impressive. I recall a Ford Edsel. You may know the Edsel was one of the biggest boondoggles in the history of the American automotive industry which meant, naturally, it was perfect for us. One time my dad was zipping along the New Jersey Turnpike with my six year old self perched on the front seat bench beside him. Back then kids could sit in the front unfettered, safety be damned. Ahhh, the good old days of personal freedom and blind ignorance! Suddenly the front passenger door popped open. I wasn’t wearing a seat belt because who wore seat belts? Sissies, that’s who. Before I could fall out onto the unforgiving asphalt my dad calmly reached over and grabbed my arm while simultaneously maneuvering the vehicle onto the shoulder like a vision of Mario Andretti. He closed the door and reassured me all was fine, but I never trusted it after that. I wanted him to secure it with heavy ropes and steel bolts which, of course, never happened. I suspect it was just easier to dump the car and get a different one.

For a spell we had a Chrysler Hugemutha. Maybe it wasn’t a Chrysler. It could’ve been a Pontiac, Buick, or Dodge. Whatever the manufacturer, the model was definitely a Hugemutha, an enormous, fire engine red Hugemutha. The car must’ve been 600 feet long. The hood was as big as a king-sized bed. You know those scenes in movies where people lie on the hood of a car, look up at the night sky, and talk intimately about their hopes and dreams? (This is often accompanied by a shooting star because, you know, that’s exactly what happens whenever you open up your soul while on a car hood.) Well, you can’t do that on a Corolla. You need land mass, baby. The Hugemutha had that and more. The Brady Bunch could’ve camped out on that hood. And the trunk, the trunk was built for convenience. No need to rent a truck for that big move. The Hugemutha could handle all your hauling needs, especially those pesky body transport ones which often arose in northern New Jersey.

It was like this except our hood was 8x longer.

The Hugemutha’s other nifty feature was the lack of a stick shift, either on the steering column or center console. Instead, the transmission operated via a dashboard push button system, much like old school jukeboxes occasionally still found in diner booths. One button put you in Drive, others in Reverse, Park or Neutral, whatever your pleasure. The tricky part was all dashboard features were of the push button variety – heat, air conditioning, headlights, wipers, radio. I can’t tell you how many times my mom thought she was putting the car in reverse only to end up having Terry Jacks whining at her through the radio about having joy, having fun, having seasons in the sun. That stuff scars people.

There were other cars, but the one I’m most intimate with was the Black Taxi, another $1 special. I don’t know what model it was. I’m terrible with that stuff. (Yeah, I know. I should have my man card snatched away.) However, I do know it was built for toughness. Hell, it had to be tough. It lived life as a taxi and it showed. By the time it hit our curb it was no longer a bright or even dirty yellow. It was a slick black machine, much like the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty, only without the ass kicking Asian chauffeur and any hint of beauty.

At least the Green Hornet’s car had shine.

The previous owners decided they did not want to sell a car which was obviously a seasoned taxi. So they painted it. With spray paint. Flat black spray paint. Not a hint of gloss anywhere. It was the kind of dull black you’d find…actually, the only place you’d find it was on this car. Blackboards caked with chalk dust had more aesthetic appeal. The paint job was careless which, I suppose, is pretty clear considering they used spray paint. But they could’ve faked minimal pride by applying the paint evenly. You could tell where each new can started, where the stream lingered for a few extra seconds. Those spots were black hole black while the surrounding areas looked as if the black was trying desperately to convert to dark gray. The little paint trails which tugged their way towards gravity before drying in teardrop shapes screamed “we don’t give a shit” far more than the $1 price tag. Stevie Wonder could’ve done a better job.

However, it was sturdy. I drove it a lot in high school. It was the car I was allowed to use when I’d cruise the mean streets of my hometown with friends. I imagine each time I grabbed the keys and lit out the front door with a fading “I’ll be home by 10:00!” in my wake my parents turned to each other and burst out laughing. Nonetheless it was a car, a valuable commodity. We’d scrape together enough gas money among us and pile into the Black Taxi to make the scene with a kind of Potsie Weber coolness.

Although built to last it had its own unique challenges. The engine was Daytona 500 loud, the radio was spotty and the power steering was all steering and no power. Yet those quirks were minor in comparison to the back doors. Shortly after we got the car these doors decided they no longer wanted to close in a way that meant they were closed. A civil war raged among parts of the latching mechanism. Would they shut or not? The odds were not favorable. It was like Vegas on wheels.

Until then I never considered back doors were probably not built for the same kind of use as front doors. But they were the lifeblood of taxis. They got heavy use, opening and closing more than Madonna’s legs. By the time the Black Taxi reached me I suspect the back doors simply wanted to roll over and go to sleep with a “don’t even think about touching me” attitude. Eight teenagers can’t very well hit the town with doors constantly flying open. So we built a complex system with ropes and duct tape which secured each back door arm rest to the accompanying headrest on the front seat. Oh, what a masterful job it was! The doors were closed tight, like Scrooge’s wallet. It was so secure the only way to open the doors was by deconstructing the whole thing. That wasn’t going to happen, not after all the man-minutes poured into the design and execution. If you happened to be cruising 9th Street and saw teenagers climbing through the back door windows of a car the color of ratty tar you now know why. And my guy friends, being the gentlemen they were, always let the girls go first, giving them supportive arse boosts to ensure their safety.

Years later I realized had my dad shown the level of engineering savvy my friends and I did we could have kept that Edsel. For as bad as its reputation was, nowadays these monsters go for upwards $20,000 on the collector’s market. Or in a way my family would understand, 20,000 crappy cars.

  1. […] in the spirit of surveys, I have concocted a, to use Trask’s words, a hugemutha that is sure to benefit your inquisitive nature and society as a whole.  […]


  2. kayjai says:

    We had a Chevy Impala..that’s the only car I remember my parents owning. Great post, John!


  3. gene3067 says:

    Pushbutton tranny? Sounds like a Chrysler to me. Maybe Newport?


  4. rangewriter says:

    Did Edsels even own seatbelts? I loved this post.


  5. whiteladyinthehood says:

    You always make me smile! Loved it! Potsie Weber coolness….heehee


  6. Love the last line! And, despite the great name of Hugemotha, I am glad I don’t own one in this day and age of highmotha gas prices.


  7. Yeah my father had a dodge charger & chevy camari from back in the dayy ! I wish my bros would have kept them around :-/


  8. Paula J says:

    My mom had a Rambler that had push buttons. Thanks for the laugh.


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