Mercedes SL’s were as thick on the ground as mascara on an over-the-hill movie star. The teenaged scions of the local glitterati drove brand new BMW 320i’s and VW Cabrios. A red Ferrari 308 GTB was de-rigueur for the up and coming producer. If you simply HAD to have attention or score the prime valet-parking spot, a Rolls Royce Corniche convertible was the winning ticket. And what was I driving down Rodeo Drive? A beat-up 1968 Dodge camper-van. I looked like Jethro in “The Beverly Hillbillies”. Except that I actually was poor.
In 1977, I transferred to my employer’s West LA TV studio. Searching for cheap digs, I stumbled into a sweet deal south of Beverly Hills: a little garage apartment and my landlady’s daughter. We fell in love over Thanksgiving, and married in the first week of January.
We celebrated our budget honeymoon in the van, somewhere in the middle of the desert. There wasn’t another living soul within miles. That suited us just fine– until we got stuck in the sand. We laughed about it then; we laugh about it now.
In one of the earliest manifestations of post-nuptial domestication, I set out to find a more comfortable, citified ride.
When I discovered a ’68 Peugeot 404 for sale, Stephanie and I fell for its Gallic charms. The French four-door had big cushy seats, a sunroof and a pillow-soft ride. Its little four-cylinder mill was smooth as silk, and the four-on-the-tree gearshift was surprisingly slick.
Peugeots (back then) were tough as nails, fully deserving the appellation “the French Mercedes.” They were also Africa’s brand of choice; 404’s still came equipped with an emergency hand crank (which explained the little hole in the front bumper). I never failed to attract bemused attention when I demonstrated this handy device.
Although the 404 wasn’t quick by today’s standards, it cruised comfortably between 75 and 85mph– fast enough to attract the California Highway Patrol, zealous guardians of America’s reviled double-nickel national speed limit.
Late one night, my wife and I were cruising down I-5 somewhere in the middle of nowhere between LA and SF. A cop snuck up on us. Using his bullhorn, the Poncherello clone’s ethereal (though not angelic voice) ordered me to follow him. Then he greedily roared forward to nab a second speeder a ways ahead.
Just then, an unlit farm-road exit appeared. I killed the Peugeot’s headlights, exited, drove over the bridge and headed back the other way. I saw the cop from the bridge, about a quarter of a mile ahead, ticketing his other victim.
I backtracked about twenty miles before I screwed up enough courage to turn around. Thankfully, California’s finest had called it a night.
We now entered the reproductive era of our life. First, the 404’s multiplied; next thing I knew, I had half a dozen, some running, some not. This was problematic, living in an apartment near the beach in parking-deprived Santa Monica. It got old pushing dead ones around on street-cleaning days.
But I got them all running again, and began a side business selling or renting 404’s to co-workers who needed a cheap ride.
Then Stephanie got in the act. I found her a pristine 404 wagon for $75. All it needed was an engine, which I happened to have handy. I swapped it out in the street. Our apartment manager really loved me.
During my eternal quest for parts, I got an up-close and personal look at the dangers of becoming an old car magnate. A friend hooked me up with a crotchety old guy who had over fifty old Pugs. He was on a mission to save every possible Peugeot from the crusher.
His living room was jammed floor-to-ceiling with shelves of meticulously cataloged parts. Strangely, he wasn’t eager to sell anything; I had to convince him that I was a worthy Peugeot aficionado. Leaving his moldering collection, I felt sorry for his long-suffering wife.
I started liquidating my fleet shortly thereafter, and have avoided that trap ever since. Life is too short.
After our first two kids were born, my automotive priorities changed. The Peugeot 404 wagon became the family truckster, loaded to the gunnels for trips into the Sierras. With just 70hp underhood and an automatic gearbox, ascending the mountains required near-infinite patience, kinda like parenting.
Mercifully, the funky seventies finally came to an end. My peers and I were ready for something new. I cut my shaggy locks short (styled at Vidal Sassoon), voted for Ronald Reagan, stopped driving quirky old French cars, and grubbed for my family’s share of the pie. The me-generation had their eighties-version make-over.
In just a few years, I would be driving a shiny new Benz down Rodeo Drive on my daily commute. Miss Hathaway had worked her charms: Jethro was going native.