This garage holds 45 years of automotive memories. As does the house it’s attached to. I’ll spare you the memories and stories that are being shared, relived and dredged up as the Niedermeyer clan shares a get-together at my parents’ house in Towson. But let’s take a quick look at the cars that have lived here since 1965. Like families, it’s a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly (as the current occupants make it all too clear).
Since there’s no scanner in the house, regrettably I can’t share pictures of the actual cars, so these are all stand-ins.
The 1965 Dodge Coronet 440 eight-seat wagon replaced the 1962 Ford Fairlane in the most recent CC. By far, it holds the most memories for me, given that it was the first car I ever drove. One day when I was fifteen, my parents were gone for the day in my father’s car, so I just grabbed the keys, walked down to the garage, got in and backed it out into the driveway, like I had done almost every Saturday to wash it. But this time I just kept going, through the neighborhood, out to Charles street, and when I hit the Beltway, I turned into the exit and got on the busy freeway.
The only problem I had was that I had to fight a nervous shaking in my leg, as I got up to 65 or so. But it smoothed out after a couple of miles. Having spent many summers driving old tractors in the fields of Iowa, I was surprised at how dead and lacking in feedback/kickback the Dodge’s power steering was. Welcome to the reality of Mopar PS.
I was instantly addicted to driving, and you can read all about my exploits here and here. It inevitably resulted in a fender bender (not my fault), but that exposed my exploits and postponed my license for almost two years. The effect was that it extended my period of illicit driving, and my creativity in finding the cars to do it in.
The Dodge had the old polyspheric 318 V8, with 230 hp, and the Torqueflite. It was a real challenge to get it to burn even a hint of rubber. And as much as I like to buy into the myth of Mopars handling better than average, Mom’s Coronet handled like a pig. It under steered notoriously, plowing its way through life. It wasn’t the slightest bit fun to drive. I drove it purely out of necessity to feed my habit.
To the right of the Coronet, on my father’s side, lived a bright green 1965 Opel Kadett. It was a fairly short-term visitor, staying a mere three years. And its the only car of all of them that I never drove, the Opel having left the fold before I started my driving career.
It was a remarkably tiny and tinny little buzz bomb. Opel’s key competitor to the VW Beetle was a flyweight, weighing two hundred pounds less than a Beetle, or just some 1500 lbs. And it never let you forget it. The tops of the doors would show daylight at seventy or so, being sucked out by the negative pressure area at speed. But with a fairly rev-happy 993cc four that put out 40 hp, it could easily outrun the ubiquitous Beetles. This is something that my older brother proved to me in numerous stoplight drag races.
In every way, the Kadett was the polar opposite of the Dodge: it was hyper-direct in all its controls, and could be made to do all sorts of interesting maneuvers, with its balanced RWD chassis. It was more like wearing a car than driving it. And its hard ride and noisiness were more akin to a toy or a sedan version of an Austin Healey Sprite.
A baby-shit brown stripper Dart like this one replaced the fragile Opel after a mere three years of my father’s commute and my brother’s exploits. It had the small 170 slant six, three-on-the-tree, and manual steering and brakes. It lived up to its reputation, and was a loyal servant for many years. More Darts are coming soon to CC, but let me just say this: if this car had come with a four-speed stick, and the steering had been just a tad quicker, it would have been quite an effective back-road bomber. With very little weight on the front (the bane of most older American cars), it handled surprisingly well, completely unlike the bigger Dodge wagon. The little six revved more than one would expect, but the gap between second and third was a black hole that the bigger 225 six would have dealt with better with its much more ample torque.
Mom’s Coronet was replaced by a 1973 Coronet wagon, my father having taken a serious turn towards Mopars after the previous Fords. This picture is of a ’72, but that’s all I could find; but the difference was minuscule (n0 fake wood on Moms’). I had already left home by then, but the first time I came home after it appeared and I took it for a drive, I was pleasantly surprised. It handled markedly better than the ’65, and the newer LA 318 seemed to pull as hard if not more so, despite the desmogging. But the handling was the biggest surprise; this one felt so much more composed, and even the steering now had a tad of feedback. Power disc brakes added to the overall impression of driving a much more modern car.
No, that’s not my family on horses. But this Zephyr is a pretty close dead-ringer for what replaced the Dart after ten year’s of use. The Dart was actually still in very decent shape then, without rust and and as solid and hard-running as ever. But my father finally broke down and admitted that he liked the A/C in Mom’s ’73 Coronet. Baltimore summers will do that, even to a cold blooded person like him. So the Zephyr, equipped with the 2.3 L four, four speed stick (on the floor) between actual bucket seats, and air conditioning replaced the Dart.
It was an interesting car, inasmuch as it (and its Fairmont twin) were the closest thing to a Volvo 240 ever built in America. The Fox platform was a remarkable piece of work, which we’ll examine closer soon, and with the four, stick, and manual steering it wasn’t exactly fast, but a very light and neutral handling car that felt much more European than the typical fare built by Detroit. We all though that the dorky factor was high, but that just came with the baggage of it being my father’s.
My father was now back to being a Ford man, and with the family nest quickly emptying, my Mother wanted something smaller. A 1981 or ’82 Escort wagon (not a woody) with the 1.6 and automatic was very much in tune with America’s new-found love for small cars during the second energy crisis. I’ll spare my full assessment on a coming CC, but let’s just say it won’t do much to rehabilitate my growing reputation hereabouts as a Ford hater. Like almost all small cars form Detroit, the Escort started out very flawed, and eventually the worst of the warts were sanded away and they turned into half-way decent but serviceable cars. Unfortunately, that wasn’t good enough, given the competition from Japan. ‘Nuff said for now.
My father did something totally out of character in 1985 or 1986. He actually called me up to get my recommendation for a new car, as long as it was a domestic. The answer was instantaneous: a Taurus. It was light years ahead anything else from Detroit, and these early versions with the Vulcan 3.0 and automatic were actually devoid of the notorious problems with the 3.8 and the later transaxles. It was a breakthrough car, and one could rightfully say it was the mold of which the whole Camcordia class has been cast from ever since. Quiet, smooth riding yet not a bad handler; for the first time that balance did not elude Detroit. He loved it and it gave him very good service. But he never called and asked me for advice again. Go figure.
Somehow, I was able to co-opt my father in the decision for Mom’s next car. Despite his rabid anti-import sentiment (he was still smarting from the fragile Opel and the crappy service he got at the utterly disinterested Buick dealer) I talked her into asserting herself and buying a Civic sedan; I’m not exactly sure which year, but one of these. And she fell utterly in love with it. It was bright red, and she called it her sports car. Without going into the unflattering details, let me just say that her innate ability to have a relationship with a car and the corresponding driving skills profoundly overshadowed those of my father. He wouldn’t like to hear it, but so it is. And he doesn’t read TTAC. Anyway, that Civic was one of the joys of her life, and she always looked forward to driving it. And it was utterly dead reliable.
By 1993, there would have been so many easy choices for my father with which to replace the Taurus. But for some inexplicable reason, he now turned to the company I so wanted him to buy from in the sixties: GM. But he waited thirty years too late to buy the right Skylark. I couldn’t believe it when he proudly told me of his new Buick. Let’s just say it’s still in the garage, and the fact that the two of them have survived this long with each other is a minor miracle. He was always a driver who didn’t inspire confidence, and at the age of ninety, we all shudder to think he’s still at it. None of us have gotten in with him for years, unless it was absolutely essential. The truth hurts sometimes. Maybe the Buick is his good luck token.
One day a few years ago, my father took my mother’s Honda for a drive, and came back with a new Saturn Ion coupe. And she didn’t stop letting him hear about how unhappy she was about that for years. I’m sure he meant well, but…well, its probably better I just stop now. They’re old, and we’re here to celebrate the fact that they can both still (sort of) drive at all.
There will never again be any more new cars in this old garage. And despite some of the questionable choices, the cars got them through their very full lives. So I celebrate them all, and will miss them, even the Ion and the Buick. Possibly even most of all.