Like so many broken down old cars, the old Plymouth sat forlorn and alone at the far edge of the driveway. Even from a distance, it looked like it was a mess, its green paint was peeling away and the hood, which for some reason had a flat black square in the middle, was entirely oxidized. Up close I could see that the interior was just as bad as the exterior. The dash pad was totally cooked and the vinyl seats had split wide open along their seams. My buddy Rick, however, insisted the car was cool and to prove his point he raised the hood to show me a tired old engine that he insisted was a 383 big block. I looked it over, noting the four barrel Holley double pumper without an air cleaner and the unpainted valve covers that had leaked an impressive amount of dirty black oil over the years, and tried to find something to be positive about. Finally I found it, bolted to the inner fender was a splash of faded purple and a sticker featuring a cartoon character. Its text proclaimed “Voice of the Roadrunner” and I knew in an instant, with all the certainty that 19 years of life experience had given me, that my friend had been right all along.
I suppose now that I had driven by that house a million times over the years and never once noticed the old Plymouth that sat deteriorating in its driveway. It wasn’t until my friend Rick had gone to work for the man who owned the car that we became aware of its presence and after seeing it in the driveway thoughts of buying it soon swirled around inside our primitive, teen aged brains. Muscle cars were good and if we could score one we would be awesome.
We examined our situation. Rick had a job and a few dollars in his pocket but his family situation wasn’t stable and, since his single mother often struggled to make ends meet, he usually ended up using most of his paycheck to help the family get by. My family situation was a lot better, I certainly never wanted for any of life’s basic necessities, but I lacked a job and the drive it took to get one. As a result, the only money I had was what I could skim off the top of the gas money that my parents slipped me so I could “look for work.” Still, we were young and ignorant so we decided that between the two of us we could work something out with the car’s owner. Before we struck the deal, however, we needed to make sure the old car ran.
The car’s owner told us it needed an alternator so Rick and I pooled our meager resources and scraped together the $30 required to buy a rebuilt part at the local auto parts store. While we were there we also bought a new set of plugs and a can of starting fluid. Back at the house, we charged the battery while we worked on the car. Although neither of us were master mechanics, we managed to get the old alternator off and the new on back on without breaking anything important. The spark plug change went just as well, and within a couple of hours we had progressed to the point where we could add some old lawn mower gas to the car’s tank and start cranking.
The Plymouth’s gear reduction starter gave a raspy growl and the big engine started to slowly turn. Inside the car, Rick pumped the gas pedal and I gave the open carb a shot of starting fluid. For a second the car chuffed, then fired and struggled to life. It ran for less than five seconds and then stopped as painfully as it had started. Rick cranked the engine again and the car stumbled back to life as I added another shot of ether. The car popped, sputtered and started to die again, but this time I thought to give it another shot of starting fluid before the engine quit and it struggled back to life. On and on the cycle went and between Rick pumping the gas and my occasional shots of starting fluid we managed to keep the car running long enough for our fresh lawnmower gas to make its way up from the fuel tank to allow the car to begin to idle on its own. It sat there, running rough and emitting a cloud of rich smelling black smoke out the back, but between the two of us we had done it. We had breathed life back into the old car.
The car’s owner was impressed and he gave us a hearty pat on the back for our efforts before inviting us up onto his porch to talk about price. He laid it out in simple, broad terms. He wanted $1000 and he wanted it in cash, up front. No payments, no working it off, just $1000 cash on the barrelhead, please. Rick and I looked at one another dumfounded and it suddenly dawned upon us that between the two of us we had never even seen $1000 in our lives. There was no way we could actually buy the car we had just repaired.
A week or two later someone else came up with the cash and just as quickly as we had found and fixed it, the old Plymouth was snatched away. It was a bitter lesson, but like another cartoon character, the Grinch when he discovered the Christmas spirit, my brain previously two sizes too small, grew three sizes bigger that day. I have never forgotten that lesson. Cars, houses, and in the case of my sister when she thought she was going to fix one of her dead beat boyfriends a long time ago, if you are going to put your time, effort and money into something, make damn good and certain you have the title in hand. They are words to live by.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.