The Truth About Cars » Murilee Rant http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Tue, 29 Jul 2014 21:42:50 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars editors@ttac.com editors@ttac.com (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Murilee Rant http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/wp-content/themes/ttac-theme/images/logo.gif http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/category/editorials/murilee-rant/ My Introduction To Panther Love: Inaugural Police Interceptor Road Trip! http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/05/my-introduction-to-panther-love-inaugural-police-interceptor-road-trip/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/05/my-introduction-to-panther-love-inaugural-police-interceptor-road-trip/#comments Fri, 25 May 2012 14:30:42 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=445946 Back in 2004, I was doing a typical East Bay highway commute to my job writing software documentation. Ten miles each way in a Tercel (I had my choice of an ’85 wagon or a ’90 hatch), and the ever-increasing numbers of badly-driven SUVs on the Dreaded Nimitz were making me feel quite vulnerable in my little rice-burners. I needed a more substantial daily driver, and it damn sure wasn’t going to be an 8-MPG truck with 64-ouncer cup holders. What I needed, I decided, was an ex-cop Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor!
My first thought was to get an ex-CHP car, with only highway miles on the clock and much better maintenance than most local police departments perform on their cars. Plus, highway patrolmen don’t do much arresting, which means fewer gallons of urine and vomit emitted by cuffed-and-stuffed drunken back-seat passengers. California state vehicles get auctioned off once a month near Sacramento, so I headed up I-80 to check out some black-and-white P71s. Unfortunately, every P71 aficionado in Northern California knows that ex-CHP cars are less thrashed and piss-soaked than Crown Vics that spent their lives driving over Oakland curbs or chasing miscreants down potholed Redding alleyways. Late-90s cars were selling for upwards of $3,000, which was about a grand more than I wanted to pay. The K-9 cars, with their cool-looking hood louvers and extra-oversized AC compressors, were going for even higher prices. So, I passed on the CHP cars.
Not long after that, I went to a big car auction specializing in ex-government vehicles. Hundreds of Crown Victoria Police Interceptors were going under the hammer every couple of weeks; most of them were completely trashed city black-and-whites (complete with spotlights, push bumpers, and icky odors), and they were selling to cab companies for a grand or less. Right in the middle of all these cars, however, was a group of a dozen or so ex-San Joaquin County unmarked Police Interceptors. Every one was a ’97 model, none had spotlights or cages or antenna holes in the roof, all had decent interiors, and all were bronze or dark blue. They were going for $2,500 to $3,000 apiece, but one of the bronze ones had a big shallow dent in the driver’s door and the bidding was much slower on it. I was willing to go to $2,000, and my bid of $1,600 was the winner. Sold!
At just seven years old, this was the newest car I’d ever owned. The trunk was full of stuff, including a bunch of paperwork indicating that it had been driven by a San Joaquin County parole officer. I also found crime-scene Polaroids, Parolee Handbooks, and urine test kits. Everything worked, it drove very nicely, and I decided that I needed to take it on a serious road trip as soon as possible. At the time, I was a serious fan of the Oakland Athletics, having attended 25 or so games a year going back a decade. 2004 was the height of the Moneyball era, with the “big three” of Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, and Tim Hudson pitching, and the A’s were locked a nail-biting September battle with their archrivals, the Anaheim Angels, for the division championship.
I’d been shooting photos at ballgames for a while (here’s Hudson in his rookie year), and I decided that what I really needed to do was pack up my homemade stereo camera (a pair of Konica point-and-shoots, loaded with slide film and mounted on an aluminum bracket) and take my new car the 430 miles down to Orange County and shoot some 3D slide pairs of the A’s playing at Angel Stadium.
That meant, of course, driving the same highway as so many of my Impala Hell Project road trips, with the destination just a few miles from where the Impala had put in so much work lowering property values.
So, a couple of days after buying my parole-officer Panther, after having put only 15 miles on it and with no idea about any mechanical problems this 130,000-mile car might have, I gathered up some of my A’s-fan friends and headed straight to Interstate 5.
The game started at 5:00 PM and we wanted to get to Angel Stadium in time to do some barbecuing in the parking lot, so we departed early in the morning. I was a little concerned about the lack of license plates, but I figured I could just show any inquisitive CHPs my auction documents. The drive went smoothly, the car was very comfortable for four occupants, and I became increasingly pleased with the superiority of the Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. It was the kind of car that all the rear-drive/V8 Detroit sedans of the 1960s through the 1980s should have been.
The tailgate-party scene at Anaheim Stadium bore about the same relationship to the corresponding scene at the Oakland Coliseum as touring with the Pope does to touring with 2 $hort. I could make all sorts of Oakland-versus-Orange-County comparisons here, but you probably get the idea.
We ate a lot of sausages, drank a lot of beer, and threw a baseball around the parking lot. Then we headed into the stadium… where Mulder got lit up by the Angels and the A’s lost 6-2. In fact, this was the game that began the downward spiral for the ’04 A’s, leading to the team losing the AL West to the Angels by a single game. This ended a run of several postseason appearances for the team. I was still happy, though, because my new car had turned out to be even better than I’d hoped.
My ’97 Crown Victoria P71 remained my daily driver for several years; even after I picked up my ’92 Honda Civic DX, I still drove the Ford at least a third of the time. My Crown Victoria suffered from plenty of nickel/dime problems (including an average of one dead window regulator per six months and endless maddening Check Engine Light adventures triggered by flaky smog-control devices), but it never once stranded me. It managed to get 24 MPG on the highway (all Crown Victoria drivers claim 25 MPG, but they lie), and it served me well in many, many tailgate parties at the Oakland Coliseum (here we see it with the Junkyard Boogaloo Boombox in the foreground).
It made a fine 24 Hours of LeMons Judgemobile, and I brought it to most of the California races.
Then, while I was preparing to move to Denver in the summer of 2010, the Check Engine light came on again. The scanner code meant “Lean Condition, Bank 1,” and I just didn’t have the time or energy to deal with yet another chase-the-malfunctioning-low-bidder-smog-component game. So, I traded it to the Angry Hamsters LeMons team in exchange for a custom-narrowed RX-7 rear end for my Toyota 20R-engined Austin-Healey Sprite, with the idea that the Ford would one day be a LeMons racer. As it worked out, my ex-P71 is being used as a daily driver, and my Sprite is still in California, awaiting installation of that RX-7 rear. If I ever get another Panther— and I might— it’s going to have a supercharger and a manual transmission!

12 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 01 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 02 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 03 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 04 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 05 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 06 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 07 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 08 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 09 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 10 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 11 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 13 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 14 - 1997 Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden 15 - Tim Hudson rookie year - Picture courtesy of Phil 'Murilee Martin' Greden Impala7-22 Zemanta Related Posts Thumbnail ]]>
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What About the Malaise Era? More Specifically, What About This 1979 Ford Granada? http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/05/what-about-the-malaise-era-more-specifically-what-about-this-1979-ford-granada/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/05/what-about-the-malaise-era-more-specifically-what-about-this-1979-ford-granada/#comments Thu, 05 May 2011 15:00:49 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=383337
The Malaise Era of American automotive history refers to the period of model-year 1973 through model-year 1983; it takes its name from the commonly accepted shorthand name for President Jimmy Carter’s notorious “Crisis of Confidence” speech of July 15, 1979 (interestingly, Carter did not use the word “Malaise” in his speech).

 

Carter dared to suggest that Americans couldn’t always have everything they wanted, cheap, and for this— plus his reluctance to turn the residents of Tehran into clicks on a Geiger counter after a bunch of beardo Islamo-loons took advantage of the power vacuum resulting from the CIA’s man losing control of our oil-soaked real estate and taking US embassy personnel hostage— conventional American wisdom regards him as The Worst President Of All Time, Except For Maybe That Guy That Did The Teapot Dome Thing. The idea that things were always going to get worse took root in America sometime between Walter Cronkite revealing himself as a paid agent of Vo Nguyen Giap and a Georgia preacher getting whacked by some asshole while supporting a bunch of Memphis trash collectors; the inflation resulting from the Vietnam War’s endless kidney-shots to the federal government’s budget (and Nixon’s resulting desperation moves) coupled with the Saudis finally figuring out that they were the pushermen feeding the West’s oil jones and that witholding the sweet black horse gave them power, and Southern Californians getting sick of several hundred “shelter in place” Stage 1 Smog Alerts per year meant that, by the early 1970s, the era of cheap horsepower, chrome-and-Naugahyde-slathered luxury, and general automotive optimism was deader’n Jimi Hendrix. The muscle cars of the late 1960s were essentially marketing creations— their symbolism as mighty-fisted avengers of perceived slights against the American Way Of Life came later, during the period of Southeast Asian Conflict historical revisionism that got rolling in the mid-1980s, and if you think there’s a link between the auction value of the ’70 Chevelle SS 454 and the level of certainty of the Silent Majority that we were stabbed in the back by the media in Vietnam, you’re right— and the once-vaunted quality of Chrysler, Lincoln, and Cadillac had already begun its long drop off a cliff long before the insurance companies, the NHTSA, and the State of California ended the cheap-horsepower-and-chrome party. At this point, I think it’s time to cue up the Merle Haggard; Merle expresses the “rolling downhill like a snowball headed for hell” sense of the country’s direction at that time better (and in way fewer words) than I ever could.
So, the Malaise Era: I’m defining its span as the 1973-1983 model years and defining its origins with such certitude because I invented the term during my first few months at Jalopnik, as a semi-ironic reference to Jimmy’s speech and the general sense that the future would suck permeating the formative years of my generation. When Eddie Alterman dropped it in a New York Times piece, its usage really took off. Hey, no problem— it’s my gift to the car-writing world— but it’s still exasperating when I get a bunch of static about how 1972 has always been considered to be the first year of the Malaise Era (because of the gross-versus-net horsepower changeover) or that the Malaise Era ended in 1981 (when Ronald Reagan took office and erased those shameful memories of helicopters on the embassy roof and a Dilantin-addled Orange County lawyer trying to rat-fuck the already helplessly disorganized opposition. I invented the term and I say it extends from the year of 5 MPH crash bumpers to the year the Fox Mustang became properly quick, and that’s that!

No vehicle better sums up the pluses and minuses of Malaise Era Detroit machinery to me— yes, there were pluses— than the 1979 Ford Granada that my parents bought in 1980 from Hertz. It served as my dad’s daily driver for a year or two, until he upgraded to a new Bonneville, and then it became the unloved “extra car,” driven only when the A-list car was in the shop or doled out to the teenage offspring to ensure humiliation at the hands of their Celica-driving peers. I took my first driver’s-license test in this car— dubbed “The Ramada” by my well-traveled salesman dad— and drove it whenever I couldn’t fire up a single one of my wretched personal fleet (including, at one point, a $50 ’69 Corona, a $113 ’67 GTO, and the world’s most terrible ’58 Beetle; you can see the Competition Orange ’68 Mercury Cyclone that succeeded these cars in the photo above). In many ways, the Ramada was a truly miserable car to drive; I struggle to come up with an adjective that does justice to its 250-cubic-inch six-banger’s performance. Dreary? Lackluster? Punitive?

Not many cars are so underpowered as to be genuinely unsafe, but the Ramada makes the list (the dual-control ’78 Rabbit Diesel in which I took my driver-training classes in 1982 is the only car that beats the six-cylinder ’79 Granada in my personal Dangerously Underpowered Cars Hall of Fame voting). From a standing start, you’d mash on the gas and the car would hesitate for a second or two, seemingly gathering its thoughts, and then there’d be this grooooooaaan sound from under the hood and the car would ooze forward. No amount of water or bleach on the rear tires could make it perform any sort of a burnout— hey, I was a teenager in a street-racing town in which only revving big-blocks could drown out the incessant Randy Rhoads solos and low-flying A7s— and even the most vicious, C4-annihilating neutral-drop couldn’t get more than a pathetic chirp out of the Ramada’s tires. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the car had sipped gas through a cocktail straw, what with fuel prices being pretty brutal in the early 1980s, but the Ramada gulped the stuff like a Delta 88 towing a cement truck uphill with three flat tires and five pulled plug wires. As I recall, it never managed to top 20 MPG in super-stingy highway driving (cue the enraged comments from readers whose Granadas habitually knocked off 38 MPG with the air-conditioning on), and nobody in my family wanted to know what its city mileage really was (cue the enraged comments from readers whose Granadas beat Honda Insights in city fuel economy).

At this point, I ought to break out the curb weight and horsepower figures, but I’m writing this while sweating out a 10-hour flight delay at Shadow Government World HQ and don’t have access to my reference library; I’m going to guess at a curb weight of 3,400 pounds and a horsepower rating of 92 (I checked later: turns out it’s 3,098 pounds and 97 horses).
The Ramada, as my family’s much-abused extra car, ended up as the “Phone Police Enforcermobile” in this 1984 Super 8 production I did for my first college scriptwriting class (the lack of a sound-enabled camera hampered the dialogue somewhat). My ’68 Cyclone and a buddy’s ska’d-out ’56 Bel Air also have cameos, but the Ramada is the star.

Thing is, the Ramada was ugly and slow and uncomfortable and leaked in the rain and wandered all over the highway and sucked gas, but it always ran. Well, to be more accurate, it could always be made to run, with enough coaxing and maybe 20 minutes of tinkering. Jump the starter relay with a screwdriver, or maybe hose down the carb with starter fluid. Some medium-grade hassle that got you pissed and dirty but always ended up with the 250 reluctantly coughing to life. The “automatic” parking brake release was vacuum-operated, and the driver would sometimes need to stick his or her head under the dash and suck on a vacuum line to disengage the brake. What really endeared it to my parents, however, was its crashing ability. More precisely, they loved its ability to get into non-injury wrecks with insured drivers who were always at fault, coupled with my ability to beat the thing back into some semblance of shape with junkyard parts and blue rattle-can spray paint. I wrecked it twice (once when a dude with a parked Farrah Fawcett-era Cougar popped his ten-foot-long driver’s door open as I drove by his parking spot; the Ramada tore the door completely off the Mercury, while sacrificing its grille and right fender in the process), each of my two sisters wrecked it twice apiece, and each of my sisters’ boyfriends wrecked it. The most dramatic wreck was a T-bone incident in which the driver of a Sedan de Ville passed out after a few too many gin rickeys at The 19th Hole and plowed into the Ramada. Each time, the insurance company kicked down at least five times the cost of the parts I needed from U-Pull-It to put the car back together, and I honed my sledgehammer-and-come-along bodywork skills. I think I went through four Granada and Monarch grilles, three hoods, and at least seven doors. I replaced every light on the car at least once, affixed the radiator using hundreds of zip ties, and bought Bondo in the extra-large economy-size buckets.
In a way, the Granada was emblematic of Malaise Era America: it lived in the past, suffered from a vast array of problems— many of its own making— and faced widespread scorn, but it just kept plowing ahead and got the job done. Ford’s marketers sank to a new, humiliating low with their claim that the Granada was just like the Mercedes-Benz W123. What’s next, putting lederhosen on the Statue of Liberty?
It’s too bad that the Coup’s “Me And Jesus The Pimp In A ’79 Granada Last Night” didn’t come out in 1980; Ford might have made the car into a favorite with the under-30 crowd.

The Granada’s chassis design can be traced back to the Falcons and Fairlanes of the early 1960s, and well before that time if you want to get really nit-picky. Obsolete before Eisenhower left the Oval Office, the Granada’s suspension was fairly sturdy and very cheap to manufacture. By the time Ford made a Fox Platform Granada in the early 1980s, the Granada name had become synonymous with “Malaise Rental Car Misery” and buyers avoided it all costs. While Ford may resurrect the Galaxie or even Maverick names from the grave, we can be sure that North Americans will never, ever have the opportunity to buy a new Granada (though it might be a different story in Europe).

What happened to my family’s Granada? Well, after so many wrecks and resulting amateur repairs, all the tape-measure alignments and chain-and-telephone-pole frame-straightening in the world couldn’t disguise the fact that the Ramada crabbed like a sumbitch, facing about 20 degrees away from its actual direction of travel, and the amount of time required to get it to start got past the half-hour mark at times. My mom eventually traded the car for a replacement door for her daily-driver Midget (yes, even a British Leyland product was more dependable than the Granada), and the Ramada was gone. Hmmm… maybe it was two Midget doors. Ramada, can’t say I miss you… but I respected you.

 

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Ahmadinejad’s Peugeot 504 Not As Cool As Jerry Brown’s Plymouth Satellite, But Still Cool http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/ahmadinejads-peugeot-504-not-as-cool-as-ho-chi-minhs-404-but-still-cool/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/ahmadinejads-peugeot-504-not-as-cool-as-ho-chi-minhs-404-but-still-cool/#comments Sat, 27 Nov 2010 23:00:33 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=374584
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has but one redeeming quality, and that’s his taste in daily drivers… and now he’s selling it! Yeah, he’d probably prefer to load the thing up with drums full of a VX/BZ cocktail and crash it into a Tel Aviv nursery school… but, still, the story makes me want to rant about downscale “Man of the People” vehicle choices and the love/hate relationship I once had with my own 504.

Jerry Brown, having gone from Governor of California to Mayor of Oakland to California Attorney General and now back to Governor (where his first act once sworn in will no doubt involve the Suede Denim Secret Police— and, by the way, a friend who worked for Jerry at the Oakland City Hall tells me that the Guv hates the Dead Kennedys song to the point of “frothing at the mouth” over it), helped establish his image as an ascetic oddball by eschewing predecessor Governor Reagan’s limo and driving a ’74 Plymouth Satellite. In fact, he didn’t even go for the cop-grade Satellite with the 440, instead opting for the more proletarian 318. Did he savagely fenestrate Linda Ronstadt in the Plymouth’s base-trim-level vinyl back seat? Were her Malaise-Era-pop-star gasps muffled by a Wiffle Ball duct-taped over her mouth? Who can say?

All right, now “California Über Alles” is stuck in my head, so let’s crank it up as we continue:

What do Jerry Brown and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have in common? Yes, both are crazy and both chose “Man of the People” cars that turned out to be seriously cool. Was this just random? Did they know? Jerry could have selected, say, a ’74 Maverick sedan, and Ahmadinejad could have gone with a new-ish Iran Khodro Samand (the Iran Khodro Paykan, aka “Iranian Hillman Hunter,” is up there with the 504 in terms of coolness). We could muddy the waters further by bringing Ho Chi Minh’s Peugeot 404 into the discussion, but then we’d have to debate the relative merits of the 504 versus the 404… and we’ll get to that topic later on.

The only French car I’ve ever owned was, of course, a 1977 Peugeot 504. Perhaps it rolled off the assembly line just after Ahmadinejad’s. San Francisco, 1990: The California economy is in shambles— though the early-90s recession seems like good times compared to the current meltdown— and recent college graduates cannot find employment. But hold on now— some friends work at an anti-nuclear-weapons canvassing group, sending carloads of underpaid lefty activists to go knock on doors and beg for cash… and this organization takes tax-deductible donations of unwanted cars! Better still, their headquarters is an old school in a sketchy Mission District neighborhood, and the school’s former playground now serves as a parking lot for dead or nearly-dead donated cars. Dozens of them! Every day, several of the “crew cars” must be coaxed into life, at which point four or six or nine ever-optimistic canvassers climb aboard for their journey to the doorbells of San Mateo or El Cerrito (though often the journey is really to a journey to a patch of highway shoulder, where yet another ’73 Olds Delta 88 or ’81 Datsun 310 expires in a cloud of head-gasket steam). I am hired to use junkyard parts and/or duct tape to persuade a larger fraction of the No More Hiroshimas Motor Pool to run, and the first thing I do is claim the coolest of the bunch for my personal parts-running use: an Ahmadinejad-grade white ’77 Peugeot 504, complete with gas engine, sunroof, automatic, turn-signal stalk on the right side of the steering column, and factory 8-track player with a single tape in the glovebox. That tape, naturally, is a full-on Jerry Brown-grade album:
You see how these things work? In 1976, Jerry’s cruising his Satellite, Ahmadinejad is just picking up his 504 at the Tehran Peugeot dealership, and the owner of my future 504 is buying Ronstadt’s latest hit album. Sadly, by the time the 504 became my junkyard runner— from Soho down to Brighton (OK, fine, Richmond down to San Jose), I must have hit them all— the only mechanical device in the car that worked every day was the 8-track player and its single tape. The fuel filter kept clogging with old, bad gas. The transmission leaked a quart per 50 miles driven. The charging system seldom, if ever, kept up with the car’s demand for fresh electrons. Few, if any, dash controls or instruments functioned. 20 years ago, you could still find a fair number of 504s in California junkyards, which meant I put more work into picking over Pugs than into yanking parts to keep The Country Squire of Peace or the Omni of Test Bans going. However, the interior was in great shape and the car was about the smoothest, most comfortable motor vehicle I’d ever driven. Most important, I felt seriously cool driving it; this self-image was not reinforced by anyone I knew (the 504 in the early 1990s not being regarded as an interesting car by anyone outside of the dozen or so American cognoscenti who knew it as the “Dodge Dart of Africa”). Finally, the transmission crapped out for good, the always-threadbare purse of Neutrons-’Я’-Not-Us, Inc. didn’t have sufficient dimes to hand Pick-N-Pull the 50 pocket-lint-coated bucks for a replacement, and the only French car I’ve ever owned clanked back into its parking space among the other dead crew cars. Since that time, though, I’ve meant to get myself another 504, preferably a gasoline version with 5-speed. Someday!

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I Bought My First Tow Truck At The Age Of Five http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/i-bought-my-first-tow-truck-at-the-age-of-five/ http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/11/i-bought-my-first-tow-truck-at-the-age-of-five/#comments Fri, 19 Nov 2010 16:12:43 +0000 http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/?p=373532

The Butthole Surfers’ song Pittsburgh To Lebanon contains one of the all-time greatest blues lyrics: “I bought my first shotgun at the age of three.” Now, I can’t match Gibby‘s feat, but I can say that I owned my first tow truck at the age of five.

It all started in Minneapolis, back in the mid-1960s. My uncle, the legendary Dirty Duck— Abingdon-on-Thames-trained British-car mechanic, old-time biker, and all-around outlaw— took a break from running reefer across the Mexican border in a ’57 Plymouth to get into the lucrative business of Minnesota winter tow-truck operation. In other words, he’d find cars buried by snowplows, aka “snowbirds,” drag them out of the drifts, and— through some sort of finders-keepers process I imagine must be akin to maritime salvage law— take quasi-legal (or at least slightly legal) ownership of the vehicles, which were then sold or parted out from his farm in Elko, Minnesota. This was working just great, but then the tow truck— a postwar GMC— blew the differential, and the Duck parked it in a field and decided to pursue other employment opportunities.


Fast-forward to 1971. The tow truck had been sitting in the field for five or six years, and Uncle Dirty Duck noticed me playing with my beloved Tonka tow truck in the grass next to my mom’s ’49 Cadillac sedan. “Hey, you want a real tow truck?” he asked me. “I got one you can have, just needs a little work!” Of course I wanted the truck— what 5-year-old could say no to such an offer?— so the deal was made: I fix the rear end, the GMC is mine! Sadly, my wrenching skills weren’t quite up to the challenge at the time, and then there was the matter of coming up with the cash to buy a junkyard differential, but I figured I’d get to the project sooner or later. Meanwhile, I could claim to be the only kid in my kindergarten class with his own tow truck, and that’s important!

Well, time went by and my parents decided that the 100-degree temperature differential between Minnesota and California in December warranted a move to the San Francisco Bay Area, so they packed up the ’73 Chevy Beauville and headed west. My tow truck and I were now separated by 2,000 miles, but I never forgot about it, sitting in that lonely field. Swarmed by mosquitoes and scorched by the sun in summer, buried under 15 feet of snow in the winter, year after year, the GMC waited for me. The thought that I own a ’47 GMC tow truck sustained me during tough childhood moments, again and again. Someday, I’ll go get it! I’d think.

The years went by, and I learned how to do a bit of wrenching. By the time I was lowering the property values at (a certain Orange County university that would probably sue me if I mentioned its name), I had the skills to get that truck fixed. Oh, sure, after sitting for 20 years it would need some work beyond a mere differential swap, but how hard could it be? The real problem would be coming up with the gas money to drive it back to California. By that time, too, I’d had enough hooptie-ass Hell Projects to have developed a somewhat realistic— or at least reality-influenced— conception of what was possible and what probably wasn’t.

At that point, I was hanging out with a fairly disreputable crowd, and a couple of guys I ran across now and then had a very interesting source of income: they worked for a one-truck towing company that had the contract to keep beachgoers from parking in the lot of (a certain chain grocery store that would probably sue me if I mentioned its name) in (a certain exclusive Orange County beach community that would probably sue me if I mentioned its name). If, say, a Celica full of high-school kids from La Habra parked in the grocery-store lot and the occupants were sighted hauling their Boogie Boards a block to the beach, my acquaintances— who looked like, and in fact were, generic surfer/stoner dudes and attracted no attention from prospective victims— would take note and summon their accomplice in the tow truck to haul the offending vehicle away… to Norco, California, a feedlot-packed hellhole about 50 miles inland. But wait! it gets even better! When the car’s owner returned from his or her communing with the Pacific, it would turn out that there was only one way to get the car back: take the tow-truck company’s taxi to Norco, with the meter running at full-on Gouger’s Handbook rates, and then fork over several hundred bucks on top of that upon arrival. A select crew of heavies, thugs, torpedoes, and/or kneecappers ensured that none of the “customers” complained effectively, the merchants were happy that their customers could park in the lot, and the money just rolled in. But still, the setup could have been even better: “If only we had another tow truck,” sighed my friend. “We’d make twice as much!” Another… tow… truck…?

“Hey, I own a tow truck!” I exclaimed. “Thing is, it’s in Minnesota—” Well, that was about as far as I got before I had a couple of Jeff Spicolis grabbing me by the lapels and trying to shake some sense into me. They’d pay the gas money for the trip! They’d chip in on the differential! We’d be rich, rich! At this point, I was maybe a quarter or two from finishing college, so I found myself in a real road-not-taken dilemma: be a rich, if thoroughly evil and corrupt tow-truck operator, or graduate into the teeth of a terrible recession with a totally worthless humanities degree? Foolishly, I took the second option… but I’ve always wondered what my life would have been like, had I chosen the wiser path.

The truck then sat for another decade or so, popping up in my thoughts every so often. According to my cousin, Dirty Duck’s son Igor Smash aka Judge Sam, our uncle Shady Dog (pictured above) took over the Elko farm, and the GMC, after Dirty Duck departed this world in 1987 while behind the wheel of a ’68 Torino GT. I decided I should pay a visit to Minnesota and finally lay eyes on the truck I’d owned— at that point— for 30 years. In January of ’02, I trudged across a field of chest-high snow, and there it was! Rusty, oh yes. A basket case, for sure… yet it could be put back on the road, with enough money and sweat.

Today, Shady Dog has joined the Duck and I’ve lost track of what has become of the GMC. Do I still own it? Will I ever retrieve it? Or is it enough just to say the words to myself again, the words I’ve said to myself thousands of times over the last four decades: I own a ’47 GMC tow truck!

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