by Larry Floersch
Unlike my wife, who is practical and level-headed in such matters, I have this incredible ability to choose the wrong car. Whereas she sees a car as just a means of getting from one place to another and would be happy with any sturdy little sedan, my tastes run toward the exotic. I probably got this trait from my family, who at one point all owned Studebakers.
My first car was very small and made in Italy. If I had been married back then, my wife would have pointed out to me before I bought it that something was not right about the car, because the doors worked backward — the hinges were toward the rear of the car and the door latches were at the front by the windshield. The engine was in the rear, but unlike another more famous rear-engined car of that time period manufactured north of the Alps, mine was water cooled, so the radiator was in the rear too. And the car was so small that the Italian designers could only fit a speedometer — nothing else — on the dashboard. Two days after I bought this tiny car it stopped running. It spent a day in the shop, and when I picked it up, the mechanic who did the diagnosis informed me that it would run much better if I put some gas in it. How was I to know?
That car was smashed one evening by a parked Chevy Chevelle SS Supersport (like most American muscle cars of the time, the Chevelle had it in for things foreign and rolled driverless out of its carport, down a small incline, across a street, and into my car). After that, I got rid of the little Italian car and bought another tiny car. This was a used two-seater made in England.
Two days after I bought this sports car it stopped running. Now, given my history, I know what you’re thinking, “Did you remember to put gas in it, Lare?” Of course I put gas in it! This car was small, but unlike the Italians, the English designers had included a spiffy little gas gauge that was so accurate the needle actually wiggled as the gas sloshed around in the tank. What the English designers also included was an electric fuel pump from the largest and most incompetent automotive electrical component manufacturer in England. Unlike the good old mechanical fuel pump you might find on a ’55 Nash or ’62 Ford Falcon, some of which are still working to this day even though the cars are completely rusted away, the life span of this British electrical component was about two months tops, after which you would just push the car to the foreign car parts store and buy a new fuel pump.
The life span of the electric fuel pump was, however, longer than the life span of the master cylinder for the hydraulic clutch system, which seemed to be about two weeks. And it is my belief the clutch master cylinder was component “Number One” around which the car was built, because to replace it you had to disassemble the entire car.
I had many great experiences with that car. In addition to fuel pumps and master cylinders there were numerous failed batteries, a blown engine, a broken transmission, and a broken crankshaft, not to mention that, when it rained, water poured in between the edge of the convertible roof and the removable “side curtains” and into the aptly named bucket seats. When it was sunny, the side curtains had to be stored in the “boot,” which is an exotic term for “trunk,” because the transparent plastic used as windows had turned an opaque brown. Also, the car was useless on dates to the drive-in movies because the transmission and its gear shifter formed a mountain range between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat.
I liked that exotic car so much I went out and bought another one of the same make that was two years newer, figuring that the engineers had enough time to work out the bugs on the “B” model. They hadn’t, but it did have glass roll-up windows and door locks!
My last bout with exotic machinery was a few decades ago but seems like only yesterday. Although in my shopping I became fond of a basic and relatively inexpensive car from a large German manufacturer, I thought its seats were as comfortable as the pews in a Lutheran church, so I decided to cruise by the dealer for cars made farther west, beyond the Maginot Line, in a land known for its fine wine and 246 varieties of cheese. This car company was also known for its high-quality pepper mills, so what could go wrong? A test drive made me stupid. The car was stylish, comfortable, handled very well, had been “Car of the Year” in Europe, and had this really neat and exotic prancing lion emblem on the grill, the steering wheel, and the floor mats.
Two days after I brought the car home it rained. The rear seat foot wells filled with water, drowning two of the prancing lions. I called the dealer, who suggested I had left the sunroof open. I suggested back to him that the car didn’t have a sunroof. It went downhill from there, with a new problem every week or two. Over the few years I owned the car, the mechanics at the dealership would smile when they saw me drive in, knowing that there was overtime pay in the offing. They replaced the pin up calendars on the wall of the shop with photos of my car.
When I pulled into the parking lot at work one bright and very cold February morning, I noticed a wisp of smoke from under the hood. Then flames shot out of the eyes and mouth of the prancing lion on the grill. The fire department managed to save the rear seats and trunk, but the prancing lions on the steering wheel and front floor mats were lost.
After the fire was out and the debris was cleared, I called my wife. “You know how you are always wishing the prancing lion car would just burn up?” I said, “Well, you got your wish.” She took the news more calmly that I thought she would, and then suggested that before I went car shopping again I undergo counseling.