I grew up in L.A. during the 1950s and 60s, in Sun Valley, in an east San Fernando Valley middle-class neighborhood. My culture was car culture.
As a pre-teen boy, I stood on the lawn, or sat on the fire hydrant, or leaned on the mailbox, in front of my house, and tracked the cool older guys rounding our corner and cruising by in their hot rods. I was car-struck.
My father influenced my admiration for automobiles. I remember his sleek and sporty, yellow 1951 Studebaker convertible. And I remember crawling as a five-year-old across the cloth top and falling through. Later in my life, my dad drove one of the first VW Square Backs, a Mustang Fastback, and an XKE Jaguar, E-type, hardtop coupe. I must have inherited, or absorbed, his love of cars – nature or nurture?
1958 Simca - a facsimile of the real one
First Time Behind the Wheel
I had my first driving experience when I was 14. My neighbor, Slugger, and I snuck his father’s 1958 Simca from the garage when his parents were out. We took turns driving the small, basic, stick-shift car. After 10 at night, Slugger drove us up my street, turned in front of my house, past the hydrant and mailbox, and then negotiated about a quarter mile of a major four-lane boulevard before veering off on to the quiet side roads of La Tuna Canyon. He pulled over in the middle of the street, and in the pitch dark, headlights torching the roadway ahead of us, we opened our doors and ran to opposite sides of the car. I slipped behind the wheel and drove my few miles. Slugger returned as driver and steered us home.
We put the car in its position in the garage, making sure the red S’s on the hubcaps all faced the same direction as they had before we “stole” the car. Apparently, Slugger’s dad, Big John, never checked the odometer because I never heard that he found us out. Slugger and I took the Simca for joyrides several times during our friendship.
Driving that cute little French car, I entered a new dimension of my young life. Besides the exhilaration of defying the forbidden, I could feel the thrill of rolling down the road. The world flying by my sides. The power of the horses beneath me. The freedom to go. I wanted to grow up fast, be one of the guys.
I couldn’t wait. I would have it all in about a year, when I finally got my driver’s license.
1956 Mercury Monclair Phaeton - A facsimile
The Real One
Inklings of My Hot Rod Life
My dad led my mom, brother and me out to the driveway of our house on Fair Avenue in North Hollywood, to see what he brought home: a 1956 Mercury Montclair Phaeton, 4-door sedan, new off the lot. I thought it was magical: the shiny two-tone (called flo-tone), grove green and white paint, the sleek lines with the Z-shaped side spears, the gleaming chrome double bumpers and grille, hubcaps, and trim, and the fat, white-wall tires. Inside, matching lustrous vinyl interior, a deep-dish steering wheel, three-tier instrument panel, and full- scope windshield. And that new car smell. The arrival of the car seemed to make my recently separated and reunited parents happy. I remember that it made me happy. (Cue David Lindley’s song, “Mercury Blues.”)
I was 10 years old, and, of course, the Merc was not my car. But soon enough, I staked my claim. When I turned 15-1/2 and earned my learner’s permit to drive, I commandeered the steering wheel from my mother. She was a nervous driver, who had to have a lit cigarette between her first two fingers before she would put her hands on the steering wheel. On afternoons and weekends, after we moved back to our old neighborhood, I chauffeured her along Glenoaks Boulevard, from Sun Valley to Burbank, on errands and to appointments, waiting in the car and listening to rock and roll on the radio. At 16, I drove the car, as much as I could, as my own.
Growing up, I maintained a custom, to my parents’ consternation. All new bikes I got for Christmas and birthdays I immediately stripped of chrome and fenders. I replaced the handlebars with a gooseneck and high-risers. I wanted my blazing bike to be the leanest, coolest in the neighborhood. My parents wondered why they bothered with brand-new bicycles.
I did the same thing to the Merc. By then, the car was about six years old, but it was still clean and in good shape and the main family sedan. I used the tools off my father’s workbench in the garage to remove the jet hood ornament and the chrome M logo off the hood and the plastic logo trunk ornament. I plugged in the holes with bondo and sanded and spray painted over the areas with flat white paint (to obtain an effect called “shaved”). I replaced the massive chrome hubcaps eventually with baby moons and convinced my father to buy blackwalls, instead of whitewalls, when he replaced the tires. I parked the car in our driveway with the nose pointed downward to make it look lowered.
My parents never explained why they were permissive with my transformation of their luxury car into a street rod. Unfortunately, I could do nothing to change the fact that the car was an automatic, four-door. Definitely not cool.
I plead guilty to driving the Merc like a hot rod in our neighborhood. I took the air cleaner off the Holley 4-barrel carburetor and selected low gear on the Merc-o-Matic transmission. I punched the accelerator, and the V-8, 312.1 cubic-inch, 220 horsepower, engine leapt, with a cool sucking sound, and I roared down Glencrest Drive. It was as close as I could come to getting our family sedan to feel like a street racer.
I drove the Merc to Poly High School during my senior year. I could pretend that it was a cool car, but some guys had downright righteous automobiles. I dreamed of flying a plaque in my back window of one of the premier car clubs, the Deacons, the Pagans, the Selectors, the Protestors, the Isonians, and others, but I didn’t quite run with that crowd (and they probably didn’t want Mama’s car in the club). I remember sitting in the Merc with friends before school and grooving to songs on the radio, like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “Love Me Do,” by this new, insanely hot band from England.
My parents were okay with me taking the Mercury out at night, cruising with my friends. I was a well-behaved, trustworthy kid. I got a little wilder outside the home. I might not have been too reckless, but I liked getting up close to it with certain friends. I took two friends, Rick and Ray, on a ride in the Merc one night. We drove south on Interstate Five at around 11. I cruised in the fast lane. A Corvair raced up along my passenger side. The driver pulled ahead on my right, switching on and off his lights. I kept the speed, just behind, to the left. The car turned left, from the middle lane, into ours, in front of us. I stomped my brakes and came to a skidding stop. The Corvair went head-on into the freeway median and flipped three times, end over end, landing right-side up in the fast lane, a few hundred feet down. My friends and I got out to see what happened. All three of the occupants of the demolished car opened their doors and crawled out. One of the men walked toward us. Ray grabbed a rock from the dirt on the median and held it in his hand at his side. The guy was staggering drunk. He pleaded that we not report the crash since no one was hurt and my car wasn’t damaged. We stood, gaping, as the first California Highway Patrol cruiser pulled up. An officer asked what happened. I told him my account. He asked if I had collided with the car. I said no, and he told me to leave the scene.
Rick, Ray and I swapped our own versions of what we saw. I got home after midnight; my parents were asleep. I had to decide whether to tell them, since nothing happened to me or the car. It might make them think twice, I worried, about letting me take the car out. In the morning, I told my dad. He was cool about it. He said since there was no harm, I shouldn’t worry about it. It was an accident, and it wasn’t my fault. I still had driving privileges.
The summer after I graduated from Poly High School and my parents separated, I drove the Mercury, with my mother and brothers, on the Golden State Freeway to my grandmother’s house in Anaheim. The Mercury blew its engine on the side of 5. My uncle loaned my mother the money to have the car repaired.
After my parents divorced, and my two brothers and I moved with my mother to a run-down duplex across from the Buena Vista Street offramp to Interstate 5, in Burbank, we brought the Mercury with us.
I got a job that summer at an assembly-line factory in Glendale. I commuted with the Merc until finally it died curbside on Buena Vista. We had it hauled for scrap.
From ages 10 to 18, formative years of my young life, the Mercury Montclair Phaeton delivered me to 8 addresses in 8 neighborhoods in 4 cities, through harmony and joy, to discontent and discord, to the scrap heap of a dissolved marriage and broken family.
Our cars see us through it all.
Rumblings from the Jump Seat
It’s reported that Ford historians can’t agree on where Mercury’s model name, Montclair, came from. They surmise that it derived from the community of Montclair, New Jersey. The city’s name came from the French, mont clair, meaning clear or bright mountain. Mercury has also used other place names, such as Monterey, Montego, Capri, Milan, and Sun Valley. Can you think of other place names after which cars of all brands have been named? Hint: there are more than sixty of them.
1950 Mercury - A facsimile
I Buy My First Car!
In Fall 1964, after I began my first semester at San Fernando Valley State College (what is now California State University, Northridge), I hung out with two brothers from down Glencrest Drive in Sun Valley, Mike and Bruce Gardner. Mike was the age of my younger brother and Bruce was closer to my age.
Bruce was a goofy guy with a quick mind and silly sense of humor, fun to be around. He owned a black 1950 Mercury, what some termed a “lead-sled.” By its shape (called “pontoon” design) and color (and maybe by the way it smoked), we called this worn luxury car, The Cigar.
I got a job folding clothes and janitoring at a laundry in Burbank and needed a way to commute to work. Bruce sold me The Cigar for $50 (the equivalent of about $420 in today’s money). I was thrilled to have my own wheels, after defacing and punishing the family Merc for years.
While my ’50 Merc didn’t match the cars that I admired in my ‘hood, I did my best to cherry it out. There wasn’t a lot I could afford to do on the outside, but I went to work inside. I spray-painted the dashboard candy-apple blue and wired up fourteen speakers in the dashboard, the door panels, and around the frame of the ceiling of the car, which had shed its cloth headliner. This was not stereophonic, just teeth-rattling, good vibrations, headed down the road.
On the best days, I started the car with a screwdriver pressed on the rim of the missing starter button. On the worst, I walked two long blocks up the nearest hill on Buena Vista where I parked The Cigar overnight, so I could pop the clutch to get it started in the morning.
Driving The Cigar to college one day, a friend, Eric, followed me in his car. He motioned me over to the side of the street. Eric said, “You got to see this.” I stood on the street as he drove The Cigar away from me. The car went forward with the front end at about a five-degree angle to the left of the back end, sidewinding its way down the boulevard. I bent over with laugher, standing in the middle of that street in Northridge.
I drove The Cigar for about a year. It certainly wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fast, even with a V8, 255 horsepower engine and three on the tree (top speed just under 85 mph; quarter mile in about 20 seconds, while the fastest cars of the day did it in around 7). In fact, the car was fairly hideous. But it ran. It was mine. I was happy to have it.
Rumblings from the Jump Seat
The styling of the 1950 Mercury rode the trend that ran in Europe from the 1920s into the 60s, of what was called the envelope, or pontoon design, fenderless and fastback, aerodynamically shaped, a continuously flowing surface. Pontoon comes from the flat-bottom boats (and bridges and planes) that use tube-shaped floats to keep them buoyant.
Cars to that point, such as the 1948 Mercury (below), carried the squat and stodgy pre-war style.
The new look brought customers through dealers’ doors in droves and broke sales records.
You can still see the influence of the pontoon design on cars such as the early Corvette, Bugatti, Rolls Royce, Bentley, the older Mercedes Benz, and many other modern cars.
1955 Chevy - The Real One
I Catch Up with the Cool Guys
After I worked a while as a box boy at the neighborhood grocery store, Sun Val Market, I saved enough to buy the car of my incipient dreams. My Dad helped me purchase off a used car lot a black and silver 1955 Chevy. By then, the car was ten years old. Someone had owned it (I later found out more than his name) and fixed it up. It had chrome rims and black leather, chrome-trimmed interior. The 265-cubic-iinch, small block engine was bored out to 301. It had a Duntov cam, a Hurst shifter, header pipes, and a 4:11 rear end. I started up that car and the cam made the choppy, arhythmic, rumbling sound. I was thrilled beyond my dreams. (Cue the Tom Waits/The Eagles song, “Ol’ 55.”)
I put an Earl Scheib, $29.95, red-orange paint job on the Chevy “shoe-box” body, cheater slicks on the rear end with deep chrome rims. I jammed spacers in the front springs to lift the front end.
The previous owner was a bad boy by the name of Dennis Brown. He actually came to my door (I knew of him from around the ‘hood but I feared more than respected him). He stood on the porch one evening and explained that, although a bit tired, it was a worthy car.
I would come out of work, get in the Chevy and smell the leather. Instantly, I felt lighter and happy. I turned the key and the engine fired up, the cam rumbled. I put it in gear and felt pure joy. Driving along the main street of my hometown, I became one of those cool guys that I used to admire, passing by my front door.
Most of the guys that I worked with at Sun Val Market owned hot cars. When I worked until midnight, I went out with my friend, Jim, who had a 1963 Chevy, 327. He and I raced from stoplight to stoplight about five miles up and down the empty boulevard. As the green light flashed, I accelerated my Chevy, with its 4:11 rear end, and beat him “out of the hole,” starting at a standstill, every single time. Once he shifted into second gear, he flew by as if I was standing still.
Drag racing was part of L.A. car culture in the 50s and 60s. Friends and I frequented a National Hot Rod Association drag strip in San Fernando, the next town north of Sun Valley. We cheered on dragsters and the predecessors of funny cars, as well as those guys off the street who wanted to test their rods against estimable foes.
Our neighborhood reverberated with street racing lore. I heard about a friend, Val, who beat in a drag race with his 406 Ford a Triumph motorcycle. If I pulled up to a stoplight and another hot car rolled alongside, we looked over at each other, revved our engines, and punched it when the light turned green.
One night, after our shifts at Sun Val Market, my roommate Steve and I were joined by Steve’s cousin, Kenny. Kenny brought from down south his new 1965 Chevrolet Chevelle Malibu Super Sport with a 396 cubic inch engine. It was one of the hottest street racers of the time. I remember the thrill I felt watching Kenny roll onto the parking lot and then I climbed into the back seat, and we headed to a deserted back street up in northeast Sun Valley to do some drag racing.
When I cruised through Bob’s Big Boy drive-in restaurant in Van Nuys on a Saturday night, my girlfriend, Chris, sitting up close beside me, my engine rumbling, me revving it, all heads turning, it was the pinnacle of my car years.
I had the Chevy parked outside Chris’s house and a guy from the ‘hood named Gene Shipley walked by. Gene, as a teenager, was a rated race car driver. He said mine was the best looking ’55 Chevy he had seen (and we had a few outstanding ones on our streets, including Jim Pickl’s bright yellow ’55). I was a young man exploding with pride.
On its last trip, I drove my ’55 with Chris to cruise Beverly Hills on a Friday night. About two blocks from the Beverly Hills Hotel on Sunset Boulevard, the engine banged and shook. It threw a rod. I don’t remember how we got home, but I do remember the looks I got, stumbling into the busy Hotel, sweaty and greasy, asking to use a phone. And I remember my friend, Dave, borrowing his brother’s spotless ’56 Chevy family car to rope-tow me through Benedict Canyon and over Mulholland Drive, back into the Valley. Unfortunately, we destroyed the back bumper of Dave’s brother’s car, about which he was none too happy.
My brokedown ’55 sat derelict on the street outside my apartment for a few months. Finally, a kid and his father bought it, delighted at the idea of bringing back to life a classic street rod.
Rumblings from the Jump Seat
The Chevy 265-cubic-inch engine, which had its debut with the ’55, is considered a masterpiece, the most famous engine ever. It was the first small block V8. With improved engineering and materials, it was inexpensive to build, efficient, small and light, and powerful. It has remained in continuous production, longer than any other mass-produced engine in the world.
The 265-cubic-inch, 162-horsepower engine, named “Turbo Fire,” came along at a time when Chevrolet was getting into performance, providing engines and parts for auto racing. The engine powered Chevys that won NASCAR races in 1955 at Daytona, Darlington, Charlotte and Atlanta, culminating with a 1955 Chevy being selected as the pace car for the Indy 500.
This motor is still being manufactured by Chevy, as replacement engines, across the models, including the Corvette.
1951 Chevrolet Bel Air - A facsimile
I Go Retro
After I sold my ’55, in 1966, I went retro. My brother, Tom, owned an older Chevy, so I bought a 1951 Chevy Bel Air. It was very clean, with plush interior and a six-cylinder, 106-horsepower engine with a standard transmission. I drove the car on the freeway, taking it from the San Fernando Valley to Anaheim to visit family.
For my twentieth birthday, Chris organized a fundraiser among my friends. They pooled $29.95 in change, presented in a ceramic piggy bank, for a surprise gift: an Earl Scheib paint job. I painted my car silver blue.
Chevrolet underwent two body style changes between 1951 and 1955. After driving the ’55, I found the ’51 difficult to handle, with limited vision through the windows, stiff steering, and a lack of power and performance. Everything about the car was stiffer and clunkier. I quickly shifted out of my retro phase.
Rumblings from the Jump Seat
Chevrolet historians aren’t clear on how the Chevy bowtie logo originated. One company co-founder is credited with coming up with the idea on vacation, after seeing decoration on wallpaper in a Paris hotel. He supposedly torn off a piece of the wallpaper and showed it to friends with an emblem in mind. His wife later recalled that she and her husband saw a design in a newspaper while spending time in a hotel in Virginia and then her husband appropriated it for use in promoting Chevy. A company archivist found an old ad in a newspaper for a coal company that showed a logo with a slanted bowtie. Another reported source is a stylized version of the cross on the Swiss flag. Louis Chevrolet was born in Switzerland to French parents. The first use of the Chevy bowtie logo was in a Chevy ad in the Washington Post in 1913. The tagline read: “Look for this nameplate.” In 2004, the bowtie emblem, representing Chevy globally, turned blue to gold.
1959 Austin Healy Sprite Mark I Bugeye - A facsimile
I Race through My Sports Car Phase
I passed a car lot on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks and spied this shiny, cute, dark- green, Bugeye Sprite. It was parked provocatively in a showcase spot on the lot, with its front wheels cranked, leaning at a rakish angle. I said to myself, maybe aloud, that I had to have that car. I would have that car.
When I visited the dealership, I noticed that the car had no door handles. You reached inside over the door to pull the handle. The car had no trunk. You pushed forward the front seats to get access to the spare tire and to load your luggage and belongings back in under the rear deck, what some owners called “potholing.” Likewise, there was no hood. You pulled the entire front end of the car up, perpendicular, fenders, grille, lights, and all, and braced it with a steel rod.
I was adamant about owning a sports car because my roommates and friends all started driving sports cars. It was our sports car phase. My roommate, Steve, drove an Austin Healy 3000. Bob had an MGB. Another Bob drove a Truimph TR3. My friend, Hal, had a TR4. My friend, Dave, drove an MG Midget. Ron had an MG Midget. Our group, joined by friends who seemed to mostly drive VW Bugs, went on several sports car rallies.
Chris and I took a two-car excursion in the Bugeye with Ron and his girlfriend, Linda, in Ron’s Midget. We drove the winding roads of Angeles Crest, above L.A. Chris and I followed behind Ron’s car. We, of course, attacked every curve, accelerating, braking, shifting, as if we were conquering Pike’s Peak. Ahead of us, I saw Ron brake into a sharp right curve and his back wheels skidded left, out from under him. His car spun around 180 degrees and then went sideways. Before I knew what happened, Ron’s car slid to the other side of the road, onto the shoulder, and then disappeared over the side. I stopped in horror, and Chris and I ran to the edge where Ron and Linda went over. Down below, about thirty feet, the Midget lay upside down on a pile of rocks, the cars wheels still turning slowly and dust rising from the wreckage. While Chris stayed at the road’s edge, I scrambled down to the car and called for Ron. After I called a few times, I heard Ron’s voice, faint from inside. I tried to lift the car off my friends. I called to Chris to get help. She ran up on the road and flagged down motorists. We all lifted the car off Ron and Linda. They were both uninjured. I remember Linda sitting up on the road afterward, in shock and sobbing. I don’t recall how we got Ron and Linda home because there is simply no way four people could fit into my Bugeye (except for the time Chris and I squeezed her two sisters in with us when we went to the Rose Parade, in 1967 – somehow maybe we did carry Ron and Linda home). Ron did not buy another sportscar after totaling his Midget.
I drove my Sprite almost exclusively with the top down since my forehead rose above the windshield. The folding top to the convertible was impossible to operate while the plastic side windows were so blurred with wear and the elements that they were a safety hazard.
I drove in summer, down to Sorrento Beach in Santa Monica and I drove in the winter, along the boulevards, bundled up in ski cap, parka, and gloves, when the temperature dipped into the 30s. Behind the wheel of that car, I felt alive.
On August 20, 1967, my 21st birthday, I bought a six-pack of beer and steered my Sprite into the parking garage of my mother’s apartment building on East Orange Grove Avenue in Burbank. I whipped into the parking garage, cut tight corners, tires squealing, and took up about half a parking space.
The low, short convertible was fun to drive. But back in those days, I wasn’t able to afford to keep it tuned and in top condition. And since it was not illegal to forego insurance, I did.
One sunny morning, I drove along Glenoaks Boulevard in Sun Valley, approaching the intersection at Lanark Street, as the signal turned yellow. I accelerated to make it through, and a car turned left in front of me. I slammed on my spongy brakes and began to skid. I headed toward a pole on an island in the middle of the intersection. I steered around the pole and did a four-wheel drift to the right, out of the intersection. I skidded and slammed the sides of my wheels into the curb.
I drove the car away. When I took it to a mechanic, he said the frame was bent. $800 ($6,200 in today’s dollars). The woman who turned in front of me, whom I knew from the neighborhood, apologized to me at the scene. When I went to her for her insurance for causing the accident, her insurance company balked and refused to talk to me. Since I had no insurance, I had no one to fight for me. (I sued her in small claims court and lost because my testimony differed from that of the one witness I had, a guy in the Air Force, on leave from his post in Germany. He kindly wrote a letter to the court about what he saw). I borrowed the money to fix the car from my Aunt Gerri, my father’s twin sister.
After I got the Bugeye fixed, I backed into my garage space to adjust the dual carburetors. I had the front end lifted and I leaned in under the hood. From the engine compartment, I could pull a wire to start it up. I finished my adjustment and pulled the wire to start the car, forgetting that it was in first gear. Fortunately, I was standing to the side and grabbed on when the car drove itself out of the garage, down a slope and toward a brick wall on the other side of the driveway. I pulled and dragged along on the bottoms of my shoes as the car headed to the wall. It slammed into the wall with the front end standing vertical. The wheel spinning and skidding, I leaned into the driver’s seat, turned the key, and killed the engine. After that, the front end of the car never closed right.
I sold the Bugeye Sprite to my brother. Then, when he needed a more substantial automobile, he sold it back to me. One evening, my friend, Hal, and I were driving in the Valley and the front end of the Sprite began to smoke. I stopped, opened up the wacked front end, and saw wires smoking. I grabbed handfuls of dirt and smothered the fire. I sold the car for next to nothing to a guy who collected Bugeye Sprites. He hauled it away, out of my life for good. Although it provided me with myriad memories and played a significant role in my youth, I cannot say I was sorry to see the car disappear on the back of that man's truck.
Rumblings from the Jump Seat
When I was deep into my car years, during the late 50s, the 60s, and the early 70s, I heard that British cars were of dubious quality and unreliable, with a reputation for breaking down all the time. Apparently, WW2 set the British car industry back. Lack of government financial support, outdated manufacturing, amalgamation and conglomeration of ethos and vision, lack of quality control, a deflated and unmotivated workforce, outdated automotive designs, and other factors all contributed to the (short-lived) deserved ill-repute. As an engineer put it, “British car makers focused on major-systems engineering and were crap at systems-integration and design.”
Before Austin merged with Healy to produce some exciting sportscars such as the full-size Austin Healeys and the Austin Healey Sprites, the Austin division of the British Motor Corp. issued 5 of the 10 automobiles on carbuzz.com’s list of the “Worst British Cars Ever Made.” They are in no particular order the Austin Princess, Austin Rover, Austin Maestro, Austin Metro, and Austin Allegro.
You’ve been warned.
1964 Porsche 356C - A facsimile
I Attain the Penultimate in Automobiles
I came up coveting American built cars through the 50s and 60s. I’m not sure how Porsche (BTW, I asked my German stepmother how she pronounced this name and she said, “Por-sha”), first blipped across my radar. Broadening my horizons as a car guy, I imagine I saw them on the street or knew someone who drove one. If you see a Porsche, you appreciate its brilliant design and performance. Quickly, Porsche became the ideal.
In February 1969, I got a full-time job, selling ad space in the telephone company’s Yellow Pages Directory (my father’s career for over thirty-five years). I made $700 a month (equivalent to nearly $5,000 now). At age 22, with a college degree and some cash, I decided it was time I drove a Porsche.
I found advertised a 1964 Porsche 356C coupe. I met the owner in Westwood. He asked $3,200 (about $23,000 in today’s money). I borrowed the money from my Aunt Gerri (who had a recent settlement in a personal injury lawsuit). I made monthly payments, as we arranged.
My Bugeye had a 58-cc engine, 42.5 horsepower and a top speed of 83; my Porsche had 97 ccs, 87 horses, and top speed of 109. And while the Bugeye might have handled like a manx, the Porsche handled like a panther.
Working out in the field as a salesman, I dressed in fine clothes: sports coats, ties, slacks and dress shoes. I covered my territory in L.A., driving my glimmering Porsche on the freeways and streets from Crenshaw-Adams, Wilshire Boulevard, downtown, out east to Alhambra, Monterey Park and Montebello.
The Porsche had its problems. I parked in a lot on Wilshire in the rain. When I got in and started it, I heard a pop from the rear. I hustled back and opened the engine cover. The carburetor was on fire. I pulled off my brand-new London Fog raincoat ($285 in today’s dollars) and put out the fire.
Within four months on the Yellow Pages job, I hated it. A principle of my sales training dictated that the sale began when the customer said no. I did not have the temperament, personality or desire to try to convince, cajole, or force anybody to do anything, let alone change their mind. I drank four or five cups of coffee in the mornings before my first sales calls. It got so stressful that I went into my sales manager on a Friday afternoon and quit cold (much to my father’s chagrin and humiliation among his peers).
I still had to pay my aunt her monthly installments. I very quickly got a job as a truck driver, delivering hardware and paint all over L.A.
When it came to attracting women, I had to bring it all to my game. I went with my roommates several nights a week to our nearby Howard Johnson’s restaurant for the all-you-can menu. A server, Jan, waited on our table with skill and good humor. For reasons I can’t explain, she seemed to favor me out of the three of us. After one meal, at the cash register, I pointed out the window to my shiny red Porsche at the curb and said to Jan, “How would you like to take a ride in that?” Jan smiled and said, “Very much.”
I picked Jan up at her place and planned a ride through Malibu Canyon, so I could show off my car’s prowess (and my driving skills). As we pulled away from Jan’s, she said, “My ex-boyfriend is following us.” She said she had broken up with him, but he refused to go away. He was right behind us, in his heightened determination. I drove down city streets and ramped it up on the freeway. I sped along, changing lanes to try to shake the guy. He stayed right behind us. As I approached an interchange, with my route heading to the right, I saw my chance. I went past my exit, with him on my left flank. At the last moment, I veered right and just caught the exit, as he continued straight on down the freeway. I shook him. I felt jubilantly victorious, but Jan didn’t say much about my skills. She kept her eyes forward and lowered.
I continued up into Malibu Canyon, taking the curves like a pro. I was impressed by the way my Porsche handled, with me at the wheel. I looked over at Jan, fully expecting to gaze at her utter fascination. She was asleep, chin on chest, in the seat next to me. Even I had to laugh at myself. We went out again, but I switched to a different tact.
Since I had graduated from college in January 1969, I lost my student deferment and was subject to the draft. I enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve to fend off induction into the Army and possibly serving in Vietnam. I faced six months active duty. I reasoned that I could store my car, take a hiatus in the payments to my aunt, come back, get a job, resume payments, and take possession of my Porsche. I entered the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego on July 21, 1969, the day after the moon landing. My brother, Tom, stored my Porsche.
With me away (and not making payments, in an uncertain future), Aunt Gerri got nervous about my plan. She decided to terminate our deal. She got Tom to help her sell my Porsche, for, as they say, pennies on the dollar, to a used car lot. We both took a huge loss. Cars in the class of Porsche were out of my reach for a long time to come.
Rumblings from the Jump Seat
The Porsche and Ferrari logos both present a prancing black horse. Why are the logos so similar? What does the black horse represent?
The Porsche logo features a black horse, which is taken from the coat-of-arms of the city of Stuttgart. The Porsche factory is located in Stuttgart. The word, Stuttgart, means “stud farm,” a place where horses are bred. The black horse is meant to symbolize power.
An Italian WWI fighter pilot, Francesco Baracca, painted a prancing black horse on the side of his airplane. Enzo Ferrari happened to meet Baracca’s parents, who told him about their son’s horse and how the symbol would give him good luck. Ferrari created the horse in black for his logo to mourn the death of the pilot, Baracca, when he died in the war as a national hero.
Ferrari’s horse symbolizes power.
There is a theory why the horse appears on the logo of the two automakers. Supposedly, the Italian fighter pilot, Baracca, drew the black horse on his plane to honor a German enemy ace who had a black horse on his own plane. The German pilot was from Stuttgart.
(Not My Car)
1967 Chevrolet Camaro - A facsimile
After 14-1/2 weeks in boot camp in San Diego,I did my infantry training at Camp Pendleton, near Oceanside. Since I had a job as a truck driver when I went into the Marine Corps, I was assigned an MOS (military occupation specialty) as a truck driver and was sent to Truck Driving School, for 5-1/2 weeks. After that, I was in “casual” duty at Camp Pendleton until assignment to my reserve unit at the Santa Monica Airport in January 1970. During school and duty, I had evenings free and weekends off, Friday afternoon until reveille at 6:00 a.m. on Monday. If I wanted, I could drive 1-1/2 hours up to L.A., but I had no wheels. My mother had bought a 1967 Camaro, six-cylinder, with red interior. Aunt Gerri bought the exact car with blue interior. I got my first ride up to Burbank with Hal. Then I asked my mother if I could borrow her car to get back to Pendleton. She had a ride to work with a co-worker during the week, and Aunt Gerri was around, so she consented.
I stayed with my roommate, Steve, at our place in Sun Valley. Naturally, I squeezed every last moment out of my weekends and got up at 3:30 a.m. on Mondays to drive back and slide into my rack at Pendleton a few minutes before reveille.
Many of those drives were the stuff of nightmares. I dozed off at the wheel on I-5 and nothing could keep me awake, not all the windows open, air blower going, radio full blast, singing to myself at the top of my lungs. I was literally in tears, in panic at my helplessness. Some mornings, coming into Pendleton, the fog was so thick on the road that I could not see five feet in front of me. I had to inch along with my head out the driver’s side window, trying to decipher solid shapes ahead of me and listening for the sound of a nearby engines.
By some miracle, I never got into an accident and I was never late, but it was a high price to pay for my freedom.
When I was dispatched from Camp Pendleton, I returned to my mother her car.
1970 Volkswagen Beetle - The Real One
My First New Car, Off the Showroom Floor
I came out of Marine Corps basic training in January 1970. In two months, I got job as an advertising copywriter trainee at N.W. Ayer, a major ad agency on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A. (I also was offered a job in the mailroom at the legendary agency, J. Walter Thompson, but with no guarantees of advancement). The trainee part at Ayer included driving the agency’s station wagon around the city doing errands. While I wasn’t delivering products that the agency represented to prospective clients (such as flats of avocados, Voit footballs, cases of Canada Dry ginger ale, Hills Bros. coffee, and Domino Sugar, among other “incentives"), my boss promised to mentor me in the skills of copywriting with an established copywriter.
With a full-time job, sharing an apartment with Steve, and another friend of his, I bought for the first time a brand-new, off the showroom floor, car: A pale yellow 1970 Volkswagen Beetle, with chrome mag wheels and a sunroof.
I enjoyed the half-hour commute to and from work, turning up the tunes in my new car. I drove around town on my lunch hour. I remember cruising McArthur Park on Wilshire on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day. There was a buzz in the air. It seemed an auspicious occasion.
In July 1970, I did my first road trip with my Volkswagen. I drove with Hal, from L.A. to San Francisco. Hal and I had met in Marine Corps boot camp. We drove my new car up Highway 101 into the City. After touring, we drove to Coit Tower. We had nowhere to sleep that night, so we crawled into the bushes below the Tower. I slept with both eyes open, cringing all night, knowing that the Zodiac Killer was loose in the area.
We drove south the next day, over the Golden Gate Bridge, to Sausalito. On the way into town, I spotted Shel Silverstein, standing on the water side of the street, downtown, at the curve. Hal and I drove around in the hills. When night came, we crawled into the bushes in front of a church to sleep.
When I got back to work, I inquired about my promised mentorship. I was getting tired of driving in circles around L.A. I felt the management was not holding up its end of the arrangement. The creative director of the agency hooked me up with a copywriter to begin my training. The copywriter happened to be a guy my age whom I knew from my journalism classes in college. We chatted in his office one time, and it was more catching up with each other than a transfer of skills. Later that week, the creative director asked me, “Did you just buy a new car?” I said yes, why? He frowned and didn’t respond.
A week later, I was laid off. I admit that I was beginning to exhibit a bit of an attitude.
At the time, I planned to move in with Hal in Northridge, on the opposite side of the Valley. I parked my Volkswagen in the parking lot, in front of the door of the apartment that I shared with Steve. I loaded a few boxes into the VW and went back inside to finish packing. When I came out a few minutes later, my car was gone. I stood and stared in disbelief. Someone stole it, although I had the key in my pocket. I called Hal to drive over and pick me up. I heard a knock on the door. A man in a business suit said he was from the bank and he had taken the Volkswagen. I had called the bank a few days earlier to report that I lost my job. I agreed to a plan to continue making the payments. The man from the bank said he saw the boxes in the car and assumed I was fleeing. He said if I paid off the insurance for the quarter, he would not report it as a repo on my credit. I agreed and said goodbye to my first brand new car. I have to admit I felt a bit relieved.
Rumblings from the Jump Seat
In 1999, the Global Automotive Elections Foundation, in a three-year process, involving 133 international automotive writers and the public via the internet, evaluating 700 cars, selected the Volkswagen Beetle as the fourth most influential car of the 20th century. The top three selections:
#3 - Citroen DS
#2 - Morris Mini
#1 - Ford Model T
1957 Volkswagen - A facsimile
One of the Best Cars I Owned
After moving to the west San Fernando Valley, I got a job driving a forklift at a warehouse in Van Nuys. I bought with cash a black 1957 Volkswagen. It was a worn, beat-up, worthy automobile.
One of the first things I did to my new car was paint in flat yellow the scallops around the bottom and outer edges of the engine cover in the rear. I claimed it make my car look like a bumblebee. The look attracted attention, a quality antithetical to my personality.
The speedometer on the VW only went up to 70 mph, which is above what I felt comfortable driving on the freeway. The odometer presented only five digits, so I had no true indication of how many miles the car had on it. And the speedometer was the only instrument in the dash. The car had no fuel gauge: I figured out the mileage range per tank of gas and if needed, flipped a little L-shaped lever on the firewall behind the shifter, which kicked in the spare fuel tank and gave me another gallon of gas, or about 30 miles, to get to the gas station.
The brake lights on my car didn’t work, so when I came to a stop sign, I pulled the light switch one click, lighting up the parking lights in front and the rear/brake lights.
On one occasion, I stopped at a traffic light in Van Nuys and clicked the “brake light” switch. Facing me on the opposite side of the street, an LAPD black and white made a U-turn, came up behind me, and flashed its reds. The cop explained how he detected my brake light scheme and wrote me up for an infraction. He ran a check on his radio and informed me that I had outstanding warrants for unpaid parking tickets. He handcuffed me, put me in back of the police car, and delivered me to a holding cell at the Van Nuys jail. My girlfriend of the time was not happy to have to bail me out.
The bumblebee effect of my car attracted another pursuit by the police. I drove on Havenhurst Avenue and was pulled over by Valley Division, LAPD. The cops got me out of my car, searched for drugs, and let me go. One of them said as they were leaving that they just liked to mess with longhairs.
I grew a beard and my bushy hair down to my shoulders and started smoking a lot of pot. I was in rebellion against my Government for the abuse it laid upon me in Marine Corps bootcamp.
I quit as a forklift driver (because our boss forced us to work overtime on Saturdays). I got a job at half the pay at Pickwick Bookstore when it opened at the Northridge Fashion Center mall.
Hal and I moved to an apartment in Panorama City with another friend, who started to invite more friends over. I came home nights to our apartment filled with people I didn’t know partying, in my bedroom.
About this time, I began to meditate. The repercussions of my military experience, my parents’ protracted, nasty divorce, a breakup with Chris, an untenable living situation, and a multitude of childhood traumas rendered me numb, needy, and nervous. I read books on Zen and learned how to sit on a cushion on the floor, fold my legs, straighten my body, and concentrate on counting my breaths, coming in and going out. I tried it. Afterward, I drove my Bumblebee on the freeway and felt such ease and relief, it felt like near bliss and brought tears to my eyes. It began a long odyssey of meditation practice which led to my ordination as a Zen priest in 1984 and years as a teacher of Buddhism.
Rumblings from the Jump Seat
The Volkswagen Beetle, with 21,529,464 produced, is the longest-running and most manufactured car in history. The Type 1 was produced from 1938 to 2003.
1971 Datsun 520 Pickup - A facsimile
A Simple Utility Vehicle
In the couple of years before I moved from Los Angeles to Seattle in 1974, I drove a 1971 Datsun pickup, painted flat brown. It was a simple vehicle that got me from one place to the next.
On the night before my new wife, Pam, and I took off for Seattle, we went to a bon voyage party at my oldest friend’s house. We were the last to leave at about 1:00 a.m. Pam, my friend, Don, and I, and a few others came out the door and walked toward the Datsun parked at the curb. At that moment a drunk driver turned left on to the street and smashed into my Datsun. We had to wait two weeks, sleeping on the floor of my mother’s apartment, until the insurance claim was settled.
I drove the Datsun 1,100 miles up to Seattle. I used it to commute from Alki Point in West Seattle to my job at the University Bookstore in the U District. I drove to Magnolia, on Seattle’s Northwest side to the Seattle Zen Center. The Datsun pickup was a simple, basic, reliable vehicle.
Rumblings from the Jump Seat
The 31 years of the Datsun truck series ran numerically this way: model 120, from 1955 - 1961; 220 from 1956 – 1961; 320, from 1961 – 1965; 520, from 1966 – 1972; 620, from 1973 – 1979; and the 720, from 1980 – 1986.
Notice a discrepancy?
The Nissan Corporation skipped the model series 420. The reason is that the words in Japanese for 420 are homophones for “excuse me,” “rudeness,” or “impolite.”
1963 Chevy C10 Stepside Truck - A facsimile
My First Big Truck
After being laid off as Senior Editor at Adventure Travel Magazine in Seattle and doing freelance writing, in Spring 1982, I started my own landscaping business. To get me started, a friend from the Seattle Zen Center, Walt, took me on as crew. I helped Walt with his route for a couple months and then he off-loaded to me some of his less profitable customers. I maintained lawns, trimmed hedges and shrubs, pruned trees, and dug vegetable gardens. I used my Datsun truck on my route until it broke down. Another friend from the Zen Center, Glen, was also a landscaper. He suggested that he and I share his truck. He was buying a new truck and until it was available, he would use the ’63 Chevy, 230 cu. in., six-cylinder, half-ton pickup on the days I wasn’t using it. When his new truck arrived, he sold me the ’63.
When winter arrived, I had to decide if I wanted to expand my landscaping business with new machines, hiring help, and marketing and promoting my services. As I had with other manual labor jobs, such as truck driving, soft drink delivery, warehouseman, and forklift driver, I realized it was less punishing on my body to use my brain to make a living. I folded the landscaping business.
I was left with a 19-year-old truck. Both the rear fenders were rusted and falling off. I removed the fenders and fitted new wood on the floor of the bed. I had a DIY flatbed truck as my prime vehicle for a time.
After I quit landscaping, I got a temporary job at Perkins, Coie, Seattle’s biggest law firm, summarizing depositions. I noticed another temp, a woman named Robin, paying me a lot of attention. My friend had to clue me in that Robin was flirting with me. I learned that Robin grew up the daughter of a stockbroker in the upscale neighborhood of Mercer Island. For our first date, I rolled up in my ’63 Chevy pickup. Robin was a good sport about it, although the union went nowhere.
After a couple decades and a couple hundred thousand miles on the engine, the ’63 Chevy C10 pickup truck still ran like a deer, a very old and weary deer.
Rumblings from the Jump Seat
The dreams of a 1963 Chevrolet C10 pickup:
1969 Volkwagen Beetle - A facsimile
I Can’t Stay Away from V-Dubs
I couldn’t afford to keep gas in my dilapidated flatbed Chevy, so I shopped for another VW.
I responded to an ad in north Seattle. When I arrived, I saw the VW sitting at the curb in front of the address. The car looked beautiful: shiny and clean. It stirred the fondness I had for VW Bugs and reminded me of the good times I had in my life when I owned them. I peered in the windows of the locked car. It was immaculate, like the rest of the car.
I got the keys from the owner, a guy named Mustapha. As I unlocked the driver’s door to get in, Mustapha scurried away, back into his house. I started the car and the engine knocked and rattled. I drove around the block to the loud sounds in the back of the car. When I arrived back, I was in love with the car. The car was so immaculate, I figured I could deal with some mechanical issues. I paid Mustapha cash for the car and drove home to West Seattle.
As I crossed the West Seattle Bridge, the clattering from the engine almost caused me to pull over on the bridge. I limped to my brother’s house not far from the bridge. My brother, Jerry owned and worked on VWs. He told me the engine was trashed.
I went home and called Mustapha. He didn’t pick up. I called him over and over and he never responded.
I put a new engine, transmission and clutch in the beautiful green Volkswagen. The car ran without another problem for six years.
Never judge a car by its looks, I learned, and never did again.
Rumblings from the Jump Seat
Ferdinand Porsche, the namesake of my ’64 356C, developed Adolf Hitler’s idea of a car for the German people, the folks’ wagon. Porsche finalized the design in 1938. But the original key design principles came in 1925, from Béla Barény, a Hungarian inventor and engineer. Barény proved to The German Courts and State Patent Office, a couple decades later, that Porsche’s patents came from his ideas. Barény successfully sued Volkswagen for copyright infringement. He legally documented that the idea for the Volkswagen Type 1 was his.
Barény went on to become known as the “Father of Passive Safety,” undoubtedly saving millions of lives all over the globe with his 2,500 inventions to protect occupants in cars from the effects of crashes.
If there was a sleek, prestigious, high-performance, highly reliable sports car on our roads called Barény, we would remember the man for the significant contributions he made to improve the quality and safety of our lives.
1987 Toyota Corolla FX16 - The Real One
A Car that Made Me Happy
I could not have been happier with my Toyota Corolla. When I first got it, some dude complimented my “pocket rocket.” It was a clean, quick, well-handling, attractive enough, and reliable automobile.
I separated from my second wife, Cassandra, in Spring 1996. I moved into my own apartment on Solano Avenue in Albany, California. The first week I lived there, I drove in the neighborhood. A woman cut me off and I honked at her. She flipped me off. I headed home. Unintentionally, I seemed to be following the same woman, as she turned a few times and pulled into the driveway of my new apartment building. She got out of her car and scurried into the building. When I got to my apartment, a note was tacked to the door. The woman apologized for her road rage. I reciprocated with a note saying that situations such as that made me laugh more than hold a grudge. We turned into friendly neighbors.
I drove my Corolla to work at Fairmont Elementary School, in El Cerrito. I parked outside the school gates, in a cul-de-sac behind the school, instead of in the teachers’ parking lot, so my car wouldn’t get dinged and scratched. I came out after school in the afternoon to find someone had smashed into the rear passenger side of my car. White paint had scraped off onto my fender. I heard a garbage truck in the distance and suspected it of sideswiping me. I considered driving toward the noise and checking the color of the truck, but even then I could not prove it, so I didn’t pursue. I donated the car to a charity – as is.
Rumblings from the Jump Seat
[From Road & Track Magazine, June 22, 2017, by Chris Perkins]
“Remember When Toyota Made a Real Hot Hatch?
The 1987 Toyota Corolla FX16 was lightweight, zippy, and a joy to toss around a twisty road.
Early this year, Toyota showed off a hot rod version of its Yaris hatchback, but the company hasn’t said whether this car will ever make it to the US. Thirty years ago, Toyota did sell Americans a genuine hot hatchback, the Corolla FX16. Believe it or not, this little Corolla was a legitimate rival to the Volkswagen Golf GTI.
The Corolla FX16 used the same 1.6-liter 16-valve four-cylinder as two of Toyota’s performance legends, the MR-2 and the rear-drive Corolla GTS. Its 108 horsepower was just good enough for a sub-10-second 0-60 mph run, but the Corolla FX16 wasn’t really meant for stop-light drag races.
As Motorweek notes in this period review, the FX16 was a gem on the track and on twisty roads, where its light chassis and excellent steering made it a joy to toss around. The FX16 wasn’t fast even in its day but was a ton of fun.
Being a Toyota, the Corolla FX16 was well-built, practical, and efficient too. Everything you need from a hatchback.
We hope that Toyota’s hot Yaris makes its way to the US with some of the character that made the FX16 so great. It would be an excellent front-drive companion to the Toyota 86.”
1998 Toyota Camry XV20 - A facsimile
I Settle for the Family Camry
After more than 30 years of driving a manual transmission, I ached for an automatic. While I was shopping, I asked my mechanic, Glen, which cars he recommended. He said, “Honda or Toyota.” I said, “What about Subaru?” He said, “Richard, what did I say? Honda or Toyota.”
There was a car lot across the street from Glen’s garage. He knew the owner and told him, “Do not cheat my customers!” I borrowed money from the credit union and bought a clean and smooth Camry. Glen checked out the car and gave me the green light.
I drove the Camry for years, enjoying the flawless body and engine. It was roomy, easy to handle with power steering and brakes. It was a pleasure to not have to shift.
There was one slight problem with the Camry: it developed a squeak. It sounded as if it came from the front end. I tried to ignore it. Glen examined the car and could not find the source of the sound. I learned to live with it. My Camry was a great car, except for that niggling noise.
Rumblings from the Jump Seat
The model name, Camry, comes from Japanese wordplay. A play on the Japanese word, kanmuri, meaning crown, diadem, coronet, as well as best, peerless, first. Kanmuri sounds in Japanese like kamuri = Camry.
2005 Toyota Tacoma - The Real One
I Had the Honor to Own a Truly Great Truck
I met and married my wife, Sharon, in 2004. We lived in San Quentin Village, a small community just outside the gates of San Quentin State Prison, in Marin County.
In March 2006, I bought a 2005 Toyota Tacoma from a dealership in Marin. The truck, which I named Long John Silver, had one-owner with 12,000 miles on it. I shipped it from California to Hawaii, drove it on the Big Island for 11 years, and shipped it back to California, I loved it so much. I put nearly 90,000 miles on it. I delighted in driving the Tacoma. It was roomy, with a full back seat and long bed. It had a six-cylinder engine with plenty of power. I rode up above traffic, and few drivers were daring enough to cut me off. It was surprisingly comfortable and easy to handle, although it had a horrible turning radius, and I had to travel to the ends of parking lots to be able to maneuver it in and out of spaces. It was also surprising how much I seemed to need a truck while I owned the Tacoma.
I owned the truck for 14 years and I had no problems with it. I sold it to an 18-year-old kid who needed it for his surfing and water polo equipment. He bought it for a few thousand less than I had paid for it, all those years before. "Honda or Toyota, Richard!" Glen said.
I (literally) ran into my old mechanic, Glen, in Hawaii, a couple of years after he and I both left the Bay Area. He moved from Albany, California to the Hawaii Kai neighborhood, in the southeast corner of Oahu. I moved to Kona, on the Big Island. We weren't particularly friends. We had a good long relationship with him as my trusted mechanic. Sharon and I visited a friend in the Honolulu neighborhood of Kahala, around the bend from Diamond Head. We went shopping at the Kahala mall. I took the escalator up to the second floor. As I took one step off, at the top of the moving stairs, Glen was right there, walking toward me on the landing. We had a good laugh, and Glen had a great laugh.
Rumblings from the Jump Seat
When my Tacoma hit 99,000 miles, while I lived in Hawaii, I thought maybe it was time to sell the truck. I was afraid that crossing the 100,000 miles mark might lower its resale value. I checked Kelley Blue Book and it showed no appreciable difference between 90M and 100M. The truck was in great shape. I had the body cleaned up. The Michelins were still road-worthy. And I maintained the vehicle meticulously for the entire 14 years I owned it. Besides that, pickups were popular in Hawaii and the Tacoma was at the top of the list.
Why was the Tacoma so popular in Hawaii? Here are a couple of perspectives: