Loyal Motors

A couple of days ago I was pulling an all-nighter trying to memorize 14 chapters of information, which I’ll never use in life, for one of my final exams the following morning. It was around 4am when I decided to take a study break and get something to eat at a local fast food joint that was open 24/7. I was in pajamas so I used the drive thru and while I was waiting in line to pull up to the window I heard a familiar noise traveling across the cold night air, the sound of an engine being fed fuel through a carburetor. I glanced in my side mirror and saw the corner fender of what my memory recognized as a 60’s full size Pontiac. After I received my greasy bag of eatable cholesterol, I pulled into the nearest parking space so I could get out and get a better look at the mystery Pontiac that was behind me. It turned out to be a tempest blue 1968 Pontiac Catalina sedan. It was beautiful and looked like it hadn’t stopped rolling since LBJ was president. Sun baked paint on its roof, with a hint of surface rust, a front grille sprinkled with years of pebble dings, headlights shining dimly giving it the impression of a tired face, a Catalina emblem on the front fender with a missing A – it was an honest survivor.

At first glance I formed a back story of the kind of life it was having. Purple heart on the corner license plate, a Vietnam Veteran flag hanging on its rear-view mirror, and an aging old man sitting behind the wheel wearing an Army cap with his wife riding shotgun with pink rollers in here silver hair. The story ran in my head as a young soldier, coming back from Vietnam, buying his first new car as he signs on the dotted line at a Pontiac dealership during the year 1968. Bringing home his first child in that same Pontiac as the years went by. A lifetime of miles under its hood. Before the old man left, he fired up the old Catalina, and as he turned the key, the car didn’t skip a beat. With a sleepy clank and ring, the tired 400ci engine fired with the equivalent grunt of an old man getting up from a chair. They rolled out of the parking lot with the Catalina floating across the asphalt with grace. It made me forget about my insomnia for the few seconds as I watched the Pontiac leave the driveway into the darkness of night.

It always makes my day whenever I see a classic or old car riding down the road without a care in the world on the driver’s face. It’s even better when the car is a survivor or has an exhausting amount of miles on the clock. I’ve heard of a little old lady in Florida pedaling around her 1962 Mercury Comet since new and has rolled over 400,000 miles on the original drivetrain. A man who has covered over 900,000 in his Porsche 356, and a legendary gentleman who pushed his Volvo P1800 all the way to 3 million miles, while still looking factory new. Loyal Motors, honest cars that refuse to give up on their caretaker, because of good maintenance. If the owner takes care of his/her car, the car will take care of the owner. Cars aren’t much different to humans when it comes to keeping them alive. They both need constant refueling, checkups, sometimes replacement parts, and be drained of fluids sometimes, so seeing a car that has survived the life expectancy of their warranties is a true testament to regularly scheduled oil changes and maintenance.

Sometimes, however, you get cars that were built just a little bit better than the car before or after it on the assembly line. Whether that car falls in the hands of someone who doesn’t know what a dipstick is or someone who keeps the plastic covers on the seats, the car will keep on rolling until the wheels fall off. A good friend of mine has a 2001 Toyota Camry, about as vanilla of car as you can get, yet it has clocked nearly 300,000 miles! The suspension feels like that of a full size sedan from the 1970’s, it drives likes a boxer hearing the bell going off as it bobs and weaves around corners. The car refuses to give up on my buddy, even though he drives like Donald Duck behind the wheel of a rental. He has even admitted to me that he is trying to break it so he can have an excuse to buy a new car, but the car won’t die. I’ve driven it and although the car feels exhausted, the v6 can still mustered up enough grunt to get you into triple digit speeds.

I love cars with loyal engines, cars that refuse to give up no matter the abuse from the owner or father time. I can assume many of you have heard or known about a car that has rolled enough miles to lap the planet once or twice, doesn’t it just tickle the soft spot in your heart? Some people believe that age is just a number, apparently some cars believe that mileage are just numbers as well.

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Super-Size my Ride

I have been working as a valet for a little over two months now and it has given me the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a variety of cars, from a clapped out Honda to the latest Tesla. It puts me in a unique position of having a job where I get to pedal around the latest leather wrapped computers on wheels of the future and then coming home to tinker with the retired kings of the road from yesteryear. I’m constantly comparing modern cars to cars of the past and naturally I have some opinions. For this article the main focus will be on modern pickup trucks and how they are too big. I am not talking about trucks that have been jacked up on aftermarket steroids and used to crawl over Mother Nature’s face on weekends, I mean factory showroom trucks from Ford, GM, Toyota, and Dodge.

Back in 2011, I was cruising around town when I stopped at the local GMC dealership to see what my old 97’ truck would fetch in a trade-in, just for kicks. After the ego crushing news that my pride and joy would only catch $1,000 in trade-in value I walked back to my truck that was staged next to a 2008 model GMC Sierra. The truck was the newer counterpart of mine, silver, crew-cab, only 11 years newer. Having the sisters parked side by side it was clear to see that the newer model was taller, longer, and wider than mine. I took a photo and went about my day, but over time I have noticed that pick-up trucks are getting bulkier every new model and I cannot understand why.

I think this all started in 2007 when the Toyota Tundra was designed to compete with the big boys in the truck industry. Since then it seems it has become the new trend of bigger is better. The new 2014-2015 models are road mammoths barreling down the interstates of America. Some of my friends say it is because they have more payload and towing power needed for heavy duty jobs. Living in Texas you see plenty of heavy duty trucks hauling and pulling trailers for the oil fields or just because it is the Texas lifestyle to have a big truck. That makes sense but a truck’s torque comes from its drivetrain not from its size so what does making a truck bigger have to do with it being able to tow a trailer? My neighbor’s 1998 Dodge Ram can go wheel to wheel with these new trucks in a tug-a-war, while still being able to fit in a parking space without feeling like your trying to park a military spec Humvee.

I’ve driven them all, Tundra, Duramax, Super Duty, and Ram, and they all have the same problem, their exhausting to drive. Although comfortable to sit in, being in the driver seat you cannot see where the hood ends or clearly see the dimensions of the vehicle. I find myself using the, “force”, when parking these big boys or relying on their backup cameras since I can’t see the corners of the truck. The interiors are also becoming a problem as auto manufacturers are trying to turn trucks into really big cars. Remember when you could order a manual transmission with your pick-up? Now most of them have automatic lever on the floor which makes me feel like I’m in a minivan, or worse, a knob on the dash that makes you feel like your changing radio stations instead of selecting reverse. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidently switched on the windshield wipers instead of changing gears because the shifter is on the dash instead of on the steering column.

Now I understand why they do this, to make them for comfortable and easier to drive therefore appealing to a wider target audience, but when does a truck stop becoming a truck and start becoming a bloated sofa that will rarely use its full payload potential. I do not see the point in making these trucks so big, or making them feel like a car.

Cast Iron Spirit

I believe that the more time you own a vehicle, the more you invest in that vehicle. By invest I do not mean pennies and cents in the form of oil changes, new tires, or car washes that you can calculate mathematically. I am talking about investing part of your soul and personality into the car. You don’t need to be a Gearhead to add an accessory to your car to make it stand out from the pack. It could be any cosmetic or performance modification like a chrome valve covers, 8-ball shift knob, bumper sticker, or even Betty Boop floor mats. Gearheads take it to another level since they not only like what they drive, they genuinely love and care for what they drive and see it as part of the family like a pet or an extension of their own identity. Every adventure, near miss, run in with the law, or break down you take with your car means investing a small part of yourself into the machine. Sometimes, especially with older model vehicles, the car will reveal itself to you in the form of mechanical imperfections I call, “quirks”.

My 97’ GMC truck is a perfect example of this theory, over the nearly 8 years of ownership, it has been totaled and restored using a cocktail of new, aftermarket, and junkyard parts to get it back on the road. This means it has developed a series of quirks over the years which usually end up with me questioning the supernatural, on the side of the road in a profanity fueled rage, or falling on the praise of dumb luck in front of the law. The focus of this article will be stories that show clear example of a cast iron spirit.

One night I was driving home from a party at a friend’s house. It was around three in the morning and I was holding steady at 70mph when suddenly the bass line to Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress by the Hollies was cut short as the radio turned itself off. When I tried to switch it back on, the lights on the dashboard began to flicker and a few seconds later the whole truck went kaput. No power, and on a dark highway, I steered the truck over to the side of the road. Turning the key I heard the infamous clicking sound of a dead battery, I was stranded. I had to call my friend, whose party I had just left, to come to my rescue and by the time he found me it had started to rain…hard. The weather didn’t matter since even with a jumpstart my truck simply did not want to turn over, it just sat their clicking away as if it was somehow laughing at us getting soaking wet with fear of electrocution. The night ended with us leaving the truck on the side of the road and getting back home at four in the morning cold and wet with no truck, which my parents were not happy about. A few hours later, around eight in the morning, my father drove me back to the spot where the truck sat. I decided to turn the key one last time before we did anything, just for the sake of it, and to my amazement the truck fired right up without skipping a beat. It idled like a lion with a fully stomach, it was almost smug. Drove it home without issue, and I never found out why it lost power since the battery, cables, and alternator were all fine. Whenever it pulls stuff like this I joke around saying it is, “pulling off a Christine”, after the Stephen King novel from the 1980’s about a 1958 Plymouth Fury that can repair itself.

The most Christine moment it did happened when I was 18 years old and had less than a month with the newly restored truck. I had just topped off the tank and was getting ready for the drive home when my little brother asked me if he could drive it home. He had just gotten his driver’s license and was anxious to get some practice in. I was feeling generous so I tossed him the keys and we set off for home. Night had fallen by the time we were on the highway and I could tell my brother was a little nervous, not because of the driving, but because he was driving his older brother’s recently restored pride and joy. We had the highway to ourselves, so I wasn’t worried, and I sat back and tried to get used to the awkward feeling of riding shotgun in your own car. Five miles in, I glanced at the gauge cluster on the dash and was horrified to see that the gas gauge was reading half a tank. I scanned the rest of the gauge to see if anything was wrong, but all read normal. I told my brother to pull over quickly, because I suspected a gas leak. Walking to the back of the truck I couldn’t smell any gasoline fumes and when I glanced underneath the bed, where the gas tank is, all I could see was the greasy undercarriage of an old truck. I decided to drive the truck the rest of the way home and deal with the problem in the morning, but I was feeling upset because half a tank meant the old girl had leaked or burned $40 dollars’ worth of go-go juice in less than ten miles. What happened next still gives me chills as every mile the truck rolled I gained another gallon of fuel. As I drove along the road, I glanced at the gauge and could see the needle slowly crawling its way back to full on its own. By the time I got home, the gauge read a full tank once again and my brother and I were in disbelief. My brother turned to me and said, “I guess she didn’t like me being behind the wheel.”

Although these quirks have often gotten me in trouble, there was one case where it saved me from a much more serious situation, although it did get me into trouble in the first place. I was driving my friend home, after a late party where he was not sober enough to drive himself home. At the time, the latest quirk the truck had developed was that the brake lights would turn off whenever I applied the brakes and come back on when I took my foot off. A simple electrical issue, but the quirk would come and go. Months would go by without a problem and then I would have a passing car or friend tell me my brake lights were out. Life, time, and money had prevented me from getting the issued fixed and I was regretting my procrastination that night when I noticed a police car in my rear view mirror. Paranoia turned to fear when I saw that my tipsy friend had an open beer bottle in the truck that I never noticed he had, open containers in a car being illegal in the state of Texas. We had just passed a stop light so I suspected he noticed my brake lights, and there was another stop light up head which would surely reinforce the officer’s probable cause. My only hope was to slow down so the cop could pass me on the left lane and drive off into the dark, so I slowed down until I was doing a 25 in a 40, but the cop stayed fixed in my rearview mirror. I decided to maybe get rid of him by turned onto a side street as if I had reached my destination, but the second I turned on to another street the officer switched his red and blues. I slowed down enough that I could shut off the truck and then apply the brakes in order to hide my brake light issue. I then told my friend to hide the beer bottle in between the door and his seat and to shut up. The officer walked up, greeted us, and asked me to turn my vehicle on because he wanted to check my brake lights. I did as I was told, and the lights came on, he walked back and shouted back asking me to apply the brakes. In my head, I knew that I was sure to get a ticket for faulty brake lights which would lead him to ask if we had been drinking which would ultimately lead to him finding the bottle and causing even more trouble. My heart was pounding as I applied the brakes, but instead of a ticket I was greeted by a phrase that I have never heard a police officer say, “Sorry, I guess I must have been mistaken”. The brakes lights came on! The officer asked why I was driving so slow and I quickly gave a BS excuse about me trying to find a friend’s house and slowing down to read the street signs in the dark. After that he sent us on our way, and I had a good laugh to sake the nerves away. One of the few times the old girl saved me.

Now I do not want you guys to think that I need a trip to the funny farm where the men in white coats can help me. I am not crazy, I know that all these quirks can be explained or fixed by a good mechanic, but the point is that the truck has its own persona now. The truck is no longer just a GMC truck, it has become La Sierra that all my friends and family know can, “misbehave”, whenever it wants to. Even with the risk of being stranded on the side of the road for the twelfth time, I would never trade or sell this truck for a new Toyota or reliable Honda, because I have invested so much time, money, and memories into this truck which makes it priceless.