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.