Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Ones that Got Away: 5 Cars From My Past That I Wish I Had Back

Yes, I know. Nostalgia is a tricky thing. We tend to view the past through rose-colored glasses. Thinking back to cars from your past is no exception. You tend to remember the good and fun things about them, and filter out what was negative and frustrating. Nevertheless, what's the harm in taking a quick little trip down memory lane? So here goes. Here's a list, in no particular order, of vehicles that I either owned or drove frequently that I wish I could drive again today.

1. 1973 Chevrolet Impala. This was my second college car, and it's the car I spent the most time with in the 80s. It wasn't a sporty coupe--it was a brown 4-door colonnade  with a tan vinyl top.

A 1973 Chevrolet Impala Custom Coupe. Mine was a 4-door sedan, but it had this exact color scheme for the body and vinyl top. Photo by Vegavairbob (Wikipedia).

The Pros: It had a virtually indestructible Chevy 350 V8 with a 4-barrel carburetor. And when I first got it, it was pretty quick, even though it was from among the earliest of the "malaise years" when new emission control requirements humbled the horsepower of the storied small block Chevys down to levels that lowly straight 6 engines could make just a couple of years before. I had a lot of fun with this car and in a sense it was a sleeper that ended up embarrassing its share of flashier, sportier cars in the proverbial stop-light derby.

The Cons: By the time I sent it off to the glue factory it was quite a rust bucket. Or at least that's how I viewed it at the time. There was very little left of the lower rear quarter panels. But the front end was in pretty good shape I believe the frame was sound. I might have held on to it and tried to fix the rust if it wasn't for one thing: the frame members that the rear bumpers were mounted to were badly bent in an accident that wasn't my fault.

A guy in a 70-something Thunderbird pulled out of a parking space as I was leaving a bank parking lot one day around 1984, and the edge of my rear bumper hooked onto something on his front end, bending the dickens out of the frame members. The Impala was still sound and solid to drive but it looked like heck, as if the right side of the rear bumper was hanging down. It was thousands of dollars worth of damage and the insurance adjuster declared it a total loss. I drove it like that, technically "totaled," for about three more years.

2. 1970 Ford Maverick. This was the closest thing to a "sporty" car that I owned during my youth. I bought it the summer before my senior year in high school--for $180 at a police auction. It had somewhere between 75,000-80,000 miles on it, which wasn't bad for the durable Ford straight 6.

A  1970-1972 Ford Maverick. Photo by Wdog, posted in Wikipedia.
The Pros: When I first got it, the body and paint were in pretty good shape. It was Ford's Dark Ivy metallic green and it looked nice when you shined it up. Mavericks in that day were sort of a poor-boy's Mustang. They had a good driving feel and the shape of the hood, with a raised cowl in the center, gave it a sporty look through the windshield as you were driving. Also, like most longitudinally mounted straight 6 engines, it was super easy for backyard mechanics to work on. Change the water pump? A 2-hour cakewalk in my parents' driveway.

The Cons: None to speak of, really. The reason I got rid of this one also had to do with an accident. This one was my fault. Shortly before graduation, I backed into the rear of a van that was backing out at the same time in the high school parking lot. No one was hurt, but the damage to the Maverick was a lot worse--wrinkled the left-hand upper rear quarter panel like aluminum foil. But I still kept driving it all the way through my first semester of college, after which I bought my Impala with some surplus money from a student loan. Another con was the mysterious suspension squeak that just about every Ford on the old Falcon platform seemed to be prone to after a few years.

3. 1973 AMC Ambassador Brougham. This was a nice, smooth-riding, and FAST luxury car--when it wasn't in the shop. It was actually my Mom's car but for a long spell I was the primary driver. Drove it to school and to part-time jobs a lot before I bought my '70 Maverick.

1973 AMC Ambassador Brougham, Photo by Christopher Ziemnowicz, posted to Wikipedia.
Pros: Super comfortable with a high degree (for its time) of luxury features and FAST with a 360 V8 and 4-barrel carburetor. Remember: this was basically the four-door sedan version of a platform that could, theoretically, be built into a Mad Max car. But even the stock version had more than enough power to keep the everyday driving experience exciting. I'd say it was quicker than most small-block GMs of the era, and it would certainly be a fun car to have around today to play around with mods like an aftermarket exhaust to give it a more aggressive tone.

Cons: In many ways it was a lemon from the time my Dad first bought it for my Mom. It was about four years old with very low miles when he bought it, but there was something suspicious about it from the beginning. We ended up wondering if the odometer had been rolled back--or even rolled over past 100,000--yes, this was still the day of the odometer that rolled over to zero after 99,000 miles, so it was easy for unscrupulous sellers to misrepresent mileage. The car was prone to constant electrical and carburetor problems. After a couple of years of being frequently in and out of the shop, with some help from my brother, who was a very capable gearhead, we finally got it reasonably stabilized. My parents kept it well into the 80s until after the point when my Mom, due to various ailments, had basically stopped driving.

4. 1974 Pontiac LeMans Wagon. My Dad was a teacher (and later board of education official) who never found himself able to afford new cars. This one he bought when it was two years old--it was the newest he had ever bought. Public-school educators weren't paid nearly as well back then as they are now, but when he bought this car he was feeling just a bit more well-to-do because royalties from a textbook series he worked on had started to roll in (the feeling of prosperity was short-lived, however). The LeMans was in fabulous shape when he bought it and it was our family's first air-conditioned car. I was in around the 5th grade when be bought it and he still had it in my early years of college.

Pros: I had the pleasure of driving this car quite frequently and thoroughly enjoyed it every time. The LeMans had that classic smooth "land-yacht" ride of the full-size GMs. It was so smooth that you could easily loose sense of how fast you were really going. The 350 with a 4-barrel carb made around 200 horsepower, which was pretty generous in that era. I'm not sure exactly what features contributed to this performance, but it was a formidable highway beast that, in spite of its size, handled a lot better than you'd expect a big wagon to handle. It didn't feel like a big wagon when you drove it. And for some reason, it felt quicker and tighter than my '73 Impala which, although a little lighter, was also a somewhat longer than the LeMans.

Cons: None, really, that I can think of, except for the universal scourge of the era: rust. My dad had it rust-repaired and repainted once, and it lasted a good number of years more before the rust eventually came back. To the best of my recollection the engine and transmission were still going strong when he junked it. It might have needed some level of repair and he felt it had too many miles to justify it. In hindsight I probably should have looked into keeping it for myself--although big wagons weren't really in vogue for 20-something dudes back then and had yet to enter their era of nostalgia appeal.

5. 1963 Rambler Classic. OK. This one is a bit of a cheat because I never got to drive it. I was still too young when this car, also my mother's, was replaced by the '73 Ambassador.

1973 Rambler Classic. Photo byChristopher Ziemnowicz, posted in Wikipedia.  
Pros: Talk about underappreciated! Today these cars are treasured by collectors and hot rodders alike. Ours was in outstanding condition well into the mid 70s, with no noticeable rust. And it had an iconic two-tone, white roof over jade green body paint scheme that had gently weathered to a perfect, elegant patina. In the 80s I saw one just like it on the cover of Hot Rod magazine! We didn't have a garage but it stayed in our carport and my my mom used it very lightly, which is why it was so well preserved.

Cons: Few to none, that I know of. Sure, some might look at it as underpowered with its straight 6 engine, but you can't do much better than that motor for reliability. I can't remember why my parents got rid of it. I have a vague recollection of some hard starting and rough idling issues toward the end, But with these solid old beasts, this kind of problem usually ended up being something basic and simple, like maybe needing a carburetor rebuild, at worse. My oldest brother, a gearhead who owned a couple of old Jags over the years, was a bit ticked that my parents didn't fix the Rambler and hang onto it until I was old enough to drive it. Oh well!

I hope you've enjoyed this mental road trip down memory lane. Not one of these cars was by any means perfect, and there is a strong tendency idealize the past when looking back with nostalgia. The reality was that all of these cars did come with their share of hassles, especially compared to today's reliability standards and relatively low maintenance requirements.

Would I have been able to preserve any of these vintage beasts up to now? It's hard to say. On the other hand, it's surprising how many examples you will find when you search for any of these models for sale....

What cars from your past would you like to have back?


  1. 1931 Model A Ford, a 1940 American Bantam coupe or panel truck, a 1948 Hudson, a 1972 Citroen DS and a 1939 Plymouth.

  2. 1931 Model A Ford, a 1940 American Bantam coupe or panel truck, a 1948 Hudson, a 1972 Citroen DS and a 1939 Plymouth.