Tuesday, January 29, 2019

A life on wheels

 We just bought a new car. At least it's new to us. The 2001 Audi A4 TDi 1.9 was
Our "new" car.
obtained for $2,300 in Paris from good friends, an American woman and her French husband. Yes, it's an diesel engine, but reportedly one of the less-offensive models.
    It also has fewer than 100,000 miles and it's an Audi, a solid car for the twisting mountain roads around here. And when a gallon of gasoline goes for around $6.50 in France, the cheaper and more efficient "gazole" has its advantages. Driving will be limited to trips to castles and countries when Europe's excellent public transit, bicycles or shoe leather, doesn't suffice.
     The Audi got me to thinking about my transportation choices over the years, which haven't always been the wisest or most exciting. You get what you can afford, or borrow, and 40 years ago a beginning newspaper reporter's salary usually didn't put a new Bimmer in the driveway. Then later there's the partnership of marriage and the responsibility of family. But to every car is attached a memory or a page in our lives.
    Here are mine:

The formative years
Mine was baby blue, like this one.
   I got my first car in 1974, a seven-year-old Mercury Cougar, which my father handed down to me with the stipulation I take care of it. Car of the Year in 1967, I learned how to fix and tune an engine, change the oil and rotate the tires. You could do all that yourself in those days.
    I hooked up an 8-track sound system; the new Aerosmith album was the music of choice. I kept the car, inside and out, as clean as possible. I had been told young women appreciated a guy with a spotless ride, if not hot wheels and a stuffed wallet.
    The Cougar also was the first car in which I was in an accident. I had driven Dad to pick up his work truck at the repair shop. Dad was a talker so he and  Steve, the shop owner, chatted over a few long-neck Wiedemanns. When it was time to leave I was waiting for traffic to clear and felt a shudder. Dad had backed his truck into the Cougar.
The Ghost
I was left car-less when my two sisters needed the Cougar for trivial transportation to such places as school and work. Again, Dad was generous enough to let me drive his 1973 Ford Econoline van. He had planned to use it to start his own HVAC business, until he got a better offer working for a company.
    Obviously, I couldn't leave the cold metal interior alone. I immediately installed plywood floor, walls and ceiling covered with sculpted orange carpeting and wired my 8-track to a Toyo quadraphonic speaker system. Christened "The Ghost" the van was party central.  I learned a lot about life inside that box.
    I kept the exterior the original bland white; no airbrush murals or mag wheels to draw the attention of police. That didn't stop U.S. Customs from strip-searching the van after a day-trip to Windsor, Canada.
   "What were you doing in Canada, son?"
   "Nothing, sir, just wanted to say we were in Canada."
   "Pull over there."
    Finding nothing, they grudgingly sent us on our way. A few miles down the road, my buddy Rick reached between the carpeted floor and carpeted wall to pull out a bag of weed he had hidden. He came close to walking the rest of the way to Ohio.
    Everything was modular so I could remove my handiwork and haul the belongings of my sisters, who now were moving about the country or Dad's tools when he did side jobs. I tired of the process after a while and soon the wood and carpet were repurposed as an oil-changing pad.

Early working years
A stock photo showing a Bel-Air in cherry condition.
This could be my '72 Impala.

    Every cub reporter needed a notebook, a pen, change for the pay phone and a reliable car. I had the notebook, pen and quarters. The car was a 1967 Chevy Bel-Air, another loaner, this time from my brother. It was about as basic as you could get but it got me to and from work at the Ohio Statehouse. 
Yeah, I was never that cool. If that was cool.
    The first car I actually bought was a 1972 Chevy Impala, from the father of a woman I was dating. The Impala's engine blew a few months later. The relationship lasted several years but eventually coasted to a stop, too.
    I had a backup -- to the Impala, that is -- my 1978 Suzuki GS550. For months it was my sole transportation from Columbus to the weekly Grove City Record. Later, the speedy bike tested my nerves as I weaved along the labyrinth of freeways across the Mississippi from my next job in St. Louis to an apartment in Illinois. 
    My longest ride on the 550 was from St. Louis to Montreal to Myrtle Beach and back. After that, I and my butt swore I would never ride anything smaller than 850cc. I haven't had a motorcycle since.

Obviously I was over trying to impress women.
St. Louis and Florida
    To accommodate the move west, and a trailer hauling the Suzuki, I needed a car with towing capacity. I figured a 1975 Ford Torino Elite would be a good bet. I got a clean, low-mileage rolling living room for a good price from an elderly man in Grove City. 
     The Torino served its purpose but the fuel bill was eating away at my meager savings. I had to find a smaller, yet fun, car. The aforementioned girlfriend's father, the seller of the Impala, connected me with a shop that had a clean late-model Datsun B210. At 32 mpg I should have bought it, but the interior was a little too cramped for a tall driver such as myself. Instead, I responded to a classified ad for a 1977 Fiat Brava 131 Miafiori in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat where I worked (back when newspapers were flush with classifieds and there still was a Globe-Democrat) The Fiat sounded economical, fun, and sexy Italian.

Oh! Brava mia amore!
For a grand I got a yellow box. Not sexy, but economical and a damn joy to drive. Plastic seats, plastic dash, and a peppy shoe-box engine, I loved buzzing around in that Fiat. 
    I met my first wife one night driving the Fiat to a club at Laclede's Landing, St. Louis' riverfront entertainment district. Within two years the poorly maintained engine blew and a few years later the marriage would overheat and sputter to an end, too.
    As for the Torino, my Dad, who favored land barges such as Ford LTDs and the longest Thunderbird ever made, expressed interest in my old car. I gave it to him, though I don't think it was a fair exchange for my years with the Cougar or Econoline.
    Another relative, my sister's husband, wanted to sell his 1981 Plymouth Sapporo, a Mitsubishi product. The "Sapp" traveled with me to the next job covering courts for The Tampa Tribune in Pinellas County, home to St. Petersburg and Clearwater and really hot summers. Unfortunately, it had
The Pinellas hotbox.
no air conditioning, which soon led to a falling out of love as I drove the half hour in searing heat to reach each courthouse.
    The sun took its toll on the cloth interior and paint. I gave the car with some trepidation to the parents of a fellow reporter. I was relieved to later hear that they had survived the deteriorating vehicle, including bad brakes.

Only new car
First baby carriage
    I brought my then-girlfriend Paulita to a Ford dealership to discuss the merits of a black 1989 Bronco II. It's your call, she told me, and I was sold, as long as the dealer  put fancy rims on it. I was ecstatic about the air conditioning that made my rounds of the courthouses tolerable.
    In two years, our first child, a girl, occupied a baby seat behind me. The small cargo space came in handy on trips from Florida to see our families                             in the Midwest. When the second child arrived, the family was outgrowing the Bronco.
    We needed a stopgap and again my brother-in-law came through, selling us their 1980 Ford Explorer. Our third child arrived but in a few years the Explorer was showing its age. What came next was the oddest but best deal we ever made.

Our 'hybrid'
    We decided it was time to buy a minivan to give the kids, and us, more space. 
 I was working at my best and last newspaper job at my hometown Columbus Dispatch, but a new minivan was still out of our price range.
    Paulita mentioned a place in Kentucky where her cousin had worked that sold used cars. Cousin Mike is one of those people whose opinion you instinctively trust. A  detail-oriented, precise guy (former Air Force pilot) with a calm demeanor. Not a speck of bullshit. When he recommends something you should check it out.
The finished work of art.
    So we arrived at John G. Hamm Auto Sales in the farmland outside Mount Vernon, Ky. Blanketing the field near the road were white late-model Hondas with a Ford, Mercedes and Volvo sprinkled around. Inside nondescript barns were a state-of-the-art dehumidifying room for vehicles and updated auto body and repair shops. Hamm purchases cars written off by insurance companies for flood or accident damage, repairs them and sells them for a third or more off the market price. The finished product has to be titled as a salvage vehicle.
    Jim the salesman knew what I wanted and we walked to see the vehicle in its "before" state.
    "We don't usually show people the car until it's finished," Jim said. I soon understood why when we stopped at one shed where a gray 1998 Plymouth Voyager that had been T-boned in the sliding door rested.
   "That's the front," Jim said. Excuse me? He walked me around to another shed where a white 1999 Voyager that had been in a front-end collision was parked. "That's the back half."
    He explained the '98 would be cut at the seam behind the driver's seat and married with the undamaged cargo section of the '99. Whatever was soiled or damaged inside the vehicle would be replaced, the inside cleaned and the outside repainted gray.
    "Still interested?" Jim asked. I nodded. I had to see the finished product. Come back in a month and the hybrid Voyager would be ready, Jim said. I could drive it home to Columbus and if I liked it, he'd cash our check. If we didn't, drive it back "when you can" and he'd tear up the check.
     A month later we came down to visit family and stop at Hamm to see the car. It was beautiful. New paint, clean interior. It had a six-CD changer, power seats, gizmos galore. A like-new two-year-old minivan. (The title had to go with the year of the engine.)
Soft-top fun again.
     A side note: Ohio now refuses to title salvage vehicles brought in from other states, even quality vehicles like those we got from Hamm that had easily passed Ohio State Highway Patrol inspections. The stated reason was safety, which might be valid considering the opportunity for inept work and shady sales by some salvage dealers. But I wonder if it was a way for Ohio auto dealers to limit the competition.
   We would do more business with Hamm, including buying a red 1996 Plymouth Sebring convertible he got as a trade-in. When Hamm delivered it in Columbus Paulita drove up to The Dispatch top-down (the car) with wind-tossed hair and sunglasses. All I could say was, "Wow" and smile.
Paulita's Mustang
    Paulita says the Sebring was my mid-life crisis car, not a guilt-inspired replacement for the earlier loss of her gray 1988 Mustang convertible that she had brought into the marriage. The Mustang was under-powered but the fun factor outweighed that deficit.
     When we moved to a job in Michigan in 1992 we decided to buy our first house. The Mustang was sold to pay off bills and help with the down payment.
    I felt bad that Paulita had to give up such a cool reminder of her previously single life.

One more SUV
    Six years on and our Voyager was beginning to show its age. We decided to consider another SUV, if we could find one with enough room for a family of five, including three kids destined to be on the tall side. We pulled into the church lot one Sunday and parked behind a Honda Pilot. Paulita said she liked Pilots.
Best side?
    "So you like the car because of the way its butt looks?" I said. She ignored my remark and explained that she had heard good things about the Pilot. We did some research and contacted our friends at Hamm. Yes, they had one. A red one.
Fortunately, the safest vehicle we ever owned.
    But a  hitch developed. The woman who had traded in the Pilot for another vehicle now wanted to renege on the transaction. We stuck to our guns and again got a great deal. I believe this was the best vehicle we ever owned. Besides leather seating for eight and more bells and whistles, the Pilot surely saved our daughter from serious injury.
    Years later she was driving on an icy freeway about to exit when her friend in the passenger seat screamed that a car was in the right lane. Grace over-corrected and the Pilot spun out. It hit one side on the exit lane's guardrail, did a 180 and crashed into the concrete median. Our daughter suffered a bloody nose when the air bags inflated, her friend was unharmed (turns out there was no car in the other lane), but the Pilot suffered irreparable damages. Try as we did to save the Pilot, the insurance company insisted on totaling it. However, the Honda's value provided enough money for a down payment on our next vehicle.

Still in the family
    We returned to Hamm's before Ohio banned out-of-state salvage titles and purchased a vehicle that had been on a lot that flooded but had not been  damaged. It was our last purchase in the States and was titled in  Ohio as a "SW," a station wagon, like the 1970s Olds Vista Cruiser or Ford Country Squire. Paulita insisted we declare our ice-blue 2008 Ford Taurus X as the newly minted descriptive "crossover."
Our last car in the U.S.
     Ford had beefed up the former Freestyle with a more powerful engine,  added electronic stability control and re-badged it with the popular Taurus name. There was enough room in even the third-row seats for our 6-foot and counting sons. The Taurus has been extremely reliable and one of the best handling cars we've had.
    Like everything else we stored, gave away or trashed before heading to
France, the Taurus had to go. It was handed to a appreciative nephew, who continues to sing its praises.

The road ahead
    With a road trip to Italy coming up the Audi needed an oil change and a tire check. A local garage (associated with a dealer other than Audi) charged 89 euro, 99 if I wanted a filter. I went with the filter (total $113). I don't know why you wouldn't always change the filter but I was told that some French don't. The price was about $50 more than I ever paid in the U.S. I was told a diesel oil change is more expensive so maybe that's the difference. I hope to find an owner-operated garage with a mechanic like the one I had in Grandview Heights. (Chris at Clark Automotive.) The Audi's previous owner, Maurice, had paid for the mandatory biennial inspection, which it passed.
    I always admired the sensible styling of the A4 and its reputation as a real road car. We're hoping for the best.
My rankings:
Safest and all-around winner: 2004 Honda Pilot
Most fun: 1978 Fiat Brava
Wish I still had: 1967 Mercury Cougar
Best family car: 1989-99 Plymouth Voyager
Prettiest car: 1996 Plymouth Sebring
Prettiest woman in a soft top: 1963 Paulita

Feel free to add you memories/comments about vehicles you've owned.



Saturday, January 19, 2019

Former digs

Whenever we visit Paulita's parents in central Florida we make a side trip to St. Petersburg on the Gulf Coast.

We see friends and former colleagues from the now-deceased Tampa Tribune.
We were all thrown together in the mid-1980s as soldiers in a newspaper war with the Tampa Bay Times, then flying under the banner St. Petersburg Times.

It's where I had an apartment in the city's Old Northeast. I love walking the neighborhood of tree-shaded brick streets, 1920s arts-and-craft homes and traditional Florida houses with breezeways and open porches.

My former apartment is at the lower right.
Those were the days of drinks atop the St. Pete Pier's inverted pyramid and watching the St. Louis Cardinals spring training games at Al Lang Stadium (now home to the Rowdies soccer team). I became a Cards fan after six years as a reporter in the St. Louis market during the days of
Ozzie Smith and Whitey Herzog.

The now-demolished St. Pete Pier pyramid.
To my former Trib editor Bill Prescott: Bill, there were a few times when I told you I was headed to the courthouse to check filings when I instead caught a ball game. Mea culpa.

The still-standing Don Cesar in St. Pete Beach
The Old Northeast has changed, and I think for the better. More homes have been renovated and the city's strip along Tampa Bay and downtown have a lot of good dining and entertainment options.

And a quick trip across the peninsula ends in St. Pete Beach with more good restaurants, warm gulf waters and the Pepto-Bismol-painted Don Cesar hotel.

Me and former Trib colleague Tom.

Unfortunately, Old Northeast prices have ballooned beyond the means of a retired newspaper reporter. So Paulita and I will be flying back on Sunday to spend another year in southwest France.

Not a bad consolation prize.

The ball man

I had seen Stanley Smith on earlier morning walks around the orange groves of Avon Park, Florida. It seemed odd for him to be selling eggs in open containers from the bed of a pickup on a warm and sunny day.

I detoured from my route to meet him.

As I walked closer I saw that instead he was selling golf balls next to the orange grove across the road from one of Florida's ubiquitous golf courses.

The 77-year-old Lee, Florida native was offering a dozen gently used balls, maybe even fresh off the tee, at $6 a dozen. A 12-pack of the popular Titleists Pro V1 go for $40 at Dick's. Smith prominently featured packs of those favored dimpled globes.

His location was near a hole where anything but a straight, long drive will land, and dribble downhill into a marsh.

He said he's been in the salvaged ball business since 1984. He makes about $25 over five hours cooling his heels waiting for customers.

The buyers, mostly Northerners, appreciate the deal and the quality once they venture over to look at Smith's wares. They also know most balls are retrieved from snake-infested woods or swampy areas where gators patrol on the perimeter around courses.

"Northerners don't like snakes," Smith said with a grin. A minute later an errant drive bounced off the road and disappeared into the grove.

Smith has the calloused hands of someone familiar with manual labor. He used to do the dirty work of hunting the woods for balls but now buys them from a friend.

He gets a little chipping practice in while waiting for customers. He'll play a round in the late afternoon and off hours.

"I play when the prices go down," he said.