Friday, September 20, 2013

The Avanti, the Jeep, and the Porsche

I own three cars.  None is younger than a quarter century and their cumulative value is probably less than that of a three-year-old Toyota.

There’s a 1989 Avanti convertible, a gorgeous piece of wire-wheeled engineering designed by Raymond Loewe, the French genius who also came up with the original Coke bottle and the Maytag washer. The car never ceases to get comments, wherever and whenever I drive it.  I bought it 15 years ago from a Sarasota, Florida, automobile museum, and people in their 50s and above always say they haven’t seen one of those in a long time. All in all, less than 500 convertibles were made so mine is a bit of a rarity.

The original Avantis were built by Studebaker and when that company bit the dust, a series of new owners kept the Avanti name alive. They stopped being manufactured for good in 2005, I think, when the then-owner of the company was found guilty of a pyramid scheme. Luckily, there’s an active collector’s community, as well as a quarterly magazine and several websites to answer most questions.

My Avanti is ice blue. It needs a new top and new upholstery on both the front and the rear seats, but I don’t have the six grand this would cost so for now there are cheap seat covers that somehow impugn the car’s dignity.  Recently, I was at a gas station when a young man approached me to say his stripper girlfriend really liked the car. I wondered why he had to put in the stripper bit, but it seemed telling me his paramour’s occupation really pleased him, so I just smiled as he shook my hand, offered me a Marlboro, then left with a wave.

My daily driver is a 1986 Porsche 944 Turbo, also a beautiful car that goes like a bat if I stomp on the accelerator. It’s white, very basic, and the radio in it really stinks, so much so that all tunes sound as if played through an old-fashioned megaphone. A few years ago I did some minor modifications on the car, including putting in a high performance computer chip that added 20 horsepower to an already powerful engine. The car is a delight to drive along windy two-lane roads of which there are not enough in my area. Invariably and far too often, while idling at a red light, some young hotshot driving a pumped up Subaru with a wing spoiler and low profile tires wants to race. We rev our engines; the light turns green and he takes off in a squeal of burning rubber. I ease into first with a supercilious look, and we’re both happy.  

My third car and I have a love/hate relationship. It’s a 1979 Jeep CJ7 in which long ago a backyard mechanic put a gigantic Pontiac V-8 engine. It is as primitive as such vehicles can get, with a complex independent four-wheel drive system that requires I use twin shifters, after having turned by hand four rotating hubs, one on each wheel. The car has Dana lockers, of which I am justifiably proud though I have no idea what they are. It stands about eight feet tall, has a roll cage, fire extinguisher, a mean and tricky clutch, headers and a custom-made exhaust system, and was designed to race in the Moab desert, climbing over boulders and other stationary objects. The fuel pump whines and has had to be replaced twice. So have the distributor, carburetor, coil, brakes front and rear, and a host of other smaller things that failed. The first tear is so low I never use it. I think it was designed to climb telephone poles.

Why I bought the car in the first place remains sort of unclear. It fails to start about two out of seven times, leaving me stranded more than once, and it spends the majority of its existence in my driveway slowly leaking bright green cooling liquid. Four years ago I sold it to a man who put it in his garage and never drove it even one time. I bought it back from him, which makes me twice the fool.

The Jeep’s only real advantage is in winter. Once every three-or-so years, Northern Virginia falls prey to snow blizzards with accumulations of up to two feet or more.  This is when the aged Jeep comes into its own. With all four wheels churning, the thing goes where others fear to tread. It rumbles along happily as the rest of the region is paralyzed. I have helped stranded neighbors and winched or pulled other cars out of ditches. I guess that means that a couple of days out of a thousand, it earns its pay.

Which, come to think of it, is more than a lot of people I know.





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