My father always loved cars—and vehicles of all kinds.
He loved his 1930’s Harley. He had one of the first ATV’s—a six-wheeled amphibious thing that had to be steered like a tank—of the kind the Banana Splits drove. We cut the meadow grass in our neighborhood with gang mowers and a vintage Ford 8n tractor. He put racing stripes made from electrical tape on his 1967 Buick Electra 225. He collected sporadically with his friend Jack Holden. They went down to Philadelphia to pick up cars—once they shared an original Lagonda—and had a grand old time. For a summer or two, a huge black Austin sedan with fold-down snack trays in the back seats sat in our back lot. When 50’s Chevrolet woody wagon (he Val-oiled the wood trim on it for God’s sake) wouldn’t pass inspection anymore, he sawed off the roof and hauled wood and brush with it. After the first oil crisis, he invested—and lost—tens of thousands of dollars in a very early hybrid car experiment, in which the company fitted a Buick Skylark with a small diesel motor and mine car batteries. That venture went nowhere fast, so to speak.
But, he never really pushed the boat out for himself. I remember him sitting at dinner one night after he’d test-driven two Alfa-Romeos—the Berlina and the GTV. He was smitten. “We drove over these railroad tracks and while you could feel it, the independent suspension just soaked them up,” he enthused. “The steering was incredible and the leather smelled great.” He passed Alfa brochures around, coined the term “Alfa-holic” and then went out and bought a Mustang II.
This was an unfortunate piece of mid-1970’s styling (bulbous, gravid, jangly, heavy for its size, drooping with plastic-body colored bumpers) on a Pinto chassis, of all things. A Pinto’s?! The hapless Pinto’s manifold shortcomings were well known by 1975, so it’s astonishing Ford chose to expand on this folly, to use it as a platform for another car. The Mustang II was how I found out the Motor Trend “Car of the Year” honor was simply purchased by manufacturers. Then, sadly, for a few months I had to drive one, a hand-me-down from my brother Andy that was mercifully sideswiped, hit and run, by a crosstown New York City bus and put out of its—and my—misery. As if to compensate, I bought an 1961 MGA from my childhood friend Ian Hartman, who bought it from Jack Holden, after that.
I can’t even remember what he drove after the Mustang II because he gave it to my sister (who, sadly, somehow traded a Fiat 124 sport coupe for it). But in the 1980’s, he purchased what surely is the worst automobile Cadillac ever produced: the woeful Cimarron. This was a Chevrolet with a Cadillac badge glued on. As gutless as it was hideous, it was very early evidence of the decline of the US auto industry.
So when his sister Phyl passed away and bequeathed him her 1997 C230, my dad quietly couldn’t believe his good fortune. He took the plucky little four cylinder Mercedes—not terribly optioned-up, but with heated seats—on a tour of the Canadian Maritime Provinces and to the Wright-Dayton museum in Ohio. The car starred in his famous 2005 bicentennial retracing of the route of Lewis and Clark, “Westward Ho Solo.” T-shirts are still available. He promised repeatedly it would a) be the last car he ever owned and b) he’d give it to me when he passed away. “No, no dad, you’ll have another car,” I reassured him. “We’re confident you’ll outlive it.”
But then he didn’t.
I wasn’t sure how the other seven children in the family would take his bequest, with four cars and a motorcycle of our own it seemed an embarrassment of automotive wealth. But he made such a big deal out of it, and even wrote his sister’s kids informing them of his plans, so there wasn’t any grumbling. Well, none that I’ve heard.
We’d resolved to give it to our daughter for her sixteenth birthday.
So, after wintering in Lancaster, the little cream puff (60,000 original miles in fifteen years) came across the miles on a car carrier. The truck driver was a handsome, colorful and sprightly fellow named Terry. He charmed my mother on collecting it, along with a bunch of California-bound cars from the Manheim Auto Auction. He promised to really beat it to California because, he said, he had some unspecified trouble to attend to near his home of Big Bear. And beat it he did. He left Lancaster on a Friday and the car was the last one unloaded on Moorpark Street on a Tuesday evening.
JBE’s car was a time capsule of his daily life—a frozen scene that it seemed he’d left without realizing he wasn’t coming back. All the months it waited for the call in Lancaster I wanted to keep it that way. It looked and even smelled like him. It was reassuring to drive when the kids came back for visits. But Saeli wanted, as quickly as possible, to make it her own. So she and I went through it, from front to back.
There were two Dymo label maker notes stuck to the dash: one to remind him where the fuel filler cap was, and the other to identify the rear defroster. He also fixed a little Velcro strip to the dash to hold the garage door opener to it. There were three golf umbrellas, each identifying a bank or country club. A tiny car trash bin sat on the transmission hump. There was a pair of his prescription Ray-Ban aviators with the G-3 green lenses. Like him, I try and take good care of my things. Unlike him, I lose a pair of glasses every few weeks; he must have had these for thirty years or more. They’d been soldered at the bridge. Homemade cassettes abounded, included one labeled “jazz stew.” It proudly displays the pewter front plate everyone in Lancaster has.
The most astonishing find was a wicked knife deep in the pocket behind the passenger seat. This is a multipurpose implement Davy Crockett would be proud to wield. You might not be able to kill a bear with it, but you could sure piss him off. I recall my brother Roger either coveting or possessing this item, with its laminated leather handle. At one point, an inlay in the hilt had fallen out and it was either reinforced—or decorated—with very thick copper wire—not as thick as UL-rated household electric wire, but pretty close. What had my dad planned to do with this? Gore a would-be thief? It would have been very easy to reach behind and down to get it from his driving position. I can, quite respectfully, imagine my father even at 88 facing down a would-be carjacker, unsheathing this thing while calmly explaining to the would-be thief, “You know, I’d rather talk you out of it but if I can’t, I’m going to have to defend myself.”
In the trunk, a pair of LL Bean duck boots sat in a strawberry box, alongside a pair of his golf shoes. “I’m giving you those golf shoes when I pass away too,” he reminded me maybe a year before his death. “I’ll put them in the trunk of my car.” The box, which also included an EverReady Captain flashlight (also good for braining assailants) and jumper cables, sat on a grey rubber-backed doormat. Next to that was a collapsible snow shovel. The whole thing was kept neatly in place with an expandable shower rod. Oh, and his initials, “JBE” in Press-a-ply labels, are fixed to the driver’s side door.
As soon as the car was off the carrier, Saeli wanted to drive it. She logged twenty supervised, cheerful hours behind its wheel as a student driver, and we drove it down to Indio so she could take her test in it after Coachella. Bit by bit, many of JBE’s things in the car found homes elsewhere. It rained enough since then that I’ve had to wear the duck boots a couple days. I lost one of the golf umbrellas already. I’m still trying to figure out how to put non-prescription lenses in the old Ray-Bans without breaking them. Saeli left some touches, like the labels and stickers. Her friends now enjoy the Life Savers and Altoids JB had socked away, unopened, in the glove compartment.
Watching Saeli reverse out of the driveway in what is now known as Frank (short for Jacques-Francois; all our cars and the motorcycle have names) provided my wife Victoria and I with the most dislocating moment of our parenthood so far: from the time she disappeared down the street until she got to where she was going, we didn’t know exactly where she was. She’s been driving for two months now and we are still not quite, no, not at all used to this. Her humble C230—two years younger than she is—parks alongside new Range Rovers and BMW’s in her high school neighborhood. But she’s as happy as she can be with it. JBE is smiling in heaven, as is his sister Phyllis, too.
Why is this post on Killer Hooch? Well, first, don’t drink and drive. Second, on this Father’s Day, I look back wistfully in a gentle reverie on my Dad, and his life, adventures great but mostly modest, and stories; many of them told over scotch, martinis, bloodies and libations of all sorts. I hope I can connect—and keep connecting—with them. Saeli’s ownership of the car carries his memory and legacy forward another generation out in to the world and sustains her love and memory of him. Happy Father’s Day, Ole JBE.