A celebration of those unsung scratch-'n'-dent low-rent autos
This ain’t even straight. I’m missing the party this year, too. As you’re reading this article, Hot August Nights has invaded Reno. Vintage vehicles from the proudly American eras of Ike and JFK—and the lesser periods of LBJ, Dick and Gerry—are cruising through town in a surreal sensory overload of chrome, fins, louvers, hood ornaments, dangling fuzzy dice, bobby sox, poodle skirts, leather jackets, hair grease and white T-shirts with middle-aged male bellies bulging over the belt lines of Levi’s.Through Aug. 11, nostalgia-addled visitors are filling hotels, dropping cash in casinos, attending proms and oldies concerts, hobnobbing at show-'n'-shines and otherwise providing sustenance for our hungry tourism economy.
And then the 1950 Fords, early ‘60s ‘vettes and ‘vairs, et al., will motor back west on I-80, over the hill and out of sight.
And I will, as every year, mutter, “Foiled again!”
For I have yet to save up for my dream car: a ‘65 Mustang convertible with a 302 and bucket seats. And my battered and bruised, cracked and tattooed, chipped and chewed ‘89 Corolla will not have fit into this annual Americana-fest.
There never will be a “Smoky September Days” or “Backfiring November Afternoons” or “ ‘Dammit—Turn Over!’ December Dusks” or “It’s Paid For and It Runs March Morns” for sets of wheels such as mine. Drivers of beaters don’t have a lot of money to spend. Or we simply don’t spend unless we absolutely have to.
But this article isn’t a make-fun piece. Rather, it is a celebration of these unsung, unheralded, under-appreciated modes of low-rent transportation. We beater-car owners are a superstitious lot. We have faith in the supernatural—why else would we expect these junkers to fail to die week after week, month after month? We know if we say nice things to our beaters, cajole with soft words or actually replace filters, plugs and hoses occasionally, they’ll keep us out of one of the last places we cheapskates or economically challenged souls care to venture—a car lot.
Hopefully, I’m building up brownie points here with my Toyota, which—being Japanese—never had obsolescence built into it, and thus has resisted the Samurai death I have occasionally placed before it in certain perilous places (Mount Rose Highway, Dog Valley Road, Black Rock Desert, U.S. 395 between the Moana exit and the Spaghetti Bowl during rush hour). “Old Blue” has 132,322 miles on her and still hasn’t rusted (much) despite scuffed front-wheel wells (I fouled up the snow chains during a storm in ‘91). She still lets me hear Pink get her party started and Sheryl soak up the sun on the static-spitting back speakers (the front speakers’ tweeters are tweaked and the woofers have the mange). She still permits me to open the trunk with the half-key (the other half is embedded in the lock) and still carries me through wet weather despite needing new wipers the past three years (but what a sensual squeak those rubbing blades make!). And still starts up every summer morning—although after I pull back into the garage, the strangest, high-pitched, cat-like “yeep” punctuates the sound of the engine chuggling off.
It’s almost enough to make me want to take the old gal in for a tune-up. Almost.
The following scenario illustrates why people such as me are attached to our beaters:
South McCarran Boulevard, between Talbot Lane and Plumas Street. It’s over 100 degrees. The stench of oily tar surfs through the cranked-down window of my air conditioner-less Corolla on a wave of July heat. A symphony of heavy gears and whining engines from yellow John Deere steamrollers, front-loaded cherry poppers and stegosauruses (for all I know) assails the line of stalled traffic like those hoarse, whisper-to-a-screed vocalists you hear on modern rock radio this year. And last.
When the weather’s warm, the Biggest Little City becomes the Biggest Little Construction Site. When the weather’s furnace-like, conditions are optimal. You will be stopped indefinitely on an arterial. You will be in a line of traffic herded by orange cones into a single lane. The nearest demon in this driver’s hell will be a sun-baked, bare-shouldered woman wearing a construction company traffic regulator uniform: Day-Glo yellow or orange vest, Gatorade-green plastic hardhat. Your progress will depend upon an eventual change of course by a flip of her geometric sign from the “Stop” side to the “Slow” side. She’s only doing her job.
Meanwhile, your windows, doors and fenders will be at the mercy of randomly flying chunkettes of asphalt, like teeny asteroids. Your rear bumper will be vulnerable to a sudden, whiplash smash by an inattentive (or brain-melted) driver in a large car or truck.
And this will be true no matter what you drive: an SUV or mini-van that fits into your Soccer Parent and PTO circle; a 4-by-4, half-ton pickup truck (white, of course) that fits into your sports bar and contractor’s circle; a Jeep Wrangler with the top taken off that fits into your rock-climbing or snowboarding circle; a Lexus or Acura that fits into your gated community; or a scraped and dented, four-cylinder beater with grimy windshield, bent antenna (capped by an Oakland A’s antenna ball), missing handle on the back-left passenger door, and an interior aromatic mix of old French fries, spilled Diet Coke and the faintest lingering of sprayed vanilla from the car wash three months ago. Or was it five?
And the point of this modifier-laden buildup: Guess which vehicle owner feels the least stress in these conditions?
That’s right. Me. The driver of that junk-metal Corolla. The one that gets the cheap unleaded, oil changed every 3,000 or 6,500 miles … and is parked wherever its owner likes, immune to worries of getting doors dinged in parking lots.
Or car-jacked in San Francisco, for that matter.
Or getting broken into for its “stereo.” Or ashtray change.
Top 10 list of the Joys of Beater Ownership:
10. You can wear a ball cap, which would look ridiculous in, say, a Maserati.
9. You can pull into a Stop-'n'-Rob mini-mart and not have the obligatory fellow loitering outside hit you up for change.
8. Don’t need a car alarm.
7. You can pick up a date and find out, by her reaction, whether she’s a gold-digger.
6. You can let your girlfriend’s teen-age son take it anywhere and not have to inspect it later for scratches or beer bottles rattling in back. (Who can prove they’re his?) Actually, this is moot. He wouldn’t be caught dead driving this lame bitch.
5. It’s not a PT Cruiser or new VW Beetle—cars for people with no taste. (Not bad taste, just no taste. Like Hootie & the Blowfish fans.)
4. It keeps you from stepping onto a car lot or into the car audio section of an electronics store. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that; you’re just too parsimonious to buy anything until what you have no longer works, at all.)
3. You can cart four Little Leaguers home, stop at McDonald’s and never stress about shake or ranch dressing spots on the upholstery, wrappers wedged into seats, or running into a light pole and suffering expensive fender damage after being distracted by flying fries from the overactive goobers.
2. Bumper stickers? You bet! Antenna balls? You bet!
1. Supermarket carts aren’t a concern. Let ’em roll into you. Heck, share a parking space with one. Bump it and see which way it rolls. …
Up to this point, I have committed a journalistic no-no by not actually interviewing anyone for this story.
I am rectifying this by heading out on a Friday night with News & Review photographer David Robert. We have our game faces on. Our mission: to hunt down, interrogate and shoot drivers of beater cars.
We plan our operation carefully. We decide to go for sure targets of opportunity. We head north. I direct Old Blue onto Sun Valley Drive.
In the parking lot of the Sun Valley Shopping Center we see a prime target: a ketchup-red 1990 Ford Festiva with two bars welded on top. Upon closer scrutiny it appears every foot of this hatchback’s body has some ding or dent, and between the front headlights hang three additional lights—an innovation, like the makeshift roof racks.
The car’s driver is waiting for his better half to return from the dollar discount store. Fortunately, he’s a good sport. That is characteristic of drivers of beaters—they have a sense of humor about their machines, a trait strikingly lacking in, say, BMW owners.
“You don’t have to worry about the BMWs and the Mercedes-Benzes cutting you off in this thing,” says the Festiva’s driver, whose name is Roy, and whose last name I can’t recall. I scribbled it on my notepad, which I managed to lose somewhere on this night—perhaps buried in rubbish inside Old Blue.
Roy is 62, lives in Sun Valley and possesses handy skills that once were known as Yankee ingenuity.
The bars on the roof are for carrying ladders and tools. Roy is a freelance “sign man,” putting up letters or neon for billboards or other media.
Roy, aiming for low overhead, bought the Festiva for $500 off a used car lot, where it had been traded in, and put another $300 into parts. The eyesore belonged to a rock worker—thus the battered body. “I don’t buy rigs unless all four corners are bent,” Roy says. “It’s just sheet metal, and the price is right.”
Roy’s most expensive repair was a front axle—$80, did the labor himself. He also removed the wood stick holding up the driver’s window and put in an actuator, replaced some electronics and the front seat. “I spent a lot of time over at the pick-and-pull,” he says.
That’s not all.
“The lights on this thing were never spectacular,” Roy says, “so I added these"—he indicates the three additional lights, from a junked-out Toyota pickup—"so I can see the deer and the cows in the middle of the night.”
The Festiva, which has 140,000 miles, has passed its annual smog checks—so far. “I cross my fingers,” Roy says. When the inevitable moment arrives that his beater fails the smog, it’s off to the automobile bone yard with it, he says.
“It’ll go to the pick-and-pull for somebody else to pick pieces off of it.”
Top 10 list of the Pities of Beater Ownership:
10. Unless you have sheer shamelessness, you can’t really valet park. It’s embarrassing to have your beater pulled up in front of a line of eight-figure people in their dinner dress, awaiting Mercedes SL 550s, Porsche Carreras and Cadillac Escalades.
9. Rent-a-cops in booths outside gated communities record your make, model and license plate, ask you to repeat your name—then spend a lot of time on the phone with the guest you’re visiting before buzzing you in.
8. Teen-age boys lurking outside Stop-'n'-Rob mini-marts hit you up to make their beer purchase.
7. Cops keep a closer eye on you—not that you’d ever speed excessively or forget to signal when changing lanes.
6. When mechanics announce they’ve found a few extra things wrong with your engine, they’re likely telling the truth.
5. Neighbors, your children’s friends’ parents and potential clients grow suspicious of your solvency.
4. Hotties may be immediately turned off. (Some dancers in this town, God bless them, have headlights that cost more than your entire car.)
3. When your stereo truly is thrashed, you still resist buying a new one, knowing it will be worth more than the car.
2. When you really want to buy that Jeep Wrangler, you test the market to sell your beater—and discover there really isn’t a market.
1. No matter how fast you’re going, just about everyone feels the obligation to pass you, including drivers of PT Cruisers and the new VW Beetles.
Dave and I cruise back into Reno and onto Fourth Street. In the next lane is an ‘89 Dodge Diplomat. Its color is an oddly familiar yellow.
I hail its teenage driver and we arrange for him to follow my Corolla into a parking lot. The Diplomat’s owner is Chris Klinger. He is 17, a senior-to-be at Sparks High.
Chris explains his car is “piss yellow,” but it actually is the banana-peel-dipped-in-lime of the Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District. Chris bought the car for $400 at an auction. This fire marshal’s car was above 125,000 miles. It has a V-8 on a 316 block. “It’s fast when the transmission ain’t broken,” Chris says.
At the moment, he has first and second gear plus reverse. “I don’t go above 50.” This, his first car, is missing a chunk near the front right corner since Chris rammed into his stepdad’s truck. Chris’ insurance is $112 a month. He’s a teen-age male driver with one speeding ticket—"My transmission wasn’t broken when I first got it.”
But his “Yellow Submarine” has character, like the nubby wires on top that once connected to a strobe light. The Yellow Sub seats six comfortably, 10 uncomfortably (when parked, of course).
Chris put $400 worth of new tires on this beast and installed a CD player. But he has no tuneage: “I blew the speakers out.”
Chris enjoys his beater. “I drive it down the strip right now to make fun of all these little racers with their import cars that they think are fast, like the Honda Civics. This car can beat them. They think it’s a P.O.S. When I go past them with a broken transmission—they cry.”
The teen suspects that highway patrolmen tail the Yellow Sub on freeways or Pyramid Highway, running the plates, making sure it’s not stolen. It looks like a renegade car. Chris is used to it.
He’s getting full use out of his beater until graduation, after which he’ll divest of it. He says he’s joining the Army to fly helicopters. He’ll buy a Ferrari with his savings. The Yellow Sub will be a memory.
“I don’t really give a rat’s ass,” Chris says. “It cost me 400 bucks. I’m going to turn around and sell it for a grand, after all the money I put into it.”
Top 10 Signs
Your Car is a Beater:
10. You calculate, based on odometer mileage, that you’ve driven the equivalent of seven times around the globe.
9. The pedigree includes at least three prior owners.
8. You’ve made nonstandard repairs with bungee cords or duct tape.
7. You always buy the cheapest unleaded.
6. You’ve been rear-ended but can’t detect damage and file a police report only in case your neck gets stiff.
5. You’ve rear-ended someone, who figures it’s not worth filing a police report because you don’t look like you have insurance, anyway.
4. You’re not sure of the original color. The car may bear two or more hues, anyway.
3. It’s your car of choice for teaching your niece to drive a stick.
2. You realize that replacing your beater with a similar car could set you back $1,500, after new tires, brake pads and battery.
1. You compose a classified ad to get rid of it, using words such as “reliable transportation,” “motivated seller,” “needs some work,” “runs” and “asking $600/obo; bluebook, $1,150.”
Last stop for Dave and me: the Zephyr Bar on South Virginia.
Outside, Erika Tauchen, 25, has parked her white, ‘86 Pontiac 6000LE with fuel injection and 194,000 miles.
The weather stripping is peeling off inside. Red plastic covers the rear right taillight. Stickers on the rear window advertise Ace’s Tattoo and Ryan’s Discount Bikes and Liquors. Erika works at a skateboard shop.
Hubcaps are missing on the passenger side. The right-rear window rolls down, but not up, so Erika’s stuck black electric tape over one automatic switch on her door-panel controls, to remind her not to use it. The back-left door can be opened from the inside only.
Some people call her car the “White Meany.” “We’ve gone up to Tahoe a few times, and the car’s been overheating and out of oil,” Erika says. (She lost the oil cap last summer; a guy later cut her a wood dowel to fit into the hole.) “Someone stops in a car and gives me some oil, and the car keeps going up to the beach.”
Erika has faith in the White Meany. She’s driven to Sacramento twice in three days to see her boyfriend. “I believe that it’ll make it no matter what.” She keeps the air conditioning off to save gas.
The liquid crystal display on the radio dial has disappeared, but Erika has her favorite stations programmed, including the “Renegade,” a pirate signal she can pick up at Pyramid Lake.
A mechanic recently told Erika the car would throw a rod any time. “I’ve driven it long enough, when it happens, the car is done,” Erika says. “I’m willing to accept that. The car is almost 20 years old.”
She’ll simply unload her possessions from the car and have it towed to a salvage yard.
Then she’ll likely get another beater. “I’m too young and crazy. I don’t want to be committed to a car payment.”
People get over beaters dying. Like pets. Or ex-lovers who just happened to be there when you needed them.
There may be a metaphysical relationship between you and your car.
A creative woman I knew once came up with a book concept titled Your Jalopy Connection. Her premise was that if something’s wrong with your car, it indicates something is wrong with you. Bumpers falling off? Means you’re vulnerable in life. This woman also supplied affirmations to address such problems.
For bad or nonexistent bumpers, say: “I am protected—both my future and my past.” Malfunctioning dashboard lights and switches? You’re not receiving signs life is giving you. Say, “I receive and acknowledge all signals in my life.”
Cracked, old or blown gaskets? Say, “My circulation is protected.” Exhaust system billowing black smoke? Means poor digestion. Say, “My body runs cleanly.”
Out-of-sync or dead engine? We’re talking your life force here! Say, “Life is wonderful.”
If her theory is true—or partially true—we drivers of beaters face a lot of ailments and emotional issues.
But I at least have an out. That is, there is another car in my life. I’ve been holding out on you.
Her name is Cherry Baby. She shares the garage with Old Blue. Her color is like black cherry, although her official shade is “royal cabernet.” Yes, she’s high-class: a Chrysler TC, which aficionados know is a hybrid built by Chrysler and Maserati from 1989 to 1991 as a sports car for high-powered executives.
Cherry Baby has classic rounded lines, a hardtop that I remove when the weather’s warm to enjoy her as a convertible, and a Maserati engine. She’s gorgeous, but she doesn’t get out much. Maybe for business meetings. Or when I do the town with the dusky, leggy Booyah. But not much more.
Cherry Baby understands. She knows why I spend so much time away from her. She accepts she is the mistress, the eye candy, the car I date.
Old Blue—the beater, the workhorse—is the car I’m married to.
And she’ll be running all over Reno’s streets long after that last shiny, fully restored Hot August Nights ‘56 Chevy has returned to Walnut Creek, Lodi or San Rafael. She’ll be carting me around when it rains, with her right-front passenger window closed as tightly as it can get (leaving an eighth to three-quarters of an inch at the top), mostly keeping the drops out.
And her windshield wipers going thwob, squeak, wish.