Autobiography of an Automotive Beater: Origins

I won the proverbial jackpot twice: my life has been defined by a driving passion for cars and I discovered them early. Because of this twofold good fortune each life choice is intuitive and decisive, motivation is as simple as tapping a well of ambition, and the reward for my work is the gratification of feeding my soul. I can’t claim any credit but luck in my circumstances and disposition. But my father deserves more than a nod for providing me with both.

“Much is out of my control, but I can save us money in this,” he assured my mother about his used vehicle choices. In rural Vermont, beaters were and still are the norm. But Dad had it down to a system more than most. He had the local classifieds paper in hand within hours of the rag hitting the stands in general stores across the state. He negotiated the backyard deals with all the finesse of a corporate lawyer, leaving a smiling face even when he drove away for half the asking price. What little mechanical work he had no knowledge of or tools for was certainly well within the grasp of a professional wrench who inexplicably owed him a favor.

Armed with these skills he was true to my mother: countless thousands of dollars were saved. His system involved picking a car and building a small fleet and collection of parts. Volkswagen Rabbits, Mercedes diesels, Jeep Cherokees, Ford trucks… whatever was cheap, reliable, and could handle the harsh winters. After dipping a toe, the lines of parts rigs would grow in a back field, an intimate knowledge of the vehicle would lodge in his memory, and for pennies on the dollar he would get a few years out of a make or model before they became too scarce, no longer practical, or something else caught his eye.

The earliest such fleet remains closest to our hearts: Mopar A-bodies, or Dodge Darts and Plymouth Valiants. The stout Slant Six engine, a seemingly limitless supply of half rusted out parts cars, and economy of parts and fuel made them the chariot of choice for my parents’ forays across the Northeast for Grateful Dead shows.

One such car was typical of the process: a 1972 Plymouth Duster that had suffered acutely from the New Hampshire salt and rusted dangerously. After a few sentences in a local paper, a cheery phone call, and a Saturday morning expedition, the car came to our farm and quickly divested its 225 cubic inch slant six for use in a fellow Deadhead’s van. With room to spare and the ever present threat of a need for parts the ’72 was expeditiously put under a tree, essentially put out to pasture, and eventually put out of mind.

Over a decade later and I was the ripe old age of 12. In our family that was a perfect time to start yearning intently for a drivers license. With town two miles down a steep hill, my closest friend five miles away, the nearest grocery store over 30 minutes away, and the nearest movie theater 40 minutes off and a drive-in at that, a car was more than a convenience but a paradigm shift in the life of a teenager. The unofficial deal was that if any of these parts cars scattered around the fields could be saved and resucitated the cars would be ours with which to shrink our worlds.

It didn’t take me long to alight on the Duster. The svelte two door fastback body and electric B5 blue paint stood out from a sea of stodgy 4 doors in shades ranging from factory earth tones to organic moss and rust. I neither knew nor cared if it was a particularly good candidate for revival. Something had awoken and even before turning a wrench, sitting on the cheap, thick vinyl bench seat and staring out the milky faded windshield was my favorite place to dream, imagine, and plan.

In hindsight, I see that pivotal moment for what it was: the first symptom of a long-suffered disease disguised as standard youthful vim and vigor. To a 12 year old it was another fun, new experience multiplied by the promise of free and fast travel. To an adult it’s been a hobby, a career, a lifestyle.


duster cropped

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