The Little Car That Could

My recent misadventure on the highway got me to thinking about my history of auto ownership. My current vehicle is actually pretty dependable, and the recent mishap is probably attributable to the fact that it’s getting some age on it — not unlike its owner.

As I think back over the many cars I’ve had through the years, it seems that most of them have given reasonably good service. And even though it would be impossible to list them in any meaningful order, there is one that could certainly have been described as special, because one Summer in the 1970s it took us 4,000 miles under conditions that tempted fate beyond all good sense.

We had decided to drive to California to visit relatives, and we judged that our well-worn little Datsun (Nissan) station wagon was up to the task. It had a 4-cylinder engine, manual transmission, and of course, no air conditioning or cruise control — and even though two adults and two kids would certainly be a full load for the little car, we also decided to take my mother-in-law along, just to make things more interesting.

Since we only had two weeks of vacation time and wanted to sponge off — er, visit — our relatives for as long as possible, we decided that we would try to drive the entire trip non-stop. We also decided to put all our luggage on top so we’d have more room inside, but as we loaded the car it began to sag lower and lower. By the time we all climbed aboard it was scarily close to bottoming out, which it promptly did as we drove from the driveway into the street. After unloading, repacking, and leaving behind some of our luggage, we again started out. I felt like I was holding my breath every time we hit any kind of bump but the little car did fine, and the miles soon began to churn by.

As the hours passed and we crossed state after state the car continued to hum along, but we finally had to stop for a short night’s sleep. We were near collapse and the stop would also allow us to hit the Mojave Desert late enough to miss the worst of the heat. Even so, the desert trek was probably the scariest part of the trip. We were tired and cranky and sweating bullets the whole way, not only because of the heat inside the car but also because we had to watch the temperature gauge slowly going into the red as we climbed long, slow grades. I’d read somewhere that you should run the heater to allow some of the engine heat to escape, so we did that too — sounds silly, but we were rolling along with out windows down anyway so it didn’t really make us any hotter.

But our brave little car made it across the desert — and a week and a half later, it did again going back the other way. We didn’t have a break-down of any kind the entire trip, unless you count the human component (and the less said about that the better). We were all tired, sweaty, grumpy, and completely convinced we’d never try it again. The little car was just fine.

Willie Nelson & Asleep At The Wheel – “Won’t You Ride In My Little Red Wagon”

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