Sterling

I lived in an apartment on Carlton street on the south side of the Berkeley campus, a few blocks from Telegraph avenue.  Tytus and Susan Bowleslawski lived in the apartment next door.  Tytus was a Berkeley architecture major and Susan had an office job.  Susan had already earned a theater degree in New York City.  They had moved to California to escape Tytus’s father’s disapproval of their relationship. They married soon after Tytus turned 18.

While Tytus and I share a common interest in cars, Tytus’s automotive pursuits were more esoteric – if not exotic – than mine.  Tytus scraped together enough money to buy a partially finished Sterling; a fiberglass kit car built on a VW chassis.  A Sterling is so low that it can’t have doors.

Instead it’s entire roof and windows are lifted up in a single unit by hydraulic lifts, allowing ungraceful egress and ingress.  Sterlings set the standard for “All show – and no go.” Tytus loved his Sterling – and worked tirelessly on finishing touches like electrically controlled rearview mirrors and retracting headlights.

Tytus would let me borrow his Sterling  from time to time – especially for dates.  While my Mustang had more “go” – the Sterling was miles ahead in “show.”  Comments about the Sterling’s styling, some of them rude, were common. As I recall, Tytus’s willingness to lend me the Sterling was associated with my exaggeration about my insurance coverage.

On a weekend jaunt to Sacramento in the Sterling, I took a date out with hopes that the car would make a favorable impression.  Her last boyfriend had a Chevy drag car – and to her the Sterling’s lack of “go” wasn’t fully compensated for by its abundance of “show.”  Thinking that our date needed less focus on the car, I decided to drive us out to the country for some romantic star gazing.  I was a member of a model airplane club – and we had a flying field off of highway 16 out towards Sloughouse.  The field was out in the country about 10 miles south of town – behind a locked gate.

Tytus had recently installed a “seat lowering” modification in the Sterling – providing for more headroom inside the car, and less ground clearance beneath it.  The minimal clearance was no match for the dried ruts at the flying field – and in short order I had the car beached between ruts, unable to move because the wheels no longer had traction.

After a through survey of the situation I realized the only option was a walk back to the highway, hoping for a ride to somewhere less remote.  A couple in a pick-up truck obliged.

My early memories of Sacramento include fields of hops on the south side of town.  Hops are grown on  a trellis made by stringing lines between poles 20′ tall – looking like a giant’s bean field. The hops extended east along highway 16 towards the gold rush era crossroads called Sloughouse. An old red hotel marked the landmark on the dozens of times I had passed by.  The hotel had “SLOUGHOUSE” in very large white letters across the roof line.  It was and familiar landmark heading to and from the foothills.

The kind couple in the pick-up dropped us off at the Sloughouse hotel to use the phone.  Failing to reach my best friend Bill, I reluctantly called my dad for evacuation. I bought my date a Coke at the little hotel’s bar as we waited for the drive of shame back home.  My dad was a perfect gentleman – never saying a word of chastisement. I was both afraid and amazed.

Dad dropped my date off at her home, and only then asked me what I was doing out at Sloughouse.  I’m not sure exactly how I described the “car trouble” I had experienced – but no doubt I took a minimalist approach.  Dad didn’t press me for details.  He did pick us up from a small hotel about 10 miles out of town.  I was worried about the car.  He might have been worried about something else.

Arriving home after 10pm I was finally able to reach Bill, who helped me pull the Sterling off its pedestal. Parking the Sterling in my parent’s garage I went to work pounding the floor pan back into shape.  About 2 AM my dad appeared.  “Joe,” he said, “What are you doing? The neighbors have called the police about the noise.”  They had just paid him a visit at the front door.

I managed to complete the repairs before returning the Sterling to Tytus.  It was a fair enough job, and I don’t recall confessing my transgression to Tytus.  I felt afraid of loosing Tytus’s friendship from my errant baja adventure in his magic car.

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The 450

My dad’s midlife crisis car was a red Mercedes 450 SL.  Actually I think dad had it pretty together about then.  He must have been relaxed and stress free because he let me drive the 450 pretty much any time I wanted a cool car for dates and let me take my friends for rides pretty much any time he wasn’t using it.

It was the first car I was driving where I was responsible for an accident.

On a weekend when my parents were away, I took my college buddy Tytus for a spin in the 450 – literally. I don’t remember why my parents were out of town – but when they came back I had the character-building experience of explaining why the 450 was in the shop.

I drove Tytus down American River Drive towards my high school.  New asphalt was being laid down in the center lane, and a line of traffic cones were up to keep drivers in the right lane and off the fresh asphalt.  I guess because I had Tytus along, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to do a little slalom around the cones – not realizing that the cones were there to protect me from the fresh asphalt – not protect the fresh asphalt from me.  Fresh asphalt is slippery – and that fact sunk in about the time I was headed up over the curb, across the sidewalk and into the chain link fence.

Miraculously the car body wasn’t damaged, but the front suspension was severely bent.  The car was drivable, but one front wheel was pointed at an odd angle.  Not knowing about AAA or tow-trucks, Tytus and I drove the car to the dealership at about 20 miles per hour – after I got a ticket for my stupidity.  People in cars along the route made funny faces and pointed at the wheel askew – as if I didn’t realize it was wrecked.

The dealership mechanic was incredibly sympathetic – maybe he was used to seeing boys wreck their dad’s expensive cars.  He was able to straighten most of the damage, but had to replace a few of the parts at some compassionately low expense.

So I was spared the fate of Tom Cruise’s character in Risky Business when he let his dad’s Porsche roll into a lake.  But then I didn’t have to turn my parents’ home into a brothel to pay for the repair either.   The dealership billed my dad for the repair – and I’m pretty sure it was paid for out of my diminishing stock account.

I learned things about my dad through this experience –  he didn’t chastise me – nor even express anger. Really remarkable when you consider how often he deployed constructive criticism. He never brought it up in the future. From his look, I can now tell he knew I had experienced all the humiliation the foolish act warranted. He was a better parent than I probably ever gave him credit for.

For years when I drove past that spot on American River Drive, I sat a little lower as I looked to the right to see if they replaced the chain link fence post I had bent.

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Trifecta: first car, first day, first accident

Paul is a very funny guy.  The ’67 Mustang his dad bought him in high school had dymo labels on the dash such as “Pull for chute after 120 MPH” by some switch, and “Je t’adore” by the door handle.  Paul was my older sister’s high school sweetheart – and his Mustang was one cool car.

The summer before my sophomore year at Berkeley, I neglected to sign up for the dorms before the deadline. I imagine I could have gone on some waiting list – but instead I convinced my parents that my mistake (which my dad never believed was an accident) meant I would have to rent an apartment.  I couldn’t believe it when my dad agreed that having an apartment meant I’d need a car – for things like bringing home groceries.  He let me take $1,000 out of my stock account and buy Paul’s Mustang.  My mom’s concern was that it was likely to be a mechanical liability because it had exceeded 100,000 miles.

On the day I bought it, I was rear-ended by a fellow in a pickup truck with a child in a car seat.  I was in the left turn lane waiting for opposite traffic to clear.  I didn’t know anything about car insurance or liability.  I was 18 – I really didn’t know anything. I recall feeling it was somehow my fault. I was able to get the car repaired, but with a bent and straightened frame, it was never quite perfect.

After getting the car back on the road (getting a new paint job the hard way,) I bought a Sears Craftsman basic mechanics tool kit, and a Chilton’s repair manual.  I had no money for repairs or tow trucks should the car break down on the 90-mile drive between home and college.  I was going to have to treat it like my bicycle – fix it myself.

The following summer I had the good fortune to get a job on the night shift at a local service station.  Not only did that give me access to tools and expertise, it introduced me to Al Wagoner – an Air Force mechanic moonlighting on the night shift with me.  Al taught me more about cars than anyone past or since.  He let me rebuild the Mustang’s engine in his garage.  He taught me I could could put back together anything I cared to take apart.

With the mechanical confidence I gained from Al’s guidance,  I took almost everything off the Mustang and re-installed it.  Actually – I left off things like the power steering and air conditioning – because I wanted the car to be simpler, and faster.  I spent hours just laying under the car just trying to figure out what everything was.

I started upgrading the car by working on the brakes.  No point in having a fast car if you couldn’t stop.  Next I worked on the suspension, modeling it after Carol Shelby’s famed GT-350 Mustangs.  I never got around to installing all the engine modifications I had planned – but I did enough to make it fast enough.  And around corners – it was hard to beat.

My cousin Stan still reminds me about the time I scared the crap out of him in the Mustang as I navigated the hills outside Napa valley at two or three times the posted speed limit.  I had a 3-inch wide racing seat belt for the driver’s seat.  People would get in the car, look at the belt as I clipped the buckle – and look at me with an expression of wonder and panic.

The second summer I owned the Mustang, I bought a second one that had a slew of parts I wanted for my car – and swapped them.  I swapped the wheels, rear axel, front sway bar, and the entire car’s interior.  The “donor” car had a black interior – “mine” was blue.  The black interior was fine with my car’s blue exterior.  But my blue interior wouldn’t work in “donor” car, which was painted green.  A few spray cans of black automotive carpet dye and vinyl interior spray paint took care of that problem.

I ended up trading the “new” Mustang for a 1956 MGA.  I later sold first one to a young man who was delighted to have it and the boxes of parts I hadn’t had time or money to install.  My automotive attention had moved on to British sports cars.

Probably the best part of owning the Mustang was it gave me and my brother Lee, who’s 6 years younger, something to do together.  It eventually led to Lee’s career as an automotive mechanic.  Lee’s now my “go-to guy” when I need automotive advice.  It’s something that makes us both proud.

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