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Car Talk*

My son-in-law describes himself as a “car guy” and the more I’ve thought about it, so am I. 

Now, though I have done a brake job and replaced a header on a 1940 Chrysler Windsor and used to regularly replace my own spark plugs and change my oil, I wouldn’t ever be confused with a grease monkey, nor would he. We just like car design, accessories, and the amenities of automobiles. 

As you will note from the featured photo, I have gotten the bug honestly. My dad was a car guy from his early years. Born in 1916, he kind of grew up with the industry. Like me, he was far from a mechanic, but just liked the alure of automobiles. I note that there are many car photos in our family photo albums. Mostly Packard's, Kaisers, and Chryslers. Rarely a Ford. Never a Chevy. Brand loyalty used to be a family thing.


Like the world of railroads (see Choo Choo Train, October 27, 2021), the family also had a business connection to cars. My Aunt Della worked at the Automobile Club of Maryland and got my dad a job there as a night watchman when he was in college. He met my mom there who was in the insurance agency. Dad always joked that she noticed that he carried a nice gold watch which she mistakenly took as a sign of wealth. After Aunt Della’s first husband Fred Kisor (my godfather) died, she married Leonard Kolmer, an old Baltimore Sun reporter who would go on to dabble in Maryland politics and became the head of the Automobile Club of Maryland. My cousin Erik and I made further use of the family connection to work in Domestic Travel during the summer and both marked up endless TripTik maps and packed AAA Safety Patrol banners and badges for all the public schools of Maryland. 

My first car was the aforementioned 1940 Chrysler Windsor.  

In the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I was working for the C&P Telephone Company of Maryland at the Social Security Administration headquarters in Woodlawn, Maryland. SSA was so large, with so many telephones, that the C&P had permanent office space there and a dedicated crew of installers and repairmen. I spent most of the summer pulling in cable for new offices or offices that had been impacted by expansions and reorganizations. 

I worked with a happy band of C&P veterans who were characters in their own right. The chatter, the kidding, the practical jokes never stopped, and time passed easily as a result. Probably the biggest personality on the crew was a gentleman by the name of Charlie Morris. He was a black man in his mid-40's and knew what it was like to be an outsider. He sized me up as nervous and wondering how I would fit in with guys at least 10 years my senior. He immediately engaged me in a way that you would greet a new friend. I hung out with Charlie whenever I could and during our discourse learned a lot about jazz music and cars, both of which were his passions. 

Charlie was all about Old American Iron and he had a stable of antique and classic cars. He lived in a little house right on the Baltimore National Pike (Route 40) in Catonsville and invited me by to see his cars after work one summer’s afternoon. A little garage at the back of the property housed his prize, a fully restored 1930 Model A Ford. The driveway featured a baby blue 1957 Chevy, a red 1965 Mustang, and his everyday ride, a spotless silver blue Cutlass Supreme. Living right on the busy highway, it was clear that Charlie spent a lot of his time washing cars, but nothing made him happier. 

So, we are eating our bag lunches around this communal folding table one day and from behind the Baltimore Sun Classified section I hear Charlie say, “Whoa, look here. 1940 Chrysler, Good Condition. The phone number looks like it’s right up here in Forest Park or maybe Gwynn Oak.” 

Charlie looks over the paper at me and says, “you gotta call John.”  

To which I asked, “Why me?” 

Charlie leaned back in his chair and with a big Charlie smile on his broad face said, “Well, two reasons. You need a car and if I buy another one, my wife will kill me twice.” 

When the laughter died down in the room, Charlie circled the ad and shoved the paper across the table to me. Charlie’s joy for cars was contagious and while I knew that I didn’t have the money to buy a car, the whole adventure was intriguing. I looked at the number, picked up the nearest phone and dialed. 

After the fourth ring, the phone was answered and I heard a woman’s frail voice say, “Hello.” 

I told her that I had seen her car ad in the Baltimore Sun and had a couple questions. I first asked what she meant about the car being in “good” condition. She answered that the car had “one flat wheel.” 

“Flat wheel?” I repeated for clarification. Charlie and the rest of the audience held their stomachs and keeled over in silent laughter. 

“Yes, you know, the rubber part.” I was now salivating. 

“Well ma'am, what are you asking for the car?” 

“Well, you see, we bought the car in 1940 and my husband was a mechanic, and he kept the car in top running condition. He was sick for a couple of years and died in March, so that’s why we are selling the car. We had advertised before and asked $150 and no one called, so we’re now asking $75.” 

“$75?”, I repeated for the room at which point Charlie pretended to faint and fell out of his chair. I took that to be a good sign, so I offered my condolences and told the sweet lady that I would like to see the car that afternoon if possible. She said fine and gave me her address. It did turn out to be in the Gwyn Oak neighborhood a short drive from Woodlawn. 

Upon hanging up the phone, the room burst into happy pandemonium, but my mind was filled with questions. I can sure swing $75, but how about tags and insurance? Charlie gave me the facts about antique tags and reduced insurance rates and told me that if the car was in pretty good shape, even a novice like me could do the maintenance on the cheap.

Armed with that information, I called my mom, who was intrigued; then my dad who said no, but called back with yes, on the condition that I get my Uncle Andy to go along. 

In addition to many other talents, Andy Andersen was the biggest car guy in the clan. That’s him behind the wheel of his Cord Convertible. He was also a negotiator extraordinaire and whether it was yard sales or car sales, he was the guy you wanted at your side. 

On the way to see the car, Andy coached me on several things. If the headliner is a shredded mess, that’s gonna cost you some dollars. If the seats are original, they’re gonna be a wreck...another expense. Look at the body of the car for rust or damage. If there is much of either, I wouldn’t suggest you buy it. As to price, I know that $75 sounds like a steal ($650 today), but if there is a big flaw (say a cracked window), spend all your time looking at that and we might get it for $50. 

Pirates we were. 

The address led us to a row house in a modest neighborhood and there was an old frame garage in the alley around back. The woman’s son pulled the two rickety doors open to reveal a shiny maroon classic Chrysler ala Elliot Ness vs. Al Capone. As we circled the car in the tight quarters of the dusty, cobwebbed space, I couldn’t find a scratch, a dent, or a broken anything. Andy and I caught each other’s eye across the hood and even in the semi-darkness, I could see his smile. Winner, winner, chicken dinner. We looked inside and the headliner was perfect, the seats, though worn, were surprisingly intact, and the dashboard and steering wheel were original and almost like new.

The car hadn’t run for a while and my uncle suggested that we not try to turn it over. Oil could be an issue and we wouldn’t want to jump start it for fear that we could do engine damage. “If we can tow it into the daylight, I’d like to look at the engine before we pay and sign the title.” 

So, using my dad’s trusty AAA Emergency Road Service card, I used the house phone to call for a tow truck. In a short time, one appeared in the alley and the driver carefully hooked his winch to the body of the Chrysler to ease it into the daylight. Once free of the garage, Andy and I gave the car another once over, looked under the hood, and further inspected the body for damage. None seen.  

Andy gave me the nod and I handed over $75 in cash and received the antient title in return.

In our rush, we had not looked in the trunk, so when the tow truck started to lift the car (from the rear) the driver was shocked by the weight. So much so that he lowered the car back down and we peeked into the trunk. With a flashlight, we saw 30 years of labeled car parts. The woman’s son laughed and said, “Yep, dad never took a part off the car that he didn’t label and put in the trunk, especially if he found a more modern part that would fit the old Chrysler engine.” Bonus. 

My clearest memory of the early evening was when the tow driver cranked up the hoist for the final time to prepare for our departure. I heard the woman, who was standing behind me start to cry. Her son comforted her with a shoulder hug as she said to me, “a lot of memories, a lot of memories.” I felt like a thief. 

I promised to stay in touch and Andy, and I got in his car to lead the tow truck back to Catonsville. 

My dad and mom got a free garage cleaning out of the deal. I worked hard to clear a free space next to the family car for my new prize. I was excited and my excitement was more than matched by Charlie Morris who had hooked another member of the classic car fraternity. I could also tell that my car guy dad was pleased to have a piece of auto history living in the garage.

I learned a lot from that car. I inventoried the trunk, threw away the duplicates, and preserved some original parts, including the original car radio. I repaired the brake system, replaced a head gasket, and rebuilt a carburetor. My parents arranged and paid for a new professional upholstery job, and I enjoyed the car for four years, just driving it on weekends as required by my antique tags and insurance. 

Oh, and in cleaning out the car, I came across a number of photographs of the original owners enjoying family picnics and excursions with the car over the years. I put them in an envelope with a thank you note and sent them back home to that sweet lady and her son. 

In my junior year at William and Mary, my dad called me one night with the surprise that he had seen a used car at a local Catonsville dealer that he thought I might like. The Trailways Bus and occasional hitch hike back and forth to home had gotten old and while Williamsburg was compact enough that I didn’t really need a car on campus, my parents thought they’d see more of me if I had wheels. With my ok, he and Mom covered the down payment, and I took up the monthly installments. 

While not the muscle car of my dreams, the blue, 2-door, 1969 Mercury Montego was no frills reliable transportation with a good AM-FM radio and lightly used tires. Unlike my 1940 Chrysler, it was open-road worthy and didn’t require a trunk full of oil and tools to safely traverse the 200 miles from Catonsville to Williamsburg.

 Two memories of that car stand out. 

It was with that car that I experienced my first gut-wrenching victimization at the hands of a hit and run driver.  

Parking was tight on campus, and one of the places that I’d often put my car while attending classes was at the parking lot adjacent to the amphitheater at Lake Matoaka. The lot had been constructed to accommodate the many patrons attending the Paul Green outdoor symphonic drama The Common Glory which entertained summer guests from 1947 to 1976. It was close to the “new” campus of William and Mary where many of my political science classes were held. Convenient, free, and not subject to the ticket-happy campus police, it met all of my requirements. 

As Hayden and I returned to the car one evening at dusk, it sat rather lonely among a handful of cars still on the lot. As we got closer, in the dim light I noted a rather unusual reflection on the left rear quarter panel of the car. With each step it became clearer that someone had smacked my perfect chariot and caved in a three-foot section behind the left door. Surely, they left a note. Surely, they wouldn’t have done this much damage without noticing. Surely, they wouldn’t have just driven off. 

Sadly, I came face to face with my fellow man. Face to face with another flawed member of the human race, who while probably feeling guilty, not guilty enough to have left a phone number. 

I was sick. While consoled by Hayden, my mind was a blur. Was this all out of pocket?

Should I contact my insurance agent? Oh wait, my insurance agent was my mom. She’ll know what to do. 

Her sage advice was to get some local body shop estimates and then we’d assess next steps. She’d take care of the insurance company notification on her end. 

After letting my fingers do the walking in the Yellow Pages at the Swem Library, I eventually found a guy out in the country who sounded competent and cheap. Hayden followed me out to his home/farm/shop and cattery (they were everywhere) in her 1962 Volkswagen Beetle and Ralph gave me a more refined face to face estimate. It was in the ballpark of what I could afford, so we shook on it and Hayden, and I were on our way. 

The happy ending is that in a week’s time, I returned to Ralph’s and witnessed the miracle of good auto body work artistry. Shiny, smooth, good as new with precisely matched paint, it was a joyful reunion. I learned a valuable lesson. Things are just things and things can be fixed. So be a careful driver, but relax buckeroo, you are not driving the Hope Diamond, just an assembly line sculpture that can be put back together in the hands of a craftsman. 

My other indelible memory of the Mercury Montego is associated with my wedding day, or more precisely the day after my wedding day. On Sunday, November 5, 1972, I arose early to handle a mission that had invaded my consciousness in the early waking hours. A car wash. 

Now hear me out. Yes, my mind should have been on other things, but the sun would soon be rising into an unseasonably warm Fredericksburg, Virginia sky. Our car had been ravaged by my groomsmen the afternoon before and was still festooned with shaving cream, bar soap, toilet paper, and crepe streamers. If allowed to be baked in the sunshine, who knows how long it would have taken to get it back to normal. 

So, in the dark room, I slid out of bed, quietly got dressed, and gingerly opened the door. The parking lot of the Fredericksburg Sheraton Motor Inn (don’t judge me, we were on our way to the Boar’s Head Resort in Charlottesville) was just a few steps away, and when I saw my Montego in the early sunlight, it was even worse than I had imagined. I peeled away the drying toilet and crepe paper, but the bold “Just Married” window and trunk art was going to take some scrubbing. So off I went.  

In the pre-google maps and internet days, I was relying on the directions of the front desk clerk to guide me to the nearest car wash. I don’t know about you, but I generally can remember the first two or three steps in verbally transmitted directions, but when it goes beyond that my mind is a blank. And the words that I have never felt comforting, “you can’t miss it” are usually false in my case. 

So, I headed down Route 3 toward Fredericksburg proper and made the first couple of turns without error. Then I started to guess. 

Well, two guesses into the adventure I found myself on a road that had the ominous “No Outlet” sign posted. I decided to go to the end to turn around. Big mistake. 

About one hundred yards from the end of the road I realized that I was headed for the parking lot of a very large Baptist Church, a Baptist Church whose early service had just dismissed. Well-dressed men, women, and children were streaming out the front door, filling the church yard and the street leading to the parking lot. And amongst the throng, trying desperately to find a place to safely turn around, was me. 

That is me, by myself, in a car with “Just Married” inscribed from one end to the other. Even with the windows rolled up, I could hear the comments, the laughter, and of course see the people pointing at the car with the solo pilot.

“Congratulations” they laughed as I slowly inched forward into the parking lot in search of an empty space for my three-point turn. “Where’s the bride?” they shouted. It was suddenly very warm in the car now heated by my red face. 

In what seemed like an eternity, I finally made my escape. 

I eventually found a car wash. Humbled, but laughing. 

With the benefit of two incomes, a wife with a company car, and good credit, I traveled through life with a succession of nice vehicles. Much like my dad, who mom said changed cars as often as most people change their socks, I was always on the lookout for the next set of wheels. Lincoln Mercury Capri, Mazda RX-7, Saab Turbo, Saab 900 Convertible, Volvo’s, Infiniti, and Mini Cooper, each had features and styles that I just loved.

And then there was the fateful day on the commuter bus when I was looking in the Washington Post classified ads for a Jeep. 

As my finger scanned down the J’s, I hit Jaguar before I got to Jeep. And there staring at me off the page was a small ad for a 1987 Jaguar XJ-6, fully restored, original owner. I don’t even remember the price (probably repressed since it was a fraction of the eventual repair costs). I called the owner when I got to the office and arranged to take a look the following Saturday. 

Now for a car enthusiast, the Jag has always been in a class by itself. More sculpture than automobile, defined by the leaping-cat hood ornament, I always had thought that it was outside my means to own. But this looked like my chance. I had a friend who had owned several and he counseled me that this sounded like a good deal and that I should take it. 

Lesson 1. Never make up your mind about a purchase before you have even seen the car. As I think back on it, my mind was made up as I drove to Bethesda that day. I had a chance to own a Jaguar. A Jaguar. 

When I saw it, two things were evident. It was fully intact without any body or interior blemishes. But its aftermarket paint job did not nail the original silver blue color. Close, but a little too blue. Had I been a more discerning purchaser, that might have either been the deal breaker, or driven me to press for a lower price. Which leads me to Lesson 2. 

Lesson 2. Get a full mechanical workup by a qualified English car mechanic before buying an English car. You’ve heard all the jokes about Lucas electronics (Why do the British drink their beer warm? They all own Lucas refrigerators) but my seller claimed that most of the Lucas circuitry had been replaced on this car. It seems that unlike Bosch, the other predominant electronics manufacturer for European cars, the Lucas connectors would stretch, separate, and just plain fall out over time. 

Well, while I didn’t have electronic issues with my Jag, if there was something mechanical that could go wrong, it went wrong with this baby. When I bragged about its low mileage, one friend commented that it might have spent a lot of its life sitting on the side of the road. Another speculated that most of the mileage might have been from mechanics road testing after expensive repairs. All likely true. 

I won’t go through the sad history of break downs or the fact that I contributed to a very nice lifestyle for the British owner of English Motors in Howard County over the years. But my eventual divorce from my Jag is a harrowing story worth telling. 

It was within a week after one of several expensive overhauls and I was making the familiar evening trip home on Interstate 95. A blinding rain impaired the view of the cars and the road ahead and made the world a blurry impressionistic painting. But, unlike the relaxing mood attained when viewing a classic Monet, I was white knuckled, straight backed and tense.  

And then the warning light. 

The little water gauge was showing a sudden rise in temperature and the XJ6 purr was replaced by a sound hauntingly like a tea kettle repeatedly hit with a ball peen hammer. This sequence of events occurred just as I approached the exit for Maryland Route 175 to Columbia, Maryland. The exit featured a rather long and wide safe zone between the highway and the exit thoroughfare, and it was there that I landed my craft. 

Even in the cold rain, I could see steam rising from the hood. It was matched by the steam rising from my head. I had just put another large investment into this car to avoid moments like this on nights like this. I was furious. 

So furious in fact that despite the dangerous position of the car, the pouring rain, and the futility of a non-mechanic observing the engine, I got out to inspect. And there was the way that I was dressed. Pin-striped suit, Florsheim dress shoes, and my Burberry trench coat. Not the costume that shouts, hey, let’s crawl under a car in the rain. But after examining from the topside all the hoses that I had just paid to have replaced, I “limboed” under the radiator for a further examination of what I thought might be the problem. And yes, there dripping water on my forehead was the unattached radiator hose missing its clamp. 

A phone call on my Blackberry got Hayden’s rescue mission started and another to the AAA got the tow truck launched. I’m not sure whether my decision to sell the car happened when I was lying beneath the dripping radiator as I usually tell the story, but suffice it to say, the divorce decree had been drafted in my mind before I got home. 

People who drove Jags in those days had way more money than I and staff to handle the interruptions in life, or both the knowledge and interest to keep this flawed Rodin on the road. Possessing none of the requisite luck or skill, I let her go, which is a story for another day. 

  • I have shamelessly copied the name of the greatest radio show of all time as the title of this blog. Hosted by Ray and Tom Magliozzi from 1977 till 2012 “Car Talk” was my Saturday morning companion for years. I offer this blog as a tribute to two brilliant and entertaining performers, Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers. RIP Tom.

Finally, if you like cars and enjoyed this post, check out St. Peter's Ditch, October 29, 2022 and Cuba 2016, October 24, 2021.


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