Sunday, November 15, 2009

Mean, green, and not too far in between


Green technology is really nothing new with me.
My first car was a ‘green’ 1974 Vega that I bought in 1978 from some friend of my older sister. I paid $750 for it and the purchase included the quadraphonic Pioneer 8-track, AM-FM stereo and Citizen’s Band radio plus a full tank of gas.
The first day I owned it, I backed out of the Dolores High School parking lot in a simulated Rockford Files style peel out and tagged the corner of a parked orange and white Ford Pinto. Fortunately, I didn’t hit the gas tank side of the Pinto or my story could have ended right there. The incident foretold of a violent future of bent fenders, broken glass, twisted sheet metal and dinged paint jobs that was to be that car’s legacy.
Before retiring its services, (It was still running when I sold it for $300 to some ‘bigger fool’ that was going fix it up) I think we attributed seven real accidents – not to mention dozens of ditch drives, near misses, killed animals and true cliff hangers. By my definition at the time, a ‘real accident’ would involve a report to the authorities.
“The 1974 Chevrolet Vega concentrated on cosmetic extras in a period when gas shortages and high car insurance rates were spelling the end of performance as a selling point,” wrote the editors of Consumer Guide in “How Stuff Works.”
Lack of performance was a constant theme regarding the Vega and other vehicles of the era. Not many had good things to say about Detroit’s offerings of the period. Here in the Rockies, it was no different, as evident in comments such as this by Denver Post columnist Ed Quillen’s recent missive on the auto industry.
“The newest car I've ever owned was a 1974 Chevrolet Vega that I bought in 1976. Early in 1977, it burned up in front of the Kremmling post office because the cigarette lighter stuck, overheated, and ignited the dashboard,” wrote Quillen.
In an unfortunate failure in long-term testing of engineering, the aluminum block in the beast, the first of its kind, was brought to production in only two years. Reynolds Metal Co. came up with an alloy called A-390, composed of 77 percent aluminum, 17 percent silicon, 4 percent copper, 1 percent iron, and traces of phosphorus, zinc, manganese, and titanium. The A-390 alloy was suitable for faster production diecasting which made the Vega block $8 less expensive to manufacture than other aluminum engines. Less expensive with good reason, the 85-horsepower engine with a two-barrel carburetor would start burning oil like a Kuwaiti pipeline terrorist after about 30,000 miles.
But despite such a poor reputation, a lot of them were produced. In 1974, it was among the top ten best selling cars in America and 450,000 of that model year hit the blacktop on U.S. highways.
The Vega was also the first American car to use the structural aluminum for bumpers. It had a huge front bumper, beginning in 1974, when new federal impact rules kicked in. The new standards forced a slight redesign to soften the front by sloping the metal grill with cooling slots, similar to the Camaro.
In my particular case, the huge front bumper was the car’s saving grace.
My ‘so-called’ friends were known to drive it over retaining walls in Rico, through the ditches of Lebanon, and the fires of the Pump Pasture. I myself, had executed a silver fox at the top of the hill on the way to Cortez and put it into a 360 spin to avoid elk out on the Ridge. My next door neighbor in Dolores ran into the back of it at a stoplight in Cortez. A driver in New Mexico, (with no insurance, I might add) jacked it up down on the border. Air band concerts took place on the hood as music from the soundtrack of the movie FM blared from the speakers inside.
"It's alright if you love me. It's alright if you don't. I'm not afraid of you running away from me, honey. I get the feeling you won't," sang Tom Petty . Break down, car. Go ahead and give it to me.
Sometimes I would pound them out, and spray gray primer over them. Sometimes I would buy replacement fender that was painted black. Some I would patch with “Bondo.” Some I would just leave for artistic effect in the sculpture it became.
But it survived. The dents and damage added character, if not style.
When I hit the fox, for instance, a passenger who claimed to know what he was doing, tried to skin it in hopes of salvaging the hide. Unsuccessful, the car wore the foxtail on CB antenna for months.
The floor in the back seat was frequently obscured by empty Coors bottles. In place of the gear-shift knob, I had drilled a hole and tapped out threads to place a 14-ball.
I have to say I very much enjoyed my own tenure and the interesting quirks involved with Vega ownership. I am proud to note that I owned a ‘green’ car, 20 years before it was ‘in thing’ to do. All you hybrid drivers and bio-diesel jockies perhaps have nothing on me. But where can I get bumper like that for my Subaru.
“Now, fill up the oil, and check the gas.”
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