It is funny how some of our best memories somehow revolve around cars. Out of the blue I had a flashback the other day about something that happened 39 years ago when I was 4. To all the math geniuses out there you now know how old I am; you’re welcome. I don’t remember a whole lot from that age, but I do remember this quite vividly. It was about a family trip we took in our 1967 Buick Riviera.
The year was 1976 and everyone was wrapped up in the bicentennial hoopla. Carter and Ford were asking for our votes in the upcoming election as we made it through the first oil embargo and were biding our time until the big gas crunch of 1979. Economy cars were starting to dot our highways alongside our proud American V-8s. The heyday of American muscle cars was behind us and the turbulent ’70s appeared to be in the rearview while we waited for the promise of the 1980s.
My parents and two older sisters (7 and 8 years older) set out to visit my aunt and cousin in Montana. We were Wisconsonites heading west in the peak of the summer heat with a borrowed pop-up camper in tow. Back in those days it was a big deal to go on a trip like this. I grew up in a blue-collar household that lived paycheck to paycheck. There was usually enough to almost pay the bills, which meant there was not a lot left in the pot at the end of the month. Extravagant vacations were out of the question. This is why to a wide-eyed 4-year-old this trip was like going to another world. This was my Wally World!
Today it is hard to imagine a road trip without cell phones and DVD players to keep kids occupied. Not to mention this was a time where a breakdown meant either fixing it yourself or hoping a complete stranger (hopefully not a psychopath) would lend a hand. Or your worst-case scenario would be to start walking until you found help. There was no calling AAA on your cellphone. It was just a family; a car; and a pop-up on the open highway. We would stop at campgrounds and cook over the hissing blue glow of a butane camp stove as we battled the mosquitos, snakes and black flies at night. We were traveling on the cheap. Only after having children of my own could I truly appreciate how brave my parents were.
The car was a glorious late ’60s boat that we affectionately called the “Purple Pig” due to its snazzy color that Buick so mundanely labeled Plum. I would like to note that this was a used 9-year-old car that was, to be kind, in its autumn years. The years of Wisconsin’s winter weather had worn on the old warrior. Plus, this was the only car in our family. For some reason in those days you could get away with only having one car and still have kids.
The good news was the Buick had air conditioning. The bad news was it died somewhere outside of the Black Hills in the Badlands. I remember getting ice cream in the sweltering heat and having a bear of a time with it melting too fast to eat. On this trip I learned the valued skill of managing an ice cream cone. Thank you South Dakota heat. No big deal, in those days air conditioning was a luxury and we relied on the “270” cooling system (2 windows rolled down doing 70 mph). I also remember we had to stop a lot due to it overheating (probably the combination of repressive heat and a camper in tow did not help). Even with the hiccups, that car was our sanctuary and transportation all rolled in one. I always felt safe in that car. I think of the rumbling big-block, the floating sensation of the cushy suspension, and sticky vinyl seats that had that distinct smell that cars don’t have today. Of course, you could almost hear the carb suck down the gasoline as you drove. It was a good thing we had to stop for gas often so the engine could cool off.
Even though the Riviera was a big car the back seat wasn’t huge. As the youngest I had the honored privilege of riding the hump. Kids today don’t know the displeasure of riding the hump. After all these years I still remember the contortion act I had to do every time I entered the car with my two sisters. This was made clear early on this trip. The back vinyl seat had two seams that perfectly laid out where the hump was. This was my area to sit and if I strayed a millimeter from those lines I would feel the wrath of my older sisters. To make the experience even more special, the combination of 100 degree temperatures, vinyl seat, and 1970s “short” shorts made for a flesh ripping and sweaty fun time wedged between two abusive sisters.
We eventually made it to Montana after visiting Mt. Rushmore and the Corn Palace. Yes, I do know where Wall Drug Store is! Even though my recollection of that trip sounds like a nightmare I would not trade it for the world. You cannot take wonderful memories like these for granted and a “Purple Pig” made them all possible. Cars can leave a lasting mark on you. That Riviera meant a lot to me. To this day I associate Gary Wright’s Dream Weaver with that car. As a young child I remember driving with my mother late one night staring out the rear window at the stars while that song played softly in the background just audible above the hum of the engine. Time seemed to stand still in that car.
These little nuggets of moments in part make us who we are. That car finally gave up and succumbed to the ravages of time and was carted away. I can remember that day like it was yesterday as I watched the rusted out rear wheel wells and bald winter tires for the last time loaded on the trailer to be its final resting spot. I know as a rational thinking person that it was only a car, and in the grand scheme, was simply a machine that filled a need. As a “car” guy it was so much more.
If you are reading this you are probably a “car” guy or gal and can relate. Man, now after writing this I want a ’67 Rivera.