The Getaway Car and Me

From my archives. This was originally posted some time in early 2000 on a now-defunct web page.

Last updated 3/20/00

The Getaway Car and Me

In the face of divorce and looming financial uncertainty, I was about to try to cut expenses to the bone. Out with the storied, elegant, nimble, eye catching Alfa Romeos, and in with a solid brick of a car. Here's the GTV-6 and the Bertone GTV.

This is the beginning of the story of the getaway (ghettoway to some people) car and me.

Last weekend (2/20/00) I was down in San Diego to pick up my new car. It's a sleek beauty, one of Detroit's finest. It's a 1979 Pontiac Le Mans, colored light blue. There's also medium blue, dark blue, primer, and rust which feature prominently in the color scheme. Actually, there are many other colors on it as well, but those are the dominant ones. Especially rust.

I took the train down from Fullerton station to pick her up. I had planned an odious trek of traveling to the station by public transit. I had researched how to do so, but it involved the Green Line light rail, several changes along the Orange County Transit Authority bus lines, and finally the Fullerton Metro Buses. If I hadn't found the prospect of the walk daunting due to a back injury, I would have walked the several miles from the end of the Metro Green Line. As it was, brother Neil and his longtime girlfriend Fereshteh came to the rescue and delivered me to the station with a mere two minutes to spare. Good going!

I was met at the Solana Beach station by Mr. David McKunkler, a successful businessman and computer programmer who had been the car's custodian for the past year. We traveled by luxury four wheel drive automobile to his home, high in the hills of Encintas. There my sleek new wheels awaited. Freshly washed by the previous evening's rain, inside and out, she poised - muscles tensed, ready to purr into action. What minor imperfections she had were sublimated to the rock steady tick tick tick of her 3.8L V6 - still humming along without a care in the world while two quarts low. We added those two quarts of oil, plus half a can of brake fluid, a gallon and a half of coolant, and a tank of gas. We vacuumed up the detritus of the past years, taking care not to disturb the blanket of protective iron oxide. Oh sure, we made a couple mistakes, such as vacuuming a protective coat of leaves from the rain gutter only to reveal the rust holes that they plugged, but my stalwart steed appreciated the attention anyway, and gradually lost her smell of mildew and decay. We glued the plastic hula girl back on the dash, and I was ready to go.

She had started life in New York and was driven out to grad school at UCSD in the early 90's by our friend Alex Young. There she served him well and she was richly rewarded by the moderate climate, which made her cancerous rust halt in its tracks. Alex eventually went to a post doc in Ohio and I guess he thought that the car wouldn't re-acclimate to snowy winters, because he sold it to yet another friend, one Warren McArthur. Warren rechristened it the getaway car, and put some money into it - new radiator, belts, assorted other stuff. It served him well too, though it must have been envious of the Volkswagon Synchro he eventually drove off into the sunset on. However, when the Volkswagon was on the skids (as it was several times) the getaway car rode to the rescue.

I passed through Warren's home town on my way home, the getaway car purring along the highway. Once up to speed, she likes to be kind of herded along the road. She drifts in her lane to the left and I bump the wheel to the right and she drifts back to center. Other drivers tend to honk when that happens, but I know it's just an expression of joy at seeing her back on the road. Her ride is Detroit smooth, and she steers effortlessly when at speed, more so after I put air in the tires.

I dropped by Warren's home, and we traded a pink slip for some cash - my remark was that I didn't know who was getting the better deal, him or me. I got some wheels that may save me money over the next year plus I got a rebate in form of loose change and spare parts to the tune maybe $20.00 or so, not to mention the hours of fun I could have puttering over the old car. Warren got $300.00 cash and the satisfaction of seeing the getaway car off to its new home, where it will be fully appreciated for what it is. Was that shine in his eye a tear of tristesse at the last sight of his car, or was it the gleam of a master negotiator in his finest hour? I'll assume the former, until the car proves me wrong.

I've been working out her minor troubles. Today (1/21/00), after a brisk ride to Long Beach and back to get warm, she passed smog with flying colors. I also added a quart of Dexron III to sooth her shifting - another quart ought to have her about back to normal. She doesn't defog the front window under normal use around town - she just doesn't get hot enough. Warren thinks the thermostat isn't working, but the housing is too rusted and I'd risk snapping a bolt off in the engine if I tried to replace it. I think I'll pay for that work. A hot engine is an efficient engine and at her rate of gas consumption, I need all the efficiency I can get.

This car is a statement. It's a statement about conserving our resources, preserving our past, and most importantly a statement about how secure you are. You see, only the most secure and humble of people can be seen in the car without shrinking down in shame. If you're not already secure and humble, then this car will make you that way.

Humbly yours,


Addenda 2/00 -

She shifts well, in a relative manner of speaking, now that I've added yet another quart of Dexron III. Last night (2/24/00) I saturated the door hardware with lube and managed to get rid of the persistent creaking and popping that accompanied the opening or closing of the doors. I also patched some of the smaller rust holes with silicone RTV. That virtuous feeling that you're doing something good for the planet was also a bit in evidence night: I bridged the largest rust hole with a piece of plastic that I cut from a milk carton and laminated into place with more RTV. Ah, the virtues of recycling. The crack in the windshield didn't look big enough to let water in, so I ran a bead of RTV around the window trim up top of the windshield. Preventive maintenance is all in the definition, folks.

3/7/00 - While waiting for her to warm up this morning, out in front of the house, I noticed a thin fog of smoke in the interior. I was a bit alarmed at first, and then I decided to take it as a good sign. This decision wasn't reached arbitrarily, since I had her over to my new mechanic, Chester, to replace the thermostat the day before ($35.00. I provided the gasket and thermostat from the stash of parts that came with the car). Chester had found the original thermostat in place, but so rotten that it might as well have not even been there at all. She had never been a completely smoke free car, but it had previously been mostly confined to the outside. The way I figured it, the increased warmth was just melting more of the grime off the sides of the engine and onto the headers where it smoked a bit before falling off and moving into the food chain. Eventually it would work its way into the fish on my dinner plate. But I digress. While the doors were open to ventilate the smoke, I took the opportunity to use Windex to clean the mildew growing on the back window. This worked like a charm, and I recommend that everyone clean the mildew off their windows with Windex. I don't expect to see it back until the next time someone decides that the car can double as a terrarium.

3/10/00 - I put two new tires up front today. My friend Neil was out in the parking lot at work admiring my new car and pointed out that the front tires were showing the steel belts on the inside edge. I meandered over to Foster Tire where I had two front tires installed for about $78.00. A bit pricey for a car that is supposed to save me money. I asked Mr. Foster whether I needed an alignment. He told me that the front end was shot and that I should "just buy new tires and drive it slow."

3/20/00 - Experience has shown that the smoke problem from 3/7/00 doesn't go away, however I've figured out that if you are actually driving the car then the smoke dissipates enough so that you can't tell it's there. The only downside to this oil leak->smoke conversion machine is that once stopped the car becomes second cousin to the Exxon Valdez for the initial few minutes that it's parked as residual oil drips slowly off the engine. The car made a successful trip to Santa Barbara and back even though one of the valve stems is faulty and bled a rear tire down to about 23 psi (a problem corrected in SB). It only cost about $25.00 in gas to make the trip.

7/20/00 - She's still running well. Turns out the faulty valve stem I mentioned previously is due to the hubcaps getting loose and rotating around into the stem, cutting and bending it. The two remaining hubcaps get placed in the trunk for probably what remains of this car's life. It's about time for an

oil change and the fuel filter (a pinky fingertip-sized element) needs replacing. I've bought new tires for the rear wheels recently - another $78 and change. I've also decided that the car was designed by German engineers - the rear windows don't roll down.


Most people find this pretty humorous. I guess if you don't, then my style of humor has completely passed you by. There was a vocal minority however that had a deeper reaction. One email I received read as follows:

...I know what you mean. I too had a "getaway" car (1978 Toyota Corolla, red with splashes of iron oxide and the occasional rust hole). I also had no insecurities of driving her around and being seen. Many coworkers steered clear of her and told me I should do the same, but that never happened. She remained in my stables until she faltered, like an injured race horse, and needed to be put down. It was a sad day and will always bring tears to me. She will never be forgotten.

Kevin Nuibe

Another read in part:

That was beautiful. I laughed. I even got a little misty....


So those of you that thought it was just humor - realize that that it may not be merely humorous to all of us. Warren followed up a question I had raised in a later email regarding the thermostat:

...I suggest an early Saturday morning stop by the car wash for the $1.50 engine clean with the high pressure soap spray gun. Follow that plenty of lock ease and a casual late morning breakfast to build stamina and patience. And then carefully remove the housing. Be emotionally prepared to twist off a bolt head and then have to remove stuff to make room to get a drill and an easy-out set-up in there to remove it. I think if you're careful it could all go fine. Then again ... I let it go for a couple of years ...

Oh, another tip. Don't turn on the air conditioning. The clutch on the compressor is frozen. The belt will catch, jump the pulley, tear off the other belts, you'll loose power steering and the car will overheat in a few minutes 'cause the water pump won't be turning. Now how do I know this?...



There's a fine line between France's Le Mans and Detroit's Le mon.

Congrats on the smog cert!

Final Note - Death of a Friend (2001)

My friend has seen me through some troubled times, but over the past year had become more and more troublesome. I finally had to say goodbye when his heart gave out. It happened rather quickly as these things go, and in the end I had mixed emotions about his departure. I did get $65.00 from him at the end of our relationship, but I had hoped that it would last just a while longer. Nonetheless, I think that he'll go on to better things, as I hope I do.

We got acquainted about a year and a half ago, and I helped him through some bad times as he helped me. But I could never fix his unsteady heart and he got severely ill in the past few months. I finally said goodbye for good last Saturday as the tow truck took him away. My friend was a 1979 Pontiac Lemans.

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