(SNN) - It’s the Christmas Commerce season and naturally my thoughts turn to ways of convincing someone a Maserati Quattroporte is the perfect present for me. This in turn set me to thinking about the cars I’ve owned over the years. Picking my favorites was easy—a tie between my ’65 Mustang convertible and the ’68 Corvette Stingray.
Here’s how the negotiations went when I bought the ‘Vette;
ME: “I want a blue convertible with the 327 engine. Gimme $1200 for my trade-in, knock $500 off your asking price and we have a deal.”
SALESMAN: “I’ll give you $400 for that wreck of yours. We never discount Corvettes and I only got a green coupe with the big 427/390 engine.”
ME: Where do I sign?
My worst auto of all time? That would be a 1957 Hillman-Minx 4-door sedan. It was my very first car, a British-made wreck on wheels—an undersized, underpowered, underwhelming collection of rubber, metal, and rattling bolts more or less rolling in the same direction.
Those toad-shaped vehicles held two people in the front seat, but if you were taller than Her Majesty’s Midgets, you had to assume a fetal position to fit. It could accommodate three adults in back only if two of them ran alongside.
The Brits call sedans “Saloon Cars,” and the Hillman was renowned for driving its owners to drink. Britain’s leading auto magazine, Car and Twit, once voted the Hillman the worst British invention since Spotted Dick. During a brief period of temporary insanity in college, I bought mine used with money I saved from a summer job as a Carney Geek. I wrestled it away from a one-eyed car dealer for $495 and a stick of Juicy Fruit.
“Where are the heater controls, Blinky?” I asked my salesman.
“We recommend huddling for warmth,” he said, giving me the stink-eye.
The Hillman was one of several marques manufactured by The Rootes Group, a company that later perfected the open-air submarine, It has been said that Churchill first used the phrase “blood, toil, tears and sweat ” to describe his test drive in a Hillman. My exported version was equipped with left hand drive but no one bothered to re-jigger the column-mounted gearshift. You had to shift in reverse order. This produced grinding sounds not unlike a goat trying to hack up its cud. I missed a shift during a drag race once and lost to a parked Buick.
Some versions sported two-tone paint jobs because you know how festive the British can be. Mine was sunken-battleship grey with thundercloud trim. It came with some features you cannot find in modern cars, nor old-fashioned political prisons for that matter. It had a glove box big enough to hold one glove and floor mats the color of Mrs. Minx’ adorable cat, “Ripstitch.” The car boasted Stedgely-Heath solar-powered windshield wipers, a power ashtray, the Dingleton no-fi silent radio, plus Britain’s only backward-facing driver’s seat. My variant also included non-locking doors that opened when you sneezed.
The power plant on the ‘57 Minx was exceptionally quiet except during mating season when the little critters powering it turned restless.
The car lasted two months before it had a conniption on the New Jersey Turnpike and deposited a piston rod and a puddle of goo near Swedesboro, NJ. A tow truck operator pronounced the car dead, but I called my Dad for a second opinion. He said, “you’re ugly, too,” then set out to find a replacement engine. He soon located one at a junkyard on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, if I’m not being redundant. They said he could have the engine for a song. After a few verses of “Old Man River,” Dad stuffed it in his pocket and drove to Swedesboro.
Big Swede and his henchmen had been holding me and the deceased Minx hostage until I could pay for the tow. To pass time, me and the boys played Kipper Poker—Jersey rules— a variation of “Go Fish.” When Dad showed up I was holding three Sturgeon with a Belly Lox showing. Little Swede was foolishly trying to draw to an inside Carp. I never got a chance to win the pot, which consisted mostly of Pot.
Before long, the skilled craftsmen of Swedesboro used their talent, training, and an inordinate amount of KY Jelly to install the new powerplant. I turned the key, and after a few backfires and belches, the Minx hummed like Alvin the Chipmunk roasting his nuts on an open fire.
The car worked off and on for another year, but soon chugged oil like a fat guy at a syrup table. Still, I decided to risk a trip in my deteriorating heap to visit the parental units for the Holidays. First, I took it to a mechanic to check out. He recommended an Exorcist.
“That’s a four-wheeled Spawn of Satan yer drivin’ there, laddie,” he said in a fake Scottish accent. But off I went anyway, my Hillman spewing parts, farting like an incontinent warthog, and causing churches near the roadway to burst into flame. Then, at the top of the massive Delaware Bay Bridge, it died for the final time.
I abandoned the Hillman on the bridge and hitch-hiked home. The Minx was never seen nor heard from again. It wasn’t a totally wasted trip, however. I learned three important lessons: (1) English cars are not mechanically sound, (2) truck drivers have middle fingers, and (3) the clam "Special" at Delaware Donny’s Questionable Seafood Cafe isn’t all that special. Or clammy. Or edible.
At this point, many writers would turn sentimental and wax nostalgic about their first car and the warm memories it evokes now that so many years have passed. Not me. I hope some mother-truckers pushed it off the bridge into the Delaware Bay.
*First, this is Satire, so tell your legal department to Bite Me. Second, it refers only to my 1957 Hillman-Minx, not later versions which I’m sure were much, much, much better.
John "Cork" Corcoran
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