Against All Oddities: Germinate, my lovelies!
Matthew Anderson is a North Carolina native, professional engineer, and devoted crapcan connoisseur. He owns a Holden, a Citroën, a Hobby 600 camper, a Moskvich, a Studebaker, an Isuzu, and he thinks that’s it. We don’t ask him too many follow-up questions. –EW
If you’ve been following my international exploits, you know that I’ve now settled into a new house in North Carolina. My BMW wagon, my Lada, and much more had to be left behind in Germany. My key ring is thus rather empty. Perhaps you see where this is going.
In the interest of time, I am going to avoid extensive tangents that each deserve their own story. Just let yourself be swept up in the whirlwind of my usual vehicular misadventure.
Okay. So. I grew up in the Carolinas and still have family in the region, plus a few cars sprinkled around. To give you a sense of the landscape, I’d sown a number of seeds to lay dormant during my years away. Now that I’m back, it’s watering time.
Home base—for me, my wife, cat, Romanian street dog, Moskvich, and camper van—is a former Depression-era subsistence farm (more on that later) in rural Piedmont, North Carolina. The sole key on my ring upon move-in was for a special vehicle: my dad’s 1964 Ford F-250, which he bought new and has never sold (full story on that later). We call it “Fordy.”
Fordy is everyone in the Anderson family’s emergency transportation. And my path crosses the threshold of “emergency” more often than most, so Fordy and I have been through a lot together. Once, for several months in college, it was my companion while both my Corolla and Studebaker were blown up (again, I’ll explain later). Another time, early in my Michigan years working at my first engineering job, the truck’s engine mildly blew up while towing a Javelin. (Patience, we’ll get there.) Fordy survived. I gave the truck a robust, comprehensive semicentennial service and clean-up in 2014, after which my dad promptly tossed a heavy load into the bed and dented it. The truck was suddenly my daily driver again, helping me commute 38 miles round-trip each day and clean out two small barns in my spare time.
My parents drove roughly 120 miles to help with unpacking boxes and moving into the North Carolina house. They left the truck and its idiosyncrasies with me. Fordy, as usual, was great around the property and handled dump runs like a champ. Commuting was rougher. Maybe I got used to luxury motoring in Germany with the BMW wagon, but this rig much prefers following a threshing machine than a line of traffic. It had its own needs, to boot: a dead generator requiring overnight charging of the battery, three coolant leaks, a misfire, high idle, and an exhaust leak. After three commutes, I threw up my hands and retired it to pasture duty. I vowed to find something else while I sorted it out.
With the used car market having lost its mind since I lived in America, I started scraping the bottom of the friendship barrel instead of losing my shirt on something built in the last 10 years. Growing up in North Carolina myself, I have a broad selection of horrible enabler buddies with equally horrible cars.
From this muddy trough sprung “Fuggles,” a beat-to-hell 1992 Dodge pickup with a rattle-can paint job and five-speed gearbox. I drove Fuggles on a loan-only basis for a week or so before giving it back to my friend, who spent the next morning dealing with a failed crank sensor. The car gods, thankfully, spared me for a brief moment but only barely, so I would not let my guard down.
Another one of Jon’s cars came next: a rusty, acrid-smelling 1989 Isuzu Trooper that had been sitting outside of a mountain cabin for a year. Though it too had needs, $1000 was all it took to win the title. Happily, it drove comfortably for long distances in a mostly straight line. Of course, it also lost oil, needed tires, and often burped up several ounces of coolant without warning.
Mechanical maladies were tolerable, but nothing could prepare me for the wave of hot, mouse-spiked ammonia gas that oozed from the defrost trapdoor on the first cold morning. My brain struggled to process this as vaporized rodent urine burned my eyes. I spent the first weekend power washing the tobacco spittle and vermin remnants out of the carpet, while trying to find the offending nest under the dash. (I did it with my mouth shut, because I know better.) Upon reinstalling the carpet and bumping the HVAC tube under the glovebox, a tiny, still-live baby mouse tumbled out onto the floor.
With a 9:00 a.m. exhaust shop appointment scheduled for the following morning, the race was on to eradicate the habitat prior to judgement day. And judged I was; the keys were ultimately returned to me that evening along with unvarnished side-eye. I hopped in and immediately noticed another mouse on the passenger floor, this time deceased. After paying respects and removing it from the vehicle, I left for the airport on business. An hour of hard driving later, the Trooper’s oil lamp started illuminating anywhere under 1500 rpm and the engine puked a healthy volume of ethylene glycol right onto the concrete at the airline parking deck valet line. I handed in my keys and tried to act natural.
As the Airbus A320 jet carried me high above the bad decisions littering the ground around Charlotte, I realized I had a couple days to make a conservative car plan. I didn’t, of course, instead using the time to dream about the dozen or so Renaults I had gone to inspect at a lot earlier in the week (I’d love to elaborate but let’s keep it movin’!).
Once back in town, I headed to work and finally caught a break. I’ve dubbed her Grace, a 2003 Ford Taurus SES found parked in front of a church with a For Sale sign. I called the number, and because I had faith this would be the case, it was indeed the minister’s car. The mild-mannered man sauntered out of the mezzanine, we did a hot lap of the neighborhood, and the 97,000 mile, 24-valve leather sofa was mine.
Finally, the Hobby 600 camper arrived to offer a bit of reprieve. Though still wearing German plates, it was and still is my best option for getting to work when my wife wants to drive the Taurus: something with brakes that doesn’t smell like a litterbox lined with deer corn. With the Trooper now laid up in the barn, it was Fordy’s time to shine. Fresh from a tune-up, new intake manifold gaskets, and an alternator conversion, the truck was called into action for the upcoming weekend’s State Fair demolition derby championship. (You KNOW I have stories from my glory days in this arena!)
I’d kill two birds with one stone on this trip, taking my wife and nephew to a cultural staple of my childhood while also consolidating another vehicle left in hibernation while I lived in Germany.
The morning before the derby, my dad and I went out to visit my ’61 Studebaker Lark Cruiser, along with its parts car, living at the BMW/Studebaker garage at which worked while in high school. (What? How? Why? More to come!) Also on site was next pearl on my crapcan necklace: a 1988 Holden VL Commodore. The final year of the last “old-body” Commodore, this ex-detective-duty VL came equipped with a silky smooth straight-six from the Nissan Skyline, five-speed manual gearbox, and zero options. No doubt, it is the best car I’ve ever purchased in Australia from someone in prison. (If I go into how I got this thing, it will derail us forevermore.) After investing an hour in some basic prep work on the Stude—scrubbing sap, swapping plugs, and freeing up the stuck motor—it was time to load the Holden and take it home.
My father had sent me a couple distressing videos of him cranking on the Holden key with no motion, but I figured it was best to assess the car in person. And yeah, sure enough, the ignition lock barrel was frozen up tight. But why? He drove this thing off the trailer and around the farm just 12 months prior. Just as I was about to do demo-derby type things to the lock cylinder to ensure a timely arrival at the State Fair, old friend and farm/garage owner, Truett, hinted to me that my father “said he put the keys in the ash tray. This car seems to have three ash trays.”
Interesting. I ran around and checked the rear doors, leading me to a second key, atop of a layer of ’90s cigarette ash and rust. Of course! The first set must be from my other VL Commodore, the parts car, which had been stolen and used in a Melbourne crime spree. (I recommend a pitcher of margaritas for when this story unfolds.)
With the correct key, the car fired right up and drove onto the trailer. We loaded up a Wheel Horse and buffet table as well, which meant no room this time to bring the International 504 tractor. Or the Citroën Ami.
What is wrong with me?