22 Feb 2014

Pacific Coast My Way - Three Months Of Vehicular Misadventure With An 86 Coupe deVille

The man at the rental company was clearly used to the heat. It seemed to me that Stan was oblivious to the distracting wet stains around his armpits that were evident through his cheap standard issue nylon shirt.

Stan wanted five hundred dollars a week for the Honda Civic that was otherwise standing idle on the baking concrete outside. I suspected that Stan had made the figure up off the top of his head when he decided that he didn’t want our custom. Maybe it was the paper British driver’s licence; it was after all held together with sellotape, the result of one too many hot washes. It could have been the passport, covered in recent Colombian entry and exit stamps that I had presented to back up the sellotaped licence that Stan had found so offensive. 

Whatever the reason, Sweaty Stan’s suspicions were well and truly raised. I knew that Stan would be damned if he were to let two beatnik Brits drive off his lot in a brand new car on long-term hire with only ‘Care of KOA’ (the national campsite chain) as a mailing address.

As I glanced through the window at the queue forming at the bus stop, I remembered how the previous day a bag lady had refused to sit next to me on the bus claiming that I had murdered her husband in cold blood some years earlier. No, public transport in the good old U.S. seemed for crazies far worse than Liz and I. Gypsies, tramps and thieves as Liz had commented during a recent trip to Los Alamos mall. 

I knew that we needed wheels of our own. Liz and I were running out of choices if we were to make any headway on our tour of coastlines featured in Beach Boys records. At nearly six and a half thousand dollars for three months in a hot, asthmatic Civic (by Stan’s spurious reckoning) I figured that we could strike a better deal on the second hand lots out of town. Besides which Sweaty Stan had already started supplying his air-conditioned carriages to the smarter dressed congregation who were waiting impatiently at the back of the office. Taking feigned blindness to be the international code for negotiation over, Liz and I collected our identification and headed towards the used car lots of Cypress Hill.

The Caddy seemed to be the romantic choice of vehicle for an all American road trip. What better way to blend in with middle America than to drive a blue-collar conservative, baby blue Cadillac Coupe deVille? Authentic camouflage in every detail, the bodywork was pristine and original, it said to the casual observer, “I am respectable, careful and, above all, not a Mexican”. The whitewall tyres and parched grey landau roof suggested an elderly owner, a snowbird retiree retreating to the sunshine to aid his bad hip. 

There was a sticker in the rear window that read ‘California Masons Say NO To Dope’ that suggested powerful friends. Yes, this was the car to use if we were to sneak up close and snatch a glance of real America without the real America getting sight of us. In case of any real trouble, the bumpers were like chromed motorway guard rails ready to clear any ugly protest and leave the fuel injected V8 to gallop out of danger with confidence and grace that the little Honda rental could never deliver.

Always the accountant, Liz calculated that with the tax and insurance and a full tank of gas the Caddy owed the travel budget three thousand dollars, a respectable saving on the Civic and a much more respectable vehicle even if a little long in the tooth. Theoretically the insipid travellers had three and a half thousand dollars for petrol and repairs and they were free of Sweaty Stan’s excess mileage charges.

Although already tired of L.A. and keen to break for Ventura County, Liz and I had to spend longer than expected registering our new ride. Creating a phoney address for the computer at the Department of Motor Vehicles (so we could avoid any further unnecessary communications regarding terminal speed and choice of parking facility) was no simple exercise in data entry. 

Were it not for the existence of Manchester Beach making our flam more believable Liz and I would almost certainly still be there today. By the time the computer had mulled over the bogus facts, we were on the wrong side of Santa Monica and the wrong end of the Los Angeles rush hour to embark on a directionless jolly across the state so we gratefully accepted Liz’s brother Ray’s offer of chicken balls and rice with unconditional free board for the night. 

Luckily Ray and his wife Cath had been Long Beach residents for a year already and had been providing us with irony and sarcasm that was scarce in U.S. shops and restaurants, not to mention the use of their 1988 Mustang convertible without which the losers and lunatics on the Red Line would have surely feasted on our bones.

“She drives like a Lexus,” the mechanic told me when he brought the forty-one-hundred Coupe deVille back from the smog test. I guessed that the mechanic was another otherwise unemployable member of the family that ran their social club from the car lot. Clearly the family at Expo Motors were not as proud of him as Avis had been of Stan or else the mechanic would have surely had his name stitched over his breast too. 

During the test drive I had only driven the metallic blue gentleman’s club through the streets of Long Beach. The traffic had never gotten any faster than twenty miles per hour and with Los Angeles laid out on a grid pattern there had been no opportunities to conduct any high speed manoeuvring test. The decision to buy had been influenced by the automatically dipping rear-view mirror, the servo assisted ‘trunk’ grabber, the two vast blue leather sofas and the mad woman on the bus. 

I had taken it for granted that the car would probably handle something like an over laden supermarket trolley topped off with an impulse bought 42 inch widescreen T.V., however having left a mid 70’s Sweeney style Granada back in Blighty this did not worry me. By embracing both blast acceleration on the straights and sudden uncontrollable locking of the brakes on the corners I feel that all the mechanical components have a fair and equal workout. 

At twenty miles an hour the Caddy did display a respectable temperament- smooth, quiet and comfortable. I wondered when the Americans had started measuring quality by Japanese standards and as I joined the traffic on East Anaheim I began to notice the lack of indigenous iron on the roads. Somewhere in the back of my mind a voice taunted me, “They know something you don’t. Why do you think Uncle Sam drives a Toyota?”

If I hadn’t figured it out in Santa Cruz when, travelling north toward a gin fling in San Francisco, straining under the weight of a bounty of Danish pastries we liberated from the Motel 6 and unaccustomed to my blast and brake technique, the Caddy threw both front tyres on a particularly hairy stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway, then I definitely began to understand a week later when passing Blythe on the California/Arizona border. 

We had been overtaking titanic motorised caravans for three or four hours when Liz first noticed the noise. “Just then. It did it again. When you swerved to run down that tumbleweed. An awful drumming, vibrating noise every time you put your foot down.” She was right; I could feel the vibration travel up my left leg as I rested my foot on the door mirror. Somewhere within the motor a con rod was beating a piston to high-speed death. 

My left foot suggested that there may well be further brutal damage as pieces of molten piston chewed at the bearings. There followed a difficult operation whereby I had to intermittently blip the throttle so as to locate the con rod inside the severed piston. Once successfully mated, constant pressure by way of speed was needed to limp the car to skilled help outside Phoenix. For the next three hundred miles we passed no one.

“Holy shit! Have you been in some sort of an accident? God-damn engine’s in crooked.” Andy, my skilled help, was referring to the front wheel drive layout of the Coupe deVille. Although Cadillac was the first car manufacturer to offer a front wheel drive model in the late 1960s, Americans, it appeared, still did not approve of what they saw as a European novelty. However, sensing the emotional tension of a tired English lady, the friendly redneck and I agreed a deal where I would spray paint his hot rod pickup truck whilst he would fit a second-hand engine in the lame Coupe in his Ma’s yard. 

Both parties struggled to meet their commitments. Andy discovered that short of resorting to his Smith and Wesson .500, removing a ‘crooked’ engine from a Cadillac was no backyard task, whilst I discovered that if I have to work it is better done in mild Manchester than arid Arizona. In a desert climate paint and body filler tend to set in their containers. Local tradition dictated mass beer consumption post lunchtime and after a week had passed I was two stones lighter and had lost many of my natural minerals. Both parties agreed that their vehicles were near enough done, besides Andy was missing out on a beer can and cacti cull in the desert so his mind was no longer on the job as he sat on his Ma’s tumble drier clicking the cylinder round on his gun and checking the barrel for oil or tooth enamel.

As I joined the traffic on North Ocotillo Drive, the Caddie moving quietly under its own power for the first time in three weeks, I finally figured out why Uncle Sam drives a Toyota. There is less chance of baking in the desert for the sake of a $3 wrist-pin when you’ve got a Corolla than there is when you’ve got a Coupe deVille. However, in a Toyota I would have missed the Superstition Mountain in Apache Junction, I would have missed Tortilla Flats and the Lost Dutchman Mine, and I would have missed the refreshingly homely hospitality of Andy and his family who even offered to accommodate us in their demountable camper in his Ma’s yard which we might have accepted had it not been for the territorial pit-bull terrier that had shredded the mattress to confetti. 

As I pulled in at a gas station and took my place amongst the Hondas, the Toyotas and Volvos queuing for gas it suddenly struck me; poor quality eighties engineering is a proud sponsor of small town America. Without it travellers would just speed on past the communities that depend on your stranded dollars. Without old Caddies and short sighted Englishmen word would never get out that there is more to America than Mickey Mouse and bastardized Rugby. 

If your car doesn’t consume water by the bucket full you will never learn that the world’s tallest thermometer lives in Barstow and you’re unlikely to ever need to spend the day floating down the Salt River surrounded by the Black Rock Canyon whilst waiting for your radiator to be re-cored.

In defence of the Cadillac though, the replacement engine, ripped from a write-off with an old seatbelt and Andy’s C10 pick-up, never skipped a beat. Backyard cunning and beer keg planning ensured a successful transplant with only a spongy engine mount giving cause to grumble. Billy-Bob, as he came to be known, went on to rack up nearly seven thousand miles during our three month tour of the southwest before the authorities insisted we return home.

Billy-Bob was my first yank and despite the Blythe detonation I still watch the classifieds for another Coupe deVille. The memories of sleeping in the Caddy in amongst the Giant Redwoods in Capitola, drag-racing Hondas up the Las Vegas strip, even drinking beer and talking guns and gasoline with my redneck buddies all outweigh the nerve racking and engine wrecking run through the desert the day I blew up Billy-Bob.

By George Bailey