Of Barges and Road Runners

I found a time machine. Funny, but it didn’t look anything like the device H.G. Wells described in The Time Machine. It had “CHRYSLER” across the front and back in chrome letters, and “New Yorker” on the sides. I called this machine “Carmella,” in honor of the original who owned her from new before I bought her. Carmella was made in 1967. I got a good deal on her, and I didn’t even know she was a time machine when I gave the seller my money.

1967 Chrysler

Honestly, she was so big, so flat, so angular, I felt like I was riding in a barge. But she had hidden powers, as I was to discover!

I discovered the hidden time machine ability while while out motoring in Carmella one Saturday morning. I was sitting at a red light and a 1969 Chevy Malibu SS rolled up next to me. When the light changed, the driver gunned the Chevy, chirped the tires and leapt ahead.

Only until the next red light.

The New Yorker got its grunt from MOPAR’s famous 440-cubic-inch, four-barrel monster. Remember those? With one four-barrel carb, they cranked out about 350 horses and 480 foot-pounds of torque.

On a whim, when the light changed I floored the pedal, and both rear tires broke loose, letting out a shriek and clouds of smoke. The New Yorker lunged forward while the Chevy guy tried to figure out what happened to his pride. I let up to slow for a left turn. Typical of Chevy drivers, the guy waved just one finger as he overtook me.

But the effect was surprising. As the time machine did its work, I found myself plunged back in time, back to 1969 and another Mopar experience.

Setting: the Central California coast. Saturday morning, early Spring. I was a 19-year-old lot boy and a detailer (they call these “lot attendants” now) for a Chrysler-Plymouth dealer (remember those?). Jeff, the owner’s son and general manager, was away soldiering in the National Guard.

When the GM was gone, the sales manager was in charge. Next in succession was the service manager, followed by his understudy, Mike, a 20-year-old who was barely out of the detailing department himself. It was Mike’s big day!

super commando 440As a jack-of-all trades with above-average mechanical aptitude, I kept the used cars running at the medium-sized dealership. High-compression engines that gulped 100-octane gas were common in 1969. Every morning I had to start every car on the lot and let them idle long enough to warm up. But those with high compression ratios in the 10:1 area didn’t take many cold mornings to load up with carbon from unburned fuel and begin running rough.

One of my favorite tasks, believe it or not, was taking those rough-running machines out on the nearby freeway and performing what the mechanics called an “Italian tune-up,” which meant sticking the car in low gear, then standing on the gas pedal until all the carbon blew out and they began running smoothly!

I was lucky enough to be doing that in the Golden Age of muscle cars and seldom-enforced 65 mph speed limits.

At one point in time we had on the lot: an orange, Hemi Satellite GTX with console and slap-stick auto; an orange, 440 six-pack Road Runner with pistol-grip shifter; a 454 Buick; a Hemi ‘Cuda; a dark metallic green 383 Road Runner with four on the floor; 340 six-pack Dusters; and a variety of other muscle cars.

You wouldn’t believe how often those cars carboned up! Or at least that was my story, and I'm sticking to it.

road runner

Do you know that a 440 six-pack Road Runner, floored suddenly at 90 mph, would chirp its G70/14 Wide Oval rear tires? It would. I did it several times.

My 18-year-old fellow minion, a lad named Craig, and I were detailing a trade-in when the conversation got around to donuts. Pretty soon it was a craving and not to be denied. We walked around the shop and discovered several other employees with the same craving – thus, a reason to drive a Road Runner was born!

I broached the subject to the boss, “Mike, we want to make a donut run. What do you want?”

He grinned. He knew what this was really about. “Nothin’. Just don’t be gone too long,” he replied.

Craig and I sauntered to the garage door and gazed out across the lines of shiny used steel. “Whaddaya wanta drive?” he asked.

GTX interior“The green Roadrunner,” I suggested.

I liked that car, even though its green color made it look like something Robin Hood might have custom ordered. It would have made Robin look tough. Inside it was black with a bench seat, floor shifter, no console. Rugged simplicity. A manly car.

“Cool!” he agreed. We hopped in, me behind the wheel, and sparked it ‘til it rumbled into life.

Rolling through San Luis Obispo in a Mopar muscle car always made me feel about nine feet tall. I savored the feeling down the main drag.

Craig tossed in, “I want some cream puffs.”

It was only a few blocks to the donut shop. We parked in front at the curb and went in and picked out various pastries. Craig ordered his cream-filled fat pills and a pint of milk for himself and two more for coworkers. We flirted with the girl behind the counter as she put all our selections into a cake box and rang it up for us.

We paid and returned to the car. Craig put the box on the floor between his feet as I started the car. We would regret that later.

I eased the Road Runner away from the curb, enchanted by its rumble, and guided it toward the outskirts of town.

“Where’re we going?” Craig queried.

“Wanna go out on Johnson and do some burnouts?” I answered.

“Yeah, let’s!” he enthused.

The willing V8 propelled us willingly out of town. Johnson was a good asphalt road that ambled into the country, with a long, straight stretch where the local street racers often went to settle disputes over whose car was faster.

road runner 440 six-packFollowing a few days of California winter rain, the sky was brilliant blue, dotted with puffy clouds. The morning sunlight slanted across the fields, sparkling off zillions of water droplets clinging to the vegetation. Puddles still lingered, dribbling into rivulets in ditches along both sides of the road.

Craig leaned over and pulled a cream puff out of the box and started nibbling; then took out a milk carton, tugged it open and sipped as he snacked.

I drove a couple of miles past the last house, then turned around at a wide spot and pointed the ‘Runner back toward town. I lined it up parallel to the center stripe and stopped. I looked over at Craig and grinned. “You ready?” I asked.

“Wait a minute,” he responded. He clamped the pastry – too big for one bite -- in his mouth and set the milk on the dash while he fastened his seatbelt and tugged it tight. “Okay!” he said, grinning widely. He grasped the ‘puff in one hand, milk carton in the other.

I nodded and turned my attention back to the event about to unfold. I gripped the wheel firmly and mentally set the “Christmas tree” starting lights.

Oh, being a cool 19, and with several whole months of muscle car experience behind me, I didn’t have my seatbelt on. Who needs ‘em?

The green beast rumbled eagerly. I pushed the shifter to 1st gear. As I held the clutch pedal against the floor, I also floored the gas pedal. The 383 Super Commando’s 335 horses responded with a hearty roar not unlike the T-rex in “Jurassic Park.” As the tach needle swept past 4,000, I just pivoted my left foot toward the brake and let the clutch pedal pop up.

I can still clearly recall the next few explosive seconds: Tortured Polyglass tires go up in smoke, clawing for traction. The ‘Runner lunges forward, pressing us deeply against the seats like pilot and co-pilot in an attack aircraft being launched from an aircraft carrier’s catapult. Massive torque makes the car try to turn right. Correct left, stand on the gas.

1968 Plymouth RoadrunnerWind it out in 1st, hold the gas pedal on the floor, stomp the clutch, snatch 2nd, slide foot off clutch. Feel the second gear surge. Torque still trying to force a right turn. Still correcting left.

About the top of 2nd gear, I'm grabbing a glance at the rearview mirror, admiring the huge cloud of tire smoke behind us when suddenly there’s a downward lurch, like the bottom just fell out. Next there’s an all-encompassing “WHUMP!!!”

Quicker than I can say it, we’re not moving any more.

From the corner of my right eye, I see Craig fly forward, as if in slow motion, and hit the restraining limit of his lap-belt. Instinctively, his hands clamp shut. The contents of both cream puff and milk carton explode in a white blur.

As Craig finishes his forward lunge, his feet leave the floor. Rebounding, he comes down with both feet on the box, which empties two more pints of milk and several more cream puffs’ contents all over the black interior.

Unbelted, I continue forward until my head finds the restraining limit of the roof. “OWW!” Stars and comets explode through the blackness of my brain. Rebounding, I come down in the spring-filled seat, which playfully sends me up one more time for another test of the laws of physics versus the thickness of my skull. More stars.

Finally, the action ends.

Silence. Almost.

We can hear the crinking of hot metal and the drip, drip, drip of milk leaving the sun visors, the mirror, the dash, us, etc.

My left hand went up to my noggin to check for blood. Nope.

I looked at Craig. He was still holding the empty milk container and smushed pastry. He looked at me, his eyes big as stoplights on a Ford, then down at his hands.

“You okay?” I asked. road runner dashboard

Two lumps were already forming on my head. I was sore and winded.

Neither of us seemed to be bleeding. Nothing seemed to be broken.

Finally he said, “I think so. You okay?”

“Yeah, I think I am,” I managed to squeeze out.

Taking stock of the situation, we began to notice all the white stuff decorating the Road Runner’s interior. “Oh, man!” I groaned. “OH, MAN!”

I turned off the ignition switch. Tried my door handle. It worked, and the door opened. I got out slowly, knees wobbly.

Craig’s door swung open and I saw the cream puff’s remains ejected out into the field. He pushed the box out the door.

The Road Runner was diagonally straddling a drainage ditch next to the road. Front left and right rear tires were hanging down, but the front right and left rear tires were all the way to the top of the suspension travel. The right front tire was nearly buried in mud.

1969 plymouth road runner interior of car

Rain-softened earth gripped the Plymouth, covering most of its dark-green body in medium brown spatters, blobs and waves. I walked around the front, and shook my head as I surveyed the scene. I actually had to turn sideways to slip between the front bumper and a telephone pole. That got my attention!

I opened the hood. Mud covered nearly everything in the engine compartment. Steam rose from several places.

I stood there, rubbed my head, and gazed at the mess, then glanced to my left and looked at the pole. “OK, God,” I whispered. “I get the message.”

Craig surveyed the engine compartment beside me, then we worked our way around the hissing, crinking car. Too much California real estate covered it to get a realistic idea of damage.

As we stood finally on the road, hands on hips, muttering and still shaking our heads at our casastrophe, a blue, ’51 Chevy, half-ton pickup squeaked and rattled to a stop next to us. The driver, probably a farmer, who looked to be in his 50s or 60s, in a plaid shirt, overalls and straw hat, leaned out the window and exclaimed, “You boys okay?”

“Yes, sir,” I answered optimistically. Teens can be polite when they realize salvation may be at hand.

“What happened?” he asked.

We looked at each other, then at him. I shrugged. “I'm not sure,” I began. “We were just going down the road and it turned right and went into the ditch.”

“Anythin’ I can do to help?” he offered.

“Do you have a tow-rope or something?” I ventured.

“Got some tire chains,” he replied. “Mebbe we can hook ‘em together and put ‘em ‘round yer bumper.”

He looked things over, then pulled forward, turned around, and maneuvered his truck over to the shoulder of the road behind the ‘Runner. He positioned it a few feet away from the Plymouth.

He got out, drug the chains clattering out of the Chevy’s bed, and hooked them end to end. He looped one end around his truck’s hitch ball. Then he secured the other end around the ‘Runner’s left bumper bracket.

“Will it start?” he queried.

“I, um, I don’t know.” Actually, I hadn’t thought about that yet. I turned, slid into the driver’s seat. Milk still dripped around me. With my heart in my throat, I put the shifter in neutral, depressed the clutch pedal and turned the key. With the unique Mopar starter noise, the 383 kicked into rumbling motion as if nothing unusual had happened.

“Thank You, God,” I breathed.

“Okay, then,” Mr. Farmer said. “I’ll put my truck in gear and pull. You ease up on the clutch and try to back up. We’ll git ya on the road.” He climbed into Ol’ Blue, ground the shifter into first, and put tension on the chains. I did what I was told.

The Road Runner rocked as the right rear tire spun in the air and the left rear (thank God for Sure-grip) and clawed at the slippery ground.

Mud sucked at the bottom of the car as it began to move backwards. Scraping, grinding and crunching sounds sent shivers up and down my back. With a lurch, the car broke free of the mud and rolled onto the asphalt. I shut it off and jumped out.

Gobs of mud plopped onto the pavement.

“Well, there she is!” Mr. Farmer exulted.

“Yeah, thanks!” we both exclaimed.

He unhooked his chains and tossed them noisily into the truck. We shook his hand and he climbed into Ol’ Blue. “Good luck!” he declared, cranked up the Chevy, put it in gear and drove away trailing oil smoke.

“We’ll need it,” I muttered and looked at Craig. He just nodded.

He picked up the pastry box, which was pretty well finished dribbling milk, tossed it back in the front floor. We both climbed in, I fired up the ‘Runner, and we started driving slowly toward town. The sound of gobs of mud slinging from the wheels and tires was constant for about a half mile, then began to taper off.

In the mirror, the road was marked with two lines of mud where we drove.

The ‘Runner actually felt pretty normal, other than some off-balance bouncing from blobs of mud in the wheels making them off-balance.

Craig finally asked the question I had been thinking about but couldn’t ask yet, “What are we going to tell Mike?”

I pulled the car over to the side of the road. “Yeah,” I said. “We’ll both get fired if we tell him what really happened.

We talked it over for a few minutes and cooked up a plausible story about a driver crossing over into our lane and forcing us off the road to avoid a collision. That settled, we drove on to the dealership.

Slowly we pulled into the shop. Mechanics glanced at us, did double takes, then started walking toward us, shaking their head in disbelief. Mike looked out of his office, got up and came out. He wasn’t happy.

I shut the Plymouth off. We got out.

Mechanics circled around. They didn’t say much.

“What happened?” Mike demanded.

I looked at Craig. He looked at me.

“We went out to Johnson Road to blow the carbon out,” I began, opening with the truth. “We went out a few miles, then turned around and headed back. You know where the hill is on Johnson with the curve at the top?”

Mike nodded.

“Well, just as we topped the hill, there was this blue MG that came flying over the hill toward us, and he was in our lane, and I swerved to avoid hitting him head on, and we ran off the road into a ditch.”

Not bad! Not too far from the truth. Would he buy it?

Mike glared at us. “Clean it up,” was all he said.

We went to work on it. Milk and whipped cream can find 10,000 nooks and crannies in a car interior. I think we found nearly every one of those places.

Next, we steamed the engine compartment, then jacked up the car’s front end and used steam on the undercarriage. Nothing looked broken. Front bumper miraculously wasn’t even bent. Then we jacked up the rear and did the same. Didn’t look too bad as the mud came off.

Late that afternoon, we had it cleaned up enough to invite Mike to look at it. One scratch below the right door, but we had the right color touch-up paint. The right front hubcap was flattened, but the parts guy, Vern, had a new one.

Mike walked around the car looking it over intensely. He didn’t say anything. But that was good. Relieved, I showed him how little damage there was. “You two are lucky!” he declared, still glaring at us. He walked away.

I put the Beeper back out on the lot. It looked as good as ever. Reminded me of a faithful dog that plunges into a muddy stream to fetch a tossed stick, brings it back, drops it at your feet, then looks up as if to say, “Aren’t I something?”

Oh, we had to shovel the mud out of the detailing stall.

Just before closing time, Mike came back over. His demeanor was more relaxed. He came right to the point. “What really happened?”

I hesitated and drew a deep breath.

In a flash, I remembered his story about rear-ending someone in the shop truck once because he was looking at the rear end of a college girl on the sidewalk, not at the brake lights of the car ahead of him. I decided to trust him.

“I was doing a burnout and it got out of control,” I blurted.

He stood there and looked into my eyes. Slowly, a smile stretched across his face. “That’s what I thought,” he chuckled. “You guys are sure lucky the boss wasn’t here today. Don’t let it happen again.”

“Sure, Mike,” I answered, tremendously relieved. “Thanks!”

Some guy bought the ‘Runner a few weeks later. I hated to see it go, even if it did sort of smell like sour milk.

Back to the present. My time-travel has ended. I'm smiling The big Chrysler’s 440 purrs as we run south on Arizona 101. I can’t wait to use the time-machine again!

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