Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 9, No. 49
December 6 - 12, 2001 
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Down Memory Lane in My Nerdmobiles

How to save the old that’s worth saving, whether in landscape, houses, manners, institutions or human types, is one of our greatest problems, and the one we bother least about.
— John Galsworthy: “Over the River,” 1933

As for saving some more tangible things not mentioned by the English novelist and playwright, methinks it’s not so much a question of how to save. It’s more of a question of where to save. More explicitly, where to save what you save.

Saving is not much of a problem for one who collects stamps or coins. A shoe box or two is probably sufficient. But with pack rats like me, it’s a different story.

’Tis said everything has its place, but finding the place for everything saved can be a problem. The bigger the object being saved, the more the problem.

There’s a truism in saving. As soon as one junks something that has been saved, either the need arises for that object — or one discovers it’s worth something. Give it the hook, and one day you’ll be sorry.

Revenge of the Nerdmobiles
I got to thinking about that the other day when reading Kevin Cowherd’s column in The Sun on the value of some flivvers of yore. Of the three most prominently mentioned, I once owned two. I rented the third for an extended midwinter trip across Western Canada.

According to Kevin, all three were considered nerdmobiles, but I must admit the two that were parked in my driveway — each for a couple of years — were difficult to part with. I wouldn’t have, had wife Lois not taken a decidedly firm stand against my hoarding things larger than mopeds and steamer trunks.

The three vehicles in question are the Volkswagen Thing and two from American Motors Corp., the Pacer and the Gremlin.

All are long gone, and the latter two, to put it frankly, weren’t very popular. Sales were mediocre for the Thing, which looked like a Yugo version of a Jeep, and VW dropped it when emissions concerns arose about its air-cooled rear engine much like that in the old Beetle.

The stubby Gremlin of a bright reddish orange was the first in the stable. It arrived in 1970, as I recall, intended as a gift for Lois. I thought it sporty, a great subcompact, easy to find a parking space for, frugal in fuel consumption and different, seeing that it had just hit the market.

Know what Lois thought of it? She promptly took over my big blue AMC Ambassador already three years old. I couldn’t fit fishing rods in the Gremlin, and there wasn’t much trunk space for all the tackle I carted around, so within a few years I traded it in on a Datsun pickup truck with cap.

I’d have preferred to have kept the Gremlin for short trips, zipping here and there while loading the pickup with outdoor gear for more serious junkets. But in the interest of household harmony, I traded it in. I paid about $3,000 for it, and I got $2,000 trade-in on the pickup.

Today, it would be worth about $5,000 or so, according to McKeel Hagerty, who tracks renewed interest in nerd vehicles of the ’70s. I lost a couple thousand clams or more just for the sake of a marriage. But that’s just the beginning.

My All-Weather Thing
The pickup served me well for a few years, but just about the time Datsun was changing its name to Nissan, I spied an ad for the VW Thing in a magazine. It was true runabout, much easier to park and a convertible, which meant the fishing rods could stick out of the top in warmer weather. For the winter months, I bolted two rod holders on both the front and rear bumpers.

It was a bright yellow box with four wheels, probably unsafe at any speed, but it didn’t drink much fuel. It could be a bit drafty in winter, but mittens and gloves took care of that, and though of only rear-wheel drive, it was virtually an all-terrain vehicle: a miniature Jeep minus the 4x4.

It got me from here to there with no problem and a few times ferried me to a few stories I otherwise might never have got. As when a blizzard closed Route 40 in Western Maryland, which was before the days of Interstates 70 and 68.

I was on the deer-hunting trail for my regular column when the storm hit.

At Cumberland, I was told by state police that Route 40 was closed west of Frostburg. But that was where the action was. Being a newspaperman, I opted for the eye of the storm. I reached Frostburg where state troopers were turning back all but four-wheel drive vehicles, of which there weren’t many at that time.

Fortunately, VW’s Thing had just come on the market. Even the fuzz didn’t know much about it other than it resembled a Jeep. So when I pulled up to the police car, I hollered through the snow “four-wheel drive.” Before the trooper had a chance to take a peek, I was off up the mountain.

I passed many vehicles stranded in drifts, scores of stranded motorists overnighting in a school, nothing but emergency vehicles and snow plows on the highway — and I had a great first-hand lead story on page one of the Evening Sun the next day. I also filmed some of the drifts and interviews with the snowbound and had the lead segment on Channel 2 the next night in addition to my regular outdoor report.

The following summer, while heading into the back country near Blackwater Falls, West Virginia, I parked the Thing at the beginning of a trail to set off afoot for a couple of days. A wild storm developed and torrential rains flooded over the banks of a small creek that was otherwise passable. I had to get back pronto.

A few others who had parked near me decided to wait until the creek went down. One chap in an expensive English-built 4x4 that cost more than twice the Thing made an attempt, and his engine drowned out.

My Thing’s air-cooled engine was mounted high at the rear. I gunned the gas pedal and half drifted, half powered across the creek and was on my way again. Maybe it was a car for nerds, but this nerd was the only one to head home that day.

After a couple years, the Thing was sold for close to the $3,000 I had paid for it. Again, I’d rather have kept it. But I didn’t dare suggest as much to Lois. Today, an operative Thing can bring $10,000.

Out Paced
Ah, the AMC Pacer, the box of all boxes, a mini-car, squat, square, all windows with the looks of having been squashed. I rented one in Alberta in mid-winter and headed east to Manitoba interviewing farmers about crop losses to ducks and geese. Near Winnipeg, I pulled off a provincial park road to snap photos of buffalo, who it turned out viewed photographers about the same as did Frank Sinatra.

After I made it back to the parked vehicle at more than a full trot, there I was in a car no higher and not much wider than an honest-to-goodness bison with only windows between me and about 20 of them circling and stomping and ‘pawing’ the snow covered soil in a most threatening manner.

That afternoon, I traded the Pacer in at Avis for a full-size pickup for the remainder of my junket.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly