Monday, May 28, 2007

Non-archaeological post: My history of Cars

Skip if you don't give a rip.

The first two cars I had anything to do with, I don't remember much about. I was born in Colorado Springs where my dad (Air Force) was stationed. He eventually was transferred to Truax near Madison (WI) and we drove back -- my mom was from Wisconsin -- in a pickup with a camper top on it. I remember nothing of this trip, although AS MY PARENTS CONSTANTLY REMINDED ME -- I kept climbing into the sink. We eventually ended up in a duplex in Sun Prairie (WI) and traded the truck in for some sort of green Chevy. I have only vague memories of this one also, being way too young to notice such things.

The first one I have a distinct memory about is the Catalina, which was a dark red 2-door probably much like this one, though I don't know what year it was:

We used to drive down to Alabama from Wisconsin every summer for vacation, and this is probably the first one that trip was made in. You really don't see too many of these around anymore, but that's one Family Car I wish we'd kept. even though it would probably be a tank. Incidentally, it was either this one or the green Chevy that I climbed into as a young lad and managed to put it into neutral and coast back down the driveway. Sheesh. My parent went nuts; meanwhile, I remember I was in the car desperately trying to put on the brakes but my little legs just couldn't do it (no power brakes/steering back then). I still occasionally have a mild nightmare about being in a car and the brakes don't really stop the car. Just goes to show what a little childhood trauma can do. . . .

Next, we traded the Catalina in for a '68 Buick Wildcat:

Ours was a green 4-door. Yeah, there's a pattern here: GM loyalists. To this day, my mother has never owned a non-GM car. They didn't hate other manufacturers, they just wouldn't buy anything else. This one definitely took a few trips to Alabama and I still have clear memories of driving over endless flat straight roads in Indiana listening to the radio and being bored and hot.

Next up: A 1975 Buick Century, the prototypical Family Car. No pics of this one really available. Let me state this clearly and unambigously: I HATED THIS CAR. It was a pukey green with green PAISLEY interior. Also, one of the first V6's, and it showed it. Totally typical crap 1970s car. I think the engine was a 231 and was woefully inadequate for such a heavy car. Supposedly, it was a pretty good engine, but this one had all sorts of problems. When I drove it out to Seattle, it started dying about 10 minutes after starting cold, and then it would flood itself. So very often I'd let it die (once at a busy intersection) and then have to sit and let it dry out before it would start again. Although once it died when I went to visit my then-housemate's Christmas tree lot and while I waited I sold some trees and made like $30.

So anyway, I hated that thing. As I said, typical crap 1970s car. I've since rethought whether the 1970s were all that bad for automobiles; they certainly weren't high quality, but I wonder if that wasn't a problem before the '70s. I've heard numerous people say that even '60s American cars were pretty unreliable, but one, they had no real competition to compare with (except for equally unreliable Euro imports), and two, the muscle cars kinda made up for that with massive speed. Certainly performance took a major hit in the mid-'70s and they didn't pull off fuel or emissions efficiency very well. And we were finally seeing quality Japanese cars in quantity so there was something to compare them to.

Apparently, some guy in Michigan bought a Cadillac -- 1972, I think -- and the thing was so awful it was always going back to the shop for repairs. He'd saved up a long time to buy this Caddy, and finally the straw broke the camel's back and it died on his wife while she was driving on a freeway. He got it running again, drove it over to the GM headquarters lawn, set the thing on fire and sat under a tree to watch it burn. Can't find anything on the internets about it though, so you'll have to take my word for it.

I always liked the design of 1970's cars though. I think they were beautiful to behold and in truth, they were much more comfortable and refined than their '60s counterparts. I love the sculpted look of the mid-late '70s GM products and even Ford, I think, produced some beautiful cars in that period. I have some faith that those will start increasing in value as remods. I'm already starting to see some on the street that have been restored and upgraded, engine-wise.

In comparison, we also had a little blue Fiat ("Fix It Again, Tom") that was similarly not high on the reliability scale. Fun car though. We eventually sold it to a Catholic priest, being all honest and letting him know we'd had trouble with it. He said no problem, he's not one to come back and complain, but don't be surprised if we saw it floating down the town river if it acted up.

I think it eventually caught fire.

We next got a 1975 AMC Hornet. Looked kind of like this one, but blue, four doors and bigger bumpers:

In contrast to the Buick, I love love LOVED this car. It was really my first one, although I kind of adopted it from the family. Wasn't flashy, more of a utility car than anything, but it had decent power, plenty of room for junk and college buddies, and wasn't too bland. It had a straight 6 that was actually a very good engine. Easy to work on, too. The things would go forEVER, even after rusting out. Good in snow, too. I remember driving some guy home(?) in a freakin' blizzard one night. Don't know why exactly I did that, but I recall constantly turning the wheel slightly because it was in a constant skid. Yes, I was, in fact, immortal back then. Got me everywhere, it did. Sadly, my parents inflicted me with gave me the Buick instead because they didn't think the Hornet would make it out to Seattle. Last I heard, the family mechanic had sold it to someone for an ice-fishing car and they were still driving it out on the lake with holes in the floor.

And so it was that a rusty Buick made its way to Seattle from Wisconsin. I finally got rid of the damn thing (somewhere I have a newspaper clipping of an identical car being dragged out of a local lake; wishful thinking) and got an equally crappy 1984 Bronco II. Wow, first car I owned not made in the '70s! Sadly, it was an absolute jinx of a truck. 24 hours after I bought it I had my first accident. Sheesh. So in it went to get fixed and get a hot new tubular steel bumper. Gotta admit, it was crappy and jinxed but I liked it. Perfect for me then, as I was employing myself doing contract fieldwork. Fun while I had it, which was about a month and a half. Apparently, the former owner had neglectd to change the oil and the lifters had difficulty getting oil anywhere. I was driving to a job outside of Chico, CA when half the cylinders seized up in the middle of Oregon. It needed a complete rebuild, but I didn't have the money, so I swapped 'em for my current Mustang. Yeah, back I went to the 1970s.

And I've had it since 1990. In truth, the Mustang II wasn't even on my radar back then. I remember it mostly because Farah-Fawcett had one in 'Charlie's Angels', but back then I liked Trans Ams and other GM products.

So there you have it. My Life In Cars.

To wrench this back to archaeology, cars do, in fact, make excellent examples for teaching various principles of archaeology. I used them several times to illustrate various aspect of archaeological method and theory. Stylistically, of course, you can demonstrate non-stratigraphic seriation simply by showing a variety of cars and having students put them in chronological order. And when you ask them why they did it, you can point out that it was largely on stylistic grounds that the ordering was made since, functionally, cars didn't change all that much -- four rubber wheels, an exhaust, engine, etc. Other items can be used to demonstrate how functional traits could turn into stylistic cues such as the false exhaust manifold ports on Buicks, and fake hood scoops on various models. It's a familiar item that people can immediately relate to and know something about so it makes for a nice analogy.