Tuesday, August 4, 2009

My Willys


I can still hear my dad yelling, “Shift! Shift! Shift!” as I over-revved the engine in every gear. I learned to drive in it, a 1954 Willys Overland with three on the column and a manual clutch. It was the last car that Willys made, and there weren’t many of them left on the highway. My dad bought it in 1963, the year he died. He paid two hundred and sixty five dollars for it. I always remember him when I think about the little green coupe with a white top.

The six-cylinder engine was fitted with dual exhaust, but its throaty little rumble had been silent for over a year. It languished in an old white wooden garage detached from our house. The humid air of Hattiesburg, Mississippi bathed it daily right down to its flat dry rotted tires. Dust and spiders attached themselves to every available surface.

I couldn’t afford tires, gasoline, or insurance, so I just watched as the old car waited. My job sacking groceries at the local A & P Supermarket didn’t pay much, but I saved every penny. Sometimes I just sat behind the steering wheel thinking about the day when I would roll it out of the garage. The old cloth interior smelled dusty and mildewed.

My first purchase was a battery, and later I bought a set of four Mohawk recapped tires. They cost eight dollars apiece. Each wheel had to be taken off separately and rolled to the tire store for mounting. Once this was done, I pushed it out of the garage and washed it inside and out. I waxed, buffed, and polished the faded finish until I could see myself in it. It was finally ready.

I put the key in the ignition and turned it. The starter whirred and turned the crankshaft over and over, but the gas in the tank was old and the points rusted. I tried again and again until the battery started to fail. Finally, it coughed, chugged, and wheezed as it arose from its long sleep. Little puffs of blue smoke filled the air behind the tailpipes. I let it idle for a few minutes until the clatter of the lifters quieted. Then I rolled it out for its first exercise.

In the months that followed, I painted the little coupe black. It looked like a stretch Henry J. with little rounded humps on the rear fenders. Its hood and grill resembled a Studebaker’s. I redid the interior in red and white. For flair, I placed the waxed wrapper from a Tootsie Roll Pop on the interior dome light so that it would glow red at night when the doors were opened.

Parts were hard to find and had to be ordered most of the time. . This meant I had to be creative. Once, the return spring on the accelerator pedal broke. When the accelerator pedal was depressed, it stayed depressed. I ordered the part from a warehouse in Michigan that carried parts for cars no longer in production. It took about four weeks for the new spring to arrive. In the meantime, I tied a strong cord to the rod behind the gas pedal. The string was long enough for me to hold in my right hand while I shifted. I held tension on it as I drove. When I needed to shift, I would pull back on the cord. This lowered the engine speed long enough to change gears. My younger sister would sometimes hold the cord when she rode with me. I would yell, “PULL!” when I needed to grab another gear.

The old Willys had another little quirk. I suppose it was a safety feature. Pushing the car forward would not start it. In order to do a “weak battery” start, you had to put the transmission in reverse, push the car backwards, and release the clutch. This meant that when I wanted to spend some quality time with a young lady watching the stars, I had to park on a slight rise with the hood facing up the hill. I spent many daylight hours looking for secluded spots with the proper gradient.

Fifty Four Willys

It sat alone in an old wood garage.

Its engine long silent.

I found it one day.

Painted green with white top.

Covered with dust.

Nose coned,

hump fendered,

like a stretch Henry J.

I painted it black.

New tires all around.

Filled it with Casite.

Drove it to town.

Dennis Price

An intelligence test sometimes shows a man how smart he would have been not to have taken it.
Laurence J. Peter