By Graham Hurst

‘I got a 440’

That whitewashed windscreen – or ‘windshield’ – boast about the cubic inches of a tired Chrysler New Yorker for sale in Denver had a mate and me in stitches when we stumbled across it at a used car lot some 25 years ago. Coming from a land where (back then) having a 3-litre V6 under your bonnet was a big deal and where sign writing on forecourt fare was limited to ‘aircon’ or ‘doctor’s car’, this line (which equated to 7.2-litres in our money) spoke volumes about America. A country where every aspect of life seemed to be on steroids: from super-sized hamburgers and enormous 64oz ‘sodas’ to the towering skyscrapers in Manhattan and mighty Oshkosh trucks barrelling down the Interstates. And cars, of course.

 That’s my standout memory from the first trip I made to the USA as a student on a working holiday back in late 1993. Their automobiles. In the pre-global economy (and Internet) era America was very much a place you only knew through movies and TV programmes like Dallas and The A-Team. Seeing it for real when I emerged from New York’s JFK airport en route to Colorado was like stepping into a movie set. Particularly Manhattan, which provided a sensory overload thanks to the sea of huge lumbering yellow cabs honking in the streets and plethora of fast-food joints.

The rather aptly named Chrysler New Yorker we chuckled over was a highlight of a morning spent trawling Denver’s motor strip in search of some wheels to get me and five mates across the USA. By then we were at the end of a two-month stint of employment at a ski resort about 80 miles west of the mile-high city. And, after waiting tables and cleaning hotel rooms at a heady $6/hour, we were itching to hit the road.

Leaving Breckenridge Colorado.

After a few hours sparring with the dealers, we realised that the $1 500 or so we’d collectively scraped together would only stretch to something that wouldn’t make it across the state line, let alone California. Time to scour the classifieds.

After blowing a pocketful of quarters on a payphone, we ended up in a redneck part of town. One where the homes are mobile but the cars in the yard ain’t (to quote comedian Jeff Foxworthy). Yet again it was a case of sensory overload but thankfully – although he looked the part – our seller’s house turned out to be fixed to the ground and the 360-cubic inch ’79 Dodge he was peddling appeared to be mobile.

It had been run from new by a local school and eventually bought by the maintenance guy, who was now selling it on. Some minor rust and a threadbare carpet aside, it seemed sound and went well on a test drive. After some haggling, a wad of greenbacks changed hands and we were rumbling back up the Interstate.

A week later we hit the road, heading southwest for LA via the Grand Canyon and the bright lights of Las Vegas. I can recall cruising down Las Vegas Boulevard as darkness fell and ‘Sin City’ came to life in a spectacular blaze of neon. And flesh: when we opened the sliding door to capture it all on VHS, we became a magnet for umpteen scantily clad strip club touts doing their best with free drink offers to lure us to their establishments.

Near the Grand Canyon.

The week we spent driving down to LA was a reminder of the scale of America. Cars and trucks aside, the country itself was simply massive and packed with stuff to see. And with six people on board sticking their oar in on where to go, we realised we needed to plan the trip to avoid coming to blows long before we made it to the East Coast. And we needed to plan our finances too: fuel was less than $1 a gallon but the cost of hostels and private campsites was burning a hole through our wallets with the voracity of a blowtorch.

More affordable state parks (around $7 a night) were the only option and – for a $60 annual membership – the American Automobile Association would supply us with a map to find them. Or maps, I should say: when we took up their offer to plan a trip, the elderly clerk assigned to help us at their downtown office didn’t seem the slightest bit fazed when we indicated that we wanted a route to New York with stops in San Francisco and New Orleans. As well as Chicago and Seattle. And Yellowstone National Park. Two hours later, we were on the road with a box of maps and guidebooks for half of the lower 49 states.

Typical overnight spot in a State Park.

From the City of Angels, we headed to San Francisco for a few days before taking in the famous PCH1 Highway en route to a tour of the Boeing factory outside Seattle. After that we steered west to Yellowstone where the $60 AAA membership again paid for itself after the van’s alternator packed up and we had to get towed out of the park. During the 9000-mile trip we only had two breakdowns, the second of which was just a week later when the Dodge shed all its belts near Mount Rushmore.

We had spares so a roadside repair was easy enough until one mate, who was tightening a bolt, accidentally braced the socket spanner against the soft alloy casing of the power steering reservoir. Moments later his feet were soaked in hydraulic fluid! Thankfully, a tube of the equivalent of Pratley’s Putty Steel soon had the reservoir sealed up.

Servicing the 360ci V8.

By then we were well into the Midwest and after a couple of nights camping a few yards off the side of the I90 Interstate route (the only state park near Chicago), we headed south along the mighty Mississippi River to take in St Louis and then New Orleans. Hitting Louisiana’s famous Bourbon Quarter was memorable, but sadly for the wrong reasons: despite forking out $12 to leave the van in a secure car park, we came back in the early hours to find one of the Dodge’s quarter lights smashed and the van cleared out. Despite losing our belongings and air tickets, the most devastating news was the loss of our tickets for Pink Floyd’s Division Bell concert at the Superdome the following night.

After several hours at a police station, we had a case number to enable us to obtain replacement items so we (and 80 000 other fans) could hear David Gilmour strum up for ‘Comfortably Numb’. But only after confirming that South Africa wasn’t in the continental United States to the officer transcribing our details at the New Orleans Police Department – a reminder of how unworldly some parts of the US are, despite the severity of some of the other cases being reported that night (I’d argue criminal activity on the streets of New Orleans on a Friday night will rival anything our most overworked SAPS station can throw up).

A fortnight on we were back in dialogue with the long arm of the law, only this time after a break-in in broad daylight in downtown Philadelphia. And we were on the other side of the fence, so to speak, after one of my mates punched the perpetrator – who we’d found rifling through our stuff a few blocks away – and the guy (a wasted druggie) flagged down a police cruiser. Thankfully the police came to their senses once they clocked the situation and lost interest. And we lost no time in getting the hell out of town before they changed their minds!

Next stop was Boston where we skipped sightseeing to trawl a few scrapyards in search of a replacement quarter light. We came right but, as ever in the automotive trade, the stop delivered some amusement when I admired the yard owner’s 250 GTO replica. Only it wasn’t a replica, according to him, but an official ‘re-creation’. One endorsed by the Ferrari factory, no less. No doubt a few casual admirers had bought that line in the past but they possibly weren’t familiar with the shape of the doors of the donor Datsun 240Z the GTO rep was based on…

Parked up with a Ferrari 250 GTO replica.

The part search was part of a bid to smarten up the van so we could move it on and head our separate ways. And that’s what my mate Mark and I attempted to do with a morning spent along Brooklyn’s car dealer strip. But I realised our efforts on the cosmetic front were in vain after he casually mentioned (as we crossed Brooklyn Bridge) that the Dodge’s registration papers had been in his backpack when the van was cleared out in New Orleans.

Incensed that he’d neglected to mention this crucial aspect for the last three weeks (enough time to arrange a replacement), I agreed to press on despite the prospect of sale being hopeless. But in reality, the mere fact we were peddling a van with out-of- state plates was enough to dampen any interest. One or two diehard dealers on the strip smelt our desperation and offered a few hundred dollars, but the mention of a lack of papers quickly saw the offers rescinded.

Crestfallen over the fact we couldn’t recover our investment, we decided that we’d simply have to ditch the van. But if we were going to do so, then we might as well do so in style – outside JFK shortly before we flew out! Back then that was probably a common occurrence, but had we been departing like that in today’s post-911 era, I bet we wouldn’t have made it past check-in before being spread-eagled on the airport concourse by one of New York’s finest.

Outside JFK airport.

Not that we ran any risk of that at the time, mind: at the eleventh hour, we hooked up with one of our travel companions (who had broken away a week earlier to visit family) and he offered to drive the van to Canada while waiting for a replacement registration document. Some months later, when I met up with him back in SA, he told me that he never made it out of New York state after the Dodge’s V8 started misfiring. With no tools and limited mechanical knowledge, he elected to unscrew the number plates and abandon it before hitching a ride to the nearest Greyhound terminal.

It was a rather sad ending for our trusty steed – one which had given us a taste of ‘Life on the Road’ Jack Kerouac-style for over eight weeks – and I’ve often wondered what happened to it. No doubt it was towed to a police pound and eventually scrapped.

Colorado licence plate.

But I like to think our Dodge found its way back to one of those Brooklyn used car lots. One where the faded cross-continental route on the van’s rear doors intrigued another group of adventure-seeking blokes enough to hand over a fistful of dollars for the keys. That and the ‘I got a 360’ whitewashed line on the windshield.

  • Views  274
  • 1
  • Comments  0

Add a Comment

Login or register to start a conversation.

Latest Motoring Articles

Browse our classic cars on auction
Visit Auctions
Inviting auction consignments
Selling Guide