My Cardboard Box

The Fiat 128

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Living near Joshua Tree, also known as the Center of The Universe, one oddly enough gets to see the cutting edge of culture in the middle of nowhere. That because it’s a getaway for the L.A. artist, pseudo-artist, musician, writer, movie producer, movie director, and movie actor. Also the idiot who decides to eat ‘shrooms and commune with the rocks, but you only hear about them when the rescue team is involved.

So it was with little surprise that the latest Fiat attempt to penetrate the US auto market showed up in front of The Laundromat. Shiny. Beige. Kinda cool, in a hipster-Euro, we-can-smugly-park-this-in-front-of-the-art-gallery sort of way. Its owner waved his vente-sized cup of latte and raved about the style, the gas mileage and the nimbleness. The Professor limped around the car and nodded his wild mane and started saying something about his wife’s “@#$%!! Toyota”. The Mechanic (having just replaced the head gasket on his truck) grunted, readjusted his sunglasses and looked disinterested. The usual collection of Old Gray Marines looked over at the car and went back to their newspapers.

I bit my tongue and didn’t tell him about the Green Dragon.

It was a ’75 Fiat 128. Olive green. Verde Oliva, I think Fiat called it. It was five years old with some 75,000 miles on the odometer when I bought it in Seattle from Mike, a French Canadian who came from Boston. He’d driven it all the way out West with the intent of living in the Emerald City, then needed money to fly back when he decided he couldn’t deal with the rain. I was going to drive it all the way back East to go to college. Two guys from my ship, Tim and Andy, were getting out of the Navy and volunteered to help drive across toward their respective homes. And on the way, I was going to get some ‘flight time’ driving with a manual transmission. I had all of a half-hour’s worth when I bought the car.

“Only way you learn is drive it,” Mike said in his Quebec-Boston accent. “Don’t worry, you pick it up as you go.” Yes, all three thousand-plus miles. It’d gotten its name from the time it had shot fire from its carburetor and singed Mike’s eyebrows. The Dragon looked a little tired and had picked up a coat of avocado appliance paint on one of its flanks, but a new battery, wipers and tires, an oil change, and a test drive down and around the Sound pronounced as ready as it would ever be. So the three of us plus baggage piled in and headed eastward.

It turned out to be a workhorse. The Green Dragon hauled Andy to the hospital after losing a bar-fight near Spokane (the seats were vinyl and the blood cleaned off – it took rubbing compound to get it out of the paint), then got us over what seemed to be all the logging roads in Idaho “for the adventure” – not to mention allowing time for Andy’s face to heal up before he went back to see his mom. In Butte, Montana, the Dragon got a new stereo when the old one conked out at Missoula and the three of us decided we were lousy conversationalists and even worse singers. I sort of went overboard – it cost almost as much as the car was worth. But it kept us sane while we crawled through herds of elk in Wyoming just ahead of a raging blizzard.

Onward to South Dakota, where we visited Mount Rushmore and then camped on a reservation. We decided beer would taste good. The only place to buy alcohol on that reservation was in the only bar. Andy and Tim being blond haired and blue-eyed and me not, they voted I go in and buy a case while they waited in the Dragon at the far end of the parking lot. The Sioux patrons took a liking to me. An hour later, I made my excuses and staggered out with my purchase. Andy and Tim were not amused. We ended up spending most of that night in the Dragon sheltered from a driving rainstorm. It was cramped, stuffy and reeked of beer, but it beat the dry riverbed turned raging flood that one of us had originally proposed to camp in.

Then south to Nebraska, where we saw Andy meet his father that he hadn’t seen in six years.

After a week of getting fat on farm cooking, it was onward to Iowa where we dropped off Andy and spent three days looking at irrigation systems and corn, while the Dragon got a tune-up by one of of Andy’s sister’s boyfriends. It ran much better after that, all the way down to Arkansas and to a friend of Tim’s for a planned two week stay. That stay ended after eight days (something about Tim committing an indiscretion with the wife’s best friend) and resulted in a stop-only-for-gas-and burgers drive from Arkansas to the Rhode Island border and Tim’s family. Then a two-hour solo drive home. Six weeks and 3600 miles.

Epilogue: The Dragon and I continued racking up the miles over the next two and a half years. Back and forth to college and Reserve duty. Up to Vermont, over to New York, Boston, and Providence. Down to Philadelphia for the odd Reserve drill. To numerous nightclubs to work the sound board for innumerable bands. Then in my junior year, the reasons for the “Fix It Again, Tony” joke came out. First the electrical system. Then the rack and pinion steering. A new exhaust system. The stereo was stolen during a trip to Hartford in mid January – two weeks into 1983 and the police stolen-property report number was 1923.

The week of final exams, the Green Dragon decided to go out in a blaze of glory, blowing its head-gasket and catching fire on the highway. Miraculously, it drove home after I used a fire extinguisher on it – don’t leave home without one kids – and finally died in the driveway. A month and a hard evaluation later, it headed for the junkyard, just shy of 100,000 miles.

The punchline: Just about the second year of owning it, the car began to move sluggishly during shifting. A classmate (and Fiat fanatic) helped me drop the transmission for a look. He started laughing and pointed to the clutch plate.

“They put it in backwards at the factory,” he explained. “Instead of full pressure on the plate, only about an inch of the outer diameter was making contact”.” 85,000 or so miles, and it was finally giving out. Like I said, a workhorse.

And no – I’m not buying the 500.

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Written by PappyBro

January 30, 2012 at 22:00

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