The Green Limousine: How We Got By Before There Were SUVs

by CB Bassity

     My daughter Erin came close to being born in the Green Limousine.  It didn’t happen, though.  The little hospital in upstate New York where she emerged at dawn in May 1977 was almost an hour’s drive from our house, and it rained as we drove there at four a.m.  As each new contraction gripped Marcia, the windshield wipers’ slip-slop-slipping so affected her LaMaze breathing—Heh, heh, heh, whewh; heh, heh, heh, whewh—Stop them! Turn that off!—that I had to pull over, wiper-less and blind, until the contraction passed.
     I’m reminded of that car while looking at a magazine ad for Ford SUV behemoths with the slogan “NO BOUNDARIES/FORD OUTFITTERS.”  A luxury vehicle to navigate rough country—we had one, the Green Limousine.
     The Green Limousine was a ‘64 Plymouth Belvedere, four-door sedan.  Any way you look at the ‘64 Belvedere poses the question: limousine?  But you have to know that we bought it in 1974, when it was only ten years old.  When it had ninety-six thousand miles on it, which in those days was geriatric for most cars, but not this one with its new brakes, shocks, and tires all around.  And you have to know also that its sole owner before us had treated it like family.
     You also have to know what we’d been driving: a ‘62 Chevy 3/4-ton pickup with a suspension so stiff— I’ve been on tractors that rode smoother.  You had to load half a ton of scrap iron, firewood, or hay into it, and then it skimmed over the road as if on wings.  But loaded or not, its fenders and tailgate and a hundred other parts were jarred into constant clatter on the rutted dirt road we lived on.  And beyond it, the paved roads were slathered with salt half the year to melt ice, salt doing to car and truck bodies what waves do to sand dunes, so the rear fenders fell off our pickup.  The first one dropped off as Marcia drove home from work one night, and she looped a rope around it and tied it back on.  I got a neighbor to weld the fenders to the pickup bed with strap iron, which held them tight but did nothing for the ride, of course.  So compared to the pickup, when we first drove the Plymouth it seemed like a limousine.
     A limousine suggests style, but the ‘64 Belvedere was never stylish, not even when new.  Ours was dark green, a little darker than a frog.  It looked broad and squat from front or rear, and the car’s side profile started out bold behind the headlights but then past the rear window it dropped off apologetically.  Today, Chrysler has a line of cars you can call sleek without giggling, in colors you’d call “lustrous” or “burnished.”  But for many years Chrysler devoted its engineering muscle to building reliable steel tanks.  Ford and GM turned out gleaming beauties that leaned into the wind and dared gravity and friction to hold them back.  Yet Chrysler continually turned out stolid-looking barges that you looked at and winced.  In the ‘60s especially, their cars had all the pizazz of something your grandmother crocheted for the sofa.  Look at the ‘63 or ‘64 Chrysler Newport and just try to like it.
     But the company more than made up for its impoverished design with solid engineering and its tough line of engines, the slant-six in particular.  The slant-six was Chrysler’s longstanding six-cylinder indestructo.  And it looked like the Chrysler design team had gotten hold of it: it lay at a slant under the hood, as if something had worked loose and let it half fall over.  When I drove cab in 1969, the Ridgewood Taxi company had a fleet of ‘65 Dodges, essentially the same car as our Belvedere.  They stood up to the abject abuse of countless drivers who started them cold, slammed them into gear, and often slammed them into large solid objects as well.
     So when Marcia and I went looking for a car in 1974, we looked for one with a slant-six engine: a Dodge Dart, or a Plymouth model like the Valiant or Belvedere.  What comfort it was to ease into the Green Limousine’s woven nylon seats after climbing down from our old pickup with its vinyl husks, which at temperatures down near zero stiffened into something like tree bark.  The Green Limo—its name got shortened in everyday usage—had a pushbutton automatic transmission.  At the upper left of the dash was a vertical row of elongated buttons—P R N D L—cushy, after the stiff clutch and big, awkward 4-speed stick in the pickup.  We had been accustomed to sitting bolt upright, high above the ground, and fighting our corduroy road without power steering, wrestling with a teamster-sized steering wheel.  In the Green Limo, we would half-recline on soft seats, touch that D button, and glide away—with power steering.  Chrysler tough, the Green Limo traveled our road like a bear through the woods, heavily and lacking grace but with an easy agility.  It didn’t seem like an old car, either, which struck me when some guy mentioned that his car was almost ten years old and he simply had to have a new one.
     Now it might seem odd to wax nostalgic over a car that was old and homely.  But anyone might do the same.  Maybe you resented inheriting the family sedan, totally uncool because you’d grown up in the damn thing and been hauled around in it to dance lessons and soccer.  But then by sheer accident you forgot yourself and had a wild time, you and your girlfriend with peanuts and beer one night at the lake.  For us, there was the time we loaded up the baby and some friends and went to see Buffalo Bill and the Indians at the drive-in; and when fog rolled in off the river, halfway through the movie, the place cleared out.  But hey, this was our night out, and in the Green Limo lounge we listened to the soundtrack, envisioning our own movie among us, and we did see the last ten minutes or so when the fog lifted.  We loved the Green Limo from the start.  To begin with, it only cost us $600—no payments, no interest, we just peeled off some bills and took it home.  And like some mixed-breed mutt of a dog it kept healthy with little pampering, and even put up with its share of abuse.
     Although I kept the pickup for real hauling, we used the Green Limo for light utility work, like moving small livestock.  In the winter especially, when twenty-five-mile winds at zero degrees would hardly make for a comfy ride in the back of a pickup, I’d lift the back seat out of the car, lay a plastic sheet and straw on the floor, and transport two or three goats or a calf.  A sponge, warm water, and dish detergent took care of every contingency.  That kind of thing might seem strange, I suppose; but I once worked for a local trader who sold a Shetland pony one day, to a guy who loaded it into the back seat of a four-door Chrysler and drove away—at least we took the seat out.  In June 1976, working on the St. Lawrence River oil-spill cleanup, evenings I came dragging home late (Kirk and Sticks and me pulling cold ones out of a six-pack or two on the floor).  And for a while when a county tractor was mowing the roadside, I stopped the Green Limo each evening, opened the trunk, and stuffed if full with sweet, new hay to feed my livestock when I got home.  Once, at an estate auction miles away, Marcia and I bought a fine old gas stove, a big one with a cast iron griddle set between the burners.  We carried it home in the Green Limo, the trunk lid raised high.  It was a true, all-purpose utility vehicle.
     Reverse went out at one point.  The car drove fine otherwise, but for a while we had to be really careful how we parked.  Then we took it to Roger Bowman at the local salvage yard.  Roger and another guy pulled our transmission and replaced it with one they’d pulled from a wreck, and it never troubled us again.  We paid him a flat $100.  Late that afternoon when we stopped for a beer at the Redwood Hotel, Roger and his help were there at the bar.  We bought them a round and they bought us one in return.  Which I suppose brought the Green Limo’s one major repair bill up to $103.
     On short rides, sometimes we brought along our German Shepherd, Rufus.  He perched on the back seat, bright-eyed and smiling with six inches of tongue hanging out.  Or he leaned out the window and, like some mandarin of the dog world, barked at other dogs as we passed.  In car ads it seems you can improve life with the right equipment.  But the best times in my life are rarely undergirded with high-dollar gear.  Instead, those serendipitous moments come supplied with friends, a lover, or a dog who loves us, even in an old Plymouth.
     I remember feeling sorry for myself one time, feeling bad about the car.  The muffler was shot, and on a sticky, warm June night, flying along the highway with the windows down, the motor noise was thunderous.  Maybe I felt the car really was an old tank, a heap; maybe I felt ashamed.  But the feeling passed, replaced by one of those lucid moments that prove something about this universe, even if we don’t know what.  The truth I saw clearly was this: You, sir, are hurtling across the earth on a smooth ribbon of stone.  In minutes you’ll be safely home, conveyed by the equivalent of a magic carpet, a miraculous device assembled—like the highway, by strangers who have no obligation to you—from materials that have been mined, refined, and shaped—many parts cut to such exacting fit that the added thickness of a leaf of paper would ruin them.  You sail the earth in this device at your whim, but you’re tormented by the noise?  It became a limousine again.  (And I bought a muffler.)
     I killed the Green Limo.  Accidentally, of course.  It was the winter I worked as a dairy hand.  Seven days a week I arrived at Edgar Amyott’s barn at five-thirty a.m., even when the thermometer read thirty below.  In below-zero temperatures a car engine, slant-six or no, will not start without help, so every vehicle in that part of the world had an electric cord and plug dangling from its grill for the block-heater.  But we lived in a house without electricity, so the Green Limo’s plug dangled uselessly.  I maintained that anything electricity did I could manage some other way.  Mornings when it was below zero, I opened the wood-stove that heated our home; inside was a mound of red coals on which a few blue flames danced lazily.  I would scoop coals into an aluminum pan, carry it outside, crunch down in the snow, and slide the pan of heat under the car’s oil-pan.
     I was proud of my ingenuity.  Driving home after milking one morning, I stopped to visit with an old guy who was out front of his house trying to start his car with no success.  He nodded at the Green Limo and said, “What? do you take that thing to bed with you?”  It was high admiration cloaked in local code, and I drove home feeling bigger.  But my ingenuity had an ugly underside: a pan full of coals lacks an important component of an electric block heater: a thermostat.  Once or twice that winter I probably cooked the oil.  In late winter the Green Limo began trailing blue smoke, its rings scraping away at the cylinder walls.  It died in the spring.  But we’d had four good years out of it.  The Green Limousine owed us nothing.  It had given us a lot.

******
     “Limousine,” it’s a French word.  If not for an accident of linguistics, we’d probably call such a vehicle a “bus.”  These days the stretch limo gets a lot of use, a lot of press, a lot of ooh’s and ah’s—and it’s just a bus.
     A limousine is something to be seen in, something to suggest that you’re somebody.  And for most drivers, a huge SUV serves the same purpose.  Unless you badly need to say Hey, look at me!—it’s more car than most people need.  Once the new wears off, it will serve mainly to suck cash out of you.
 If a limousine suggests luxury and status, an SUV promises what?  I’m guessing it’s outdoor adventure.  Yet buying the damn thing seals your domestic fate.  You can’t light out for the territory, because you’ve got to make your car payment.  Real cowboys pound the roads in battered pickups, ten and twenty years old.
     My daughter who was nearly born in the Green Limo recently bought a Ford Explorer Sport.  She loves it, a nice three-year-old vehicle that lived in our driveway for a month.  When I climbed up into it from my little Nissan pickup, I had the impression of mounting something like our old 3/4-ton, of sitting high over the road in the cabin of a cruiser.  And after driving it some, and buying tankfuls of gas way sooner than I’m accustomed to, it became clear that its six-cylinder motor, the smaller of its available powerplants, is propelling a hefty chunk of steel wherever it travels.
     So I perked up when I saw this magazine ad for Ford’s overblown line of SUVs, a line which begins at the low end with a little scout-like cutie, the Escape (Quick, get out while you can!)—it looks like the next step down would be a three-wheeler.  Moving up, the line of SUVs extends through the Explorer Sport Trac, and then the Explorer sport—my daughter’s cruiser, less than halfway up the scale—then through its big brother the Explorer, upwards past the mighty Expedition, and it culminates— whew—in the Excursion, a cruise-ship that makes my daughter’s car look like a toy.  The upper end of this expansive line suggests the Exponent: transportation taken to the xth power of excess.
 In the ad the vehicles line up beneath an enticing expanse of green space, a golf course, with limitless open water beyond.  Which suits their slogan: “NO BOUNDARIES/FORD OUTFITTERS.”  But these monsters are less likely to expedite their owners outdoors than to fix them firmly to their desks, to induce exertion and exhaustion in those from whom exorbitant payments are exacted.  Also inherent in Ford’s ex-models is excruciatingly exaggerated exhibitionism.  It is camping, golf, and other outdoor action that makes for good times—not the bus that gets you there.  And ferrying kids to the soccer field in such a leviathan is like hunting squirrels with a Sherman tank.
     Nine out of ten SUV-owners will never drive roads as rough as what the Green Limo handled every day.  With snow-tires or chains it went anywhere, like the little pickup I drive now.  I’m no Luddite, I appreciate new technology like electronic ignition, front wheel drive, and fuel injection.  But I’m amazed by people who mortgage themselves to more car than they need.  (“Mortgage”—from the Latin: “death-pledge.”)  Advertisers peddle useless luxury, cars with “appointments” like simulated burled walnut finish on the dash, in the “cabin.”  Chrysler touts its “cab forward” design—which accomplishes what?—although it has scrapped Ricardo Montalban and his “rich Corinthian leather.”
     We loved our Green Limo, and we took it places and used it in ways you’d never dare with something you pay thirty or forty thousand dollars for.  Compared to a rattling pickup the Green Limo was pure luxury—even when we drove cab-forward of a goat.  If I stepped outside today and found our old Plymouth magically resurrected in my driveway, parked between an SUV and a stretch limo, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second.  I’d slide into the Green Limo, poke that D button, and head off to the hardware store or some other exotic locale.

       CB Bassity ©2000 All Rights Reserved

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