Bessie was loyal. She never fought me when I pushed her to her limit. Sure, she had her bad days, but what old lady doesn’t? She was there for my grandfather, my brother, me, and then my first cousin. I have no idea where she is now.
Bessie was my first car, a 1976 Dodge Aspen Sedan, and in 1987 I bought her from my dad for $900. In the two years before I got her, Bessie had been my brother’s first car. My grandfather bought her off the lot back in the 1970’s. As I recall, a high school buddy of mine named her Bessie at a time when I just called her “Rawhide,” in reference to her leather-look hard top.
Ah yes, on the open road in a car that got me second looks, but not the kind most teenage boys wanted.
Dodge Aspen was a car line that started out strong, and was Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in 1976, but then dropped until Chrysler pulled it and its Plymouth counterpart in 1980. Evidently it had numerous problems. It had rusting front fenders, as well as recalls on seemingly everything but the vaunted drivetrain.
If you’re old like me, you might remember the commercial jingle of the Aspen’s sister car, the Plymouth Volare. That corny song still rings in my ears. “Volare, oh oh OH oooh.”
My Bessie sported a 225 Slant Six engine that had a kick. I never tried to burn rubber from a dead stop, probably because I usually ran her on dangerously worn tires. She rode smooth, with soft shocks that made it feel like I was riding on waves. She didn’t exactly corner on rails, though.
Later in my two years behind Bessie’s wheel, any time I slowed below about 20 mph, I had to put her in neutral and rev her engine to keep her from dying. This made for some fun shifting in and out of tight curves, and got some strange looks from people stopped alongside me at intersections. I must have seemed like some crazed adolescent daring them in a car that had little business on the road, much less in a race.
She had spunk, though, and I think I would have had the advantage for about the first 10 or 20 feet. That’s how long it would take the opposing driver to overcome his or her amazement that Bessie had not fallen into pieces.
The one time I did race her, it was up a 4-mile stretch of steep, curvy mountain highway. We had two lanes so we could “safely” pass each other if needed. The other guy, a friend in a ragtop Jeep of some kind, probably was lucky he didn’t tip over. He ended up barely beating me because I just couldn’t bring myself to take that last curve fast enough to pass him.
Once, heading down that same mountain with my brother driving, I saw something silver out of the corner of my right eye. My brother saw it and we both realized it was one of Bessie's hubcaps. It had popped off the wheel and was rolling up the hillside on our right. It almost seemed to accelerate up the hill as we laughed ourselves breathless.
This next part, I’ve never told anyone the truth about since the day it happened. I can't detail it here right now. Tune in Monday.