Sunday, February 17, 2013

Wheels of Fortune

Way back in 1985, I was looking for a new car. Or, rather, a new used car. I wanted a different car than the one I was already driving and that was beginning to fall apart faster than I could get it fixed. I had three criteria for the new used car I wanted. First, that it cost under $5000. Second, that it was in decent condition. Now, I'm no mechanic, so how would I recognize this decency? Well, it couldn't be too dirty under the hood, and there should be a minimum of rust. As neither guarantees against indecency, this brings us to the third criteria: the car should be no more than five years old. None of this criteria was iron clad. I could break my own contract with myself, and almost did.

It happened when I was looking through the classifieds and saw a 1977 Cadillac for sale in "good condition for only $2000." Good is certainly better than decent. True, it would be older than 1980. Three years older, but that would be at a savings of $1000 a year, or so I rationalized. What was really driving me to drive a Caddy was that at the time I was a big Bruce Springsteen fan, and "Cadillac Ranch" was my favorite song off The River album. Had the Boss sung about a Ford Pinto, I'm sure I would have wanted that. I decided to look into the ad. I called the number and found out the guy who was selling it lived in Gates Mills.

Gates Mills?

To those of you unfamiliar with Northeast Ohio, Gates Mills is a suburb of Cleveland. But it's very different from other Cleveland suburbs such as Parma, Lyndhurst, Shaker Heights, or Lakewood. Gates Mills is where all the rich Clevelanders live: the movers and shakers, CEOs, captains of industry, jet setters, high society types, and downtown parking lot owners. And now some tycoon had a $2000, instead of $5000, Cadillac waiting just for me. Maybe he was the head of some new foundation that provided used cars to needy Bruce Springsteen fans.

Getting to Gates Mills on the northeastern edge of Cuyahoga County from North Royalton on the southwestern border, where I was living at the time, wasn't all that easy. I borrowed my mother's 1979 Bonneville (I didn't trust my junker to make the trip) and took I-77 to I-something else to I-whatever until I got to Mayfield Heights and just took a regular road into the village. That's what Gates Mills is, a village. The places nearby where other rich folks live, Hunting Valley and Chagrin Falls, are villages, too, whereas Parma and Shaker Heights are considered "municipalities". The rich may want to create, develop, invest in, and control the municipalities, but they just as soon live in villages themselves.

I soon found myself on this long country road. Except unlike other long country roads, there were no corn, wheat, or barley fields. Nor were there any woods. There were just acres and acres of lawn. You know, what you mow. And mowed it was. I've seen more weeds at Disney World. It must have taken a whole fleet of Toros to keep Gates Mills free of dandelions. Every 20 yards or so I'd see a long driveway that seemingly led to nowhere, the houses were that far from the road. I would have mistaken them for side streets if not for the mailboxes in front. Finally, after a turn here and there, I came to the right address. Not that I could stop my car. In fact, I put my foot on the gas, as there was now no place to go but up.

 Not many people know this about Greater Cleveland, including many Greater Clevelanders themselves, but it's located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It's hard to see those foothills when you have machine shops, fast-food joints, tract housing, and shopping plazas in every possible spot. However, thanks to strict zoning laws, Gates Mills was free of all that, and I found myself driving up a small mountain. This little part of Cuyahoga County would have indeed looked like the Appalachians of popular imagination, if only hillbillies drove Toros.

About half-way up the summit I came to a garage, of all things. An older type garage where you had to pull the doors open rather than roll them up. I peered into a window. There was a car inside, but it was too dark to see what kind of condition it was in, or if it was even the car I had come to see. I got back into the Bonneville and continued my ascension.

I eventually came to a very big house. I hesitate to call it a mansion, simply because it had no Doric columns. In movies and TV, mansions always have Doric columns. This house didn't look anything like what the Clampetts or Blake Carrington lived in. It looked sort of looked like the house on Eight is Enough. Just imagine the house on Eight is Enough with 50 extra windows. And I only got to see it from the front. Whoever owned it had money. Now, I can't say for sure if the owner was a millionaire. At the very least, though, that person was a nine-hundred thousand and nine-hundred ninety-nineaire.

A middle-aged man as well-trimmed as his lawn and wearing a green sports shirt and white pants stepped out from behind a topiary and greeted me:

"Hello! Are you here to look at the car?"

"Um, yeah."

"Well, it's in the garage. Can we take your car down?"

So we both hopped in my mother's Bonneville, and drove half-way down the well-manicured Appalachian foothill to the garage to get a good look at the 1977 Cadillac, which, according to the owner, they didn't make like that any more. It was also as good as new, and in mint condition. I always imagined millionaires mainly reading The Wall Street Journal, but this fellow had the Trading Times down pat.

We arrived at our destination. We got out of the car, and the millionaire opened up the garage, turned on a light, and proudly let me examine the mint condition, good as new 1977 Cadillac which they didn't make like that anymore.

It had recently been painted in a god-awful light-blue, the shade you might find in a cell block. But that in itself was no big deal if it was other wise good as new. I took a close look and saw a wrinkle here, a fold there, a bubble somewhere else, along with bumps, lumps, and crumpled bits of metal all over the place. This guy had tried to hide the rust by painting over it!

I'd seen enough. I was too polite to tell him this made my own rust bucket back in North Royalton look like it had just come right off the assembly line, without even a fresh coat of cell block paint. So I drove him back to his huge, humble abode, and told him I'd think about it. I did in fact think about it, but probably not in the way he would have preferred.

Painting over the rust. Sheesh!

I had been looking for a new set of wheels for a while, so it's not like I hadn't come across this kind of thing before. If it had been some guy with unruly sideburns and an unkempt mustache wearing a checkered sports coat and striped pants at a used car lot across the street from an adult book store in a run down neighborhood who had tried to pull a stunt like that, I would have understood.

But a millionaire in Gates Mills?

He must have made all his money in junk bonds.


  1. Great story! What did you end up buying?

    P.S., I've owned some of the cars considered worst cars ever built, including a Corvair, Chevy Vega, Ford Pinto. I never owned a Yugo, though.

    1. Pappy, I ended up buying a 1981 Buick Cutlass Supreme for about $4000. Remember, this is in 1985. I bought it at a car lot that was so small, it only had five cars for sale. One of these cars--I can't remember the make--ran on diesel. The Energy Crises had recently ended, the price of gas had collapsed, so those cars weren't exactly in high demand. Amazingly, one young prospective buyer was talked into purchasing the diesel car by a friend that came with him. The owner of the car lot was flabbergasted, and half-jokingly tried to talk him out of it.

      Getting back to the Oldsmobile, it lasted about 7 years. I feel I got my money's worth out of it.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Incidentally, my mother once owned a Pinto. A 1974 Pinto, if I remember correctly. I basically learned how to drive in it.

      Funny you talking about owning what's considered the worst cars ever built. I've owned several luxury cars, including another Oldsmobile, but they were always used. Used luxury cars break down just as much as any other car.

  3. Glad you made that correction. At one time I owned a 1970 Olds Cutlass or maybe it was just an old Cutlass. The Buick version of the same GM car would have been the Skylark.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Mike, after the Olds Cutlass Supreme finally ran its course, I bought a 1984 Buick Regal. This was in 1992. It was almost identical to the '81 Cutlass. My second Olds was a 1987 Cutlass Ciera. The Ciera was lighter or smaller or something than the earlier Supreme. I don't know if the entire Olds line had gotten smaller between 1981 and 1987 or if the Ciera was always the smaller car.

      Incidentally, I bought the Ciera in 2005. 18 years old at the time. While it drove all right, it began to literally fall apart--the door fell off!

  4. The River was a great album. It still is. They don't make them like that any more...

  5. Jim, THE RIVER came out before the monster hit BORN IN THE USA, which transformed Springsteen from the cult favorite into the superstar he is today, so I think it tends to get overlooked. Too bad. I think it's just as good, maybe even better, than USA.

    Trivia fact: Springsteen originally intended "Hungry Heart" for The Ramones. For all the talk about Bruce being influenced by Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry, it turns out he's also a fan of punk rock.