Voices | Bill Porter

Clunkers I have loved and lost

By Bill Porter
Globe Staff / October 13, 2009

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You never forget your first clunker, or the second or third or fourth. How could you forget a car that started when it felt like it, ran till it got tired, and drove you crazy searching for the source of strange sounds.

When that sweet deal went south I was thinking that if I could get some cash for every clunker I’ve owned, I’d be on my way to Beverly Hills in a Rolls-Royce.

You don’t have to own a clunker to be embarrassed by one. My mother had a black 1940-something Plymouth during the Kennedy administration. It had a name, Matilda. I remember the smell of it and the cozy gray interior. The steering wheel was as big as a Hula Hoop. A kid could get lost in the back seat. We must’ve been a sight: my mother, my sister, and me, and our golden retriever, Benji, who would try to sit in my mother’s lap. “Stop it, Benji,’’ she would plead, pushing him away, car swerving. “And stop drooling all over the place.’’ How we managed all those trips to the A&P without getting killed remains a mystery.

I’ve had some priceless clunkers and some amazing times driving them. One day I was sputtering along in a 1960s Plymouth Fury. It was nice out, the windows were open, and I was smoking. I flicked the cigarette out one window and it flew back in another. There being a lot of trash in the backseat and plenty of ventilation, things got kind of hot. I put the fire out using my shirt and a bottle of Pepsi. I don’t smoke anymore. And I haven’t set a car on fire in many years.

One nasty clunker was a ’70s Plymouth Duster that smelled like somebody died in it. Women weren’t lining up for rides. “I wouldn’t go around the block with you in this thing,’’ one told me.

Classier clunkers included a 1971 BMW 2002 that harbored rust under a new paint job, a flaw discovered when it crumpled like an accordion in a low-speed collision with a bread truck. Then there was the mid-1980s Audi Coupe with high mileage and power windows that refused to open. And the air conditioning was broken. There were several attempts to steal this car, all unfortunately unsuccessful. Somebody even tried to swipe it with a clunker of a tow truck.

There was a classic clunker, a 1960s Plymouth Barracuda fastback with little dollar signs painted on it. I acquired this beauty after the Blizzard of 1978. It was sitting in my buddy’s driveway. He said, “If you can dig it out, it’s yours.’’ I dug it.

There was a hero clunker, a ’70s Chrysler that saved my life. I was waiting to take a left turn, blinker on. And whammo! Something crashed into me from behind. After they took the other driver to the hospital, I saw that the runaway Mercedes was a total wreck. My car, which was about the size of an aircraft carrier, had no new noticeable dents or scratches, just a boxier trunk. Had I been driving a lesser vehicle, let’s just say that I might not be writing this.

My coolest clunker was a 1959 Ford Fairlane 500, white and sky-blue. It got the cops’ attention, that’s for sure. I was pulled over on the Cape one time for going seven miles an hour over the speed limit. Once you got this car rolling, you could throw it in neutral and coast to Kansas. I drove it across country in 1985. On the way back, in the middle of Wyoming, the front end started to shudder and I thought this might be the end of the road for my car and me. But some guys at a gas station fixed it for about 20 bucks and then went back to shooting cans off the fence.

There are clunker flashbacks. I was listening to “China Cat Sunflower’’ the other day and I hit the brakes on my ’06 Saturn Vue. It started shaking like an out-of-whack dryer, and for a second I was back in Wyoming.

There were more clunkers than I can count, including a ’68 VW bug that had less heat than a hut on Mount Washington, but I’ve run out of room here. Maybe I’ll write a book, “Clunkers I Have Known and Loved’’ and make a million bucks. Now that would be some cash.

Bill Porter can be reached at