The Nordic Warrior Queen and I had been dating just a few months when we faced the first true test of our relationship.
I was sixteen and in desperate need of a car, having abandoned my Corvair at the local junkyard some weeks before. Ben Theis, a friend of mine at the machine shop where I was working, told me his Dad had a ‘71 AMC Matador for sale, so that Friday after work Benny gave me a lift to his family’s farm out in Cologne. When we arrived, Benny and I walked around to the back of the cow barn and there she was: a burnt-orange beauty, sporting a faded black racing stripe and once-shiny aluminum mag wheels.
I asked Benny how much. He rubbed his scruffy chin for a moment, contemplating how bad he could screw me, and then replied, “fourhunnertbucks.”
I walked around the car a couple of times; I even kicked the tires because I’d once seen it done on TV. It seemed like a decent car – she was only eight years old and had a mere 90,000 miles, and even though her family might consider it funny looking, I knew it was my only chance to see Diane that weekend.
I looked over at Benny. “Sold.”
Benny pulled the keys from his pocket, got behind the wheel and cranked and cranked until I wondered if he had a set of jumper cables, but finally she caught with a tremendous roar and a huge belch of black oily smoke. Benny left it running, jumped out, and I gave him fourhunnertbucks. “See you on Monday,” I said, and headed for Diane’s.
I was at her parent’s house by six. We said the usual placating blah blah bullshit lies to her parents: we’re going out for pizza and a movie, yes sir, I’ll drive the speed limit, oh we’ll definitely be back by midnight, etc. The real plan was to drive back to Richfield where I lived with my Mom, who was going out on a date and leaving Diane and me alone in the apartment for the evening.
This meant we could have sex.
Driving home, I found the Matador was somewhat less than ecofriendly; the nearly full tank of gas I’d had less than two hours before was now almost empty. We stopped at the gas station. I was afraid to turn the thing off: I knew Benny’d had a hard time starting it, and if the Matador died now it would spell certain doom for my prenuptial plans that evening.
While gassing up, I saw the clerk inside the store scowling at me; I assumed this was because I’d left the engine running. I shrugged and turned away, pretending not to see him. But as I topped off the gas tank, I noticed a faint reek and a wisp of smoke coming from under the hood; it reminded me of burnt chicken.
However, I ignored the smell, not wanting to alter the plans I’d made with the beautiful young woman in the passenger seat. Besides, I figured the Matador had been sitting alongside a cow pasture for months; it deserved to smell bad.
I pulled out into traffic. The worst of rush hour was past and we were cruising along at a nice, legal fifty-seven miles per hour (I’d had three speeding tickets in the last six months and didn’t dare go faster for fear of losing my license). We were almost home.
The exit sign was just visible in the distance when I realized we might have a problem – it appeared that the Matador had cruise control. This seemed funny to me (and I don’t mean clown funny) as to my knowledge, cruise control had not yet been invented, or at least was not an option offered by the American Motors Company in the 1971 Matador Coupe.
True, I’d not bothered to read the owner’s manual before leaving Cologne (I’d be sure to hear about that later), but even if there were cruise control, I knew I hadn’t engaged it, But still, the car seemed to be stuck at 57 mph.
I searched the dash and around the steering column but was unable to find the shutoff. I tapped the gas pedal a little bit and the Matador lurched gamely forward; now the speedometer was hanging a little over sixty. Definitely strange.
The exit was just ahead. I stepped on the brake pedal but with no effect. I pushed harder, and still the car refused to slow. Diane was looking over at me with a worried look. She was beginning to realize something might be wrong, but was not yet panicking. I had to make a decision – stay on the freeway until I could figure this one out (or run out of gas), or head for the exit and hope I could stop the runaway AMC.
At the last possible moment, I swerved onto the exit ramp, mashed on the brake pedal and downshifted, squealing to a stop just in time for the red light at the top of the ramp. The engine was screaming – the tachometer sat quivering at 6000 RPM. Diane looked as though she might be ready to yell every man for himself and jump for safety, but she bravely stayed put.
We could smell a terrific burning and a small bullseye of blistered paint appeared in the center of the hood. A huge streamer of white smoke poured out behind us. Crowds of people had gathered from all around the intersection, staring at us and pointing at the Matador. Diane slid down in her seat and covered her face.
Finally, the light changed green. I eased up slightly on the brake pedal and the Matador roared forward, tires squealing, a huge cloud of smoke trailing behind us. I swung a hard left towards the apartment complex. By the time we arrived, the hood was giving off a definite orangish glow. We rocketed into the parking lot and I stood on the brakes, skidding around the garbage dumpsters and then slamming the Matador into park, barely avoiding an impromptu demolition of the brick wall protecting the pool area.
I turned off the ignition but the Matador refused to stop, gasping and chugging and wheezing like a dying beast. I grabbed Diane by the hand, pushed open the door, and we ran for cover. After one last series of coughs and a tremendous backfire, the Matador finally died.
I grabbed a garden hose from a nearby reel and, thus armed, cautiously approached the car. Flames flickered out from around the front grill and the windshield was black with soot. I popped the hood and jumped back, lest the Matador suddenly roar back to life, flattening me against the nearby jungle gym while my future wife screamed in terror. For the moment, however, the car sat idle. I crept forward, quickly lifted the hood, and applied a full stream of water to the raging inferno within, dousing the flames.
As I inspected the now sopping engine compartment, I discovered the reason for the Matador’s supernatural behavior: it was no poltergeist, but a large birdnest tucked under the throttle cable, burnt to a blackened husk and filled with a sad collection of barbecued baby birds frozen in terrified poses.
Apparently, at some point during our drive to Richfield, the nest had caught fire, melting the plastic sleeve that protected the metal throttle linkage attached to the carburetor, locking it in place. I considered our good fortune that the fuel line hadn’t caught fire instead.
As it turned out, the heat from the fire (I admit it might have been the sudden blast of cold water on the hot engine) cracked the intake manifold, in turn filling the crankcase with antifreeze and ruining the engine. So that night, I spent $40 on a cab-ride home for Diane (the first of many) and the next day my brother and I towed the Matador out to the junkyard using thirty feet of cable from a dog-run.
After the Matador, life went on. Diane finally agreed to date me again and I found myself dropping around fourhunnertbucks a month on cab fare until at last I found a cream-colored ‘62 Plymouth Valiant to replace the AMC.
We were married two years later, on March 14, 1981. Since then, we’ve owned countless cars, but none as memorable as the Matador. Tonight I’m going to take the Nordic Warrior Queen out for a nice dinner and then try to get into her shorts again. Some things will never change.
Happy 30th anniversary, dear. I love you.