Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Little Demon that Could

During my formative years, my parents owned a 1971 Dodge Demon.  It was the family hand-me-down car that I called the "Dentmobile" because just about everyone managed to put a dent in it at one time or another.  My grandfather, who bought the car new.  My aunt who learned to drive on it.  My mother who drove it every day for nine years.  And once I side swiped it with a trailer I was pulling behind a riding lawnmower. 


There was nothing special or fancy about the Demon.  Except for an automatic transmission, it was as basic as basic transportation gets.  School buses and U-haul trucks are more lavishly equipped.  The Demon didn't just have rubber floor mats, it had rubber on the floor in place of carpet.  Heat and ventilation were abstract theories--there were vent boxes below the dash opened for fresh air, but they let in other things like leaves and water.  The heater had two speeds, "Low" and "Hi".  Both settings were equally feeble and blew as much air as a hamster through a straw. 

The Demon had one redeeming quality--stalwart dependability.  Powered by a 198 cubic inch Slant 6 engine, it always started on the second try, coughing and settling into a lumpy, agrarian  idle.  One cold January, my aunt and uncle visited from Phoenix.  The temperature dropped below zero the day they were supposed to leave, and their rental car failed to start.  My parents offered to take them to the airport in my dad's Oldsmobile Cutlass.  But it too failed to start.  Only the Demon, sitting at the bottom of the driveway under fresh snow, dormant since before Christmas, started.  On the second try. 

When I was in high school, my parents gave me the choice of the Cutlass or the Demon.  I chose the Cutlass because it had bucket seats and the Olds 350 Rocket engine.  But I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had taken the Demon.  It probably would have needed less care and feeding.  The Cutlass was a thirsty beast with gas mileage measurable in feet per gallon.  It also racked up a daunting list of repairs, requiring just about everything, including a transmission rebuild.  Adding it up, car payments on a new Cutlass would have been cheaper.

In the early 1990s I happened upon the Demon again in midtown KC.  It was the same car, rustier than ever, its blue paint faded like acid washed denim jeans.  It sported all the same dents, plus some new ones, and still had the bumper sticker my family added that said, "Mom knows best, buckle up."  

Twenty years later, I still think about that Demon.  It was a simple car, one with only one objective: providing basic, dependable transportation.  That idea seems quaint and old fashioned today.  In an era where the cheapest new cars come standard with air conditioning and power windows, the idea of rubber floor mats and vent boxes seems as antiquated as hand cranks and magnetos.  There probably will never be a market for a car that basic in the U.S again.  

Even so, I'd like to think that Demon is still out there somewhere, coughing to life on the second try and ambling down the road.        

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