1954 Willys Station Wagon

Willys was the original maker of Jeep, and the one thing everyone asked us about that car was if it were 4-wheel drive. It wasn’t. We bought it for $400, and sold it many miles later for $400 to a man who didn’t care if it would run. It had been painted—with enamel using a brush—green and white. Mustang bucket seats replaced the originals, and the interior side panels were covered by cheap wall paneling—the kind that is printed on hardboard. It was our kind of car with lots of open space in the back for hauling stuff.

It had an F-head, 4-cylinder engine, and it ate voltage regulators. One time a couple of our friends gave us a ride when the Willys would not start. We had called a road repair service, and when we got back to the car, I noticed that once again, the voltage regulator had been replaced. It was the third one, so I looked there first. Our friends, guys, were so impressed that I could recognize (and notice the difference of)  a part of a car under the hood.

I was more familiar with that car than with others we had. I replaced the tie-rods on the passenger side, while the spouse worked on the driver’s side. But some repairs we could not do ourselves, such as when the timing gear stripped out in Indianland, SC.

We were on our way to a job interview in Sumter, and stopped to get gas. When we tried to start the car, it made a noise like radio static: not the dead silence of a bad battery, nor the grinding of worn out ignition brushes, nor the click of a starter that was missing a tooth or so—I have bonked a few starters in my time to jar them into alignment (losing yet another gear tooth). The gear that kept the timing for the engine was made of Fiberglas, and it was stripped. Every single tooth was broken off.

Lucky for us, and we were often lucky, a repair shop was 100 yards away. No part was available this time, but the mechanic drove us back to North Charlotte. We rescheduled the appointment, and managed to get to Sumter finally, where I took my first teaching job. Most of my first professional paycheck went to repair that same Willys, and it was about the same amount of money that we paid for it originally.

Why would we continue driving cars that needed constant repairs?

We weren’t making car payments, and we were firmly ensconced in poverty consciousness: Repair, reuse, make do, do without. Our parents were raised during the depression, and we learned how to make do. Somehow we didn’t learn how to manage and save. A day late and a dollar short is no way to run a life.

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