Whoa, Nelly! ’46 Plymouth

In the early 70s, a couple hundred-yards stretch of US Highway 321 slid down the side of the mountain—the road between Hickory, NC, and Boone, NC, where my husband and I were in school. It took most of a year for a new road to be built, and the repairs were not quite complete when we moved from Boone in 1974.

We drove two cars, the ’46 Plymouth, which I was driving, and our newly acquired ’54 Willys station wagon. Both of them were packed to the roof with the stuff we’d accumulated in three years of marriage, leaving each of us just room enough to sit in the driver’s seat and change gears.

It wasn’t raining, thank goodness, the day we left. Just as we drove out of Blowing Rock, NC, we came into an area where big rocks were being turned into gravel. Without warning, or at least none I saw, a gravel truck pulled out into the road, stopped, blocking me. No orange vested traffic workers directed traffic, and I just stood—literally with both feet—on the brakes. Of course, the Plymouth stalled, and some of the workers seemed to find that amusing. I was terrified and angry. But after a few moments, the truck cleared the road, I got the car started again, and I drove on down the mountain.

What I didn’t know was that the brake lines were broken by the sudden stop.

I did not drive fast, especially downhill on the switchback curves, and often stayed in second gear to slow the car down. I didn’t lose braking immediately, but by the time we got to Hickory, NC, and we were in traffic, the brake pedal fell flat to the floor. My husband was in front of me, so I turned on the turn signal and began beeping the horn. We managed (I DO have guardian angels!) to turn into a shopping mall parking lot, and I stopped the car with the emergency brake.

The miracle? Other than getting down the mountain in one piece?

Keep in mind this is 1974—no internet, no cell phones. It was nearly lunchtime on a Saturday morning—quitting time back in the day. We were able to call from a pay phone to a parts dealer, who had a book that went back 40 years, to tell us what kind of brake lines from a relatively modern car would fit on the ’46 Plymouth.  Can you imagine being able to put 2012 parts of any description on a car from ’84?

The dealer had the parts in stock, and we had enough cash to buy them and get them installed. Two hour later, we were back on the road, going home on the way to our first jobs.

I’m wondering today how long those brake lines had been on that car. Had they ever been replaced? Being more of a traditional wife than I care to admit, I left the vehicle maintenance to my husband. I don’t remember buying oil for oil changes more than once a year or so. We never went to a mechanic unless the car would not run. My ex was good at fixing things, and I assumed he kept up with them.

Maybe I left too much of the other kinds of maintenance to him as well, when I should have been looking out for the marriage. A car needs more than gas and a random oil change. A marriage needs more than just sharing a house, paying bills, watching TV, and sharing a bed.

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