It’s 1975 and I’d begun studying English & American Literature at the University of East Anglia. A subject chosen with the hope of spending a year abroad at a US university. I love american culture and the American car is a huge part of that mythology. I can’t wait.
During my first term, I applied for the US exchange – only to discover there was just one place on offer. And to add insult to injury, the ‘prize’ then went to someone who had already lived there!
So I decided I had to create my own US odyssey for the summer of ’77. Through BUNAC (the British University’s North America Club), I found a summer job selling ice cream in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Not exactly Harvard, but better than nothing.
And the plan was that once I’d saved enough cash, I would try to cross to the west coast – hopefully on four wheels. This was my first solo trip outside of the UK! At the end of the summer term, my rucksack and I nervously set off for Heathrow. My American dream was coming true.
Arriving at JFK, I expected to find a land of high tech chromium-plated dreams. Yet the tacky reality behind the chrome was soon revealed. The first of many American myths heading for the ‘Trash’.
Thudding through the potholed streets of New York in a worn out bus from the airport, this was an intimidating city back in ‘77. Graffiti and garbage everywhere. But from the roof of the hotel that night, I had a view I’d never seen before.
Next day I made my way to a grim and threatening bus station to catch another bus to Atlantic City, an hour plus down the east coast into New Jersey.
This down at heel resort has a lot in common with Britain’s own Blackpool. Once popular with all classes, it had slid ‘downscale’ and only attracted holiday makers unable to afford better.
The introduction of casinos one year after my trip was meant to revitalise the city and create new wealth for the people living there. Sadly, a conspiracy of corporations and the cosa nostra has meant all the money trickled elsewhere.
My employer was called King Kone Dairy Bars. They had three sites on the famous Boardwalk that ran for 6 miles along the seafront. The location is immortalised by The Drifters song, ‘Under the Boardwalk’.
‘From the park you hear the happy sound of the carousel
You can almost taste the hot dogs and french fries they sell,
Under the boardwalk, down by the sea,
On a blanket with my baby is where I’ll be’
Within minutes of arriving, I’d been issued with my T shirt (which I have to pay for), shown how to make the basic (57+ flavours) ice creams and set to work. The pay? $2.50 per hour less 25 cents for all the ice creams they claimed I’d be eating. (The reality is that after a week of trying every flavour at least twice, I couldn’t stand the thought of eating another ice cream.)
I soon made plenty of new friends: British and American… and Irish. They say there are more Irish people in Atlantic City than Dublin. They also say the US has a special relationship with Britain. It’s actually more likely to be with Ireland. How many Amercian presidents have you heard boasting of their English ancestry?
But the most important new friend in this story is Colin McCosh, who was from Scotland. A fellow ice cream salesman, Colin had similar travel aspirations to mine. We decided to pool resources.
Colin and I shared a crumby room in a beaten-up clapboard house a couple of blocks back from the shore. I never saw our landlady wearing anything other than her ‘housecoat’ – and her teenage daughter seemed to be in a permanent baby doll nightdress.
Both of these sights were rather too much for two naive Brits. We were also told the inhabitant of the top floor had a knife – a large one.
I don’t recall anyone offering us fresh sheets more than once during our 6 week stay. But at least that gave me the motivation, and the bargaining power, to negotiate a 50% reduction in our rent.
Our motive was to save as much cash as possible for the road trip that lay ahead. The 25 cent per hour food eating ‘penalty’ actually backfired on King Kone. The largest site did burgers and pizzas – so for 6 weeks that’s all I ate! I got my money’s worth, a little bit fatter, and a lot less healthy.
But as this blog is meant to be about cars, let’s get back to them…
The late 70s means that there were plenty of big old American cars rusting away on the streets, including now lost brands like Studebaker, Oldsmobile and American Motors.
But America is all about the new and King of the road at the time was a ‘muscle car’ from another (now dead) brand, Pontiac. The Firebird TransAm, as favoured by Burt Reynolds.
This V8 looked muscular – but sounded so anaemic. I had grown up on the V8 rumble of Steve McQueen’s Mustang in the 1967 movie ‘Bullitt’. I felt cheated when I never heard a real car live up to the legend. Later, I found out that the movie soundtrack was overdubbed with the rumble of the Ford GT40 – nothing less than a Le Mans-winning racing car.
Another American myth trashed.
Fast forward through six weeks of ice-cream selling and Colin and I have saved the cash we need to hit the road.
Our first leg would involve a uniquely American phenomenon called ‘auto driveaway’. This is a car relocation service, whereby the rich owners fly to their new destination, while poorer people drive their car for them. That would be us.
I was tempted to ask to drive a US car. But we were on a budget, so chose a more fuel-efficient french Peugeot 504 estate – that needed to get to Denver, Colorado. That’s 2/3 of the way across the USA. Just 1,789 miles away.
We had 5 days to do it – but wanted to do some sightseeing along the way which would add to the miles. We couldn’t hang about.
We had to pick up the Peugeot in Philadelphia. We passed the steps made famous by ‘Rocky’ as our bus took us downtown. Arriving at the Auto Driveaway office to pick up the car, we were greeted by a terse…
To be fair, it was about 10 minutes past the hour. We offered our most ingratiating Terry Thomas-style English apology. Today it would be Hugh Grant.
‘You’re a day late!’ comes the answer.
Grovelling apologies this time. It was not actually true of course, but this New Yorker clearly didn’t lose arguments.
The bad news was that we had lost a full day of drive time. The better news was that our car was still waiting for us.
It was time to hit the road fast, heading west on Route…. 76