Every so often I’ll be pedaling down the road and look up to see a mid-70s Chevrolet Vega. It’s a treat, since there aren’t too many out there. When I saw one the other day I began thinking about Crib Death. Honestly, there’s hardly a week go by that I don’t think about Crib Death. Crib Death brings back so many memories — wonderful memories of my restless adolescence. The Crib Death I speak of though, is the name of a car, not the unexplained medical condition that occurs with human infants.
In February of 1979 I was 17-years-old. I worked full-time as a sandwich maker at The Bagel Delicatessen in Denver. After the sudden passing of my ‘67 Ford Falcon, I needed another car to get me to and from work. I had a budget of $400 — cash I had saved in a hollowed out copy of Treasure Island.
Scanning the classifieds in the Rocky Mountain News, one of the first cars I saw was a 1974 Chevy Vega panel wagon — for $400. Bingo. I knew Vegas had a reputation as oil burners because they had aluminum engine blocks, but the $400 price tag made it the perfect car for me. I had a friend drive me across town to take a look at it.
A panel wagon is a compact station wagon, but with no seats in back, just a flat bed. The rear/side windows were covered over with aluminum panels. It was essentially a small truck with an enclosed bed — the type of vehicle a plumber, carpenter, or electrician might use.
I lifted the hood, opened the doors, and sat in the driver’s seat where I was captivated by the underdash Pioneer stereo. Four corresponding speakers were mounted throughout the car. That stereo was all I needed to confirm my decision. Without even bargaining, I agreed to buy the car. I taught myself to drive the 4-speed stick shift on my way home. Drab green in color, and with two bucket seats upfront, this would be my car for the next four years.
So where did the name Crib Death come from…? My friend Jeff, who took me to look at the car that day, remarked that it looked like a hearse for little kids. I can’t remember which one of us came up with Crib Death, probably Jeff, but it stuck. And from day one, that car was known as Crib Death, by friends and family alike.
The Vega’s reputation as oil burners was well deserved. From the beginning I kept a one-gallon container of motor oil in the back of the car at all times. About every 500 to 600 miles or when the smoke from the tail pipe got blue enough, I’d stop and put in a quart of that oil.
Crib Death was a road trip warrior for my friends and I. Having no seats in back, but just the flat bed, it was like a tiny motorhome. If I got too tired to drive, I’d just pull off at a rest stop and crash in the back. If I was driving with friends, we’d rotate taking turns napping in back while the other drove.
In its time with me, Crib Death made trips into Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kanas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Nevada, and Arizona. All, without a major repair needed — just a lot of motor oil.
I wasn’t big on maintenance beyond the tires, brakes, and the engine. In four years, I might have washed that car just two or three times. When the windshield wiper motor went out in 1982, rather than replace it, I cut a piece of wood to the length of a wiper blade, wrapped it in plastic, and glued a squeegee strip along the bottom. If it rained, I’d open the driver’s side window and every few seconds sweep the water away with my handmade windshield wiper. When I drove my girlfriend home from college for the first time, and it began snowing as we ascended Vail Pass, she was mortified to learn this is how I kept my windshield clear during snow storms. It was a cold ride home.
During a midnight run to Taco Bell one evening with a group of friends, as we loitered in the parking lot telling jokes and stuffing Enchiritos down our throats, somebody used taco sauce packets to write Crib Death on one of the green side panels. Since I never washed my car, the acid in the taco sauce ate through the paint over time and my car had been permanently branded with the words Crib Death.
When I reflect on all the cars I’ve owned, Crib Death wasn’t the best — not the fastest, the prettiest, or even the most dependable. To this day though, it remains my favorite car. Every so often I look online to see if I can find a ‘74 Vega Panel Wagon. They are few and far between, and I have yet to see one for sale in Southern California. If I ever find one though, and it’s proximate enough to be feasible, I’ll buy it in an instant.
Owning Crib Death also cultivated one hard and fast sensibility which remains with me to this day — that I’ll never buy a car I can’t pay cash for and also sleep in. I think that’s a good way to be.
This is what I think about when I ride… Jhciacb
This week by the numbers…
Bikes Ridden: 6
Mph Avg: 14.8
Seat Time: 11 hours 21 minutes
Whether you ride a bike or not, thank you for taking the time to ride along with me today. If you haven’t already, please scroll up and subscribe. If you like what you read, give it a like and a share. If not, just keep scrollin’. Oh, and there’s this from Willy DeVille Enjoy…