The Asphalt Jungle
An encounter with an old-school car guy reinforces why driving is special.
I WAS DRIVING along the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood when the realization zapped me like a bee sting: I need a hamburger. Fortunately, I was a mere block away from one of my faves: Carney’s, a diner built in 1975 out of two ancient Union Pacific train cars. I parked and walked up the ramp then down the long aisle to the open kitchen.
“Do you have anything ketogenic?” I asked. The cook stared. “Just kidding. Double cheeseburger, chili fries, chocolate shake.” I took a seat by a window looking out on the Sunset traffic.
“That your truck I saw pull in?” An older gentleman, I’d guess in his 80s, was sitting at the next table, also waiting for his order.
“Yes, but … it’s not really mine. I’m just test-driving it for the week.” “They let people test-drive cars for a whole week now?”
“Actually it’s part of my job,” I replied. “I review cars for a living.”
“Now that’s a job I’d like to have! Mind if I join you?”
“Sure,” I said. The old man stood up and took a seat at my table.
“I’m Earl,” he said, extending his hand. “I’ve loved cars since FDR was runnin’ this loony bin. That pickup looks pretty fancy.”
“It is,” I nodded. “It’s a Ford Raptor, a performance truck with a twinturbo V-6 making 450 horsepower.”
Earl whistled. “That’s nutty! My ’82 Corvette only had 180!” He chuckled, narrowed his eyes. “So, what’s something like that cost?”
“This one, with a lot of options on it, goes for just more than $68,000.” Earl slumped back as his mouth fell open. “In 1970 I bought a house in Echo Park for $45,000. Still live there. I can walk to Dodger Stadium.”
By now Earl and I were tucking into our triple-bypass feasts. “So, what does a car lover like you drive?” I asked.
Earl smiled. “Show you after lunch.” He munched on a french fry. “I stopped buying new cars in the late ’80s. No personality. Junk I don’t need. The other week I dropped into a Cadillac shop to look around. Guy told me, ‘This one’s got voice-activated navigation.’ Whaddo I need that for? I know L.A. better than Rand McNally.”
We finished our burgers and headed to the parking lot, where I opened the Raptor’s door and told Earl to climb in. Carefully, he stepped up into the SuperCrew cab and eased into the seat, scanning the cockpit. “Where’s the key?”
“Push that button to the right of the wheel.” Earl put his foot on the brake and pressed the starter, and the monster V-6 whumped to life. He gave the throttle a few stabs. “She’s smooth!” he said with a grin. Then he shut off the engine and climbed out. “All those blinking lights … I should be in a planetarium. What’s that red stripe on top of the steering wheel?” “Tells you when the wheels are straight.” Earl shot me a look. “You know how I know when my wheels are straight? When I’m not turning.” He started walking away and motioned for me to follow.
I saw it before we got there. In the far-right corner of the lot, safely away from other cars, sat a classic Oldsmobile in blue. “Wow, beautiful Toronado,” I said.
“She’s a ’69,” Earl said. “Rocket 455 V-8, threespeed Turbo-Hydramatic, only 82,000 miles. Picked her up for $14,000 in Phoenix 10 years ago. Drive her a couple times a week.” Earl opened the door and waved me over. He pointed to the famous vertical-scrolling speedometer. “See there … now that’s a gauge a man can actually read.”
I stood back and looked over the bodywork designer David North penned a half-century ago, rakish even today. “Fabulous,” I said.
Earl patted the hood. “And the first American front-driver since Cord!”
“Have you always bought American?” “Always,” Earl said. “My very first car was a 1940 Dodge Coupe. Had a bunch of stuff since— couple Corvettes, Mustang Mach 1, ’86 Cadillac DeVille. I practiced law for 48 years, but when I retired, I got the Toro. My wife passed away soon after. These days, I like to drive Sunset, look at all the people. Usually I eat at Canter’s Deli or Barney’s; sometimes I come here.”
We chatted a while longer, then we shook hands and Earl climbed into the Olds, the big V-8 lighting off with a deep rumble. He started to pull away, then stopped and rolled down the window. “I know these days it’s all computers and gizmos,” he said, pointing to the Raptor. “But I like my cars the way I like my food.” He smiled. “Simple and delicious.” AM