My first vehicle was a 1977 Chevy Luv pickup truck with camper shell, fully customized as a mini-van conversion. I was 20 years old and had been in the navy three years with two years on board a submarine. I had just returned from my first overseas deployment and made Second Class (E-5) so I actually had barely enough money to afford a car. The Navy Exchange was sponsoring a spring car sale at several major San Diego auto dealers, and I just knew it was my time to buy my first car. I really wanted a new car for both the “prestige,” and because I didn’t know anything about fixing cars and didn’t want the headache of doing a lot of maintenance.
Custom vans were all the range for teenagers then, and I was technically still in a teen frame of mind. With my sea-going life of the previous several years and no vehicle in San Diego, I really didn’t have a personal life. So, I got two of my shipboard buddies to take me car shopping this fine Saturday morning of the Big Car Sale.
I was thinking about a custom van, but I also knew how much I could afford and knew I couldn’t afford a new customized van. I found my dream machine on the very first auto lot we went to that morning. She was black with a matching black camper shell, twin portholes, with red interior carpeting. The rear window and partition had been cut away, the shell sealed to the truck and an interior fully carpeted in red, making this a true “mini-van” conversion. A passenger could easily get from the cab into the rear, and there was plenty of room (for young people) to play in back. The rear had a stand-up ice chest and overhead red light. Yes, this was The Machine.
Of course, it was also a stick shift and I wasn’t too good driving a stick then. But my buddies assured me it was “easy to learn.” Okay. There were no car dealers around, so we went over to a couple more auto lots where I was berated by dealers thinking they could bully me into buying a car from them. No dice. We went back to the first lot, found a sales rep, and told him I wanted the truck. The sales rep was happy to oblige.
Not knowing any better I financed through GMAC – at 20.05% interest for three years. The dealer couldn’t approve the financing that day and we were going to sea the following week, so I made arrangements to come back the next Saturday to close the deal.
I couldn’t sleep the entire week. Finally, we pulled back in and my buddies rove me over to the lot. We closed the deal and I was proud owner of a brand new 1977 Chevy Luv mini-van. I really didn’t know my way around San Diego so my buddy agreed to lead me back to the base. I remember the first uphill stoplight we came to on the trip home. Not being too good with a stick I squealed the tires leaving the stoplight, much to my buddy’s amusement.
Over the next months I added some options to my toy, including larger custom mirrors with an electric mirror on the right side (unheard of then), a good (for the era) stereo, rear chrome bumper, floor mats, and finally a CB radio. CB’s were also the rage then and having a CB made my machine Hot!
I turned 21 that summer and then there was no stopping me. I was free and legal in San Diego, California. I was also spending a lot of time going to sea, but at least when we were in port I had a way to get off the base, away from navy, and do something for my personal life. With the truck payment equaling about half my monthly pay, I didn’t have a lot of free cash, but that was okay.
I made my first long-haul trip three months after buying my truck. My best buddy Chuck suggested we drive to his house outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a three-day weekend. We left noon Friday for a nineteen hour drive there, partied all weekend, left early Monday morning and returned back to San Diego just in time to get to work.
One disadvantage of all the customizing was with the over sized custom tires. I finally figured out that my speedometer registered about 12% lower than actual, which meant my odometer readings were also 12% low. I lived with this. I also lived with a rattle in the right side behind the door, an apparent result of cutting away part of the body to make the interconnecting access to the bed. The truck tended to overheat in stop-n-go traffic, for reasons I never could understand. The fuse for the headlights blew on a fairly regular basis which caused me my first-ever ticket; driving at dusk with no headlights. On that occasion, I went to court and the judge dismissed the charge.
The instrument panel, however, had the most interesting quirk I’ve ever encountered. Whenever it was cold, when I first started the truck the instrument lighting was nearly non-existent, and the fuel and temperature gauge indicated maxed out. The truck otherwise worked perfectly fine. After several minutes driving, once the heat kicked in, the panel would suddenly jump back to normal. As a navy-trained electronics technician, with lots of Navy-trained electronics technician buddies, we spent a lot of time early on trying to figure out the problem. We never did, so it became just one more thing I lived with that gave my truck “personality.”
I had already driven across the U.S. once with a friend, but I did my first solo cross-country drive the following year. We had received orders to change home ports to New London, Connecticut after a UNITAS cruise around South America. So I took leave in the late spring of 1978 and drove home pulling a small cargo trailer my dad had actually used the year earlier when he moved to Los Angeles. It was a five day drive starting on I-5, connecting to I-10, then highway 55 from Tucumcari to Kansas City, Kansas, then on across to New York. After a few days leave I left my truck parked at Mom’s house and flew back to San Diego, truckless.
We were supposed to leave for our cruise in late July, but at the last minute I was given orders to go to school in Georgia, and pickup the boat in Brazil. So, I flew home, got my truck and drove to Georgia. After six weeks, and a trip to Washington, D.C. to get my passport and visa, I left my truck at home again and caught my boat.
We arrived in New London, Connecticut in early December 1978. Mom drove down to get me, and I was quickly reunited with my toy.
We transferred to Norfolk, Virginia the following summer and I drove down there. In February 1980 I transferred to a new submarine back in San Diego California, which meant another cross-country drive. This drive was in the winter, and I started my trip a day after a major snowstorm in New York. I spent ten days on the road this time, going first to visit friends in Fredericksburg, Maryland, then Cheyenne, Wyoming, then down to Albuquerque, New Mexico, across to Los Angeles, then up to San Francisco where my boat was temporarily assigned. I was pulling the utility trailer again which made driving in winter weather extremely interesting. A few months later I finally drove my truck down to its new home of San Diego.
I had many dates and adventure in this little truck over the next several years. I bought my first home, a condo in the northern part of San Diego, in 1982 and my truck became a commuter vehicle.
I also had my first accident. One afternoon I was driving up a hill facing due west. The sun hit me directly in the windshield and absolutely blinded me. I couldn’t pull over as there was no shoulder on this road, and I was afraid to just stop on concern that someone would run into me. So I slowed as much as I felt I could and kept driving, hoping that the sun would clear. As I neared the top of the hill, I saw a red stoplight just about the same time as I saw the rear taillights of a stopped car in front. Just about the time I saw the car’s tail lights, I hit the car. Fortunately no one was hurt and damages were relatively minor. My insurance covered all the repair bills.
By 1984 I was getting restless for a new set of wheels but still loved my little truck. I ended up buying an MG sports car that I thought would be really cool for dating. I thought about selling the truck, but ended up keeping it as a second vehicle. Smart move, as I needed it a lot in between repairs on my MG.
I was dating a lot now and ultimately met the lady who would be my first wife. We became serious in November 1985, and she began spending weekends with me. One Friday evening in early December 1985 I picked her up from work and went back to my place. We had been buying and wrapping Christmas gifts for her family the previous weekend and storing them at my condo. This Friday evening we went back to my place, loaded up my truck with the gifts, and had some dinner. We went back outside an hour later and the truck was gone.
We reported the theft, and later that evening drove her back to her family in the South bay area of San Diego in my MG. I pretty much wrote off my truck along with all the family Christmas gifts.
The day after Christmas I received a phone call from the police. They had recovered my truck in Waukegan, Illinois. It seemed four teenagers had stolen my truck so they’d have a way to get to one of their Aunts for Christmas. When they arrived, the Aunt turned them in for theft.
Several days later my then Fiancée and I flew to Chicago, got a one-way rental car to Waukegan, and reclaimed my truck. It was filthy inside but otherwise undamaged. We cleaned it up best we could, hopped in, and headed back to San Diego. The drive turned into a pre-honeymoon trip for us.
On the way back from a visit to San Francisco several months later the radiator started leaking bad. I pulled into a gas station and poured some stop leak into the radiator, which stopped the leak but also blew the head gasket. We limped all the way back to San Diego, stopping every hour or so to let the engine cool down. A mechanic subsequently fixed the radiator but claimed there was nothing wrong with the head gasket. I drove the truck until early October, when it finally quit all together.
In April we moved to a single-family house in the South bay area of San Diego. We sold my MG and purchased a Chevette hatchback as a second family car. We were married in October 1986 and I didn’t have much spare money. So the truck stayed in the driveway until the summer of 1987. There was 94,000 miles on the odometer so when I had the money I decided to do a complete engine overhaul. Between maintaining my truck and the Chevette, and keeping the MG running, I had gotten pretty good working on engines by then. I looked forward to doing a complete overhaul as a learning experience.
I staged all the parts I would need and with a friend tore down the engine. I had the head rebuilt and block professionally cleaned. With everything back I took a week’s leave and rebuilt the engine. My overhaul was not successful at first, and I ended up tinkering with the engine for several more months trying to get it right. I also replaced the original seats, by now torn and faded, with similar patterned seats, put in new dashboard padding, and removed the ice chest that I really never used any more.
In August of 1988, after eleven years of ownership, I traded my little Luv truck in for a 1988 Isuzu LS Pickup. I did receive a pretty good trade-in value on my Luv, all things considered. I included all eleven years worth of maintenance records with the truck. It stayed on the dealer lot for about one week after I traded it in, then she was gone.
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