Plymouth Satellite

April 10, 2011

Even as a cynical twenty seven year old I was not
quite prepared for the difference between American and British cars. Before I
immigrated to the US I already knew that the Yankee motor was a huge bloated
testosterone fantasy, and that the British auto was an experiment in oxidation

My only set of British wheels had been a dark green

Oxidation Research in Action

Ford Cortina of roughly 1966 vintage. It was rusting so fiercely that there was
atmospheric oxygen depletion for six inches around its surface. Its record of
starting on the first throw of the switch was about one in ten. I was a jump
start specialist. I remember the name of the joker who sold it to me, and I
hope it is on his conscience. It cost me £220 pounds in the winter of 1971. When it was
hauled off to the scrap yard in August of 1973 I got a fiver for it, and danced
with happiness to see the end of my humiliation.

I landed in New York in late August and in another
post we can deal with all of that. It took me another year to get a
“professional” job. One that my future father and mother in law could admit to
their friends and family. But in the fall of 1974 I was hired as the
High Pressure Liquid Chromatography Applications Chemist for the Eastern Sales
Region of Varian Analytical Instruments. Yes! Such titles exist. In yet another
post we can talk about how that happened.

This job came with the amazing salary of $12,500
per annum, health and dental insurance, life insurance, and all the office
coffee I could drink. I had an expense account for sales calls and travel, and
most importantly of all, I had wheels! And when I say wheels I am not just
talking about a car, a mere means of transport, I refer to an ocean liner of
the highway, an icon of rolled steel, that plausible boat anchor, the 1972
Plymouth Satellite Station Wagon.

Correct Wheels for an HPLC Applications Specialist

Its interior was as large as my first apartment. Its
engine could have powered a bulldozer. It scared me. I was handed the keys to
this behemoth on the same day that the National Sales Manager made one of his
terrifying periodic visits to put the fear of the sales gods into the district
and regional managers. His name was Jim Brake. Six foot two in his socks, ex
marine sergeant from Texas. An unwavering gaze focused by powerful spectacles
and an impressive economy of words were his trademarks. On the outside a hard man.
On the inside, softer, but tough enough to ride herd over five regions of
around forty salesmen and their local managers, ranging from freshly minted
young men garlanded with clouds of Old Spice and enthusiasm, to cynical, washed
up wrecks eking out the last days of a sales life on the road, before retiring
to hunting cabins in the woods where they could curse and shoot things on a daily

Jim chose this day to confirm that Ed Gelb, the
manager who hired me was either nuts to have hired me or there was a chance
that we could both keep our jobs. His technique? His long shadow fell across my
desk at lunchtime as he drawled “Let’s have lunch, Bob.” Until that moment my
US driving experience had been my fiancés Chevy II, and a paper mill fork

We stepped out into the parking lot. I did not
have at this time in my life the moxie to tell my boss’s boss that I had not
yet tried out my new company wheels. We got in. We put on the new-fangled seat
belts. I adjusted the mirror. I turned the key. From some way off in front of
me the huge engine burst into polluting action. I had my foot hard on the
brake, but even as I gingerly pulled the long selector lever down to reverse I
felt the thing trying to escape.

We backed out of my parking slot at less than
thirty mph. Just. No reaction from Big Jim. Lever down to the big D for Drive.
Foot still on the brake we inched over to the edge of the parking lot where it
blended with NJ Route 22. You may have seen bumper stickers that read as
follows, “I Drive Route 22, Pray For ME!” As I came to know the road to my
office and especially Route 22, this appeal seemed understated and reasonable. Route
22 was everything that a road should have been in 1920 but in 1974. Traffic was
flowing by eastward on its way to Newark and beyond in a solid stream of metal,
rubber and exhaust and blasphemy.

Seeing a truck pull out two hundred yards to the
west gave me the break in traffic I needed. I pulled out into the eastbound
lanes. When I say pulled out I mean I gave the accelerator what I thought was
the appropriate amount of encouragement. A firm deliberate pressure. The kind
of pressure that would have caused a British Ford Cortina with its straight
four single aspirated 1.2 liter engine to amble off whining in first gear to
about fifteen mph. To the Plymouth Satellite this was a signal to leave a
thirty yard tire slick and smoke plume of the same length. Jim calmly looked
over and suggested I take the next U-Turn to the westbound lanes. This meant
braking out of the fishtail maneuver I was currently executing at Mach 0.7. The
Plymouth Satellite did not have brakes or suspension to match its engine and so
we careened into the turn with the front left wheel in the air. But luckily we
were already in the fast lane and no-one blinked an eye.

In the westbound lanes heading to our restaurant
we slowed down and started to talk. And so did my career in the analytical instrument

I drove the Plymouth for another six months before
its lease ran out and I was assigned my next company wheels. Equally dangerous
for completely different reasons. Even less braking power, loose steering, and
blind spots, a bright yellow AMC Matador. It was like driving one’s own coffin but
not knowing when exactly the nails will be hammered home. I just knew that I  was lot closer to death than was surely expected of the High Pressure Liquid
Chromatography Applications Chemist for the Eastern Sales Region of Varian
Analytical Instruments in the execution of his duty.

Not Really Correct Wheels for an HPLC Applications Specialist

And I came to love those hideous cars. Not because
they were good examples of automotive design, economy or even ergonomics. They
were everything a car should not be except that they started every time I
turned the damn key, and anytime I wanted to I could leave a tire slick the
length of a cricket pitch.

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