Tommy’s Rent A Wreck

Tommy’s Rent A Wreck. Hell of a name; but it was a hell of an operation. Even if we hadn’t been on a tight budget, I’m sure Paul and Steve would’ve seen the appeal. Forget all about this year’s model — valeted, homogenised, standardised and highly glamourised — with Hertz prices to match, Tommy was running an operation that was altogether more in tune with the spirit of our trip. OK there’s no denying that initially it was the price that took us down to Newark but by the time we left Tommy’s emporium in our ancient Maverick, we knew it was kismet.

The jam jars in Tommy’s yard, were the 1980 US equivalent of the tatty heaps you see for sale on every other street and most of the estates of our inner cities. The Cortinas, Mazdas, Fiats and Mariners that come with large fluorescent cards, sub £300 price tags and long — invariably dodgy — MOTs; the kind of car that usually turns up when you order a mini-cab at 4am in the dodgier parts of South London. It was a home from home. As we crossed the lot, deftly picking our way through the discarded transmissions, worn tyres and rainbowed puddles, we could have been in our own courtyard in Peckham.

En route to the peeling yellow Portakabin we suddenly ground to a halt. The combined clunk as our jaws dropped was almost audible. There in front of us was a convertible of massive proportions. Chrome lettering informed us we were in the not inconsiderable presence of a Buick Centurion. It was so far OTT it was halfway back; approximately three acres of faded cream bodywork with maroon leatherette interior and lashings of chrome, all topped off by an ace set of severely knackered whitewalls.

Steve recognised the signs immediately and began launching into his voice of reason routine but he was way too late; he was no more than a background buzz, as Paul and I got into a seriously suicidal auction. There was absolutely no question that we had to have it — that wasn’t even up for debate — all we were doing was haggling over the price. It’s difficult to say how far we’d have gone ultimately because we were just beginning to warm up (that is to say we hadn’t committed more than half our total holiday fund, and Steve was just bordering on the edge of hysteria), when a stocky figure in oily blue overalls strolled over and told us to “Forget it”. He smiled sardonically and popped the bonnet, revealing an empty engine bay big enough to park a mini in.

He introduced himself gruffly as Tommy, and asked if we were the Limeys he’d spoken to on the phone. I didn’t suppose many Limeys called him, but I resisted the temptation to ask if he’d cornered much of the Concorde trade (I’d already had trouble with my “dry English humour” and Big Tommy — my instincts suggested — was not a man I’d choose to share a misunderstanding with). I decided my affable smile and “Yeah, that was me”, was probably the most sensible approach.

As we filled in forms, Tommy explained what to do in case of breakdown. Squinting through murky windows, at the bizarre assortment of vehicles that were haphazardly parked around the yard, we decided this was probably a good time to pay attention. Basically the rules were simple; as long as we stayed in the Garden State we were laughing, but if we so much as popped into Pennsylvania, or boogied over the Brooklyn Bridge, we were on our own. We were responsible — on peril of our deposit — for getting the car back to New Jersey. We looked at each other and shrugged. What the hell! It seemed that fate had taken care of navigation so far, who were we to worry.

With the formalities out of the way, Tommy walked us to the door and pointed out a “medium sized” (i.e. big) red four door with a black vinyl roof, before handing me a key and suggesting we “have a good one”. The key didn’t have a single sharp edge and, with the exception of a few small flashes of chrome was worn entirely to the brass; it was attached to a wrinkled brown card tag carrying the oil stained legend: ‘Red Maverick — 191 MBG — 147,682 miles’.

As we strolled back across the lot, Steve was attempting to supplement his reasoned argument as to why he should drive, by grabbing at the key that Paul and I teasingly tossed back and forth. Arriving at our vehicular date, we came across what appeared to be a twelve year old mechanic, who was ambling around the car kicking the tyres. There didn’t appear to be any malice involved so we assumed it was simply part of Tommy’s comprehensive pre-delivery check. He nodded at us, wiped his hands on overalls that were rolled up at least a foot at the extremities, and lit a cigarette. Exhaling through his nose, he indicated the car with a backwards toss of his head, and spoke in a voice that was straight out of an old Jimmy Cagney “Dead End Kids”movie. “All sorted. I’ve checked the oil, but yuzz’ll have ta keep an eye on it… And it runs on real gas, so don’t put any of that unleaded shit in it.”

As the kid strolled away, Steve re affirmed his insistence that he should drive. Basically his argument hinged on the fact that he was the only one that had actually passed a car test. Paul and I countered quite reasonably that that was a moot point. After all for a couple of quid, the RAC had happily endorsed our bogus international permit applications and Tommy, bless him, had accepted the resulting paperwork without question. However, with junior stopping to lean on a car less than two yards away, and frowning in our direction, we agreed under the circumstances — but without prejudice to any future arrangements — to allow Steve the honours. A minute later he pulled gingerly out of the lot with the big engine rattling lazily in front of us and we headed ‘home’ to Hackensack.

Steve, a mechanic by trade, gave us the run down as we drove along. The shock absorbers were shocking; the power steering had about twenty degrees of play at the steering wheel; the brakes were pretty iffy; and the tyres were knackered. Nevertheless, on the up side — doing a quick mental conversion from cubic inches — he reckoned we had about four and a half litres of straight six to play with and we all agreed that a little extra in the engine compartment, more than compensated for any minor shortcomings it may have suffered in the safety department.

Unfortunately we soon discovered that any exploration of its dynamic capabilities would be more stupid than suicidal. The drivers of the American North East generally seemed to stick pretty close to the Federal 55mph and all other speed limits. It wasn’t because they were such wonderful citizens, it’s just there was so much Police radar. Consequently, given the ever so slightly bogus nature of two thirds of our driving documents, the question mark around our general demeanour and the rather smelly bag of grass we invariably carried, we decided it might be prudent not to draw too much unnecessary attention to ourselves.

We did leave the state though. The first time we crossed the line we touched wood, held our breath, and didn’t quite relax until we were back home in ‘New Joysy’ — when we released a collective sigh of relief. After that we relaxed and had an absolute ball. We played with the traffic in New York, poodled patiently up and down the Jersey turnpike and travelled further afield to Washington, via Philly and Baltimore.

The radio helped us while the slow slow miles away. It may have been AM only and have sounded pretty crap but we’d have sung anyway and at least it lent some sort of backing to the toneless din we’d have made a cappella. We’d crash the massive preset levers to lose adverts or songs we were sick of, all the while searching for ‘cruisin’ toons’. Sometimes — like the horrific moment when we discovered Diana Ross chirping Upside Down on two out of six preset stations — we’d just twiddle the knob looking for God stations or checking out the adverts.

A lot of the ad’s on the smaller stations were of the ‘Crazy Joe’s Government surplus’ variety. They’d invariably feature the owner of the business running through his specials at the speed of a livestock auctioneer. He’d tell the 158 or so people listening to come quickly and buy before the men in the white coats come to take him away for fiscal madness. “Where else can you get a 44 magnum for just 49.99!!! (plus state taxes). Yesiree Bob, all that stopping power for under fifty bucks! We’ve got limited stocks of bazookas at 99.99, yes that’s 99.99! And for the real sportsman…”

They didn’t have to be army surplus stores of course, they covered the whole spectrum. There were men’s outsize stores, stereo shops, secondhand car lots — you name it. Our favourite ad was one we heard for Red’s filling station. The kid at Tommy’s would have loved it. “While more and more gas stations switch to unleaded only, what happens to all the big Chevys, Caddys and Old’s? They’re being forced into extinction. They may be dinosaurs, but even dinosaurs got to eat don’t they? So if you want a choice of premium or super get down to Red’s just outside Patterson on route…” The DJs often dropped in their own comments and this one added: “OK folks you got that message. Get on down to Red’s and pick up your Dinosaur food.”

It was halfway through the second week and we were cruising north to Boston at a steady sixty. The radio was blasting out Hey Nineteen courtesy of WNBC and Becker and Fagen were doing the business. By way of extra support Paul was singing along and playing percussion on the glove box lid, while I drove, drumming my fingertips on the steering wheel and ‘dum-dee-duming’ badly. Steve, bless him, was spread out on the large back seat, sleeping like a baby.

Just as Bob Seger upped the tempo with Hollywood Nights and I struggled to resist the urge to tap into the tempo with my right foot, a squat shape loomed in my rusted wing mirror for a matter of seconds before it flashed by my left shoulder like a steel blue blur. As it ripped past I noticed a small black box, crouching like a sentry on the dash. I bashed Paul on the shoulder and hollered excitedly.

“Paul! Paul! Paul! Radar detector!”

His attention snapped from the joint he was rolling to the rapidly disappearing 928 Porsche. By the time he barked out his order, I was already attempting to coax the Maverick into carrying it out.

“Follow that car!”

The lazy six responded unexcitedly but steadily to the tug on the throttle and began slowly reeling in the retreating Porsche and I began to concentrate a little harder on my driving. Freeway curves that had rolled by gently at 55 were rapidly turning into vicious bends. With the aforementioned play in the steering, correcting bounces was invigorating to say the least. After a few miles the twitchy speedo was indicating around 120, while the pogo-ing suspension pointed to sudden death but we tucked in behind the reassurance of the 928 and kept the peddle to the metal. We were having BIG FUN!

Some would say it was a bad time for Steve to wake up. Personally I was dead chuffed when he came round; I’d been trying to persuade Paul to give him a nudge since we broke the ton. I could see no good reason why he should miss all the fun — besides I wanted to see the look on his face when he clocked the speedo. Paul reckoned he’d spoil our fun by trying to reason with us, whereas I maintained that a lecture from Steve — particularly whilst actually driving a suicidal car at a ludicrous speed — could only increase the enjoyment. He could see my point but decided that it wasn’t worth the risk. I’d have woken Steve myself but I didn’t dare look around, let alone take a hand off the wheel.

It was a lane change that did it. As the undampened springs lurched one way then the other, Steve probably dreamed he’d hit some turbulence. He sat up groggily and checked his surroundings for a few seconds before his peaceful sleepy-bye expression suddenly snapped off to be replaced by one of horrified panic as he realised that, far from being ensconced in the high tech cabin of a 747, he was actually bouncing around precariously in an ageing Detroit death trap.

The next fifteen or twenty miles were just as much fun as I’d told Paul they would be. Steve used threats, coercion, bribes, and more threats — all accompanied by the most foul language it has ever been my pleasure to incite — but to no avail. At one stage he tried to grab me, but a quick (and very nearly terminal) twitch of the steering wheel, persuaded him that a strident verbal approach was probably his best tactic.

It was a toll booth that got us in the end. It wasn’t Steve’s attempts to wrestle me away from the wheel as we slowed down, because try as he might to drag me into the back seat, I managed to keep my toe on the go pedal. He’d continued his futile attempts for a while but he released my arms well before we’d even hit seventy; it seems he found the idea of Paul steering from the passenger seat even more disconcerting than my efforts. No it was lack of acceleration that let us down.

The Porsche went from a growl to a dot in the distance before the auto booth had counted the pile of small change I’d tossed at it. We gave chase for a mile or so, in spite of Steve’s best efforts, but it felt very naked without our electronic guardian angel so I returned to poodling with the rest of the flock.

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