The $25 Car
Island Voices

The $25 Car

By Seán Malone and John Sweetman

This story began on Seán’s fireplace mantel. There is an old Plymouth master brake cylinder filled with either a mouse nest or some of Seán’s cigar ashes. Some years back, after Seán returned to Vashon, he told me that his first car had been sold to an Island friend, and that somehow it had come to an ill end at the old gravel pit, being pushed over the cliff.  By accident or design was left in dispute. So 60 years later, Seán went off to find whatever had been left of his car.  I was dubious, but sure enough he came back with some parts and I later even found the engine block after one of those big southerly storms. 

This is the rest of the story from those parts he recovered.

The Firnstawls were peanut butter people, and named their peanut butter “Sunny Jim,” after a boy who died of polio at a very young age. He was called Sonny because of his “sunny” disposition, and his picture is on every bottle of the Firnstawl’s peanut putter. Jerry Firnstawl was a cousin of Sonny’s and a classmate at Seattle Prep. Jerry had a 1936 Plymouth Coupe with a rumble seat, which he sold me for $25.  It had no muffler, just a straight pipe that terminated under the rumble seat.

It was a straight 6 and ran like a top, and I used it to commute to school.  If the day was warm, I picked up the Kerns brothers on Queen Anne Hill and took them on a scenic ride to Capitol Hill.  Tom and Terry liked riding in the rumble seat. On this particular day, I was driving them through the Battery Street tunnel and I turned off the key to allow the gas to build up in the engine. When I turned on the key, there was a terrific explosion and a three-foot ball of flame flew out of my straight pipe, warming the feet of the two brothers and presenting a spectacle in the dark tunnel.

My second car was a 1930 four-door Ford Model A that cost me $50. I had a girlfriend whose parents lived in the coal-mining town of Roslyn on the east side of the Cascades. The coal mine shut down in 1935, so most of the miners were retired. I found the Model A in an orchard where the owner had driven it to get it out of his yard. I finagled the price and drove it to Seattle at 35 mph on the straight stretches. It could make 50 mph going downhill.

My good friend, George Farmer, had dropped out of dental school and we decided to take the winter off to go skiing. I scouted all the junkyards for parts and filled a box with a generator, carb, spark plugs, and all the spare parts we might need for an extended ski trip across the western United States. Sun Valley was to be our first stop. Mom made a white plastic cover for the spare tire hanging above the rear bumper, and I wrote the names of our hopeful ski areas to be checked off as we went along. Sun Valley in Idaho was our first stop.  I had taught skiing at both Stevens and Snoqualmie Passes, but couldn’t get a job at Sun Valley, so we moved on. Next stop, Alta, Utah.

I kept my 20-gauge single-shot in a rip in the headliner, just in case. About halfway across the Idaho desert, George spotted a Chinese pheasant in the ditch. I turned around, unlimbered the shotgun, and stepped out to retrieve our dinner. The pheasant had been eating sage and we cooked him over a sage fire, making it impossible to eat. 

All the close work in the dental school lab had given George a skin condition. His constant scratching drove both of us crazy. We had to find a hotel where the bath was separate from the rooms, so George could sneak in to take a bath of potassium permanganate, a very purple drug that alleviated his itching. I waited outside the bathroom door for George to finish soaking in his purple bath, which left the bathtub “purple,” as it had several others up and down the California coast.

March 14, 2023

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