wacky cars, in which mr. a-go-go finds his transportation animal spirit

A Garelli in action.
From 50ccs, a blog about small cycles.
Yet another fine example of the apple falling close to the tree: when I was fifteen I fantasized about having wheels that turned faster than 30mph downhill with a tail wind. That was about the upper limit of my first motorized vehicle, a Garelli moped that came to me as a gift, albeit a non-functioning one. Two-stroke engines dislike owners who neglect to mix oil in the gas, and it was left to me to undo the damage. Getting the little black Garelli back on the road required an oversize piston and rings, cylinder lapping, and new points. With guidance from dad and after lots of assistance from the Eagle Rock bike and moped mechanic, I was delighted when the new piston rings were broken in and the Garelli was making its loud smokey sputter again. Delight turned to frustration when I had to pedal like mad to get home. We lived at the top of a steep hill and getting back from anywhere required pedaling or pushing the surprisingly heavy Garelli up a grade for a mile or more. Phoo! This was worse than getting home on a bicycle, and I really didn’t need the tiny engine to get down the hill.

Felix Wankel
I lifted this image too, from here.
Clearly it was time to move beyond 46.5 cubic centimeters of displacement. A goofball engineer friend of my dad had a fine proposition for me. He had sitting in his driveway a ’66 Beetle and a ’73 Mazda RX3 pickup, neither in working condition (completing the quorum of sleeping vehicles was a Buick with fine cracklier in the vinyl top and a panel van). The Mazda truck was to be mine if I could get the Beetle to run. The Bug was easy, it just needed a tune up, new plugs, and a dose of fix-a-flat, but the truck was a nightmare (yes, the Bug should have had two new tires instead of some spray gunk, but like hell if I was going to go to that kind of expense for that miserable truck). The RX3 lived in our back yard for months while I cleaned out the bird nests, fixed the gaping rust holes left by the leaking battery, and fiddled and fussed trying to make it go. Felix Wankel’s marvelous rotary engine is a swell idea on paper and the clear plastic model of one I built as a kid was fascinating. In practice it’s a wicked nasty heartless beast and in Mazda’s RX3 version the thorns and pox still far outweighed the performance. The last I heard Mazda went as far as the RX7 version and was still putting it in a sports car in the 90s. Based on my little experience with the animal I’d steer clear of any rotary engine for the sake of your sanity. A new fully functioning rotary engine manages to get a whole lot of whollop out of a small chunk of engine block. This made for a lighter zippier car but the Wankel’s inherent flaws (leaky rotor seals and all sorts of details that I won’t bother going into) make the engine a maintenance headache. I learned scads about all this as I tore out my hair. Dad was a font of information. He was never short on tidbits of information about how anything mechanical worked but in this case the information was of little help in breathing life back into the sad RX3.

Mazda RX3 pickup
At one point my dad’s infinite wisdom led us to try locking the choke in a nearly closed position with a small Vise-Grip. Those rotors sucked gas like a lush and blew at least half of it out the exhaust system where it kept burning. I swear I saw a white flame from the tail pipe. Using bubble gum and bailing wire we managed to make the truck hold an idle just enough to convince someone else, who really needed a cheap pickup, to trade it for a wreck of a ’74 Honda Civic. This gem (no really, it was a gem) had lived in a garage or under a tarp for ten years just waiting for the right person to love it. The previous owner had dreamed of turning this…

into this…
resulting in all sorts of missing parts and stupid looking giant tires.

At last I had something I could really work with. Honda’s little 1150cc engine was a dream-boat for a novice mechanic; dirt simple, tough enough to take an over haul with out any sheered off head bolts, and fewer moving parts than I could count on all my fingers and toes. The old Civic made working on my sisters’ VW Beetles seem like a bad dream. The body was mottled with rust after living under a wet tarp, it needed a transfusion of junkyard parts, and the carburetor was full of dried out gasoline tartar, but it was mine. With more guidance from dad and lots of bloody knuckles I whipped that cat till it purred again. This time I had enough horsepower to get up the hill without pedaling. No kiddin’ that little four-banger engine had remarkable kick for its size. I suppose only having to drag my skinny carcass and a small sheet metal body up the hill helped keep the pep. With five people in the car (indeed!) the little Civic showed its weakness and I was introduced to going uphill in reverse.

And then the apple fell really close to the tree…

Here I had a working rattletrap of a car that ran like a top but it was ugly as sin. What to do, what to do…

the funky tail lights are just behind the rear side windows
Way back when my dad was a nincompoop youngster, he had a 1957 Porsche roadster, a swell car that he bought right off the boat from Germany when it arrived in Wilmington, California. Within the first year of the car’s life it received some serious dents and was finally rear-ended badly enough to really need some body work. And what do you suppose Mr. Stephens did with his zippy car that had lots of life left in the engine but was badly scared? Why naturally he went berserk and after fixing the dents, priming, and painting he made some kook modifications. Elephant tusks in front, shark tails in the rear, and new taillight pods on the tops of the fenders. The tusks and tails, by the way, were fabricated of tempered 6061 aluminum for low weight and superior strength. I’m not totally sure what he was after with all this. I suppose he hoped to scare off any potential new dent makers with stupefying weirdness. When the car was sold it left with out its glorious tusks and fins. Those parts lived in the garage storage space well into my teens. I wondered for years about those objects and my questions about them would result in cryptic riddles about big animals with threatening pointy parts.

tusks say Raaarr!
Until I saw these photos of the roadster chimera I never could get a grip on how these things would fit on a car. Eventually one of the shark fin plates became the head of a battle-axe I wanted to make. 6061 aluminum makes a swell shark fin, but it won’t keep an edge worth beans when an angry dwarf starts whacking things with it. This was years before the term LARP had made the rounds. Ah well.

So, how about that apple? My own ugly little car needed at the very least days of sanding out rust spots and a good dose of primer paint. Initially I figured it would end with the white primer, but that big white canvas just ached for something more. The elephant tusks and shark fins translated through some meiosis became non-zebra zebra stripes and a mysterious statement stenciled on the hood in reverse. This could only be read in the rearview mirror of another driver who would have to puzzle out why the little striped car “never needs ironing.” The little black and white civic has long since been recycled for scrap but its legacy and the memory of those weird tusks lives on. Now days they take the form of a rooster comb on my bike helmet.

P.S. Never you mind the little dog silhouettes. I never did run over any dogs let alone any Scotties. That was simply the most recognizable dog shape and I was too lazy to complete the gag by making a stencil of a tree, a mailbox, a chicken, an outhouse, and a fish. The pizza man at La CaƱada Imports where we would buy extra greasy pizza slices never tired of greeting me with a hearty, “Hey, Safari Guy!” Now days the rooster comb on my helmet urges every shirtless goof to hollar, "Nice hat!" as though this apple hasn't heard that one before.