06 Apr Vinny’s Marathon Cab

My photographer friend Vinny brought his Marathon cab over today. I’ve always liked the Marathon. It’s a tank of a vehicle, the boxiest, most spacious car you’ll ever find. It has big bench seats and enough leg room to accommodate a Great Dane. The dash is metal, of course, and the bumpers are formidable enough to be on a garbage truck. The Maraton was built as a taxi and it was, in fact, the classic Yellow Checker Cab — unchanged in design since it was first produced in 1960. They stopped making them in 1982.

The Marathon’s charm is its simplicity. As Vinny puts it: “It’s the kind of design you’d get from a child’s drawing of a car.” The first time I saw one, I wanted it. I’m a sucker for vintage cars. The last one I owned was a 1966 Plymouth Valiant station wagon. It had the legendary slant-6 engine, which was supposed to live forever. Just my luck, my slant-six happened to be a lemon. It threw a rod twice and was never right. A bad car is like a bad house — a money pit. And the problem is that, if you put too much in, it seems you can’t give up because you’ll never recoup your loss. So you keep dumping more into it.

The fun part of owning an old car isn’t the engine work — not for me, any way — it’s the cosmetics, fixing up the interior, putting in custom touches, and then, of course, savoring the time machine pleasure of driving it. Old cars look the way it seems cars should look: charmingly boxy outside and living-room spacious inside. New cars, with their squashed backsides and narrow windows and flimsy plastic trim, look like fancy athletic shoes. I understand why they must look that way; it’s all about aerodynamics and gas mileage. But, man, are they ugly.

When I sit in Vinny’s Marathon I feel transported to a time when construction mattered and things were built to last and that meant that the builders took great pride in what they did. I know this is a nostalgic cliche but there it is: being in a well-kept old car makes me feel like the world is better place

Vinny has put about $20K into his Marathon. If you’re going to bring back an old car, you can’t go halfway. After the hard time I had with my ’66 Valiant, I vowed never to get another old car. But recently, I bought a used Sprinter van for my 66-city Animal House book tour and have been going through the entire old car rehab routine to makle it into a custom camper: body work, paint, interior renovation, the works. It’s been like taking on a huge old house project.

The satisfaction of a car rehab is that you get it exactly the way you want it. Fixing up the Sprinter reminds me of fixing up the old Volkswagen van I had in college. I love the idea of begin wholly self-contained in a tiny house on wheels. But, really, I never thought I’d be doing it again. Our new old van will have just about everything, including a toilet. I’m amazed that so small a vehicle can hold and do so much. When it’s done, I’ll show it to you right here.