Adventures with “Big Bertha”

When I was a year out of college, I bought my parent’s old ’78 Chevy Impala station wagon, a huge green boat of a car with a 305 small block V8 engine. My mother, who liked to name cars, called it “Big Bertha,” or “Bert” for short; when she didn’t like the car she called it “The Big Green Monster.” I think it was the biggest car she ever drove. I don’t think she ever liked it much, but I was happy to buy it, because it was the only car I could afford.

I bought it in the summer of 1984 and drove it down to Philadelphia where I had been living. I loaded everything I owned into the back, and started driving home. I was on the northeast extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike when the tractor-trailer rig in front of me blew a retread off one of its eighteen wheels. All I saw was this huge black writhing piece of rubber flying down the highway directly at me and, Wham! it hit the underside of the car, and suddenly the muffler was dragging on the highway and making a horrible noise. I limped along to the next exit, pulled into a gas station and was told they couldn’t fix the car until the next day. I must have looked pretty sick — I didn’t have the money to stay in a motel — so this friendly guy went out, crawled under the car with me, and showed me how to wire the muffler up so I could drive the rest of the way home.

I had been unable to find a job in Philly, but within a month of moving back to Massachusetts I had several job offers. I went to work full time at the lumberyard where I had worked summers, and pretty soon took a room in a shared house that was close enough to the lumberyard that I could walk to work. The big green station wagon sat in the driveway most of the week; by now it had rust spots showing through the green paint. Once or twice a week, I would drive it in to the Boston Museum School to take art classes. At first I was terrified to drive into Boston in rush hour traffic, but I soon learned that other drivers were wary of a huge green rusty station wagon driven by a long-haired, wild-eyed kid. Then one night after class, I walked out to where I had parked the car along the Fenway, and it was gone — stolen. I went back into the school (this was before cell phones, remember) and called the Boston police, who told me that the Fenway was covered by Metropolitan District Commission Police; I called them and they told me I would have to appear in person at their station up near the Charles River dam. So I walked all the way up there, and the cop on duty, being a Boston cop, was rude and unhelpful and did everything he could to keep from having to write up a report of the theft. At last he wrote it up, and I managed to catch the midnight train from North Station back home. Two days later, the cops called me at work: they had found the car where it had been abandoned by some joyriders. I went in to pick up the car at the tow company lot, paid their criminally high towing and storage fees. The inside of the car was trashed, but all the joyriders (or it could have been the tow company) really stole was an axe I had left in the back of the car. When I got back to the lumberyard, one of the guys I worked with showed me how easy it was to pop the locks in a Chevy Impala of that vintage — all you needed was a teaspoon, and it was actually easier to unlock the car with a teaspoon than with the key.

My buddy Will and I loved that car for driving up to the White Mountains for a backpacking trip. There was lots of room for our packs, it was easy to steer, and that V8 engine went up the steepest grades as if nothing was there. On one trip, the car broke down when we were a hundred and fifty-five miles from home. One hundred and fifty miles was the distance Triple-A would tow my car, so we walked to a phone, got a local tow company to tow us five miles down the road, paid them off, then called Triple-A, and waited a few hours for them to come out to tow us home. The tow truck driver was a friendly guy with a French Canadian accent, and he hooked the rear of my car up, and then we crammed ourselves into the cab of the tow truck, along with him and his girlfriend. He revved up the tow truck’s engine, and drove across the median strip of the highway — I looked out the back window to watch my station wagon bumping and dragging along through the grass behind us. We had a companionable ride home, talking cheerfully with the driver and his girlfriend. So ended that backpacking trip.

The station wagon got rustier and rustier. One spring day, I was driving home from somewhere, and I got to the traffic light that was two tenths of a mile from our house. The light turned green, and as I accelerated the car gave a sort of lurch, the front end dropped down, and the steering wheel pulled madly to the left. I managed to get the car home, driving pretty slowly. Late that night, when there was no traffic on the road, I drove the car over to the garage, with my dad following behind in his car in case anything happened. The next day, the garage called with the bad news — the whole front part of the car was so rusted that they didn’t think they could repair it. I asked around at work, and one of the guys knew someone who owned a garage that did welding work, but when he called them, they told him that if the car had a 305 V8 it wasn’t worth fixing, because those 305 V8 engines gave out at a hundred and five thousand miles. I always wondered if the front end had been weakened by the way that crazy tow truck driver dragged my car across the median strip; but it didn’t really matter, because the engine probably would have gone a few months later.

So after having driven it for about four years, I junked the car. Even though I didn’t know how I was going to afford a new car, I felt a sense of relief — when you get to the point where a car is an adventure rather than a means of transportation, it’s time to let it go.

3 thoughts on “Adventures with “Big Bertha”

  1. Jean

    I remember that old car — but I forgot that you had owned it in its last years. Funny — the best worst car I ever had was the 68 Ford Falcon, full of similar misadventures and the acute and chronic decay cars get when they’ve been around awhile. It’s just not the same now having a dependable car — the adventures become of a different sort: other drivers, mostly!

  2. Sally

    We have a car that is going to leave us this exact way. When it falls to the ground or is just too much trouble. I love my car and wish it would last forever. But, driving to VT every other weekend and having it be Rod’s commuter car, is taking it’s toll.

  3. Abs

    I loved Big Bertha – I vividly remember taking the first family ride in that huge beast, our first air conditioned car.
    Though I always prefered to call her “The Green Submarine.”

    Funny how my current car has never been given a name. Today’s cars just don’t have personalities to warrant a great name like Big Bertha.

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