by: Chris Warren
Almost everyone has owned a favorite car, usually long ago, that had a certain “it” factor. The car probably came as a used junker but delivered more fun per mile than can possibly be remembered. First dates, road trips, late night pizza runs, breaking down at the worst possible time…it was a car that may not have seemed like much at the time but years later still makes us smile every time we think of it. We absolutely loved that car and will never forget it.
“Super Jeep,” as my friends jokingly dubbed it, was a 1979 CJ that was at least as much rust as it was metal and the small V8 with 3-speed stick gave only marginally better gas milage than a loaded cement truck. But it ran well, had low miles, and was a Jeep. I got it in the spring, removed the doors and the top and drove it that way for most of the summer. It was epic cool. Me and my friends had a blast; it was the kind of fun that can only happen when you’re nineteen and it’s warm out and you’re laughing your ass off tearing around town with your friends.
A lot has been said about the allure of cars. It seems to be mostly an “American thing”. You don’t hear too many stories about the French or Japanese or Mexicans glowingly reminiscing about their cars. For Americans, the cultural attraction of the automobile goes back to our very first days as a country. We wanted to expand, to travel, to discover what’s over the next hill. We wanted to be there, even when we weren’t sure where “there” was. Horses and later trains filled the need for over a century. When cars became affordable to the average person, it freed us from the limitations of horses and the schedules of trains. There’s no substitute: Cars just ooze freedom in a way that nothing else can.
Fourth of July weekend rolls around; my friend Rich and his brother invite me along to a three day music festival in northern Illinois. We drove separately and it was a long, hot ride for my cranky old CJ. I got there ok but getting home was going to be an issue. There it was, sitting broken and lifeless amongst all the noise and excitement and rock and roll. Some freaky headbanger dude in a tow truck comes along, pokes around under the hood and tells me I need a new ignition coil. The good news is it’s an easy fix. The bad news is I’m a long way from home in a strange town on a holiday weekend and have no idea where I’m going to find a coil for a ’79 Jeep.
Rich and I missed several hours of the festival driving around hoping to find an auto parts store that was open, we even drifed up into Wisconsin. Desperate and having no other options, we stopped at a Farm & Fleet and took a chance on a coil that was for a John Deere tractor. I connected it with alligator clips. The engine started & ran perfectly! When I got home I didn’t even bother installing the proper part. The jeep ran on that John Deere coil for the rest of the time I owned it.
Car adoration is one of the few things that binds generations. Look around any car show and it’s easy to spot grandfathers who are just as excited as the children to be there checking out the kickass rides. And I’ll bet every one of those grandpas could remember every detail of that car as if it were still sitting in his driveway. As the little kids grow into teenagers, they dream of the day when they too will experience the freedom of sitting solo behind the wheel. Having mom or dad lug them around will never again be acceptable. And even though a dad may be nervous about giving the keys to his kids, inside he reluctantly if not totally understands. Even an overprotective parent knows the call of the road cannot be resisted forever.
Winter and heavy snow do not present much of a challenge for a vehicle originally designed for the Army to fight wars with; neither does a young male’s sense of invincibility. Mixed together, we end up with with three college guys deciding, literally out of no where in the middle of the night and for no particular reason, to hop in the jeep and go on a roadtrip to Rockford, Illinois. Rockford was not a terrible town but there was nothing so awesome about it that it’s worth driving through the dark in a snow storm to go there just for the hell of it.
So there we were: Me, my roommate Mike, and Skippy (whose real name was Tom) truckin’ north on highway 51 with the snow howling all around us. The poorly fitting removable doors on the jeep let a lot of cold air blow through. We were freezing our asses off and the wimpy heater just barely kept the windows clear. As we exited the highway we get a bad vibe about the neighborhood so I call on my CB radio and try to get some information as to where we could gas up and find something fun to do.
Surprisingly, some local answers back! When I told him where we were, all he said was, “you nice white college kids are gonna get yer asses kicked over there!” We took the hint, turned around and headed right back for the highway. As we left the area, I overheard the local CBer tell another, “some boys came up from the university and they have no idea what the shit they are doing.” We ended up eating greasy truck stop slime somewhere on Illinois 20.
That was the denouement of our big idea. We rolled back onto campus just as it was getting light out. My jeep was a mess and we were barely awake. By all objective judgement the whole deal was a disaster. But here I am, decades later, still smiling while I recount this story. It would not be the same had we taken Skippy’s car. I might not have remembered it at all.
All cars, even the cool ones, have a finite lifespan and sooner or later the end comes. I finished school and was finally working a solid job; still driving the jeep. It had duct tape and nylon ties all over it, and I had removed the spare because the body was so rusty it would not support the weight of a tire hanging off its rear end. One day the radiator springs a leak (the second time). It was just another in a long parade of constant fixes. My no-nonsense dad looks at the jeep, looks at me, and says, “You know, you have a real job now. Maybe you should get rid of this thing and buy something decent.” I knew he was right, and within a month or so the jeep was traded in for a truck.
But that was not the end of Super Jeep. There is no “end.” For over twenty years I pined for that old junk every time I saw another Jeep going down the street. Today the sprit is reborn, and it’s as strong as ever: Last summer I bought myself a brand-new Jeep Wrangler. Rag top. Stick shift. No frills. I badly missed my old jeep and wanted to recreate the feel-good vibe. I named it “Super Jeep 2.0” in honor of the original. Wow! All the cool is still there! Over time, Jeeps have not lost a thing and have retained every bit of the quirky fun personality I remember. Only many years later does it sink in how much that old wreck meant to me and the impression it made. So many miles, so many good times revolved around a rusty jeep with the driver’s seat not fully bolted down and water leaking from under the dash every time it rained. None of it could have happened with any other vehicle. For me it was and always will be that car.
(this article was originally published on March 22, 2014 and was revised/edited on July 14, 2016)