THE SUMMER OF ’77: THE FIRST CROSS-COUNTRY ROAD TRIP

In the summer of 1977, I had just graduated college; I had sold my Chevy Vega to my brother Karl and was without my own car; and I had decided to postpone the post-grad job hunt, knowing full well that this could be the last time for a very long time that I’d have a few months of freedom.

My friend Mike who was in graduate school also was free for the summer. He had recently purchased a 1971 Volvo 144 (his first choice, a Volvo 164, was a bit out of his financial reach), and together we hatched a plan to drive the Volvo to California and back, visiting friends and relatives along the way. Sometime in late July, we departed my parents’ house on Staten Island and pointed the car west.

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On the hood of his new (to him) 1971 Volvo 144

Growing up as an East Coast car enthusiast, I had tolerated the inevitable corrosion that beset our automobiles, brought on by winter’s road salt. California had always been a dream, not just for its beautiful weather, but for its supposed rust-free cars. At the age of 23, I was finally about to see the Golden State for the first time. Heck, this trip would be the first time that I would be traveling further west than Youngstown, Ohio.

The photographs I took during the 3-week long journey included some interesting finds in the Midwest, as well as plenty of neat cars in California, even by 1977 standards. My camera at that time was a cheap Kodak Instamatic, so please forgive the quality of these pictures.

To put some historical perspective on this trip:

  • A week before our trip began, on July 13, 1977, all of New York City was hit by a 2-day power outage.
  • During that summer, the city was gripped by the horrific Son of Sam killings. When we departed, he was still at large. As we traversed the country in our NY-plated car, more than one person asked if either of us was Son of Sam (macabre humor). On August 10, 1977, David Berkowitz was captured, and we both were relieved to hear this news on the Volvo’s AM radio.
  • Less than a week later, on August 16, while we were in Lexington KY, the news broke that Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, had passed away.
  • Three days later, on August 19, Groucho Marx died, and the country was so riveted by Elvis’ passing that the loss of Groucho barely made a dent in the news.

 

In Ohio, we stopped to visit Marianne, one of Mike’s college friends. I snapped this photo as we parted company, as she strolled toward her Volkswagen Fastback.

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Marianne and her VW Fastback

We visited another college friend at her mother’s home in Stillwater, Minnesota. Imagine my surprise to discover that her mom drove a BMW 2002, and her brother’s daily driver was an Audi Fox, with an MGB-GT project car in the garage. All 3 cars had manual transmissions. The bro’ let me drive the Fox, which had a direct influence on the new-car purchase I would be making in about two months.

Colorado was a revelation. While I have returned multiple times, this first visit stands out because we young men had no idea why, as our sturdy Swedish machinery climbed the Rocky Mountains, we lost power. It got to the point that the car would barely do 40 mph uphill. Those funny-looking SU carbs under the hood were a complete mystery to us. The Volvo’s automatic transmission wasn’t helping with the search for more speed.

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Self-serve fill-up, Colorado style. Note the whitewall tires and missing hub caps.

When we arrived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Mike’s grandparents lived, he decided that he had enough driving for a while. Reaching California was my dream, not his. Content with spaghetti, beer, and A/C (which the Volvo lacked), my buddy handed me his car keys and said, “if you’d like to continue, you’re on your own. Just pick me up on your way back.”

I took the car and left. The one-way trip to L.A. was 800 miles and about 12 hours of driving. Making the trip in one day, the only “difficult” part of the journey was the Mohave Desert. I bought a huge iced tea in Needles CA, crossed the 110-degree desert with all the windows open, and stopped to refuel in Barstow CA, where this photo was taken:

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Barstow CA, 1977: A newish Caddy has its hood open, while a ’65 Caddy manages to look cool.

At last, San Bernadino, and the Pacific ocean. Finding a beach, I parked so that I could at least put my feet in water 3,000 miles from where I usually swam. This parking lot photo mainly features newer cars, but back home, Karmann-Ghias had already become rare sights.

 

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A VW Karmann-Ghia sits between a Porsche 911 Targa and a Chrysler Cordoba.

Searching for Los Angeles, I was confused by the sprawl. There were no clear city boundaries. But I did find Sunset Blvd., and as I was about to turn onto it, two ’60s era Chevrolets were in front of me. This photo was taken while driving, mainly for my brother Karl who was in the midst of trying to resurrect a 1964 Impala back home. Karl’s car looked nothing like this one!

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The street sign says Sunset! A Nova SS followed by a ’64 Impala.

Heading back to NM, a summer storm may or may not have been a contributing factor to this massive traffic tie-up. We were stopped long enough that most folks turned off their cars and wandered around on the highway.

 

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A 1972 Ford sits behind a 1973 Pontiac Grand Prix

Except for the power loss in the Rockies (which could have been cured had we known to lean out the carbs), the Volvo performed quite well. Its seats were incredibly comfortable and supportive for what was probably 7,000 miles of driving over 3 weeks. The gas mileage was decent. A stick shift and an FM radio would have been my preferences, but it wasn’t my car. It was my first real experience with the brand, and the irony of driving a Volvo on this trip was not lost on me when 13 months later, I entered the car business by going to work for a Volvo dealership.

All photographs copyright © 2016 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.

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