It was a 1979 Peugeot 504 diesel. A nondescript brown/grey color, stick shift, manual sunroof, four door. It was slow as molasses, the diesel engine struggling to propel the car up any incline of even moderate degree. The back of the car – bumper, rear window, heck even the side windows – entirely covered in Grateful Dead stickers. I remember at one point counting them, and there were more than twenty. I actually had a debate with my dad about whether there was still enough room to see safely with the rear view mirror because the stickers blocked your view.
I drove that car my senior year of high school and freshman year of college. It was no frills. No AC. Hand crank windows. No power steering or power brakes. It got great mileage – I could make it from Boston to Binghamton NY on a half a tank of diesel fuel. The trunk was not huge, but I could get everything I owned in that car – everything – including my Polk Audio speakers, always stacked in the back seat. One time I even had a keg of beer in the trunk that made loud clunking noises every time I turned or accelerated. I had installed an Alpine cassette deck/radio in the dash. It played through the tinny speakers, and I kept a small wooden box filled with Maxell cassette tapes on the carpeted mound between the driver’s and ‘shotgun’ seats.
That old Peugeot rarely started in the winter. There was a heating element for the engine that you turned on before you tried to start it in the cold, but it didn’t work well. In cold weather I always parked at the top of a hill, and would gather 3 or 4 hearty friends to push me out into the road. If you kept your foot on the clutch, and the car managed to get to 10 or 15 miles an hour drifting down the slope, you could ‘pop’ the clutch (suddenly release it) and the engine would cough its way into running. Sometimes you had to do it a couple of times before it would start. If you got to the bottom of the hill and it didn’t go, you were out of luck. Wait until spring, I guess.
We had all kinds of adventures in that car. There was the time in the snowstorm, when my friend reached from the back seat and released the sunroof, allowing 6 inches of snow to tumble into the front seats. Yes this was while we were driving. There was the drive back from Baltimore in 1982, having seen the Dead at the Civic downtown, when the windshield wiper fluid ran out. It was early spring, the Pennsylvania roads were covered in brown slush and dirty, melting snow. As I drove, my friend reached out the window with tissues and tried to wipe it clean every few minutes. One New Year’s eve in a heavy snow storm the car slid 5o yards down a steep road, gently and softly settling into a mound of snow before sighing to a stop. There were late nights and early mornings, full moons surrounded by bright stars, hazy sun rises, trips to the beach, long rides alone singing along to a favorite song or gazing out at the beautiful rocks and trees of western Massachusetts. Dozens of Grateful Dead shows. Stops in Buffalo and Saratoga, in Harrisburg and Hartford, in Portland and Syracuse. Endless miles. The road does indeed go ever on and on.
That car transported us. Physically of course, taking us from place to place, that unimaginable sense of freedom, of knowing you can pretty much go anywhere at anytime. But also metaphysically, transporting our minds and hearts, our souls and spirits, those shared moments of joy and laughter and struggle and adventure that would never happen again. Eventually that old Peugeot gave up the ghost. Some irreparable, fatal flaw developed – the engine block cracked, I think. It was put to pasture in a junk yard somewhere, rusting in the summer rains and cold winter snows of upstate New York, Dead stickers slowly fading over time. It wasn’t a great car – slow, difficult to drive, mechanically flawed. But it was a classic. And they just don’t make ’em like that anymore.