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Road trip in a European “Mopar”

I recently returned from a four-week stay in Europe. I traveled throughout England, France, and Spain. The purpose of the trip was to play music with my band Enablers, but cars were never far from my mind. I had plenty of time on the motorway and autovia to dream about my ride back home and keep an eye out for car culture “over there.”

I didn’t see a single Mopar and vintage cars in general were very scarce. I saw a few older Mini Coopers, a cool lookin’ Vauxhall and a pretty nice early ‘70s Opel coupe in Holland. I heard a story about some vintage American iron in a parking garage in Madrid but never saw it. I would ask people about cars but most of the folks I met saw them primarily as a means of transportation or a necessary evil. For others, who understood the obsession, affordability was the main obstacle to owning a vintage car, American car, or a car at all. When you see the size of the streets in some European towns it becomes apparent as to why the American auto ideal never really caught on with the Europeans. This, combined with the price of fuel being historically high kept the cars and their engines smaller than ours. Nonetheless, car culture is very alive, and well represented by tons of auto mags on the newsstands.

So, even though I never saw a true Mopar, I did get a load of travel and driving time in a Mercedes Benz “Vito” minivan. It is “DaimlerChrysler,” right? So, in a very weird way it is a Mopar. I think it is a fine one too. The little four banger diesel cruised easily in fifth gear at 140 kmh (around 90 mph) with two Marshall half stacks, a drum kit, four adults (sort of) and luggage. Acceleration was surprisingly good as well thanks to well thought out gear ratios. It certainly wasn’t neck snapping performance, then again, I’d be hesitant to call any of the 318-powered work horse Dodge vans I’ve toured in neck snapping either. Fuel consumption was also much less than any 318 and the motor we had was sporting over 250,000 kilometers on the odometer.

I’ve never been that much into parking my vehicles, but it sure was easy to park “Vito” with his tiny wheelbase. Considering how much stress this relieved, I’ll give “Vito” a “ten” in the “performance parking” department. See, size does matter and not only when it comes to squeezin’ into a parking spot. Vito’s short wheelbase made maneuvering on tiny side streets designed for horse carts a breeze. Handling in general was better than what I expected and loads better than a full size van. Four wheel disc brakes made for confident stopping. Just about the only complaint we all had was the funky shifter that resided in a “pod” of sorts and jutted from the dash. It took some getting used to and I’m sure the linkage employed must be a real fun time to repair or replace. Also, just one more inch in the height and length departments would’ve made Vito the perfect van.

We all just about fell in love with “Vito” and he is now our tour van of choice. Still, I longed for a spin in my “old girl”. The very next morning after I arrived home the garage door went up and my ’66 Satellite rolled out into the sunshine. After about 15 seconds of cranking the old 383 went to work. What a sound! Those 2 and 1/2 inch pipes dumping into two chamber flows with downturns was the loudest thing I’d heard since our last show. There is nothing that can compare with that over in the old world. Even the Harleys are emasculated by noise ordinances.

I tooled around warming her up and then pointed her to San Bruno Mountain. The Guadalupe Canyon Parkway is a beautiful drive with long sweeping curves where a portion of the chase scene from Bullitt was filmed. I gave her as much as I dared and we roared up and over the mountain. She leaned, dove and reared up just like an old muscle car should. The exhaust not echoed off the mountainsides, flew back into the open side glass and banged around my headliner-less interior. I was all smiles and when it came time to park in front of the taqueria for my long awaited Mexican lunch the manual steering made parking a real bear. That’s just how I like it and I wouldn’t trade it for a thousand “Vitos.”  

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