It was still dark on the street when I parked my moto across from the bus stop in the tiny fishing village of San Juan Del Sur, and boarded the express bus to Managua at 5 AM, bringing nothing but a day pack with three peanut butter and banana sandwiches inside. I plopped into the comfortable high backed seat, and breathed a sigh of relief to find out it also reclined. I congratulated myself on selecting this bus instead of one of the many chicken buses that ran this route; they were all old retired school buses with the original yellow paint and hard bench seats. Thank God for small favors. I would need all the comforts I could get for the two and a half hour ride to Managua.
The bus, full of Nicaraguans and me, pulled out away from the curb at the appointed time and headed out through the cobblestone streets of San Juan Del Sur. Several minutes later we were barreling down the narrow two-lane road that was the only corridor connecting my small town to the nation’s capital. The road was narrow, and was used by all kinds of vehicles, including ox carts, horsemen, bicycles, motorcycles, three wheeled taxis, and cars; all providing a challenge to our bus driver, whose only interest was to get his bus to Managua on schedule. I watched with interest as our bus powered around a slower vehicle, and then expertly merged back into the right lane just as another bus came flying past us from the opposite direction. I wasn’t scared, I was simply interested. I glanced around at the other passengers, and they weren’t the least bit concerned either; the majority of them were either chatting with their neighbor in Spanish, or falling asleep. So I followed suit, kicked back and relaxed.
Almost an hour later we turned north onto the Pan-American Highway and picked up speed. The highway was slightly wider and there weren’t as many obstacles on the road, but the bus driver still had to swerve around taxis and motorcycles that darted out from the many decrepit tin-roofed houses that sat along the road. Then on top of that, the big commercial bus lines that ran the international routes were passing us with their brand-new buses gleaming in the sunlight. It was a dangerous combination of all kinds of vehicles driving at different speeds. The oxcart is traveling at about 5 miles an hour, and our bus is passing it doing 55 miles an hour, all against the tide of traffic coming at us at an unknown speed. Now add an international bus trying to maintain an average speed of 75 miles an hour, and it’s a wonder that there are not more accidents on the highway than there already are. It makes blood alley in San Francisco look like a walk in the park.
We traveled through intermittent rain, and in the morning twilight, the white stone and mortar houses became more and more sparse, and then finally gave way to lush plantations and broad vistas. The dark green mountains presided over a patchwork of jungle, fields, and farms; and here and there small herds of Brahma cattle grazed alongside the road.
I closed my eyes and thought about the Austin Healey; the only one in Nicaragua, the lady said. From the few pictures she had sent me, I ascertained that the 50-year-old Mark Three was in good original condition. I thought about the sexy lines of the car, the grill, and about the sound of the exhaust. For a moment I imagined driving down the highway with the top down and my hair blowing in the wind. My objectivity being obviously compromised by my romance with the car, I forced myself to be more analytical about the prospect of buying the vehicle from the lady in Managua named Val. Let’s see: horn button missing, toggle switches missing on the walnut control panel, wires hanging, a taillight missing. But on the other hand, the car appeared to be in really good original condition, and with what appeared to be a very fine body with no rust back behind the doors where it is usually found. Val said the car only had 52,000 miles on it; I doubt that… Probably 152,000. But that’s why I’m going to Managua… To check the car out completely and take a lot of pictures and ask a lot of questions.
She picked me up at the bus station driving an Austin Mini Cooper that had air conditioning. I already knew she was well-to-do because she and her husband had several vintage cars for sale, all in various stages of renovation. She was Nicaraguan and her husband was British. He had gone back to Great Britain and left her in charge of selling the collection. As she drove through town she told me that her family left Nicaragua when the revolution came. Back then, she said, the government would grab 12-year-old boys right off the street and make soldiers out of them, and that’s the main reason they left… Because her brother was a teenager, and their parents didn’t want him getting killed in the war. Her father, a physician, loaded the whole family in a car and fled the country, driving all the way to Boston, where they lived with her aunt. They returned to Nicaragua 10 years later (they flew this time), moved back into their old house, and resumed their life. When I asked her if she remembered the long drive from Nicaragua to Boston, she said, “No, not really. I was only seven.”
My fascination for British sports cars began when I was very young, and had a selection of pot metal toy cars that I would “drive” around the open spaces between the kitchen and the living room of our house. There was one car in particular that I really loved. I couldn’t read very well in those days, and consequently mispronounced the name as “Jagger” (it was many years before it occurred to me that my beloved toy car was actually a Jaguar XK-140 saloon). I became enamored with my Jagger, and sped it around the house with the accompanying whine of its racing engine. I eventually wore the paint and the wheels off the toy, and eventually outgrew it, only to return to my first love many years later.
In high school I wanted a car different than my high school classmates. Back then all the guys wanted a 1956 Chevy, or a 55, or a 57, and a few guys had them. The rest of the guys at school drove their parents’ hand-me-downs, and, come 6:15 in the morning, they would parade onto the school grounds driving a myriad of different machines. Chevys, Plymouths, Ramblers, and Fords. A few of the guys were oddballs and wanted different cars and that. Doug Rohl, for example, drove a Hudson Hornet of about a 1952 vintage. And another guy had some kind of a Renault that he had fitted huge tires on the rear.
I happened to be one of the lucky ones, for I inherited my sister’s hand-me-down 1957 Chevy four-door that had seen better days. The only reason I got it was that the transmission had gone out on it, and my sister then moved on to a Mercury Comet. I happened to know where there was a good transmission for the car, so therefore, with some work, I was the lucky inheritor of the 1957 Chevy. I installed the “new” transmission, and then took off the smashed front bumper caused by dad’s unfortunate meeting with a bear on the highway. It looked good that way, so I proudly drove the car for a few years, and got my first four or five speeding tickets.
My love affair with Austin Healey began with a small add that I noticed in the local newspaper. It simply said, “Austin Healey $300.” I coaxed my dad into going with me to take a look at the machine. We found the guy’s house, and he took us around back to the garage where the Healey was sitting. The guy informed us that the engine was completely disassembled, and, sure enough, there were parts lying about the garage in several boxes. Dad patiently went from box to box counting pistons, bearings, bolts and nuts, carburetors. He counted stuff that I didn’t even know went inside an engine. When he was done counting he announced that the engine was complete. After looking at the car we went back home to consider the possibilities of such a purchase. Dad pointed out the amount of work it would take to get that car any kind of running condition, but me, being so young and foolish, was ready to purchase the car, no matter how much work was involved, no matter if I lost my shirt on the deal, I wanted that car.
The following day, dad loaded up tools into his old Studebaker truck and we drove back to the guy’s house and negotiated the purchase of the car. We loaded box after box of engine parts and accessories into the back of the truck, then carefully hooked up the tow cable and towed the car home to its resting place in my parents’ two car garage.
Six months later, and after several parts orders from JC Whitney magazine, and after rebuilding not only the engine, but the electrical wiring too, my Austin Healey 100 M was complete and ready to drive. Mom had even thrown in with the project by sewing new naugahyde seat covers for my seats. They fit well, and seemed to be the icing on the cake, for my excitement was great as we rolled the Healey out of the garage for the first time.
The vehicle was beautiful in the sunlight, the blue with black two-tone paint, complemented by the stainless steel grille and ribbing made it a remarkably stylish sports car. It’s louvered hood with the belt across the top, it’s wire wheels with the knockoff hubs gleaming, and the elegant lines of the car bespoke beret, sunglasses, fun, and speed. I couldn’t wait to jump in and drive the car up the road and by the high school so all the guys could see it, but my dad being a very methodical person, made sure that the headlights worked, as well as the blinkers and the brake lights. I complied, knowing that the final checkout was necessary, but mind was already down at the high school cruising in my Healey. Minutes went by as my hands gripped the steering wheel in anticipation.
Finally, dad said, “okay.”
That’s all I needed.
“Be careful,” He yelled against the roar of the exhaust as I pulled out the driveway, chirping off second gear when I hit the street. I motored up Murray Road toward the school, turned around, then came back, and then I pulled it back into the garage and turned the key off.
I should’ve hugged my dad, but the thought never crossed my mind.