The following story is true – I could not make this up…
The first time I moved to LA, I was driving up a side street in Laurel Canyon and ran into two brothers, Jimmy and Stuart, standing in front of their house on Kirkwood Drive. I stopped & chatted with them, and it turned out they were looking for a roommate, and I was looking for a place to live. Kirkwood Drive was an exceptionally steep street, which ended on Laurel Canyon Blvd. at the neighborhood store. From there a right turn took you gently down to Sunset Blvd, where there was a Chevron gas station. Laurel Canyon was one of those mythical Hollywood places filled with movie actors, rock stars and, at that time, the home of Governor Jerry Brown (first Moonbeam edition) when he was dating Linda Ronstadt. I enjoyed my time there, and had many adventures (including breaking into Keith Carradine’s house during a rare thunderstorm – but that’s another story). But at this house I experienced the worst morning of my life – let me give you a little background:
We were all musicians – Jimmy was studying to be a jazz pianist, and Stuart was practicing to be a rock drummer. The latter was a problem for our neighbor, a school teacher. Stuart practiced diligently on his drum set for hours every afternoon, and our next door neighbor called the police every afternoon like clockwork! I was very cash-poor, and usually drove around in my Plymouth Valiant on or about empty. For me, this wasn’t a big problem as long as I had enough gas to get home. Kirkwood Drive was so steep I could roll down to take a right on Laurel Canyon, also a gentle downhill grade, and have just enough momentum to glide into the Chevron station and add a few dollars into my tank. I did this many times.
Le Tank, as my Valiant was soon to be named, was a 1963 red convertible I bought in Marin County from a neighbor and drove down to LA for my new job at a recording studio. It had a push button automatic transmission, and a 318 cubic inch V-8 engine (unlike the hardtops which had the famous slant-six.) The other difference, I soon discovered, was the “anti-roll” system Plymouth built into the convertibles. Nothing high-tech or fancy, they simply built the car with heavier gauge sheet metal, which gave it more stability & gravity. I liked to park my car next to similar Valiant hardtops and tap the hoods of both cars. The hardtops would produce a “clink clink” sound while my ragtop would announce a throatier “clunk clunk”. The V-8 offset the heavier weight, so Le Tank drove like a dream. My new LA friends loved my car. We’d put the top down and cruise all over the hills around LA, up & down dirt roads , going off-road like a jeep. They named my Valiant “Le Tank” for its durability, but this morning clinched its name.
The last actors in this early morning drama were the gay couple across the street. Being the 1970’s, I found the gay couple new, mysterious and a little bit exotic. They owned a white Ford Falcon convertible, also with a push-button automatic transmission. I had never talked with them, until that fateful morning.
My new job started at 6:00AM. I was not, at that point in my life, an early riser. Somehow I managed to get up and get out to my car, parked on the other side of the street behind the Ford Falcon, my front wheels turned tightly to the curb. I tried to start the car but it was out of gas. No problem (see above) I could coast down to the Chevron station. But to my dismay, my right front tire was completely flat. No problem, thinks me in my can-do brain, I’ll still get to work at my new job. So on this steep street, my car nosed down at least at a 10% angle, I jacked up my car, pulled out the spare from my trunk and mounted it on my car. Immediately I heard a loud hissing sound – Yes, the spare had a leak, and a very big one. Time was of the essence; I had to roll down Kirkwood Drive before the spare went flat, roll into the Chevron station, pump in a few gallons of gas and get my spare tire patched, then make it work on time.
I cranked the steering wheel hard to the left, but rolling forward, to my dismay, I couldn’t clear the Ford Falcon’s bumper by about six inches. Our bumpers were touching, holding my car to a stop. What to do? I couldn’t start my car to back it up, and I needed to clear the Falcon’s bumper. As I got out assessing the situation, I noticed the Falcon’s window was open. Being a good neighbor, I didn’t want to wake the couple across the street at six in the morning, so I did (what I thought) the best thing – I opened their Falcon’s door, got in their driver’s seat, took the Falcon out of park, inched it up just enough to give my Valiant clearance to pass by. Unfortunately, that bumper-to-bumper “kiss” was the only thing holding back my car. I neglected to put my car in park or apply the emergency brake. What happened next looked like a dream sequence:
To my left I watched my Plymouth roll by silently, without a driver. My car’s nose silently sliced off the Falcon’s open driver’s door like soft butter. I jumped out and for a moment, I thought I could catch my runaway Valiant, jump in and apply the brakes. But the Plymouth’s mass & momentum slowly & steadily picked up speed and I was losing this race. It must have been a sight to see me running after my car, but looking down the steep hill, I wondered is where this was going to end!
Well, end it did! Remember my other neighbor? The school teacher who called the police every day? She had a compact Datsun (now called Nissan) when they made boxy little sedans. Le Tank plowed into the back of her car and drove the trunk and backseat all the way into the front seat, like an accordion. That was her car- My car? Not a scratch! From that day, my friends christened my Valiant “Le Tank”. Needless to say, I finally met my neighbors. I knocked on the gay couple’s door, and I’ll never forget the look of exasperation on their face. Likewise, I finally got to meet my next door neighbor to let her know I just destroyed her car (I assume she, once again, called the police).
As for me, I had a game plan, and I was sticking to it. I rolled down Kirkwood with just enough momentum to make the right onto Laurel Canyon, then coast into the Chevron. Ten bucks to fix the flat, which left me with $2.00 for gas – and then, on to work! Guess what? I made it to work at 6:00 AM sharp! About an hour into my shift, the police showed up and had me fill out a report. I can’t say my relationship with my neighbors got any better, but didn’t get any worse. I got custom license plates, “Le Tank” to memorialize that morning’s event, and formally name my car.