Special Forces and Cars

About 15-20 years ago, there was a Ranger kick in the Ranger Regiment. “Huh?” Yeah, the Thing To Drive, at one brief moment, was a Ford Ranger small pick-up truck, with a scroll or tab in place of your front license plate and as much aftermarket Ranger badassery as your pay grade, marital status, alimony payments and chidrens’ hunger permitted. Preferred color: black, with windows tinted blacker than the inside of a rhinoceros.

That much window tint was illegal but the cops seemed not to bother, unless the Ranger was weaving. Gottta stop drunks from driving even when you don’t really want to arrest ’em, you know? More than one local rozzer had a duty NCO phone line in his little notebook and got some guy picked up by his unit (and smoked for a while) rather than transport him downtown, have a bunch of paperwork to do, and get some exuberant kid tossed out of Regiment on his ear. (Of course, if the guy did not realize the deal he was getting and preferred to attempt fisticuffs or mock the officer’s non-Ranger state of physical readiness, all bets were off. Drunks can get arrested, but drunken jerks always get arrested. Or if the guy had already hit something before the cops came, there was nothing they could do to avoid cuffing him).

Seeing one of these time-capsule Ranger Rangers recently made us think about the military and cars, especially SF. All the ingredients for car passion were there.

  1. Young men;
  2. High levels of individuality and ego;
  3. High levels of taste for adventure, and love of machinery;
  4. Low levels of taste, period, as defined by the coastal glitterati;
  5. Disposable income (now, thanks to proficiency pays, etc.; now and then, thanks to deployments with no place to spend your money).

In the 70s and 80s, this usually appeared as muscle or sports cars.

At 10th Group, we had a guy who took the then-common Smokey and the Bandit firebird with the bird on the hood and wedge an aluminum bored-and-stroked big-block Chevy engine in there. He probably had about equal amounts of money in the engine, the wheel-and-tire combination, and the whole rest of the car.

Then, on the other hand, we were a Eurocentric group. Some fellows had to drive Euro stuff.

Anyone in Group then will remember Bill C. and his Porsche 944, just like this one. The payments were high enough on a buck sergeant’s pay that he ate in the mess hall a lot. (Last time we saw him he was driving a pickup truck).

There was a guy with a classic XKE, too, but he left not long after we signed in.

There were a lot of Corvettes. Usually they were black or silver, occasionally red or white. (Ours, which came from a buddy in 11th group and went to a buddy in 20th three engines later, was black). Someone in 10th MI Company had one that was egg-shell blue — can’t remember whether it was Maceo M. who would go on to SMUs, or Kris K. who would endure a crippling jump accident… but we do remember both had Corvettes. Anybody in that unit had the right to drive a baby-blue Corvette if he wanted to.

There was a big intersection between the Vette set and the Harley set.

Sorta like this but with a yellow nose.

Todd had an unmistakable and enormous 1975 Olds 98. What made it unmistakeable is that it was black, but after crunching the plastic or fiberglass nose cap, he got one from a pale yellow ’98 and replaced it, never painting it to match. The yellow nose announced Trouble and that’s spelled with T and that means Todd.

Todd also, briefly, owned a red Corvair. It didn’t have any plates, or maybe it was lacking current plates, and so he stashed it in the Service Company parking lot (the group support guys). The first sergeant over there, who did not speak English in any material way — you needed to find a Spanish interpreter if you really cared why he was yelling at you — and didn’t seem to be able to read in any language at all, did get around to asking his men whose car the old Corvair was. Nobody knew, so he had it towed to DRMO as unclaimed property, where it would be auctioned off after a 30-day hold. Well, at the time we were Somewhere In Europe on a mission or an exercise, and when we got back Todd couldn’t find his car, and when he began questioning the first sergeant, the guy’s limited English evaporated entirely. It took him a couple days to figure out where it had gone, and bum a ride to DRMO, only to find that his Corvair had been auctioned off. By the time he got back over to the Service Company area, just ahead of the guys sent to intercept him and prevent mayhem, the linguistically challenged NCO had suddenly retired and was never seen again.

File photo of a better-condition ringer.

Your Humble Blogger had a maroon-and-faded ’63 Lincoln Continental, a 1970 or so Buick Skylark station wagon with a skylight (everyone called it a “Vista Cruiser,” which was the well-advertised Olds version of the same car, and bedamned if anyone can remember what Buick called theirs), and a ’65 Galaxie 500 XL. More or less all at once. Why so many cars? They were all so old, only one was running at any given time.

Someone else’s much nicer same-year Buick, with the image messed with to approximate the original’s fade.

The Buick, in fact, only made it 100 miles towards SFQC, dying somewhere near Hartford when the frame crossmember finally rusted out, depositing the two-speed GM slushbox in the high-speed lane of I-84. Had to call for help on that one; Steve and Doc showed up, in a little Mitsubishi, which forced a hard triage of the station wagon full of gear. We dragged the tranny out of the travel lane, between thundering trucks. Paid somebody $150 to haul off the Buick. Never owned another Buick.

The Galaxie was a Ranger School pickup, meaning, Your Humble Blogger picked it up at Ragnar School. It would be too twaumatizing to fly back the day after graduation, so we phoned in a request for leave and went out that night and picked out the most idiosyncratic car on Victory Boulevard, driving it back to Fort Devens with periodic stops to gorge on food and sleep until functional.

A Bricklin like Jerry’s — this one, we found on Autoblog.

Jerry S owned a Bricklin, of all things, a hunter orange plastic “safety car,” but we never saw it run. It sat. Instead, we could tell who he was dating by the car he showed up in. “Oh, he’s driving that silver Jeep today, he’s back with the redhead, that’s hers.” Until Bob went to SFQC and loaned Jerry his then-newish ’79 Mustang Turbo. Nobody figured that Jerry was dating Bob (it was a different Army then; today, people probably would assume that).

One day in formation, they called Bob out. Before the tac NCO could say anything Bob announced, “I bet Jerry wrecked my car.” He did. Around a tree. In front of the Shirley, MA police station… and then Jerry, who may have been a little beery to desire any interaction with the cops, locked the one door that wasn’t shaped like the inverse of a stout oak, and left the car on the spot, walking back to Fort Devens. In the morning, the cops put out an APB for the owner of the car, only to find he was 800 miles away and accounted for at the time. (Bob passed SFQC and forgave Jerry. Not sure if Jerry ever paid him for the damage. Jerry died young of a fast-moving brain cancer, so if anyone from Shirley PD reads this, you can close that case from 1981 or so, now).

Another time, the MPs found an old suicide-door Lincoln doing donuts on a baseball field on post. The MP carefully locked the car, dropped the keys in the chest pocket of the driver, now snoring in the back seat of the MP car, and dropped him — Your Humble Blogger, younger and perhaps not as mature as today — in the hands of the Duty NCO. (It was a different era). The next day, with no recollection of the incident, the hunt for the missing car began. It was found on the 2nd Base line about three hours later. How did it get there? The story took several more hours to work out.

And then there was the NCO, a few years older than us, who had a vehicle we all admired — a WWII Kubelwagen. No, not the 1970s VW re-engineering of the WWII vehicle as “The Thing,” the actual, primitive, 36-hp 4WD German vehicle. He had it pretty much restored the way the SS used to have it painted, and had a running joke about an uncle who died in a concentration camp… too much schnapps, and a fall from the south tower.

This one was for sale a couple years ago, it looks a lot like the one owned by… let’s call him Sergeant Schultz.

Still, that was at Devens, not at Bad Tölz, where some of the teams used SS rank in-house… the TL was Herr Hauptsturmführer, and so on. (The kaserne at Tölz was the former SS-Junkerschule. Even though it was a young building by German standards, mid-1930s, it radiated history… not always good history. As we understand it, it’s an office park now).

Getting stationed in Germany, in those days, meant access to a whole other continent of cars, plus, something the average American did not have, to wit, the ability to import them. The US safety nazis refused to accept, at the time, that the European safety nazis were capable of signing off on a car that wasn’t a primitive deathtrap. And the US environmental nazis refused to believe that their Euro opposite numbers weren’t signing off on cars that would choke a gas mask with their exhaust. (Actually, their Eastern Euro oppos were signing off on cars like that. If you ever smelt a Trabant, you know what we’re talking about). But there was some kind of loophole for GIs that had bought cars overseas.

Meanwhile, in 1985, the mark crashed against the dollar, putting the keys to gently used 911s into the hands of any sergeant who saved a little of his pay. The wise ones brought them to the States at the end of their tour, arbitraging the Porsche for a nice nest egg. The unwise ones tested the NHTSA’s primitive-deathtrap hypothesis at triple-digit speeds against an Autobahn overpass abutment, and were featured in a battalion mandatory memorial service.

Yes, they were different times.

39 thoughts on “Special Forces and Cars

  1. poobie

    I still see a few of those Ranger-Rangers around Tuscaloosa, though more usually a blue-green or red than black around here. I see a lot of retired Marines in Rams for some reason.

    When I was the age you’re talking about, I was part of the broke-ass attending college on academic scholarship set. Given the demographic, most of what limited money we had went toward electronics, musical instruments, booze, or drugs, depending on the person and time of year. I knew several stoners whose stereo systems were worth significantly more than their cars. One poor fellow was tooling around in a 1978 Matador, in the baby-poop yellow color only referred to by manufacturers as “harvest gold.” My personal ride, in 1994, was a 1981 Honda Prelude, eyed with envy by my peers for its functional AC and moon roof.

  2. Hartley

    Ahhh, the memories.. in my time at Devens (late ’72 thru the end of ’75) the MPs were NOT friendlies – exactly the opposite. Remember the small field gun at the corner of the parade field? In my time there wasn’t a locked tampion on the muzzle, and an incident occurred that didn’t start, but was a major event in an almost-shooting war between SF and the MPs. I’m glad to hear the war faded away.
    That Kubelewagen would have been illegal in Germany when I was there – heck, I had had an A-H MP try to cite me for my VW bus, which was painted like a C-130 (except the colors were waaay too bright). Good times.
    Yes, Tolz is indeed a business park :(

    1. Hognose Post author

      Did that incident involve a not-too-recently expired cat? ISTR 10th got the blame, but it may have been an 11th Group ODA, freshly, uh, illuminated at the O club where they were guests of a senior officer, that was responsible.

      They were still talking about that when 10th left in ’92 and 11th disbanded in ’94.

      1. Hartley

        IRRC, no cats.. it definitely involved a couple rolls of TP and a bucket of golf balls. The recoil broke the chain and almost ran over the MP who pulled the cord on what he thought was a blank. The impetus was a change of command ceremony a few days before – half of 10th group hit the ground when the cannon was set off behind them on the same parade field (most of those guys were only a couple years back from ‘nam).
        Since the cannon was aimed at post HQ, the golf balls did the most actual damage, but since it was reveille , no one was there to be injured.

        1. John Stephens

          Inspecting the bore prior to loading is part of the firing drill for a reason. You never know when some merry prankster might have tucked a bag of confetti in there (not that I have any firsthand knowledge of such things).

  3. Tim, '80s Mech Guy

    Back in the day there was a convertible 454 Camero running around post and the ville that you would see bouncing from used car lot to uaed car lot. You’d see it being driven-never twice by the same G.I.-all the time, top down and accompanied by the roar of that big assed motor, beautiful it was. Always wondered if it was an un maintainable POS or if it just sucked so much gas that nobody could feed it for long-gas was like 68 cents a gallon back then.
    I ran an S-10 to death hauling people to the airports or thier furniture around and on occasion a roadtrip to drop or pick somebody at Ranger School. My buddy had a ’68 Cutlass convertible we ran around in, that was a classy ride.

    1. John Distai

      Maybe it was a “Buy Here Pay Here” scam like Eastern Motors. GI’s bought it, couldn’t afford it long term, and it was repo’d, and passed on to the next guy?

  4. Trone Abeetin

    I’m trying to imagine the likelihood of your ballpark encounter going the same with a current version MP. you can’t spell wimp without MP.

  5. Trone Abeetin

    My uncle Sal had a Galaxie 500, my brother had a Delta88, that was a bleedin boat. It had a 454 in it IIRC, you’d think with that big of an engine it’d clip, not really. In retrospect, I think it needed a 454 to do 55.

    1. Hillbilly

      When I left 10th there were a lot of lifted 4×4 Jeeps and other trucks in the parking lots. Harley of course was the most common motorcycle.
      There was one 18D who would drive a tubbed, interior stripped and roll caged Camaro to work every now and then, if I rememember correctly it ran about 10 second 1/4 miles. That thing would rattle the windows when he pulled in.

      That story about the cannon loaded with golf balls was a good one. I can imagine the problems that caused.

  6. 11B-mailclerk

    I knew an SF MSG in ~84 that drove a very sharp 61 Riviera an a nice green color. Had that odd shapped back window that was very distictive.

  7. Squid

    What is with the 4×4’s with lift kits all painted with flat black stove paint parked all around Little Creek? Does anyone believe that they get a greatly reduced IR signature or something?

  8. WellSeasonedFool

    Just a leg in a float bridge company circa 1964 but had a 58 tri-colored (Pink, Black, White) Plymouth with a big ass V-8 that was seldom passed on the Autobahn. My only concession to sanity was buying the best tires available.

    In general the Airborne/SF left Engineers alone. We usually had a few D Handle pickets nearby and few of us gave a rat’s ass about anything.

  9. SPEMack

    Christ, I was driving a Ford Ranger when going through Ranger School. (’97 Ranger in ’09)

    But, when your step-father lives on post over on Benning in a very nice house on the street with all the other Colonels, you just walk over after graduation and pass out in the guest bed room in a semi-clean set of ACUs and wake only to devour a pizza and drink a half gallon of Gatorade at odd intervals.

    1. Hognose Post author

      That’s a great post-Ragnar story. As God is my witness, I bought a grocery bag full of Little Debbie Snack Cakes (something I did not eat before or since), another of potato chips, and two cases of sugared soda, and slept in rest areas on the way home. More than one cop woke me up; the one that immediately understood was a Ranger School graduate himself. (He had slept on a bus back to Ft. Lewis, where he was in 2nd Battalion, and looking forward to making SGT now that he was tabbed. We had a good conversation).

  10. Toastrider

    “The first sergeant over there, who did not speak English in any material way — you needed to find a Spanish interpreter if you really cared why he was yelling at you — and didn’t seem to be able to read in any language at all…”

    *blinks repeatedly* Mr. Hognose, is that sort of thing common? I can buy Private Jose maybe not having a full command of Habla Anglais, but a first sergeant?

    1. Hognose Post author

      This guy was a legendary blockhead, a real outlier. I did have two guys who didn’t habla in my basic training platoon, one failed to graduate because he could not master the simplest things (like the hand salute, I kid you not). But that failed private, a nice guy from El Salvador, had more English that that first shirt.

      In group it was very common to have immigrants from all over the world who spoke three languages fluently, none of them being English. That joke in the movie The Green Berets about “I speak X, Y, and have a functional command of English,” was a part of the actual Gabriel demonstration team script, and there was always a guy on the assigned team for whom that comment was God’s honest truth. But this support guy did not have that much English. Very hard to communicate with him, and no idea how he rose to E-8 or what other qualities he might have had.

  11. Nynemillameetuh

    There were two rides that got away from me. Number one was my Old Man’s (Armored Cav) diesel Ranger. Number two was a 74′ Cadillac Hearse that I couldn’t afford at 16. Those were the days.

  12. Cap'n Mike

    Did you bring any of those American cars over to Germany Hognose.
    I brought my 1982 Mustang GT over and back. Wrecked it outside Ft Drum a year later. (I was sober, I swear)
    Every year I was stationed in Kaiserslautern, they had an American Car show, and it was mostly Germans showing off sweet American cars from the 50s-80s, most of which were brought over by American Servicemen, or ordered through the PX and shipped over.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I sold the Lincoln for $150 to a father and son from Rhode Island who wanted a complete but beat Lincoln for a resto project. They came up to Devens with a roll-bed to get it. Be nice if they got it running. The black California plates went, I think, when my parents sold their Cape house years later; I wish I’d had them to give to the rhode islanders. The two-tone green Galaxie I left to my dad to sell for my brother’s college fund. But my bro PO’d him and he sent me the money when it sold, IIRC (we have gone through life alternating in the role of Bad Son). I bought a ’65 Mustang from another GI in Augsburg and still own it, but it’s badly rusted now and at a friend’s shop in MA. I’ve offered it to him for $1 and first refusal when it’s done.

  13. Loren

    Drove XKE’s thru college and after. A 62, a 67 and a 72. All well used by the time I got them. Finally got tired of being stranded and broke and bought a Buick wagon with a 454(more or less). Last I heard it was in the north woods running hard. Kinda wish I’d kept the Jags as they’re 100K plus now – and still pretty.

  14. John Distai

    My Grandfather had a Lincoln Continental. I don’t know what year. Light blue. He named it. I believe he bought it new, and then never bought another car after that. He was super frugal.

    He drove that car back and forth across the country for several decades until he retired. He’d have the engine or whatever rebuilt on it, and he’d keep driving it. I think he rebuilt whatever it was that needed rebuilding. I think that thing had at least 500k miles on it. I think he said he changed the oil every 500 miles on it because the rings were so loose.

    My mom and uncle begged him to buy a small used car to make them feel more at ease for his safety. I don’t think they were successful. He was a stubborn guy and loved that car.

  15. Seacoaster

    In my lieutenant time the battalion had an enterprising young Corporal of Marines who acquired a used stretch limo. I always assumed the PFCs were press ganged into service as weekend drivers, complete with Dumb and Dumber-esque uniforms.

    1. Hognose Post author

      A friend of mine’s father, a retired USAF Colonel (in Public Affairs!) started off as an enlisted man, and he he had an unusual car when stationed in France while the US had bases there — an old Rolls. (The one called the “25 HP” because that was very powerful for the day; I believe it’s the model that Odd Job drove Auric Goldfinger around in, but no gold parts). He couldn’t get the gate guards to stop saluting the car! A couple of years ago I looked up the car for him and confirmed it still exists and is well kept.

      SF officers learn to lead guys who are smarter than them, who may have more money than them (especially in the reserve components — I was on one team with 4 millionaires, including the team leader, and our battalion commander was a school janitor in civilian life), and who do not take second for ego or follow rank blindly — naturally those challenges develop some pretty great officers.

  16. Buckaroo

    “Meanwhile, in 1985, the mark crashed against the dollar, putting the keys to gently used 911s into the hands of any sergeant who saved a little of his pay”

    I came THIS close to bringing back a beautiful red 1967 Porsche 912 coupe from Germany in the fall of 1985 for something like $3500. The guy who owned it was a mechanic, he had carefully restored it and he was ready to sell it to me at that price basically because he took a liking to me and appreciated how much I loved old Porsches. His girlfriend, who was translating for us, decided that I was taking advantage of her man and intervened. On our next meeting she unilaterally upped the price by several hundred dollars which was more than I felt I could afford. I can’t quite remember how much it was going to cost to bring it stateside. I want to say something like $800.

    I console myself with the idea that I probably would have wrapped it around a tree.


    1. Boat Guy

      That’s about what i paid to ship cars from Stuttgart to Baltimore. Not inconsiderable when you don’t have a car on your orders.

      1. Hognose Post author

        The way it worked in the 80s was, you could ship a car back to the US on Uncle if you finished your tour, and it was (A) a US-made car, or (B) any car you owned before going overseas. If you bought a European car in Europe you were on your own for shipping.

        Lufthansa quoted me $1,200 to airfreight the Mustang, which weighed heavily against “Free.” Should have done it, as the Mafia dockworkers in Bayonne damaged it and I was never able to get the repairs covered. I could also have dropped it in Munich and not driven the height of Germany, practically, to Bremerhaven. Unlike their NJ counterparts, the workers in Bremerhaven took great care with my car.

        1. Boat Guy

          My status in the mid-late 90’s was somewhat … ambiguous. I could afford to ship the Bimmer so I did. What I should NOT have done was ship the Cherokee that was my “other vehicle” as well. Still I could afford to do so without selling any organs so I did.
          The Bimmer went back to Europe on orders, being delivered to Lisbon. The car was later driven from Lisbon back to Stuttgart (great trip, Bride drove her A4) and then shipped back home on my retirement orders.

  17. Boat Guy

    The “third son” (as Bride refers to him) is an 83 320i purchased from a friend, the first owner (I am the second and “last” owner – even when I’m room-temp it will still be MY car). He ordered it in Miesbach through the dealer there. At the time new Bimmers were rationed but US-spec cars for the Ami’s were GRAVY to the dealer – no “allotment” there. Thus the locals were VERY happy to order US-spec cars.
    The original owner (a long-time 1/10 officer still wearing Infantry brass) came down from the FuhrungsAkademie to buy a new 740i and we consummated the deal. The car has since crossed the Atlantic three more times but is now safely esconced in the garage while i get to scrape ice off the 03 Taco that is the daily driver (the Bimmer is the “date car”).
    Most of those first 3-series were driven to death, wrecked or succumbed to rust. I paid dearly to the BMW Niederlassung in Stuttgart for cancer-surgery but we finally got “most” of it. The body-meister, pointing to his smoke said “I cannot make a cigarette out of ash; you must never again drive zis car in the snow.”.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Everyone wore base branch brass until SF Branch was a reality, circa 1983 for NCOs and 86 or 87 for Os, if I recall right. Apparently there’s more bureaucracy on the officer side, what with DOPMA and ROPMA (Defense Officer and Reserve Officer Personnel Management Acts by Congress, respectively). Thank a merciful God they haven’t written an NCO/POMPA yet.

  18. Ullr

    “And then there was the NCO, a few years older than us, who had a vehicle we all admired — a WWII Kubelwagen. No, not the 1970s VW re-engineering of the WWII vehicle as “The Thing,” the actual, primitive, 36-hp 4WD German vehicle.”

    Der Kubelwagen was more primitive than that. They were 2WD. Capable off road in large part to having 11 inches of ground clearance beneath a flat pan, and the weight of the engine over the driven (rear) wheels, but 2WD nonetheless….

    1. Hognose Post author

      Hmmm… was the Schwimmwagen 4WD? ISTR seeing a transfer box in a VW shop and having it described as a “WWII Kubelwagen part” by the VW geek mechanics.

      1. Ullr

        The Schwimmer was 4WD, but only in first gear/reverse. I understand the purpose was to help it get into/out of the water. It also had a PTO prop and rudder. I have heard that a handful of Kubels were put together with the Schwimmer drivetrain as the Typ 86, Those were tested, but never fielded (approx 50K standard Typ 82 kubels were made). And there was the Typ 87, which was a Kubel chassis, Schwimmer drive train, and modified Beetle body – der Kommandeurwagen.

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