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The AMC Pacer.

IT was mid-January in 1982 and I had been praying hard for snow, for a lot of it so I could make a snowman like the ones in movies and go sledding down a hill.

Now, you might be wondering how old I am and whether I lived through the nuclear winter of Toba or the ice age to be wishing for snow in Kedah in mid-January.

Like many 12-year-olds, I did wish for white Christmases even though I am in the wrong climate and belief system. Such is the power of American-dominated popular culture.

As luck and my father’s postgraduate studies would have it, we found ourselves in Columbus, Ohio that winter and it was all excitement waiting for snow.

As Christmas approached, we got like one or two inches of snow, which was enough for a foot-tall snowman but it was hardly the all-white wonderland that we kids had hoped for.

As mid-January approached, the weather became steadily colder. One morning, we woke up and the common parking area behind the house was covered in snow so deep that the cars were just small bumps on the landscape.

That year, they had one of the coldest winter on record and to this day, it still ranks in the top 10 coldest winters in Columbus.

A Ford brochure.

My school was less than a kilometre away from home. It was exciting to walk in that wintry landscape, which, in an urban area, is mostly slush as the snowplow and salt spreader trucks pass on the road early in the morning to clear the way.

The temperature had dipped to nearly -20°F, which is -28°C in the real world.

It was so cold, there was a threat of school closure but there wasn’t enough snow on the ground so it was life as usual.

That winter was when I learnt what it was like to be in a car driven on ice.

We had a 10-year-old Ford Galaxie, which my father bought for about US$500, which was the usual amount of money a Malaysian student would spend on a family car there.

The US dollar was RM2.50 then, so it was really just a shade over RM1,000, which was the price of a really cheap banger in Malaysia at that time.

It was the biggest car I had ever seen. But more importantly, it was the typical American police car that appeared in movies and TV series. Happy days.

There were three of us small kids at the back and there was enough space for everyone to feel a bit lost.

I cannot really recall if it was the miser version or just the regular economy version of the Galaxie.

If it was the regular economy version, then it would have had the 4.9-litre V8 under the bonnet but since we were a skint student family, it probably had the much unloved 3.9-litre inline-6 cylinder engine.

These cars came at a time when a 5-litre V-8 was standard issue in American family cars, they are like the 1.6-litre version of our cars at the time.

The 2.0-litre equivalent in an American car at that time would mean 7.0 litre V8 gas guzzlers.

I remember the Galaxie having a lazy engine. Instead of the usual four-cylinder buzzing sound, this car pulsated and throbbed as it accelerated.

The suspension of the Galaxie must have been made of tapioca pudding because every time it accelerated, the horizon disappeared and all I could see from the rear seat was the sky.

Land yacht is certainly an accurate description of these large and luxurious American cars. It came with power windows all around and leather or vinyl seats.

Ford brochure with the Ford Galaxie (centre).

It also came with a strong heater that kept the car warm all winter long. In fact, the car was always warmer than the house because the house was old and rickety and the single-glazed windows never really kept the cold out.

Driving around in winter was fun for me but it must have been quite nerve-racking for my father because the roads were slippery. I fell down quite a few times slipping on ice while traipsing to school.

One day, we were returning from a shopping mall across town and it was snowing quite a bit.

I was excited at the prospect of playing in the snow when we got home but, at the same time, I remember feeling a bit concerned as it was looking grim outside.

In front of us was an 18-wheeler. As we approached a junction, the light went red. The truck slowed down and so did we.

Then suddenly the deceleration stopped and we moved forward without slowing down. The truck was coming up fast and I could see my father stomping on the brakes but it did not slow the car down.

To be fair, we were driving at low speed at the time because of the bad weather so the car was gliding into the back of the trailer at the speed of a fast jogger.

I don’t remember panicking, maybe because I was too young to understand what was about to happen or I just thought that the car would stop in time. It didn’t.

There was gentle jolt, accompanied by a crunching sound as the nose dipped down as it hit the rear guard of the trailer.

Those days, the rear guard of the trailer was set at slightly lower than adult hip point, high enough for the bonnet to slide under.

Like most accidents, it was followed by a deafening silence. My father went out to look at the car and talk to the truck driver. Actually, he had to call the truck driver and tell him that we had rear-ended him.

The jolt was so gentle the truck driver did not even notice it. He looked at his truck, saw no damage and just shrugged it off.

Ford police car.

When the truck drove off, there was an awful scraping sound and when we got home, there was a foot-long gash on the bonnet.

Since then, the car developed a clicking sound whenever the steering went too far. We later discovered that when the car slid under the truck, the compression forces had damaged the subframe.

We kept the car for a while before selling it as scrap and that was when we got our hands on a real icon of American motoring, an AMC Pacer.

We bought this off a Malaysian student who was going home for US$200 and boy, was it ugly. The charm and fun of this car was never evident even to a 12-year-old from a country where people still lived on trees.

My fifth grade teacher thought Malaysians still lived on trees and she couldn’t tell the difference between a Malay boy and a boy from Taiwan. The Taiwanese boy didn’t speak a word of English so I was the designated interrogator because we came “from the same area”.

Ever since then, I have had mixed feelings about Americans. They’re generally good people but the size of the country, combined with their general economic, technological and military prowess, has made them myopic and insular and that can make them rather dangerous.

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