|Illustration courtesy of Max Russell Berkes
It was from the mid-70s, and we pronounced the name, “Hor-nay,” like it was French. It had been my grandfather’s. He died while I was at college freshman year. The car was a vivid shade of dark green. In the end it was sold, but it was mine to drive for the summer of 1982. Summers in St. Louis are hot and humid, but the AC on the Hornet worked great. It even had a special setting on the AC dial, a few clicks past “MAX” it said “DESERT ONLY.” And it even had electric windows.
You’d be foolish to take that vehicle to the desert, though. It had so much trouble accelerating up hills that the engine would actually cut out completely. So there you’d be, on a freeway entrance ramp, at a dead stop, cranking the ignition hoping it would catch, the motor giving an irregular “wowp, wow…WOWP,” cars piling up behind you. Once we got it home the plan was always to park it on the street, slightly uphill from the house.
It was perfectly ugly, that AMC Hornet, but not quite as exuberantly and hilariously ugly as the Pacer of the same vintage, so it didn’t even have the cachet of being the most ridiculous car on the road. The shifter was on the steering column, and “P R N D L” was written in dial on the dash, but above that, in case you needed to know, it said, in wide pale letters, “TORQUE COMMAND.”
My favorite thing to do in the Hornet was go run errands with my friend E., and pull up next to other people, roll down her window, the motor in the door faintly squealing and groaning as it unsmoothly opened, and shout something ridiculous like, “Hey, good looking!” and drive away slowly, laughing. Driving away fast wasn’t an option, because that would kill the engine, too. E. had to get the window to close again by pressing the button and pushing the window up with her hand flattened on the glass. Otherwise, the window would not close all the way.
The previous summer I turned down my Aunt Mary’s old tan Chevy Nova. It could have been mine and it would have been the coolest car I ever drove. I wouldn’t go near it. The Nova was sold to the mailman. The Hornet was sold to E.'s family, and when I think of it I hear her laugh, still, many years later.