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Tender Loving Car

'67 Datsun Owner Explains Key to Keeping It Running

March 08, 2000

Car of the future?

That's what Pete Dolfi figured at the height of the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo, when he added a windup key to his 1967 Datsun PL411 wagon.

His philosophy: If you can't afford to fill it up, why not wind it up instead?

The key, which the Alhambra resident fabricated from 1/8-inch hard aluminum with the help of neighbor John Kasteiner, was a humorous response to the gasoline shortages created by the embargo. The key actually turns (thanks to an electric motor activated by a dashboard switch) but, of course, does nothing to propel the car.

Still, Dolfi says, the key was guaranteed to draw stares and help break the tension of those long-ago lines at the gas station.

"It brought a lot of laughs and smiling faces when I turned it on and it started to rotate," he recalled. "When people asked about the key, I would tell them that I turned it on when I ran out of gas and it would get me to the gas station. Some would actually believe me."

Dolfi, 65, is a retired deliveryman who owns a second long-running Datsun, a 1978 B-210 hatchback.

He still drives the PL411 every day, he says, crediting regular oil changes and his devotion to routine maintenance for the car's longevity. The wagon is pushing 200,000 miles of total service, though Dolfi says he can't be sure, as the odometer broke about eight years ago at the 140,000-mile mark.

And who knows? With crude oil today at nine-year highs, hovering near $30 a barrel, Dolfi's whimsically augmented station wagon may once again find itself in vogue.

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* Tender Loving Car features Southern California vehicles--daily drivers rather than show or collector cars--that have been kept in great shape by their owners. You may nominate yourself and your car, truck or motorcycle for this feature by sending a color photo of the vehicle, along with a brief description (200 words or fewer), how long you've owned it, what you do to keep it in excellent condition and how you use it--daily commuting, weekend outings, Friday night dates? Write to Highway 1, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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