My friend since elementary school, Stuart – whom we all called Stu Monster in tribute to his exploits with beer and fast cars – was a year behind me in age, but way ahead when it came to owning a serious beast. While I had a ratty ’78 Camaro LT with a watery-eyed low compression, low performance 350 small block, glass packs and peeling-chrome Keystone Classic mags, Stu wrangled his parents into a small loan (big to us) of $2,200 – which he used to secure ownership of an amazingly pristine, all-there 1971 Plymouth GTX equipped with its original 375 horse 440 Magnum big block, Torque-flite automatic and floor-mounted “slapstick” shifter.
It had gattling gun exhaust tips thrusting menacingly out of the huge rear bumper; a wing on the trunklid – and massive steel slab of a hood with “440” callouts on either side. It was chocolate brown metallic with red “GTX” decals and wore its vinyl roof like a mafia hit man’s pompadour. It rode on a full set of Hurst 14 inch mag wheels – shod with the widest tires that Manny, Moe & Jack (the mascots of the local auto parts place) could provide. Which, of course, were not very wide at all. Imagine a two-ton muscle car with a 7 liter, pushing 400 horsepower big block and absolutely no electronic helpers such as traction or stability control…. on rolling stock that would be considered marginal underneath a 2011 Camry.
The thing was wildly, thrillingly dangerous – which was what made it so much fun. Anything more than eggshell application of the throttle would send those ridiculous Hurst mags and and the whole rear end into a violent fishtail, blue haze from the big-inch motor and the overmatched tires providing cover for these misdeeds.
If you stood anywhere near the pipes with the engine running, your eyes would water from the unburned hydrocarbons.
It was car porno.
I experienced my first 1-2 tire chirp in an automatic-equipped car in that GTX – and almost lost control as the back end broke loose violently in the process. One night, we took on a brand-new ’86 Corvette and ate his lunch up to 120-something mph – at which point it occurred to me that we might die at any moment so I eased off the throttle to bleed speed back to double digits. The thing was just ferocious. When you floored it , the whole front end would rise up an inch or two – and I’m talking about when you’re already going 30 or 40 MPH… .
Another time, one of my idiot friends decided to try to pass us on a blind curve in his ’74 Formula 400 Firebird – a respectable car. The GTX did not allow it. Luckily, no one was coming in the opposite lane. That time, the Motor Gods were with us.
These were truly great days – not so much because we were young and dumb and ready for anything – but because young and dumb teens could still easily buy cars that today are high five or even six-figure “collectibles” that mostly only rich middle-aged men can afford, so they can be trailered to shows and kept under glass as they appreciate in value some more, before they’re sold off to another investor.
Today, an authentic 1971 GTX 440 in good condition is probably a $50k car; maybe more. Even something more common like my other friend’s 1974 Formula 400 Firebird is easily a $20k-plus car today.
But back in the mid-’80s, ’60s and ’70s muscle cars were not yet investments. They were obnoxious old gas pigs that virtually no one in the K-Car era thought much about. They were priced accordingly. You could find them parked outside, way back there, looking forlorn in the second or third row of second-tier consignment lots. For Sale. Cheap.
We were 16 and 17 years old, with McDonald’s jobs and zero credit because back in the ’80s, kids didn’t have credit – or credit cards. Or loans. You had to have a real job to get one of those and that we did not have. Yet we could still afford to buy muscle cars on our part-time fast food salaries. My high school parking lot was overflowing with them. GTOs and SS Chevelles, Camaros and Mustangs – all kinds of stuff. Sure, they were mostly on the well-chewed side, some with primered panels and Gabriel Hi-Jacker air shocks lifting the back end up. But the essential thing is they were available. And they were ours.
We didn’t know it at the time, of course (you never do) but we were enjoying the privilege of being the last generation able to drive these things as they were intended to be driven – by young guys and all-out. In the rain, even. With no worry in our heads about bending not-yet-precious metal. And if we did, some Bondo would do the trick. We learned to do a cam swap or valve adjustment with shitty hand tools on engines that today are touched only by meticulous restoration shops – and rarely, if ever, experimented upon to extract another couple of horses by bumping up the ignition timing or shoving a stack of gaskets underneath the carb to create a poor man’s “hi-riser.”
Like being a teenager, it didn’t last.
Stu ended up dead behind the wheel of the GTX the following summer – after he lost it on a curve late one night, flipped the GTX and broke his neck. That event sobered me up – and may even have saved my own life. I toned it down a bit in the Camaro and subsequent fast cars, the little voice in my head advising me that I was not, in fact, immortal. I don’t know what became of my friend with the Formula 400.
And the high school parking lots were suddenly full of Hondas.
It was only 25 years ago. Not so long in terms of the calendar – but an epoch in the life of a then-kid who didn’t realize until it was long gone just how good we had it.