I’ve got posters of Lamborghini Murias; I once got to drive a Pantera GTS – the 351 Cleveland howling inches behind my right ear. I’ve spent the past 20-plus years driving other people’s new cars. But how about my own cars?
Here’s what happens when you’ve got a car journalist’s income to work with:
* 1978 Camaro Type LT –
This car was a POS but I loved it, nonetheless. The T-tops leaked like a pasta strainer; the 350 V-8 had no power; the cheap chrome on the Keystone Klassic mags was peeling off; the rear quarter panels had more decay than the teeth of the hillbillies in Deliverance – and it was painted pastel robin’s egg blue. But it was mine – my first car. It was also my Learning Curve Car – the car I made every beginner’s mistake you can think of, from pouring way too much money into all the wrong areas to achieve pointless or minimal results to simply crippling the car in one way or another through my lack of experience, patience, proper tools – the usual foibles of the idiot teenager.
I enhanced oil burning by flogging the already tired 350 – eventually killing it off entirely by letting a wingnut get sucked into the four barrel carb, past the throttle plates and directly into the valvetrain. It still ran – just not very well.
After this came my first “built” engine – another 350 but with a 400 crank (so 383 cubic inches). It ran great – until I wrapped the Camaro around a telephone pole one night – after drinking way too much and wanting too much speed for a wet road and bald tires.
* 1981 Camaro Z28 –
At least it was a Z28. And dark navy blue this time. But it was in much worse condition overall than the ’78 had been in originally. Holes in the floorpans, holes in the trunk. Mr. T air freshener dangling from the rearview. Dead transmission. No engine at all. Still, it had that cool-looking Air Induction hood with the little flapper doors at the rear that popped open when you floored it – assuming you had an engine to floor, of course. I thought it was the coolest thing ever – or at least as cool as the lights on the same-year Trans-Am turbo’s hood. Things like this matter a lot to a 19-year-old. But that’s not why I bought it. I bought it because it was a cheap and mostly straight chassis into which I could transfer the 383 salvaged from the totaled Type LT. Once revived, I finally had a genuinely quick car for the first time. It looked rough – but it went. In the summer of ’87 I surprised a guy in an ’86 TPI Corvette. In my circle of hooligans, only my friend’s ’71 Plymouth GTX was faster.
I was also learning things. For instance, that Camaros of this vintage (’78-81) could be lightened up by unbolting the heavy battering ram bumpers that were underneath the flexible rubber (and painted body color, as is ubiquitous today) front and rear “fascias.” Once you pulled these off, you could remove these heavy metal battering rams and then reinstall the plastic bumper covers – securing them with aluminum brackets. Of course, the car now had zero impact resistance and you’d be accordionized in even a low-speed impact – but the car was lighter by about 300 pounds.
I eventually sold the Z to a fellow cracker who appreciated its merits.
I acquired this specimen for $400 at just about the same time as I got the ’76 50th Anniversary Trans-Am (below), principally so I could avoid having to take the TA to work in downtown DC everyday – which I knew would kill it. Or get me killed. DC – especially the part of DC where I worked at the time – was not a safe place for a young white guy. Or a nice old Trans Am. The Squareback was exactly what the doctor ordered. It had factory fuel injection – one of the first cars that wasn’t an exotic/high dollar car to come with EFI. It was also indestructible. I abused this car worse than Obama has pissed on the Constitution – and like the American people, it just put up with everything.
Every once in awhile, the FI system would go balky and I accidentally discovered that by kicking the car hard in the left rear quarter panel, it would re-set whatever was not right and the car would start. One day, in winter, I spun the car several times before hitting the curb hard, sideways, at about 30 mph. It bent the hell out of the front suspension and the only way to keep the car going in a straight line after that was to crank the wheel over about halfway and hold it there – which needed strength and concentration. If you let up for a second the car would suddenly jerk hard to left and hit whatever was there. I drove it that way for months.
One day, coming home, a guy in a brand-new Mercedes S-Class hit me. He had been distracted by something, wandered into my lane. It was clearly his fault. We stopped. I looked at the new crumples in my $400 VW and told the business suit wearing Yuppie that I was cool with each of us dealing with our own problems if he was cool with that. Mine were fixable with a crowbar and two spray cans of Duplicolor. His would be more involved.
Eventually, I sold the VW for $800 to some kid who probably did the same and worse to the car – and likely ended up selling the thing, in his turn, for more than he paid me.
* 1976 Trans Am LE –
My first really collectible car – a car that Jay Leno might be interested in.
The ’76 LE was the first production Trans Am to be given the now-iconic black and gold exterior – with the neat-o German gothic script callouts on the shaker scoop front quarter panels and tail section. This was the template for the ’77 “Smokey and the Bandit” cars – which were all special edition (not limited edition) cars. The ’76 LE cars were also 50th Anniversary (for Pontiac) cars and had a unique octagonal badge commemorating this.
My car also had the Hurt T-tops (first year for these) and the big (but seriously watered down in power output) 455 V-8 plus the four-speed manual transmission. It was the last year this combo would ever be offered from the factory and it was also my first big-cube muscle car. I had a lot of fun with this TA. Though the 455 only made up 200 hp in stock trim, with the 4-speed and 3.23 gears it would do admirable smokey burnouts and you could make the rear end bust sideways on a really hard 1-2 gear change. I had big plans for this car, which even back then (early 1990s) I knew was going to be a collectible given its very low production and historical significance. Only a couple hundred were made with the 455/4-speed combo; even fewer with T-tops, too.
I still have the shaker with the German script “455” call-outs on the sides – it’s hanging on the wall in the garage – but the rest of the car long ago went to that big pow-wow in the sky.
* 1987 Lincoln Mark VII LSC –
I should have kept this car.
It was bought brand-new off the showroom floor by my mom when I was still in college. My mom was fanatical about her vehicles and the Mark was always serviced by the local Lincoln dealer, always garaged and even when it was ten years old it still looked brand-new.
If you don’t remember, these hot rod Lincoln coupes were packing the same basic 5.0 liter HO V-8 as used in the same-era Mustang GTs. They looked great, too. An American take on the Benz SL. The LSC – Luxury Sport Coupe – versions had it all. The 5.0 HO engine, sport suspension with alloy wheels and performance tires, foglights, sport buckets – the works.
I finagled a good deal on the Mark when mom decided it was time for something new. Problem was I lacked two things mom always had: garage space – and money to pay the Lincoln dealer to fix things like the car’s trouble-prone air suspension. I felt bad about leaving the Mark outside in my driveway, in a not-so-great-neighborhood. And the Mark looked bad when both rear air springs failed and the body sank several inches, like someone had poured a load of concrete in the trunk. Cost to fix? More than I could afford. So I put the Mark up for sale and let it go to a guy who could take better care of it than I could.
I hope the Mark’s ok… .
* 1964 Chevy Corvair Monza coupe –
This is the oldest car I have owned so far – and as such it was a kind of time machine for me since it existed before I did.
Every other car I have owned I could have at least sat in the day it left the dealer’s lot. Not the ‘Vair This was part of what made it one of my favorite cars – and one of those I sold that I now which I had not. When I acquired it, it was wearing a seedy (and not correct) two-tone Earl Scheib-style paint job. Even seedier was what I found behind the back seat. Someone had built a mini-bar back there, complete with decanters and glasses (all real high quality stuff). It was a wood mini bar – hammered into the car with nails. I wish I still had pictures of this.
One also did not need a key to start the Corvair. The ignition switch was so loose you just turned it by had and the air-cooled flat six would fire right up. The worst thing about the car was synchronizing the twin one-barrel carbs – which involved shims and a strange little vacuum gauge you placed on top of each carb. It took awhile to master the technique and get it right. But unlike the similar layout VW (which also had a rear-mounted, air-cooled engine) the Corvair had decent power and could maintain 70-75 mph without struggling. And it was by far the most nimble ’60s-era American car I have driven, with light steering (no power assist needed because the front end had no engine weighing it down) and good reflexes, very much like an early Porsche. It also oversteered excessively and often unpredictably, but that was part of the charm. It took skill to drive the Corvair at a fast pace without bending metal.
I eventually finished a high-quality restoration. It was properly repainted in sharp looking (and correct) Daytona Blue with an NOS parchment white interior . . . just in time to sell it off to help pay an unexpected tax bill. My wife still holds a grudge about this, grumbling that I ought to have sold some of my motorcycles instead.
She might be right.
* 1986 Camaro RS –
Bought it with 126k on the clock for a Blue Light Special price with the intention of using it as a commuter. More looks and personality than a Corolla, I reasoned – and rear-wheel-drive, too. It had faded red paint and an over Armor-all’d interior. But low rent as it was, it was a damned good car. The 2.8 liter V-6 was impossible to kill. I know because I tried – hard. You could floor the thing and the tach needle would swing to redline and beyond – and stay there as long as you kept your foot down. Nothing blew up, which impresses me to this day. The little V-6 was easy on gas, too. And otherwise, the RS was basically a Z28, with the same wheel/tire package and 90 percent of its suspension, too. It was a fun car to drive. Useful, too. If you remember these third generation Camaros, they had an enormous convex glass hatchback, which could be raised up on a pair of gas prop rods. I once carried home a 400 cube Pontiac V-8 short block this way. Unfortunately, the block still had some oil in it.
The Camaro looked rough the last time I saw it, trundling down the road with a happy teenager behind the wheel – and very likely, some not-so-happy parents of that teenager waiting at home.
* 1998 Nissan Frontier –
I still have this one – bought ten years ago, used, for about $7,200 – chiefly because it has given me no reason to get rid of it. The truck is old-school simple, with get out and lock ’em by hand manual 4WD hubs, manual transmission, manual roll-up windows and room for just two. They literally do not make trucks like this anymore, which is one reason why I will keep it as long as it can be kept operational without bankrupting me. New trucks are too much for me. I don’t need – or want – a behemoth that comes with a built-in step ladder (necessary because the bed walls are so high) or a multi-turbo’d engine or flat screen anythings. I am a land line, ground beef, old sneakers and cammo pants kind of guys. The idea of a leather-surfaced power-everything $40k pick-up strikes me as ridiculous. And I am suspicious of automatic/electric 4WD and have no interest in paying for it – wither up front or down the road.
But that is what the automakers are selling – which is why I am not buying. New, that is. A guy down the road has the same basic truck – with more than 230,000 miles on his. It still looks new, too. Mine’s a baby in comparison, with a mere 138k now showing. I expect it will be in the driveway for many years to come.
* 1976 Trans Am –
It is painted a bright orange color Pontiac called (inaccurately) Carousel Red. This is a rare color, used previously on the 1969 GTO Judge. 1976 is itself a rare year, for a number of reasons: Last year for the single (round) headlights and shovel nose front end. Final year for the polycast Honeycomb rims (which looked like aluminum wheels but weren’t), the 455 V-8 and the old-style “big” shaker hood scoop. 1976 was a transition year – bridging the gap between the early “muscle” Trans-Ams and the latter ’70s “disco” Trans-Ams. It will also do magnificent burnouts. With close to 500 lbs.-ft of torque on hand and just 15×7 wheels to deal with, you can fry the tires down to the cords, digging ruts in the asphalt and leaving two piles of cinders/smoldering chunks of what used to be your BF Goodrich Radial T/As.
I got the Great Pumpkin in unmolested, factory-stock condition from the original owner, with 48,000 miles showing. This was back in ’91, too – when such a car was still affordable. I paid $5,400 for it – which was ironically about what it sold for brand new. I feel lucky to have been born just in time to be around – and in a position to buy – when these ’70s-era heavy hitters were still abundant on the used car lots – and affordable. Fast forward 18 years and my car has become unaffordable – at least, it would be to a 2014 version of my 1991 self.
This makes me feel bad for them.
And glad for me.
Throw it in the Woods?