(None of the pictures in this article are of the actual cars but pictures borrowed from the Internet using Google image search)
So my Mom’s co-worker’s son, Nick, had just graduated from grad school and scored a job as a chemist at a large pharmaceutical company. Since Nick was a young unmarried guy, the first thing he did with his fat paycheck was upgrade his wheels.
Being a fan of muscle cars, he bought the contemporary equivalent of a new muscle car, a 1991 Oldsmobile Calais 442 with the famous Quad 4 engine.
This left him the question of what to do with his old ride, a 1976 Camaro. Since his Mom and my Mom were not only co-workers but friends, she convinced Nick to give me the car. On my end, there was no problem with the idea of a free Camaro.
My first thought when we got to their house upon seeing the Camaro was how much it dwarfed Nick’s new “muscle car.” It was obvious which car had the V8 and which one was a four-banger. I must say that the 442 did look pretty good in its shiny new black paint. My second thought was how ugly the Camaro looked. However, instead of being repulsed by its ugliness I actually found myself attracted to it. It wasn’t the type of ugly that left you disgusted, but so ugly that it was at once intimidating and strangely compelling.
This picture from the internet does not quite do the actual car justice. The body was much rougher than depicted above. It was originally silver which had faded to a very dull gray–so faded that when I first saw it, I thought that it was unpainted dull metal. There was rust rot in the lower rear quarters and sections where there were no lower rear quarters, just holes where the rust had eaten through. There were a few bondo patches, and the wheels were bare steelies with no hub caps.
The interior was austere and in poor condition. The headliner had been removed a long time ago; the black vinyl seats were torn and covered with very poor fitting seat covers; the automatic transmission lever had no shift boot cover, so you could see down into its inner workings; and all the weatherstripping had grown very brittle, so the interior leaked when it rained. It sat low–much lower than my Pontiac Sunbird, and lower than Nick’s 442. It sat in the street, a bold, imposing presence in the neighborhood.
As our parents began to socialize, Nick gave me an orientation to the car. I remember the first thing he said to me: “Just so you know, this car beat a Monte Carlo SS on the Garden State Parkway doing 130 mph.” “O…kay” I said. He responded, ” I just wanted to make sure you knew what the car can do.”
The car was a base Camaro with a few options. While it did not have the rear spoiler common to so many of these cars, it did have the 350 V8 engine, smog-restricted to 165 HP with torque listed at 260 lb. ft. at 2400 RPM. The car had no inside hood release. One gained access to the engine compartment through a hidden lever in the front of the car. There was no rear defroster.
While the car came with factory air, Nick said that it had been disconnected long ago. In addition, while the blower fan was operable the heat was on all the time with no way to restrict it from coming into the cabin. The high-beam switch was mounted on the floor by the brake pedal, which I thought was kinda neat. Also, the ignition lock was broken so the car could be started without the key, and the windows struggled to stay in the up position.
The car’s aura was what the early Dodge Vipers wanted to capture. A primitive, crude, rude, bare-bones beast of a sports car that was unapologetic and imposing. Its one concession to comfort was an Alpine removable face cassette player (remember those?). One concern was that at 158,000 miles the car had extremely high mileage (for the time). Nick’s response was “these engines only get better with age.” Besides, the car was being given to me free of charge so the mileage issue was quickly forgotten.
In order to start the car, one had to follow a special starting procedure which I cannot now remember, but which involved some combination of pumping, half pumping, turning, and half turning and pumping again. It was complicated, but it served as an effective anti theft system since the windows would not stay up and the car could be started without the ignition key. The exhaust was rotten, which made the sound from the 350 V8 much more noticeable.
One more thing–the trunk was jammed shut, but you could open it by using the Fonz’s method of banging it just so and it would pop open like magic. I never mastered the trunk-opening technique. It worked sometimes but not always. It was just as well, since the trunk was no longer watertight and as a result was quite nasty. Needless to say, I never used the trunk. In fact, I remember helping my dad with a fence project and having to haul multiple 60 pound bags of cement in the back seat of the Camaro.
It reminded me very much of an F15 Eagle Fighter jet. Big, gray, imposing, and all business with impressive off the line thrust. The car was very different from the front-drive GM A and X cars and J cars I was familiar with.
I did enjoy the car. The torque was very noticeable when accelerating and I clearly remember beating a Mustang in a side-by-side race up a steep hill. With it’s low driving position, stiff suspension, uncomfortable seats and lack of creature comforts, the car was not easy to drive, but was fun on a nice day and definitely stood out from the crowd. I particularly liked (and still do) accelerating away from toll booths. It gave me such a rush!
On early Sunday mornings, I would take it to South Mountain Reservation with its twisty roads and uphill S-turns in order to enjoy the car. Many times, I just enjoyed opening the hood and admiring the engine. I really enjoyed the fact that it had no computer, so no pesky Check Engine lights that drove me crazy in my last vehicles. Also, unlike my previous vehicles, it was actually very reliable, not stranding me or requiring any repairs in the ten months or so that I owned it.
The fun came to an end for several reasons. Winter was coming and the car had wide summer tires, not good in a rear-wheel-drive V8-powered car with a light rear end. Plus, the windows would not stay up and the weatherstripping was worn. In addition, according to Nick it was known to not start reliably in winter. Most importantly, the frame had quite a bit of rot to it so it was becoming unsafe. We reluctantly had it towed to the scrapyard before the heavy snow started. But it was fun while it lasted. I just realized that this is the last two-door vehicle I have owned.
It was replaced by a distant relative that had many of its attributes but was much more practical. I will talk about that one next time.