This ’77 Cutlass Supreme, photographed in the parking lot of Flint Central High School, is almost like one of my Cars Of A Lifetime in that many cars just like it were once a part of my everyday scenery as a teenager. While I never owned a Cutlass of this vintage, I did own its Chevy cousin. Twenty-three years ago around this time of year, I was a senior at Flint Central awaiting a graduation commencement ceremony at Whiting Auditorium, full of uncertainty about the future and having given up my childhood dream of becoming a car designer. There was no good reason for abandoning my dream outside of a lack of self-confidence in my math and science abilities, but that’s a topic for another day.
Many GM “Colonnade” mid-sizers once populated this very parking lot. My first car purchase in the fall of 1991 was a ’76 Chevy Malibu Classic coupe in “Buckskin Tan” with a matching interior, for the princely sum of $1,500 cash (roughly $2,600 in 2015 money). It had bench seats front and rear, and the de rigeur powertrain combo of the SBC 2-bbl. 350 V8 and three-speed Turbo Hydramatic. The ‘Bu was thirsty, but it always started in the Michigan winter, ran smoothly and effortlessly, had reasonable pickup, and was nicely appointed and comfortable.
I loved activating the high-beam switch on the floor with my left foot. I also liked how the nubby seat upholstery smelled a little like inside a thrift store, at many of which I used to buy clothes in my quest for individuality, and well, out of being broke. Gassing up that car wasn’t cheap. My family moved to southwest Florida in 1992, and I sold the Malibu in Flint to a friend’s brother with the hope of finding a straight-bodied Southern car with a little less Bondo. I plan on writing a COAL about my Malibu at some point, and I want it to be clear that I loved that car.
I had always presumed these Colonnades were fairly easy to work on, given their presence on the streets of Flint even as late as the early ’90s. GM factory jobs were still fairly plentiful here at that time, even if there weren’t quite as many as there had been several decades prior. Even if you weren’t mechanically inclined like some of the guys in shop class, chances are you had a mechanic in the family or knew someone who could keep your uncomplicated, mid-70’s GM machine running fairly easily and inexpensively. In fact, my Malibu was the only car I looked at to purchase (out of four or five) that our family mechanic, Ted at Autotech, approved of.
Most any Colonnade was a simple, substantial, generally reliable car, not unlike a big, lovable, affectionate Mastiff – and every bit as thirsty, and about as graceful. Pulling my Malibu coupe’s big doors shut would require a combination of muscle, grip, and momentum, and would be followed by a loud creak, a “chunk” sound and a few seconds of rattling door glass. Its sheer mass just gave you the impression that it was a safe place to be.
Of the four lower-tier GM makes, loyalty and presence was fairly evenly represented in Flint Central’s parking lot. There were a few Malibus and Monte Carlos, Cutlasses, Regals, and a Grand Prix or two, among the Ford Escorts, Chevy Cavaliers and Chevettes, and Chrysler K-Cars and Omnirizons which dominated our parking lots. There were S-10 pickups, a few mid-70’s F-bodies, and the usual assortment of imports – some hand-me-down Hondas, Toyotas, a few Datsuns / Nissans, and at least a couple of Mazdas. This is a big parking lot, and it was mostly full in the early 90’s. The most exotic car in our parking lot was an upper classman’s mint-condition, triple-white ’72 Grand Prix hardtop. My freshman year English teacher, Ms. Fisher, drove a silver, mid-70’s Lincoln Continental Town Car that looked as large and imposing as did some of her homework assignments.
Many of the Colonnades in our parking lot were accessorized like the subject car: jacked up in the rear, non-standard wheels (these Chevy Rally Wheels are among my favorite designs, ever), and usually a body panel or two in a non-matching color from a donor car. The subject car appears to have sported custom flames at some point.
Much like this particular car’s decline in general appearance, so did the fortunes of Flint Central High School, which closed in 2009 after 86 years, in the face of falling enrollment and lack of school funding. A final open house was held in 2009 for all alumni, teachers and staff, well-wishers and members of the community to walk the halls of Flint Central for (presumably) one last time. I live with the regret of having thought it seemed more important at the time to underwrite insurance policies that day in Chicago, than to go home to Flint for this gathering. (Since then, I return to the Vehicle City fairly regularly, perhaps once a quarter.)
I photographed the subject car in May of 2012 during the week of the final, official FCHS Alumni Dinner to be held, which was also the year of my 20-year high school reunion – both of which I attended. (I even got to visit with Ms. Fisher, who now takes amazing photographs in her retirement.) This Cutlass seemed almost like an old, school buddy – a little worse for wear, and sporting a lot of unfamiliar ink, and seeing it here was like a chance meeting with someone I always thought was cool and used to see between classes on a semi-regular basis.
Cultural Center, Flint, Michigan.
Saturday, May 19, 2012.