Auto-Biography: Wildcat!

(first written in 2007)

They were both gorgeous in that all-American, wholesome, sexy, energetic way. Voluptuous, but athletic. Heartland traditional, but always ready for a good time. Exhilarating and accelerative. And they were both mine, to do with as I pleased. So why was I, a healthy young man, having a problem with both of them?

I met Kim at a dance club in Iowa City in 1973. She was a student from Burlington, where she’d been a high-school cheerleader. She was everything I dreamed of in a girl when I was in ninth grade: blonde, bouncy, sexy. She looked like she’d stepped right out of Playboy’s “The Co-eds of 1967” pictorial I then kept under my bed. Kim drove her dad’s hand-me-down ’67 Buick Wildcat.

The 1967 Wildcat coupe had occupied a similar special place in my ninth-grade fantasy life. And its entry there was also prompted by a magazine: first spy shots of the 1967 Buicks caught unveiled at GM’s testing grounds. The Wildcat, with its seemingly-endless roof line, fender skirts and super-fluidic lines left me…aroused. Bill Mitchell’s playboys had somehow managed to make a big Buick sexy in 1967.

But now it was 1973.

Kim was quite happy to have me to drive the Wildcat, and hard (I was car-less at the time). The high-compression 360hp big-block 430 V8 was still very much in its prime, brimming with thrust. It could really hustle the twin living-room size vinyl sofas down the road. It was everything my ’64 Beetle I had recently sold wasn’t. This cross-cultural experience was highly seductive.

The Wildcat’s accelerative surges could be sustained until they exceeded even my youthful comfort level given the balding white-wall rubber it rode on. Flooring it at seventy-five opened the secondaries, and with a deeply satisfying moan from under the hood, we were quickly probing territory new to both of us. And leaving us breathless.

But the numb steering, feeble drum brakes and flaccid suspension meant that driving the big ‘Cat in anything other than a straight line was frustrating and highly unsatisfying. It was a lot like trying to have a half-way intelligent conversation with Kim.

Therein lay the source of my problems – with both of them.

Through a rather unlikely turn of events, I had become an actor (decently paid, no less) in an experimental theater troupe, part of the UI’s Center For New Performing Arts. We performed our avant-garde pieces in NY (way-off Broadway) and other cities to the artsy elite. And although our performances were more physical and gestural than verbal, Kim’s cheerleading background was not exactly a help in making our work comprehensible to her.

Outside of our youthful libidos and straight-line thrills in the Buick, Kim and I really had nothing in common. When I broke up with her after a couple of months, she said “I could have married you”. By invoking that taboo word, she instantly removed any trace of doubt or regret.

from one of my old address books

And so it also went with me and GM’s land yachts in the early seventies. The cracks had started years earlier, but I was still a sucker for a sexy bod – like the exquisite 1970 Camaro. Although I mostly knew better, I still couldn’t totally resist the siren lure of GM’s new-car introductions. Was it a pheromone in GM’s vinyl?

My artist friend Paul and I hit the Iowa City dealerships — both of us on my little Bridgestone 90 motorbike — and stood in awe (shock?) at the latest output from Bill Mitchell’s imaginarium. But now there was cynicism mixed with artistic appreciation of his powers. It had become increasingly difficult to see twenty-foot long coupes as viable transportation devices.

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Mitchell’s XXXL-sized 1971 – 72 Buick Riviera epitomized the end of this era as well as his. It was a flamboyant mélange of borrowed elements: the fastback lifted from the Sting Ray, the classics-era boat tail and the blatant exploitation of an earlier GM classic, the 1953 Buick Skylark. It all worked brilliantly, as long as you didn’t take it seriously – a more refined George Barris custom from the sixties. But now it was the seventies. And the energy crisis was just around the corner.

But we didn’t just look. We took stacks of brochures home and out came scissors and rubber cement — the photo-shop tools of the pre-digital age. We re-arranged, exaggerated and morphed Mitchell’s dreams into automotive nightmares. Or was it vice-versa?

Bill kept feeding us new raw material. The 1973 Colonnade intermediates were utterly amazing. We had a LOT of fun redesigning the Pontiac Grand Am and Cutlass colonnade coupes. Our version of the giant Olds Custom Cruiser wagon looked like a cross between the space shuttle and a double-decker bus.

Paulvaranasi Wildcat

We were like kindergarten kids cutting out paper snowflakes with tongues sticking out. Or maybe we were just divining what GM would have built in 1980 if there hadn’t been an energy crisis, or two. And today, Paul is still at it, in digital form, and the Wildcat continues to play a role in it. No rubber cement to have to rub off the fingers.

Cadillac 1973 Fleetwood brougham

Trying to imagine where American cars were headed stylistically and otherwise in the fall of 1972 was as easy as divining the future of our respective lives. As much as the cars were trying hard to exude optimism and confidence, there was a fin de siècle feeling in the air. America’s exceptional period was ending, and the energy crisis would bring the point home, if there was any doubt. The term “coming of age” was doubly relevant, to both us and the country. It might take a while for the reality to become universally accepted, but a giant Cadillac sedan would never again have quite the same impact.

Buick 1967 Wildcat Convertible 3

Just how was it that I had found a big ’67 Wildcat sexy? Well, in ninth grade, discrimination on that subject isn’t exactly very refined. By 1973, we were a bit further down that road, hopefully. And by the time we really came of age (and money) in the eighties, our automotive lusts had plenty of scope in terms of variety, ethnicity and personal preferences. But Wildcats were not among them.

Buick 1967 coupe

The Wildcat was long extinct, a construct of an era when some flowing lines and a pretty girl could turn a staid banker’s Buick into something…wilder, even if it was pure Mad Men BS. Which it was.

Buick 1967 mirror

There was growing up to do, or at least to try to figure out what that actually means. Minivans and Mercedes were part of that process. Now we’re old enough to indulge the Wildcat memories; it’s not like there’s new ones at the Buick dealer ready to whisk us off into a wild new future. So we’re left looking into its (optional) rear view mirror, struggling to find the right words: They were both gorgeous in that all-American, wholesome, sexy, energetic way…