(first posted 10/21/2013) My neighbor Bob asked me if I wanted to buy a 1967 Buick Gran Sport. He had a friend in upstate New York who had been planning to restore the car, but needed money and was ready to sell. For $900, I could drive it away.
I wasn’t well informed about the Gran Sport. Pretty much a clone of a GTO, wasn’t it? That sounded fun, and the price was right.
The year was 1981, my marriage had just fallen apart, and I was entering the first of several midlife crises. A beat-up sixties muscle car could be just the thing for me.
We rented a vehicle and drove into the northern segment of the state, where Bob had spent his childhood. Soon I found myself in a suburban garage where the Gran Sport was parked alongside a gleaming, immaculate 1970 Chevelle SS. Bob’s friend had pimped the SS, but the Gran Sport was still waiting for beauty treatment. Its exterior was about 50 percent original paint, 30 percent primer, and 20 percent rust. “It can all be fixed,” the guy assured me.
Actually I enjoyed the paint/primer/rust mix on the Gran Sport. It gave the car a backwoods, badass look, like something that a juvenile delinquent would use as the getaway vehicle on a 7-11 stickup.
“See, to get a car like this in good condition, you really have to buy it in Arizona and drive it back,” Bob’s friend told me.
“Where’s this one from?” I asked.
“I bought it in Phoenix.” He hesitated. “It does need a couple of things. Like, a new exhaust system. But Meineke has a special right now, here in town. Flat rate, any vehicle, $49. But there is one other thing.” He jacked up the car, and we crawled under it. “See, the brake line. I replaced it, but that isn’t, like, quite the right part. I think it’s okay, though.”
The next day, I gave him his $900 (he refused to settle for less), did the title transfer, and headed for Meineke, with the remains of the original exhaust system dragging on the road behind me. They replaced all the pipes by welding stock tubing together in sections. Quite a deal for $49.
Bob said he was going to stay locally with his family, so I headed back to New York. I had to buy some little yellow plastic bottles of ether additive from an auto parts store, to raise unleaded premium up to 100 octane. This was not cheap, but the expense didn’t dim my excitement over my acquisition. The Gran Sport handled like a truck, but with the pedal to the metal, it went charging forward like a drunken bull. I felt myself falling in love.
I stopped to see a friend in Syracuse. He recoiled in horror. “You _bought_ that?”
“It can all be fixed,” I said.
My friend shook his head. “There’s a guy near here who specializes in body work. I’m going to call him. Don’t go anywhere.”
An hour later, the body-work expert was surveying my prize.
“It’s been stored for a while,” I told him.
“What was it stored in?” he said. “Brine?”
I laughed uncertainly, but he did not crack a smile. “No offense,” he said, “but this is beyond help. See the rust above the windshield, there? I think it’s gone through in places. There’s really no easy way to fix that. You see?”
Well, I did see, but it didn’t matter. I was like a teenager infatuated with a biker chick who is wasted on drugs, has bad tattoos, and doesn’t bathe regularly–but she’s sooo sexy, it’s hard to care.
As the sun set, I found that the right-hand low-beam headlight didn’t work, but when I got out and kicked the fender, it came to life. No big deal.
My main problem was with teenage drivers who felt a need to prove that the Gran Sport was not so hot. On the New York State Thruway that night, one car overtook me, then slowed in front of me–slower, and slower–till I had to overtake him. I resumed chugging along at a cautious 65, mindful of the replaced brake line that was not exactly a GM-authorized part. The other vehicle overtook me again, and slowed in front of me again. This seemed to be some boy-racer ritual that I didn’t quite understand. I overtook him again, and resumed my 65. For a third time he came up alongside me–and there was a sudden crack, like a rifle shot, from the passenger window.
The other car disappeared into the night while I pulled over to see what had happened. The window was spattered with beer where the driver had thrown a bottle at my car. Fortunately the glass on the Gran Sport had been tougher than the bottle.
Back in Manhattan, my girlfriend wrinkled her nose at the condition of the car, but as the days passed, she developed a sneaking affection for it. When we took it out cruising, if the right-hand headlamp flickered, she would get out and kick it for me.
The rear bumper fell off, so I stowed it in the trunk. Several pieces of trim were already in there, having fallen off previously. Sometimes one of them would rattle around and poke through the rust holes, and I would hear it scraping along the road. Stopping and pulling it back into the trunk became part of my ownership experience.
Finding a mechanic to work on the Gran Sport was a challenge. Mechanics in the New York area tend to be not just crooked, but incompetent. Eventually I got a referral to a guy out on Long Island.
I was driving to his location when the brakes failed. The emergency brake was no help, as the cable snapped with a dull twang when I stepped on the pedal. I put the transmission into low, and when I had reduced my speed to around 10 miles an hour, I managed to stop by rubbing the front tire against the curb. From there I proceeded very, very cautiously to the garage, where I rolled onto a level area of concrete, threw the transmission into neutral, opened the driver’s door, jumped out, and arrested the car by restraining it physically.
The mechanic didn’t bother to lecture me on my foolishness. I guess he could see in my eyes that I was too far gone.
My friend Bob called. “How are you liking the car?” he asked.
“I love it,” I said. “Except, it does seem to be surprisingly rusty, for a car that came from Arizona.”
“It didn’t come from Arizona,” Bob said.
“What? But your friend said, Phoenix!”
“That’s Phoenix, New York.”
I consulted a map and discovered a town named Phoenix not far from where Bob’s friend lived. I wondered if it had been an entirely innocent misunderstanding.
Despite being blinded by love, I always knew that my affair with the Gran Sport was doomed. It was only a matter of time, and that time came just a few weeks later. My girlfriend and I were motoring down the Bruckner Expressway, past rows of arsonized tenements in a derelict section of the Bronx. Suddenly I heard a scraping noise from the rear. “It’s just another of those chrome strips, falling through a hole and rubbing along the road,” I said. “No problem.”
I stopped on the shoulder, got out, and was puzzled to see that the highway was wet. Other vehicles were splashing through puddles on the road. Then I looked under the car and saw that the two steel straps which supported the gas tank had separated. We had been dragging the tank behind us by its the fuel line. The tank had ruptured, and the road was covered in gasoline.
“Um, I think you should get out of the car, now,” I said to my girlfriend.
We retreated down the road to a safe distance and stood for more than an hour, trying to hitch a ride. People driving past were laughing and making obscene gestures as if this was the biggest joke, seeing us sticking our thumbs out in one of the highest-crime neighborhoods in New York City, near my disabled Gran Sport and a highway covered in 100-octane fuel.
Finally someone picked us up and took us to the nearest subway station.
Back at my apartment, I called a towing company in the Bronx. “You say it’s on the Bruckner Expressway?” the guy asked. “Is it all there?”
That seemed an odd question. “It’s all there except for the gas tank,” I said.
“How long ago?”
“Four hours, maybe.”
The man laughed. “By the time I get to it, the wheels will be gone. And the battery, most likely.”
As I hung up the phone, I realized that circumstances were forcing me to suspend my state of denial. The facts had been clear to everyone else, and now they were becoming inescapable to me. The Gran Sport had been cruelly ravaged by salt and snow. It had been heartlessly abandoned to spend its twilight years in that upstate garage, until I’d brought it out of retirement, urging it to have one last joy ride for old time’s sake. Gamely, it had responded–but now it had drunk its last sip of ether-laced gasoline.
I like to think that its spirit lives on in that special place where the seriously badass cars go. To whomever is the custodian up there, I would just like to say … kick its headlight one time for me.
My friend Bob is unable to check any of my facts because, sadly, he died of pancreatic cancer about 10 years ago. He was a country boy who doubled as an avant-garde conceptual artist in New York City. His friend who sold me the Gran Sport felt such a loss after he got rid of it, he went and bought himself another one of the same vintage–perhaps with less rust. Me, I went to Phoenix (the Phoenix that is located in Arizona), bought a 1972 Camaro, and drove it back to New York, replacing the U-joints along the way. But that’s another story.
(Charles Platt is a former senior writer for Wired magazine who now writes technical books, such as “Make:Electronics.”)