(After reading a couple of Ed Hardy’s COAL submissions and loving every bit of them, I decided they were too good to wait a couple of months. So we’re starting a Wednesday morning COAL series. Enjoy the ride…)
Growing up in Southern California in the 60’s provided a car-centric focus that has seemed to be a consistent theme throughout my life. I spent my formative years in Long Beach, where the rust monster rarely visits, Lyons Dragstrip could be heard in the evenings, and them “furrin’ cars” could be found everywhere. My parents believed in personal responsibility, which meant that I could buy any car that I was willing to pay for – no handouts or loans from them.
By the early ‘70’s I was itching for my personal driving freedom and planned my first foray into the California Car Culture. After saving every penny I could from my paper route and working at my friend’s ice cream shop ($1.65 per hour!), I’d saved $800 and it was time to go shopping. But what should I buy?
It was 1973, and the acronym “OPEC” had entered our collective vocabularies, with lines at gas stations up to two hours long and gas purchases limited to either even or odd days of the week depending on your license plate. I had been driving my Mom’s 1966 Mercury Park Lane that was motivated by a 410 cu. in. FE V-8.
The 410 was one of the lesser known versions of the FE, as it was a Mercury only engine in the US; basically the bore of a 390 and the stroke of a 428. The Mercury was my mother’s pride and joy, and the only new car she had ever had, which meant that I had to keep my shenanigans away from the house or any neighbors that might turn as informants against me. The car was terrific for practicing late night drifts on deserted streets, and also great at burning through gallons of premium fuel and bias-belted tires. Wait, did I say “burning”?
Let’s fast forward a few years to 1976 and talk about that Mercury. My Mom had sold the family home and had everything shipped back to Denver, CO. where had she grown up and was moving back to. Her Mercury and a suitcase were the only things left, and she planned a going away dinner on the SS Princess Louise in San Pedro, an ocean liner that had been converted to a floating restaurant.
I played chauffeur to my Mom, my sister, my brother and his wife. As we accelerated over the Vincent Thomas bridge above the Long Beach Harbor, the car backfired, and smoke began wisping, then pouring through the vents into the car. My brother yelled “Fire” and I pulled over to the right side of the bridge. We all jumped out of the car, my brother racing back to the toll booth to have them call the fire department – no cell phones back then. We waited and watched as the smoke grew thicker and boiled from underneath the hood.
The fire department finally arrived and put out the fire, but it was obvious that Mom’s baby was toast, uh, totaled. We stood there, 185 feet above the harbor in our Sunday best trying to figure out our next move. A fireman piped up – “Do you guys need a ride?” “Well sure, why not? What’s a little more..adventure?” My Mom rode inside while the rest of us rode on the back of the fire truck, as they took us across the bridge, through San Pedro and delivered us to the dock of the SS Princess Louise. That was our first Uber ride, a few decades before Uber became popular with everyone else. We had a great dinner, commiserated with Mom, and, being our family, joked about the demise of the “bar-b-que that seated six”. A fuel leak and a backfire apparently don’t mix – who knew? But I digress…
So, back to 1974 and thinking about what car I should buy. One neighbor had a 383 Roadrunner, and another had an SS 350 Camaro. Nice cars – but between my numerous fill-ups of the Mercury and watching them trying to keep their cars topped up, I knew that I didn’t want a V-8 if I could help it. I liked a bit of style but also wanted it to be reasonably economical. VW Beetles were common and didn’t really fit the “style” criteria. Toyota Coronas were also popular, but that would look like I had given up on life before I had even started. So, economical …stylish … affordable …hmmm….
By a sheer stroke of luck, some older friends had purchased a 1970 Plymouth Duster brand new and were ready for an upgrade. Even as a stripper model, Dusters always looked just right. Motivated by the leaning tower of power and a three at the knee, it fit my criteria for a first car. What could go wrong? I just had to wait six weeks and the car was mine.
Unfortunately for all involved, the car was totaled three weeks later and sent to the great car crusher in the sky. Strike one.
Plan B was scouring the streets for cars with “for sale” signs, newspaper classified ads and the local Thrifty Nickle. As a car crazed teen, I actually enjoyed working on cars and any problems were just challenges to be overcome. So how hard could it be?
One Saturday the ad popped up – “1967 Porsche 912, needs some assembly”. What luck!
What I imagined I was buying
I raced out to Anaheim Hills (about 25 miles away from where I lived) to the address given. Lo and behold, the garage door opened and I gazed upon…the shell of a Porsche 912 surrounded by boxes of parts.
What it actually looked like
I’m not talking about a box of engine parts, I’m talking about a regular Amazon warehouse of literally anything that could have been unbolted from that car.
Although I love a good challenge, someone had obviously given up on their project. And who knew if all of the parts were even there? Although it may have been possible to resurrect this Lazarus from the dead, I realized that I’d rather drive my car than talk about what I was building over the next several years. Strike two.
After more searching and more newspapers, the heavens opened and there it was – “1967 Camaro, six cylinder, three speed, good condition”. A six cylinder Camaro? Did they even make those things? I drove out to see this unicorn and was greeted by a bone stock stripper in surprisingly clean condition. It had exactly two options, an AM radio (“The Real Don Steele on 93-KHJ!”) and three speed floor shift. It was also wrapped in pale piss yellow paint (chicken yellow in more polite company; Butternut Yellow in Chevrolet speak) – bummer. But didn’t the Rolling Stones sing “You can’t always get what you want”? And if I really didn’t like the color, Earl Scheib (“I’ll paint any car for $29.95!”) was always available!
Another six cylinder unicorn
$800 changed hands, and I was now the proud owner of my first car. They say that you never forget your first, and even today I can easily recall the feel, the smell and the adventures of the chicken yellow Camaro. I’ve had over 30 cars since, but I can still smell the salty beach air and warm breezes of summers flowing through the open windows.
High school graduation – I’m on the left
Although the number of cars in my history suggests that I change cars as often as I change my socks, the truth is that I tend to keep my main cars for a long time, and others show up to provide a little variety. The chicken yellow Camaro stayed with me for eight years and another 133,000 miles. It didn’t stay stock for long, but that’s a story for another COAL.