(please welcome our new Saturday COAL Series writer) I have been a “car guy” essentially since I was born. Growing up in the tire capital of the world (Akron, Ohio) at a time in the ‘70s when the big manufacturers still made tires in the city, some car culture was bound to rub off. In my case, though, it seems to be innate rather than learned. When I was very small neighborhood walks were a chore as I made my parents stop and look at and into every car parked on the street. There are many photos of me as a child playing with cars, looking at cars, pretending to drive cars, and getting cars of all shapes for Christmas. My love of cars was a bit more intense than my parents – my dad was interested in cars and his brother is a real car guy, but mom didn’t care very much at all. No problem – I had enough car enthusiasm to cover the whole family.
As you might expect given this background, I spent a lot of time thinking about what my first car could be. Something new, something old, something sporty, maybe a big American boat – the possibilities were endless and I made a lot of plans and schemes to get that perfect car. Dad raised my hopes quite a bit when I was 13 as he talked my mom into letting him buy a ’72 Olds Cutlass Supreme convertible. He said it would be “Mike’s car” when I was old enough to drive. The car wasn’t exactly a creampuff – it was a dull dark gold/brown color with a brown interior, rusted Cragar S/S wheels with old Goodyear white lettered tires, and an add-on FM converter with speakers sitting on the back seat.
I made plenty of plans about this car and even tried to get my dad to let me use my allowance to put some new tires on the Olds rally wheels that had come with the car. However, it became apparent that the car wasn’t exactly the safest or most reliable in the world, what with 4-wheel drum brakes and a column shift that put the automatic transmission in the correct gear some of the time. As a result, the Cutlass disappeared a year before I got my license, so we were back to square one.
Roughly five months before I reached sixteen, my grandmother on my mother’s side passed away at the relatively young age of 65. My mother’s father had already passed in the late ‘70s when he was in his mid-fifties, and Grandma’s estate included her car. My dad asked me if I would be interested in Grandma’s old car – at this point I was interested in anything that had four wheels that could take me around the suburbs where we lived. However, this particular car was not exactly on my list of “dream cars.”
In 1975 my mom’s parents went to Pride Chevrolet (a dealer in Akron long since closed) and bought themselves a shiny new Colonnade-era Monte Carlo. In ’75, Monte Carlo buyers could indulge their sporty car desires with big block 454 power (albeit with just 215 net horsepower), swiveling bucket seats, Rally wheels, and full instrumentation with tachometer, voltmeter, and temperature gauge. However, my grandparents didn’t have any sporty car desires so they came home with the base model Monte Carlo Coupe very similar to the blue one shown on the back cover of the brochure.
My grandparents picked a medium green color with the base black cloth and vinyl interior. They surveyed the options list and only picked the Turbo Hydramatic automatic, an AM radio (one speaker), tilt steering wheel, white sidewall tires, and air conditioning. The base emissions-strangled 145 horsepower two-barrel 350 V-8 was plenty for them (no big block power or dual exhausts here), and the base wheel covers worked just fine (no need for those upmarket fancy wheels). My grandfather passed not long after they purchased the car and my grandparents only put about 30,000 miles on the car during the 10 years they had it.
The car met my parents’ strict requirements for a car for me – it was essentially free, it was not particularly powerful or fast, and did I mention it was free? As a result of this extensive analysis of the pros and cons of Monte Carlo ownership, the car came home with us. Although it had relatively low miles, ten Ohio winters and infrequent use hadn’t exactly been kind to it. The lower fenders, rocker panel, and door on the passenger side had extensive rust that had begun to bow out the stainless rocker molding and rotted away the mounting areas for the wheel opening moldings.
My father and I hypothesized that my grandmother, not being the greatest or most confident driver in the city of Akron, stayed in the curb lane on her occasional trips to the mall and back and thus continually plowed the right side of the car in accumulated slush and snow. A bigger problem was the car’s propensity to stall at the most inopportune times when it was cold and the throttle was opened quickly (as one might do when pulling out into traffic, for example). Numerous trips to a local mechanic uncovered nothing out of the ordinary, so eventually I accepted the fact that first-year catalytic converter cars like this one weren’t very good for cold-start driveability and just learned to take convoluted routes to avoid major roads until the car warmed up. I also found that the car seemed to run a bit better on gasoline from certain gas stations – unfortunately it didn’t like the gas from the stations my parents preferred, the source of a number of arguments at home.
I did try to learn to drive in this car but its enormous size and block-long hood made it rather difficult. I spent most of my time learning on my mom’s Fox-body ’83 Ford LTD (four doors, two-tone blue paint, JCPenney cassette stereo, and anemic 3.3 liter straight six). Not long after I started to drive my parents decided to purchase a new car and offered me the choice of the Monte Carlo or the LTD (they would trade in the one I didn’t keep). Being a practical 16-year old I chose the 11-year old V-8 car with the rusty rockers over the 3-year old Ford (perhaps not one of my best life choices). On the plus side, I talked my parents out of the Buick Park Avenue 4-door and into a Lincoln Mark VII LSC with the Mustang V-8…my car guy credibility finally paid off.
My dad offered to have the Monte repainted at a local body shop since I decided to keep it. He let me pick the color and new wheels, so of course I picked a bright red Buick color (Red Firemist, the very color of the Park Avenue that I talked my parents out of) and Corvette Rally wheels with white sidewall tires. After many months of waiting, partly due to the rust repair that required rebuilding the entire passenger door, the car finally came home. The obligatory mudflaps (it was Ohio, after all) and a two-speaker JCPenney cassette stereo (with speakers in the back) finished things off. Keeping with a long-standing tradition in my family that I carry on today, the car’s arrival after painting included a photo session for posterity. (Since it was a film camera there aren’t many photos, though – developing pictures was expensive.)
That car taught me many things during the time I had it. I learned how easy it was to break back into the car when I locked my keys in it – two high school buddies were able to use a coat hanger to pop the lock during study hall. I learned that even expensive paint and body work on old cars would eventually rust (the rear wheel openings began to bubble not long after it was painted, and other bubbles showed up at the trailing edge of the hood). On the good side, I learned that having my own car represented exactly the kind of freedom and fun I’d always expected to get from my first car.
The car carried me through the rest of high school and gave me some much-needed credibility as I was part of the “nerd crowd.” My parents even let me drive it daily to school during my senior year instead of taking the school bus (whew!) The Monte also took me to college as a commuter to the University of Akron for my first year: maneuvering that barge around the tight parking lots on campus was not exactly fun, and the cold-start stalling behavior was particularly dangerous in downtown Akron.
After my first year my dad offered me the opportunity to get another car (which I will talk about in my next COAL) and he took the car himself. He drove it for a couple of years before giving it back to me when I went off to Sandusky for an engineering co-op job. At that point the car was getting a bit tired, and on a trip back to Akron the car began running a bit rough. The problem turned out to be a burned valve that resulted in the car only running on seven cylinders, which explained why throttle response on the Ohio Turnpike was a bit soft. My parents decided to sell the car then: I was tired of the car by then but was still a bit sorry to see my first car go. On the other hand, there were so many other cars to try!