COAL: 1985 El Camino Project Update – Miss Lily Elk

This is a car in transition, and much like her namesake, will have quite the story to tell at the end of it all.

The first step since I was given the car you see above was to get it running. Having never brought a vehicle back to life, I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to do it. The car had been sitting for five years under a carport and the picture above was taken just a few moments after it had been pushed out onto the driveway.

To my surprise, all it needed was a new battery and some starting fluid! I turned the key and the small block roared to life and began to chug away, making the choppy potato potato potato exhaust note of an old V8. Without an exhaust pipe however, even just at idle, it sounded like I had just woken some slumbering beast. I rolled down the window because the inside door handle is broken and slid the transmission lever into drive. The car buckled down, exhaust note changing to a determined growl. Carefully, I pressed down the gas and the car slowly rolled forward. I pressed it a little harder and suddenly shot forward, gripping the thin steering wheel for dear life. The El Camino bounced as it left the driveway and I was thankful the power steering still worked because I had to quickly right myself going down the road. I couldn’t have been going more than fifteen miles per hour with my foot off the gas, but it felt like I was flying. The car began to sputter and idle poorly as I pulled back into the driveway and Jay (the former owner and friend of mine who has agreed to help me on this fool adventure) listed that the carburetor needed to be cleaned along with a new fuel filter and half a dozen other little things that any car that’s sat for a long time will need

It was delivered to my warehouse so he could start using the space in his backyard again. Once it had arrived, my girlfriend and I washed the five years of dirt away to reveal what you see above. Despite where the clear coat has been burned away, and the dings and scratches it has, for a 35 year old car I drug from someone’s back yard, it doesn’t look bad! It gave me the chance to take the pictures you see in this article:

The first is an homage to Christine, who had a similar bumper sticker in the movie Cat’s Eye. Being one of my favorite movies, I wanted to make a nod to it without being too overt. I had this magnetic one made and it is now nestled in between the tail lights.


There is a vintage music store not far from where I do my laundry, and that’s where I got this sticker. I love old science fiction, and am writing a series of short stories based in that genre.

Comparing a car of this age to a modern car in terms of interiors is just silly to me, because materials have gotten so much better over time. That being said, I never knew how cheap and brittle 80’s GM plastic could be until I finally spent some time on the inside of my new car. It feels like a dollar store toy that’s grown to full size. The glove box won’t stay shut and the trim panel above it is held on by a piece of twine! That being said, I love the steering wheel. It’s just simple with no fancy buttons or gimmicks to get in the way.

The few times I’ve been able to drive this car, what strikes me is just how simple everything is. There are no screens, sensors, or warning systems. When I rode with a friend who has a brand new Civic, I was amazed at all the technology crammed into that cabin. The gauge cluster was a screen, the radio was a screen, the HVAC system was a screen. The car had a massive box mounted where the rear view mirror poked from the windshield, and acted as a sensor for the automatic cruise control. The car would drive itself in a very limited capacity while on the highway. My Mazda 3 felt lacking when compared to all that, and now that I own this car, it’s like going back in time. It feels cozy in it’s way. It’s just me and the road ahead. Just a big engine with a car wrapped around it and a few mechanical levers deciding our fate.

A word about the car’s name. The above picture is of Lili Elbe, who was one of the first people to receive gender reassignment surgery. Although far from the first transgendered person, she was a true pioneer and an inspiration to many of us in the Trans community. The details of her life are both interesting and tragic,  certainly worth a read if you are so inclined. I feel that the El Camino embodies that struggle well. What exactly is it? A truck? A car? It is forever in transition, and so I have named her Lily Elk.

Lily and I have a long way to go before she’s back on the road and ready for prime time. I’ve got lots of little things to take care of, like changing fluids, going through brakes, and giving her a tune up. I didn’t expect to have more to say so soon, but there again I didn’t expect to have her up and running so quickly!