My Curbside Classic: 1973 Imperial LeBaron by Chrysler

(originally posted 9/24/2011)   Hello, fellow Curbside Classic fans.  You may have seen my comments as “73ImpCapn,” and I’m here to present my car and a little about myself.  I know that convention is to talk about the car first, I’m going to go at this backwards.  Why should be clear in a moment.

My name is Alan Petrillo, and 20 years ago (!) I started studying industrial design at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. I got my degree, but as with many folks in my class, my career wandered off a bit.  I’ve since gotten a degree in political science and I’m now the staff writer at a non-profit “social investing” firm.  Another time I can explain what “social” means in that context.  All that matters here – and yes, I’m getting to the car – is that adding “social” means that we’re talking about people, and the effects that investing (or design) has on people.

So this is a social design story.  Another time I’ll be happy to wear my designer hat and talk about my car’s fenderline and bloodlines.  Today, indulge me a little on my own bloodlines, which are tied up with my car’s.  I was also born in 1973, you see, and most of what she means to me happened before I found her 20 years ago.

A child of the ‘70s sees the era differently than someone like Paul, who was a free-spirited young adult at the time.  I was a little kid in footie pajamas. What’s an era?  What’s a decade?  This is the world, I would have said (if I could have at that young age).  The world to me at that time had no future or past that I could see.

Some of my earliest memories are of my family’s cars, and the sensations of riding in them.  Some of the first facts I learned were automotive, like that there were two kinds of cars in the world:

1) Cars

2) Volkswagens

My Mom’s orange VW wagon was noisy and smelly, and the seats were made of rubber that left prints on your thighs.  Cars – every other one I can remember – were big, soft, cozy and quiet, and their engines made no sound.  What I thought (at the time) was the motor noise was, of course, just the mild whoosh of a gently-driven Torque-Flite.  Now I can look back and say that Dad had a ’76 Fury coupe, Grampa had a ’75 Gran Fury 4-door hardtop, and Aunt Pat had a ’74 Imperial coupe.  All I knew then was that I loved being in any of them.

Some wild tales of the ‘70s involve sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.  Mine have nothing but the fact that neither I nor my cousins ever wore a seat belt.  We bounced around on the vinyl and velour and Soft Corinthian Leather.  If it was just Mom and Dad in the ‘76, with me in the back seat, I would lean on the front armrest to talk to them.  A perfect position to launch the only son through the windshield, but somehow I survived my wild child days.

In the movie “Boogie Nights,” the ‘70s end at a great party that turns monstrous.  In my memory, they ended in a swirl of scary words on the evening news.  My first realization that the outside world existed involved “inflation” and “Iran” and “hostages” and “OPEC.”  My parents and their friends all complained about gas prices that may yet reach one dollar a gallon!  I remember asking my Dad if, to save energy, I should stop running my Lionel trains.  He reassured me that I was still entitled to my 12 volts of conspicuous consumption.

The atmosphere I’m describing sounds scary, but at the time I was reassured by the sense that grownups were Doing Something about the world’s problems.  My Dad, having left his job with Chrysler Leasing (which is where all those cushy cruisers had come from), was at a new employer with a new company car: a 1980 Buick Skylark “X-car.”  Yes, by then I started to learn terms like “X-car”;  I know the products didn’t turn out so well, but the name still sounds bright and positive to me.

The rest of life started to show evidence of people Doing Something.  We all started wearing seatbelts, and everyone quit smoking.  The hostages were released, there was a new President, and here my personal newsreel starts to look the same as everyone else’s.  The early ‘80s were an earnest effort to clean up after the party-gone-wrong.  As I learned more scary words, like “Watergate” and “Vietnam,” I also believed the adults who swore we’d learned from our mistakes.  Dad traded his John Dean plastic eyeglass frames for Iacocca wires, and now we all drove K-cars.

So why the hell did I buy a 1973 Imperial when I was 17?

I think the answer is tied up with the atavism of adolescence.  Atavism is a primal urge to return to an earlier stage of development.  No, I didn’t want footie pajamas, I just felt like I had no place in my boring Maine ’80s high school.  I didn’t like the sound of Janet Jackson OR Iron Maiden, and I didn’t think any of the girls, preppie or “mall rat,” would ever notice me.

So this is why the ‘70s came back.  For teenage Gen Xers like me, it looked like more fun.  It also appealed to the ancient adolescent urge to be contrary.  You want me to wear bright fashionable clothes and spike my hair?  I’m raiding my Dad’s closet for corduroy blazers and army pants and letting my mop reach Travolta proportions.  You want me to “Want My MTV”?  I’m looking for The Who on vinyl, not to mention those old Playboys where the women had long hair and curves.

I’m driving a Plymouth Horizon?  Like hell I am.

Sophomore year, my soon-to-be Car Buddy Zach turned to me in French class and said, “Is a 440 Road Runner a good car?”  That one turned out to be junk, but the question drew us into a world of whatever V-8-powered anything he could afford.  (I was saddled with that perfectly good Horizon and no room in the garage, where Dad was restoring a Healey 3000.)  So most of my reckless vehicular behavior happened in CBZ‘s GM products: a ’74 Cutlass, a ’78 Omega, and a ’71 Catalina that we would take cross-country after college.

And then I found her, down by the docks on Commercial Street in Portland.   I slammed my Horizon into reverse, pulled up and got out and leaned against that high, solid front fender.  That was it.  This was on a Saturday night.  By Tuesday, I had borrowed more than a grand from friends who either believed me when I said I’d sell it at a profit before college, or didn’t care as long as I’d drive them around.

I took the car to Bothel the mechanic, who told me that when I pulled into the lot his first thought was: “Uh oh.”  But he got her up in the air, poked around and patiently explained what he was looking for.  He didn’t find anything, and put that in writing so I had something to wave at Dad…who took mercy on his foolish son and helped me pay my friends back.

My social design history ends here, right at the beginning.  My Imp winters in a drafty barn up in Maine, which isn’t very CC of me, but mild Eugene is a long way from here.  She comes out for summers, and Car Buddy Zach drove her for my wedding.  A few years later I chauffeured CBZ and the new Mrs. CBZ at theirs.  We each have a couple of kids.

This July, when Dad brought the car down to Massachusetts, he also happened to be returning my 10-year-old son.  That night they had gone to a cruise night at a diner and traveled after dark.  Dad said my boy dozed off right away, slumped over that double-wide leather armrest in the back. Another generation’s dreams ride a big fine Chrysler, and this time, wearing a seatbelt.

Alan Petrillo’s Design Analysis of the 1972-1973 Imperial is here