(first posted 1/3/2016) Over twenty years ago and when I was a teenager, my parents pulled up stakes, moving our family from Flint, Michigan, where I was born and raised, to Ft. Myers, Florida in the southwest region of that state. I had just graduated from high school, and had summer visions of cruising palm tree-lined boulevards, sunny beach days, exciting new friends, and – not of small importance – a “southern car” without any of the rust that was everywhere on Michigan cars within my teenage price range. The search for the car of my dreams started almost immediately upon my arrival to Lee County in the early 90’s, with me regularly collecting and poring over local editions of “Auto Trader” to see what I could get for about $1,500. (How I miss picking up “Auto Trader” before the internet age and flipping through its newsprint until my fingertips were stained with its ink.)
I spotted this Camaro on Christmas Day of 2015 on the way home from church with my mom. She was driving, but she had no problem pulling over so I could get in the driver’s seat and take us back to where this car was parked so I could get a few photographs. Parked near a ten-minute oil change business where I used to bring my old ’88 Mustang for service back when I lived here, the sight of this Camaro triggered feelings of both longing and unease. You see, this would have been the exact car I would have wanted for my money – albeit in better shape – when it was between ten and fifteen years old.
This car would also have been pretty close to new during my first family trip to Florida when I was a young kid. I can’t vouch for its being an ’80 or a true Z28, as it appears to combine elements from different years (1978 – ’79 Z28 hood scoop, lack of both the vented front fenders and the ’79+ front spoiler exclusive to the Z28, and differing grille pieces). I chose the year 1980 only because of the texture of the upper-grille. This was likely a lower-tier Camaro with some Z28 bits added on. Part of me really liked that it looked like a former shop-class special, which probably would have put it more within reach of my young budget.
On the drive back to Mom’s house from here, I struggled hard trying to figure out exactly why this car made me feel so conflicted – why I was simultaneously drawn by the allure of its still-gorgeous lines and also repulsed by its vulgarity and obviousness (not to mention its condition). Thinking hard about this, I wondered if maybe the easiest and best explanation might have been related to feelings of unrequited love of sorts: I ultimately never got to purchase an example of one of my childhood dream cars once I was old enough and had the means to do so. Naturally, and now lacking access to a parking space, I want one of these late-second generation Camaros even more than I had before. Meanwhile, unabused examples worth owning are creeping up to somewhat cost-prohibitive pricing. A dream left unfulfilled, blah, blah, blah…cue the violins. Or, maybe there was something else to this…
This particular, faded-blue Camaro seemed very much a sculptural, physical metaphor for my experience of Ft. Myers once I had spent a considerable amount of time there. I’d voluntatily return to The Fort (as some of us called it) every summer between school years when I was in college in the mid-90’s, but my first summer spent there immediately following my high school graduation felt particularly brutal. Much like the still-great lines of these Camaros, Ft. Myers seemed superficially beautiful when I first experienced it. There is / was much to love about its warm climate, relaxed demeanor (compared with Flint’s hardworking, Rust Belt, car-building pace), charming downtown buildings with their old-world architecture, and sandy beaches.
However, a closer inspection of this town revealed things diametrically opposed to how I thought my cool, new Florida life was supposed to be. As a “practiced extrovert”, I had learned how to be reasonably outgoing as a Michigan teenager, but all the “cool kids” in this area either seemed to come from families with money or did things I knew would probably fast-track me to ruin if I wasn’t careful. There didn’t seem to be a middle class of any ethnic minority group, despite a population with a very substantial African American and Latinx presence. Our 70’s-built subdivision mostly didn’t even have sidewalks, which also contributed to my feelings of isolation in a new environment that was supposed to feel like paradise compared to Flint’s no-nonsense, earthy, blue-collar simplicity (qualities I have since come to cherish and embrace). A really straight-laced kid up through my early adulthood, I had then “mastered” smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol while living in Lee County, Florida.
Back in Michigan, though, I did have a chance to test-drive one of these Camaros – a burgundy, ’79 Berlinetta, when I was a high school senior. If I recall correctly, the sellers were asking $750 (about $1,300 in 2015) for their well-running but somewhat rusty example, but I was a sucker for its lines. And, come on…it was a Camaro, Dude. Totally rad, in all seriousness, even if it was the Broughamaro submodel. The lady of that household drove it straight to our driveway from Flint suburb Grand Blanc so I could take it for a spin. I couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel of that car, a radio-controlled toy model of which I still owned at that time.
Though beautifully-styled on the outside, a solid runner, and comfortable on the inside, my test drive of this Camaro ended up shattering so many illusions I had held dear up to that point. The seating position felt like I was sitting in a bobsled – but not in a fun way, and though I was reasonably tall for a 16-year-old, the leading edge of the front bumper cover might as well have been in a different zip code – it seemed so far away. The sheetmetal was free of dents, but the rattle of the body panels and (super-long) door glass was disconcerting when I had inadvertently driven over a few potholes. In short, a closer examination of this car led to the death of a fantasy and, needless to say, I passed on it.
It took a few years, but I finally made peace with Ft. Myers and my parents’ choice to relocate there. I made good friends (some with whom I am still in contact today), felt included, and experienced many facets of the uniqueness of being a youth in this part of the country. These included late nights at one of two Waffle House locations, going mudding with friends (who I had actually, originally met at a Waffle House) out in nearby Cape Coral, going to American Legion Post 38 in Dunbar to jam to some then-old-school R&B on Saturday nights, playing Uno for hours on end at downtown’s Black Coffee Café, shooting pool at the Indigo Room…the list goes on. I had found good in Ft. Myers, after all. Similarly, it seems my affection for this particular generation of Camaro has only grown stronger, despite my initial disappointment with one (which is going on something approaching a quarter-century).
I may never live in Ft. Myers on a permanent or semi-permanent basis, ever again. I’m entirely too much of a Midwestern, Michigan guy to ever try to fit into any lifestyle that region of the U.S. has to offer someone like me. I do, however, continue to enjoy visiting with family and friends when I’m there, and feel more at ease with the idea of thinking of that city as my family’s adopted home. And, curiously and with increasing frequency, I have found myself checking Google sales listings for 1978 – ’81 Camaros. I don’t want a Z28. A nice base model, Rally Sport, or even the right Berlinetta (navy with chamois cloth interior) might do it for me. Maybe I spoke too soon…my Camaro fantasy suddenly seems far from dead. Just as downtown Ft. Myers has experienced something of a renaissance within the past five years, perhaps this Camaro will be brought back to life for another chance at redemption.
The subject car was photographed by the author on Christmas Day, Friday, December 25, 2015 in Ft. Myers, Florida. Seafarer’s Village Mall (since demolished) on Ft. Myers Beach was photographed by the author on Thursday, December 23, 2010.