I had the opportunity to go home to Flint at the beginning of this month. It all started with a phone call from a close friend I’ve known since preschool who asked if I’d be interested in riding back as company on the road while she participated in a film project that was taking place. I hesitated at first, being someone who enjoys the comforts of familiar surroundings on weekends and the prospect of just relaxing locally. I didn’t think about it for too long, though. I have been sitting on a mostly unused pile of vacation days at work and hadn’t been back to my hometown but once last year during a brief, thirty-six hour stay. The idea of taking a road trip with “Cate” and all of the good conversation and hilarity that would ensue cinched it for me.
Cate and I had gone through part of elementary school all the way through high school together, as well as participating is some of the local theater programs in Flint, with her having been more active in the latter than me. She’s one of my favorite humans. I was at her wedding years ago, and I adore her family. Cate herself is like family to me, like the sister who can’t stop inadvertently dropping one-liners in church and making you do loud spit-takes during the most serious parts of the service. She’s also a good listener with a big heart. Cate has seen me through some of my darkest personal times with keen life perspective and without judgment.
She was very busy in her role as a film production associate that weekend and had her car with her, necessitated by those duties. Our accommodations near the central part of the city enabled me to do something I had never done before, even during all the years I had lived there: travel everywhere on foot within something like a one mile radius of downtown. With Flint probably being most widely known as a former General Motors manufacturing powerhouse, and geared mostly for travel by private passenger vehicle, it was surprisingly easy for me to walk around to get to where I wanted to go. I toyed with the idea of riding the various public MTA bus routes, but so much was available to me simply by using my own two feet.
Flint seemed as much like a person as a place that weekend, as if welcoming me back with open arms after such a prolonged absence. I was a prodigal son, back from the shop and newly restored, ready to see and experience more of Flint than I have for years. It’s hard to put into words without risk of overemoting just how much I love Flint and the people there. It goes much deeper than something like a shared trauma bond of watching so much of the employment, money, resources, and even clean drinking water (for a time) stripped away over time. Flint is more and bigger than all of that, with so much beauty hiding in plain sight in equal measure to all of the heartbreak.
It’s a place unlike so many others I’ve experienced, where the proverbial playing field between different kinds of people seems to be the most level of any city in which I’ve ever lived. Of course, there are extremes as with any locale, and I wouldn’t exactly call it a racial utopia, but Flint is a place where you can casually observe people of all different backgrounds genuinely interacting with each other with kindness and respect, tempered with the frankness and bluntness that is signature to those of us from the area. Flint is for everybody. It is beautiful, and it will always be home. It is the place where I feel the most like Joe Dennis.
The Genevieve S. Donnelly Pavilion in Kearsley Park. Monday, February 21, 2011.
Kearsley Park on Flint’s east side is a place where I used to go snow sledding with my two brothers. There were basically only three destinations we’d choose for that activity: a hill next to interstate I-69 by Southwestern Academy High School, a slope next to Mott Community College along Court Street, and the various inclines in and around Kearsley Park and its Genevieve S. Donnelly Pavilion, which was originally built in 1925. Against the odds, this park and pavilion exist in 2022 in very much the same, idyllic, Currier & Ives-like setting enjoyed by area residents and visitors over many decades. I walked there in the hope of getting some summer shots of the pavilion and grounds when I was met by a parking lot and side streets full of vehicles.
The sounds of classical music from violins and other instruments emanated from speakers in the pavilion, which was full of people, some of whom were sitting on the ledges of the outer openings of the building. There was a children’s dance recital taking place, open for any passersby to observe and enjoy. Out in the parking lot and away from the pavilion, an open-air summer fair was taking place, with rows of tents from which vendors offered sno-cones, popcorn, funnel cakes, sunglasses, attire, and other goods. There was a DJ spinning bass-heavy hip-hop beats to accompany the lively happenings and conversation in and around the tents. The smell of cotton candy and roasted nuts was in the air. The events at Kearsley Park that Saturday afternoon seemed at once to be the best of both worlds, appealing to both my quiet, reserved side that enjoys the arts and classical music, and also the practiced extrovert in me who enjoys some of the more boisterous aspects of urban African American culture.
Parked on the grass amid all of the goings on was this Monte Carlo. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve written about Chevrolet’s personal luxury car, but the context in which I saw this one beckons me to restate how successfully this model appealed to a wide audience, in both base and Super Sport form. The first thing that struck me was that if I had been asked to guess whether its owner was in the pavilion or walking among the vendors near the DJ booth, I honestly would have had no idea. If could have belonged to the DJ just as easily as to one of the parents of one of the dancing kids who had driven up from the Flint suburb of Grand Blanc (which is pronounced “Grand Blank”). Maybe the DJ was from Grand Blanc. My point is that I had grown up in this area seeing this generation of Monte Carlo, bone stock, just as we see it here, being driven by people from all backgrounds and walks of life.
I never had a sense that the MC was specifically targeted at, or primarily found favor with, people of one specific demographic or another. Everybody loved it, at least in Flint, with our GM-centric, vehicle-building mindset admittedly being disproportionate to much of the rest of the United States. New car shoppers bought almost 137,000 Monte Carlos in ’84, of which over 24,000 (close to 18%) were Super Sports. Powered by a high-output, four-barrel version of the 305-cubic inch V8 which put out 180 horsepower and teamed with a three-speed automatic transmission, the only option for the SS, period tests from two magazines indicated an SS was capable of 0-60 miles per hour in between around eight and eight-and-a-half seconds. These were reasonably fast cars for ’84, even if not quite as fast as the top-tier Mustangs, Camaros, or Firebirds… or even the FWD Dodge Shelby Charger, which was genuinely fast, torque-steer and all.
It has always been such an uplifting phenomenon in the Flint area to observe people rally around celebration of the automobile and its industry, the thing that put our shared city on the map. I’m not trying to pitch the idea that cars are a thing that will bring sweeping and lasting unity to the United States. However, with so much division I’m used to reading about in my daily news feed, I wish there were more universally liked things like a Monte Carlo from the ’80s (and not even necessarily a car, or even a physical object) that would lead more people to discover the common ground they share even among obvious and perceived differences between them. At the end of the day, we’re all just people, and every human being wants the same basic things. Many social constructs of dubious origin get in the way of us simply being who we are, without being reactionary, and getting along with others in the process.
After an extended weekend, Cate and I were back in her Mazda3 headed back for Chicago with many memories having just been made, hers of working on a big film project with homegrown, major talent with whom both she and I had once walked the halls of our high school, and mine of having toured our city on foot with my camera for the first time and seen and photographed beautiful places I had never known existed. Both of us shared the memory of being back in a wonderful, gritty, straightforward, beautiful place where the lines of race, class, and socioeconomic status were gloriously blurred and all that really mattered was whether or not you were a good person. On the first weekend of this June, this ’84 Monte Carlo and its universal appeal ended up being emblematic of what it felt like, for me, to grow up in the Vehicle City.
Eastside, Flint, Michigan.
Saturday, June 4, 2022.
What a great story Joe! And what a great car. Love me some Monte! Growing up in Brooklyn NY, these cars were so popular. I never got to own one, but wish I did.
Thanks for sharing this wonderful story this am. It was wonderful to wake up to.
Thank you so much! Surprisingly, only one family of my friends had one of this generation (the non-SS) that my friends drove. My very first neighbors had a ’74, but that was from the Colonnade generation. I always thought the ’81 restyle successfully brought back some of that MC flavor.
Next time you’re back in town, you should stop by the Flint Cultural Center, Joe. I was just down there for the Auto Fair, and they’ve redone the library (which is really nice now) and are just about finished with the museum renovation. AND I saw this really cool ’85 Monte Carlo SS, among other things.
Aaron, it was so great to be back. I toured the entire Cultural Center: the redone library, the Flint Institute of Arts (a steal at $10 admission, with beautiful things), and even saw a show at the Longway Planetarium (another bargain at only $7 – would have been cheaper if I was a Genesee County resident). I didn’t even get to do everything there! Didn’t make it to the Mott Applewood Estate (free), or the new Sloan Museum (opening in July). My old high school looks a mess. I could have cried, but I read an article from last year about developers who want to do something with it. I hope it happens.
I love the Sloan Auto Fair. I went last in 2016, and it’s a truly terrific show. So glad you were able to go.
Your description of Flint reminds me a bit of another city some distance south on I-69 – Fort Wayne. Many of the traits you describe were things I experienced growing up, with various strata of society being significantly flatter in the 1960s and 70s than what I experience in the larger city of Indianapolis today. I grew up in a neighborhood where the demographics ranged from a divorced nurse (my mother) to middle managers at area companies to the CEO of the Lincoln National Corporation (who could have afforded to live anywhere he wanted to). After he retired, the new guy picked the whole HQ up and moved it to Philadelphia, but then he wasn’t from Fort Wayne, either.
I will be “that guy” and say that these were loved by the universe – 1. I was all in for this cars competition. Before 1983 it would have been the Cordoba/Mirada and after it would have been the aero Thunderbird. But then I did not live in a GM town (at least then, since they have been building Chevy pickups there since the mid 80s).
It sounds like you had a great time!
JP, I had a fantastic time. You had to go ahead and mention the Cordoba / Mirada. Those cars are truly stunning, and I love my Mopars. From a strictly styling perspective, gosh, I don’t know. A Mirada CMX (or without the roof treatment) with t-tops and in a great color is pretty darned near perfect in the looks department. But I’ll always live the MC. Don’t make me choose!
I bleed Ford Blue, but I love the 80s Monte Carlo SS. One thing comes mind. The Intimidator!!
I confess that I had to look that one up – please don’t revoke my MC card! Haha What’s funny is that I was never big into NASCAR, but I do remember many Monte Carlos being raced when we’d be flipping channels at the house.
I too, am a Ford guy, but always liked these in a early ’80s MTV kind of way. And It was always fun watching Million Dollar Bill trade paint with Dale. The tail end of really good NASCAR racing. Nice job Joe, I would love to visit there myself sometime.
“Early ’80s MTV kind of way” is a very good descriptor – I like that. And should you ever choose to research Flint for a visit, I’m sure you’d be very pleasantly surprised about things to do in and around the Cultural Center and downtown area. There’s also the Flint Public Art Project (there’s a website) that details information on all of the beautiful, new murals that have been painted throughout the area.
The last of the two-door, rear-drive, formal-styled, intermediate body style that ruled from 1964-1984. By 1984 GM still had these cars in all divisions, and they sent them out as sporty cars since their Brougham heritage was no longer marketable. Everyone knew these were the last of their kind. This is one of the reasons for the success of the Buick Gran National. It was seen as the end of an era. Pontiac had grafted an odd nose and rear window on their formal-styled, Gran Prix to little effect, but Chevy found a better marketing response via these cars.
Ford’s new Thunderbird/Cougar aero-look was the look and GM hadn’t yet decided how it was going to move forward. It would take them a very long time before they ended up with a FWD version in a much smaller buyer’s market.
I always saw these Monte Carlos as the last of their kind.
I can see this. While I generally liked the Aerobird, especially when it first came out, I’ve always leaned toward the MC as having a stronger identity as what it was, given that the T-Bird was given such a thorough reinvention.
About the GN, it took me a while to see it in a “muscle car” way given that most Regals I had seen around Flint were two-tone painted, plush, wire wheel cover-wearing examples. The first impression stuck.
Lovely story; brings to mind the old adage “there’s no place like home”.
Unfortunately what we read and see in the media invariably fails to convey the complexity and the many textures of any city; they end up being reduced to sound bites or caricatures. That applies even to places like NYC.
You’ve certainly helped me to appreciate Flint over the years here at CC.
Paul, thank you so much. This is probably in my favorite three essays I’ve written so far this year for the site.
I remember watching this generation of Monte Carlo slowly transform its image from a personal luxury coupe to a NASCAR-inspired muscle car stand-in, though unfortunately without the actual muscle its Buick Regal platform-mate offered. Of the four GM brands, it seemed only Oldsmobile clung to the traditional PLC ethos. There were sporty Cutlass Supreme variants to be sure, some with 442 badges, but Broughams far outsold 442s. The W body replacements in the late ’80s like the Lumina coupe failed to connect to the same buyers that made the A/G rear-drivers so popular.
I was actually really surprised to read that the SS’s performance wasn’t quite what I would have expected from its aggressive looks, at least in ’84 guise. I’m still a sucker for its looks, though.
My family has primarily been a Mopar family, followed closely by Fords. As I’ve gotten older, some other stuff has been sprinkled in here and there. There has only been one, very brief stint, that a GM product was part of our fleet.
That being said, there are some GM cars that I would add to my fleet if I had the money and the space. The 1977 Can Am is top of the list. The very next is this generation Monte Carlo SS, specifically an Aerocoupe. I can distinctly remember as a 10 year old, trying to convince my dad that he should trade in our 77 Wagon for a Monte Carlo SS. A kid that age didn’t yet understand working for money and car payments, etc. I just thought it was the coolest car and I wanted to be driven around in one.
Brian, if I recall correctly, I seem to remember you either writing about one of these Monte SSs, or mentioning your affinity for them in the comments. I remember thinking that I liked them, too.
I also love the Can Am. I’ve seen a few in Flint – one parked at a music store, and a couple at the Back To The Bricks car show, but I’m waiting for someone else to research and write one up to be able to do it the kind of justice many readers are waiting for. Then I’ll do my thing later. 🙂
I remember the feeling of wanting my parents to get a car that I thought was cool that would have been the last practical thing they could have purchased. A Monte might have been a decent bet for some families, being a midsizer.
Joe, thanks for giving us all more insight into Flint. Sharing the joys of one’s hometown is always enjoyable and as one who has frequently mentioned his own, please keep your thoughts about Flint coming our way. You do a much better job waxing poetic about Flint than I do Cape Girardeau.
A coworker, who does automotive work on the side, recently had a twin ’83 MC SS at his garage. Being able to look at that MC SS did provide me a new appreciation of them. These weren’t always my cup of tea, but I do better see the appeal.
Incidentally, this particular coworker is from Central Mexico although he has been in the US for years. Comparing notes with him about hometowns is quite enlightening.
Thank you so much, Jason. Coincidentally, Cape Girardeau has recently come back into my consciousness and I’m trying to remember how. I think it may be a really talented, new, Flickr contact I recently came across who has photographed many things in and around that area. But I know I’ve heard “Cape Girardeau” from someone other than you, and now I’ll be trying to remember exactly how…
It’s funny how time can change one’s perspective about a car.
Over here an hour west, the Cutlass filled that same spot in the automotive world. Aspirational but not out of reach, and upscale without being pretentious.
Thet are doing a good job of promoting the new Sloan museum. There has been a billboard near downtown Lansing for a couple of weeks now.
Flint loved its Cutlasses, too, even if not quite as much as Lansing. 🙂
I love that Flint is actively promoting things like the Sloan outside of the immediate area. There are so many great things to do in the area. I’m hoping to catch a concert at the Capitol Theatre or Whiting Auditorium before too long.