One of the classic car guy questions is: “What was your first car?” Ask anyone who knows me and they will be quick to tell you that any question can elicit a story and this one is no exception. I can’t help it – I am an inveterate story teller. Good thing, because it’s also my job!
So we have to go way back to 1970. My parents were divorced and my mother was raising five young kids on a grade school teacher’s salary. We were living in her home town of Boone, Iowa. I was a precocious kid with big car guy plans that really couldn’t start until I could legally drive. I had just turned 16 with $1,500 in a savings account that I had saved from working for my grandfather in his Skelly and later Conoco service stations.
I was desperate for a car of my own. But not just any car. Today my friends know me as a Chevy guy, but back then I was open to anything domestic. I really wanted to buy my friend’s ’65 289 four-speed Mustang, but he wouldn’t sell. Another good friend, Tom Anderson had a ’66 Chevelle with a 325 hp 396 and – oddly – a heavy duty three-speed on the floor.
This was an odd combination, and my first ride in the car was my introduction to a big-block Chevy. It had torque that seemed limitless; it just pulled for as long as he stayed in the throttle. One of his favorite tricks was to lope away from a stop sign, drop it into third gear, and then just lug it around town. That Rat motor seemed to just pull forever.
Another acquaintance drove a ridiculously cool ’65 Chevelle with a 327 and a four-speed that he would routinely spin to 7,000. It was twitchy, skittish like a race horse, and it was so romantic it hurt. But it seemed he was always replacing parts – a driveshaft, more than a couple clutches, a cracked crank, and so many other pieces I lost track. That Chevelle was viscera,l but like the senior Prom Queen when I was a skinny sophomore, unattainable.
So then I looked at a ’64 Chevelle with a 283 and a Powerglide, but it was too pedestrian. I yearned for a four-speed so I could emulate Ronny Sox and my other crash-box heroes. I had a ’68 SS 350 Camaro nearly in my grasp only to see it disappear. A heart-breaking story of small-town politics that I’ll save for a later column.
Agonizing weeks passed, and I still had yet to find the car that spoke to me. Like that girl that you instantly recognize as “The One,” I had yet to find “That Car.” I would know it when I saw it.
So one early fall day as a friend dropped me off after a few tortuous hours working at the local Safeway Store, we turned the corner and there sat a Pontiac GTO in the driveway where my mom’s bulbous ’66 Bel Air station wagon should have been parked. It was a revelation. My first thought was, “Oh man, Mom traded the wagon in on a GTO! This is too good to be true!” Of course, it was too good to be true. I burst through the door and headed straight to the kitchen where mom was making dinner.
“Mom, there’s a GTO in the driveway!” To me, this was tantamount to announcing that the Starship Enterprise had just landed in the front yard and Captain Kirk was standing there with that look on his face that said “Well? Let’s go!” My younger brother and three sisters were oblivious.
Mom was cool. Her oldest son had been a car guy literally since he could walk and she knew it. She knew that I had been scouring the used car lots, asking everybody yet passing on several cars that she felt were worthy. She also knew that high performance was in my blood. The high point of my month was when Hot Rod magazine arrived in the mail box.
The year before, an upper classman was dating a girl who lived down the street. At 7:30 every school morning he would rumble past my bedroom window in his gasser style ’56 Chevy. It was sky high and half the time I was that way over that car. Someday I would be that guy! Later, the night after graduation three seniors were killed in a one-car accident in a similar jacked-up ’57 with an Ford Econoline van solid front axle.
The next evening, mom asked me to go on a short trip with her. We drove to the impound lot where the ‘57’s mangled remains was still fresh with wrenched sheetmetal scars. There wasn’t a straight panel anywhere. It was a terrible accident that everyone blamed on the welded-in front axle. She wanted me to feel the damage that hopefully would make an impact on her fuel-injected son. I, of course, was baffled by the trip.
“Why’d you bring me here?” I asked.
“I wanted you to see this. Cars are not toys, they’re dangerous too.” She was being a mom, but unfortunately the lessons were lost on me.
So here we are in the kitchen with an immaculate conception sitting in the driveway just begging me to take it for a ride. “Where are the keys? I can take it, right?” She was way ahead of me, as usual.
“I promised the guy at the car lot that I would not let you drive it. You can sit in it, open the hood, look it over, but I can’t even let you ride in it.” My mom was a woman of her word, I knew that I had no chance of changing her mind. I tried negotiation. “I’ll do the dishes for a week if we can go for a ride.” That got my sisters’ attention because they were on permanent kitchen duty. Now it was three on one, but she was unmoved.
I resigned myself to investigating the car for an hour or so, fascinated by all its Body by Fisher charms. It was Fontaine Blue with a single four-barrel, 335hp 389 and a Muncie four speed. It had that classic wood grain dash and a Hurst shifter.
I envisioned my instant prominence on Story street, Boone’s main drag on Thursday night when everybody who had a bad car would cruise. This GTO was my ticket to be somebody on cruise night.
During a previous telling of this story a friend once interrupted with “Wait! No way your mom drove a four-speed home from Stratford.” He was calling B.S. on me, but what he didn’t know was my mom was skilled.
Her father, the same grandfather I had worked for during my formative summers at the gas station, had bought my mom her first car when she was only 16. It was a surplus WWII flat fender Jeep with a manual gearbox. He taught her how to drive it, and after a few short lessons she was on her own. My parents had dated in high school, and she told me that my dad drove it more than she did, but she was well versed in the fine art of double-clutching for non-synchro transmissions. My mom was pretty cool.
So I didn’t sleep well that night. The GTO was barely 30 feet away. Tantalizingly close. It was like being forced to stand just outside the gates of the amphitheater with Led Zeppelin playing inside and me without a ticket. Mom promised to have the used car lot owner return the following night and the three of us could take it for a test drive.
After my 16 year-old version of The Longest Day, the GTO again rolled up and we went for a drive. I think it could have had four dead cylinders and a limp brake pedal, and it would not have mattered. I bought it on the spot, and we gave the man his asking price. I had to have it, much to the chagrin of the Boone Police who quickly learned about the blue ’66 GTO that was terrorizing its city streets. Lord, it was fun!
Of course, the infatuation didn’t last. My best friend Jerry Magnuson had a ’62 327, four-speed Impala, and I could never beat him in a quarter-mile joust – never. How was this possible? I had 389 cubic inches and he had a mere small-block Chevy.
I knew I didn’t know enough to dive into the carburetor. I barely knew enough to adjust the idle mixture and set the points and initial timing. That lack of knowledge is the same force that continues to drive me today. There’s always more to learn about internal combustion and basic physics. Eventually the poor GTO – mangled left front fender and all – found a new home in Des Moines. I was already on to my next automotive entanglement, a ’66 SS396 four-speed Chevelle that had more torque, more gear, and more power. For one brief shining moment I was BMOC – Big Man On Campus – with the fastest car in school. Perhaps it was more than a passing fancy. I still own that car. It currently sits in Paint Jail. Someday it will be back on the road. And somewhere, my mother is probably smiling.
– Jeff Smith