"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, January 30, 2012

Muscle Cars

I had a muscle car once, a 1965 Pontiac GTO – 389 cubes, 360HP, 4-barrel carburetor, a three-on the floor Hurst transmission.  I was hot shit. My buddy Joe DeLoreto from work racing tuned it and showed me how to power shift – you never take your foot off the accelerator when shifting.  “Pay attention”, warned Joe, “If you fuck up you will throw the rods through the hood”. 

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We rocketed through the gears with all the acceleration that the monster engine could generate, the dual exhausts blasting power – plain, unmuzzled, raw, male power.  I loved it.  It was the fulfillment of a dream begun in high school when my friend Billy Harding played records of the sound of engines of hot cars.  “The Porsches”, the narrator intoned, and the baritone rumble and throbbing base of the Carrera boomed out.  “The Maseratis”, the narrator continued, and the pitch went up, no longer a deep, throaty roar, but a restrained singing in an upper register.  “And….” Here the narrator paused for dramatic effect, creating a moment of indescribably delicious anticipation, “…the Ferraris”.  There was no music, no trebles or bass, no singing or registers, just the high, ferocious whine of a 500HP Testarossa 250.  I was ecstatic.

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A month later the GTO was stolen from the parking lot of my Newark apartment.  I went out to get the car one morning and couldn’t find it, and only after I had structured my search to check every single space in the lot did I conclude that it was just too sexy for the kids from the nearby projects to resist.  Gone.  The only great ride of my life.

My previous car had been a 1963 Volkswagen.  It had a 34HP lawnmower engine, funky push-out wing vents and a heater that pumped out only a few degrees on cold days.  The company had made some improvements to the car – it now had flashing turn signals, a fuel gauge, and a fully synchronized transmission; but it was no muscle car.  It was bought because it was cheap and took very little gas.  I was so delicate driving the car to see how little gas I could use, I fouled the points, plugs, and every other part of the little engine that relied on high RPM and high engine heat.  Valve job.  Then valve job #2, and I traded it in for the GTO.  I would never have been so extravagant or so ghetto for that matter, given my conservative WASP-like upbringing, if hadn’t been for my glitzy, showy, theatrical girlfriend – the only glitzy, showy, and theatrical girlfriend I have every had, and I returned to conservative form in sexual as well as automotive matters after she and the GTO were gone.

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“Ronnie”, she said, “You want it, buy it”, referring to the GTO.  I had never heard this kind of logic before – a logic that was illogical, not concerned with ability to pay (I had a low-paying job at the Newark Housing Authority), practicality, or the rip-off factor.  Her inverted logic eventually went the way of the car, and I eventually returned to my frugal New England ways, but at the time the persuasive logic of impracticality was irresistable and irrefutable.

The theft of the GTO was a blessing in disguise.  I could get rid of the unsustainable debt I was carrying, leave the girlfriend, and return to normal.  I bought a used 1965 Plymouth Valiant.  I returned to my roots.  I had so little money that I never replaced the bald tires, and got so handy with the jack that I could change them in minutes.  The car was junky enough so that I could park it down by the Hudson River in an old industrial district of New York without fear that it would be gone when I went to get it.  It turned out to be one of the most indestructible cars ever, along with its brother the 1965 Dodge Dart.  Chrysler Corporation soon changed that, of course, and went the way of the planned obsolescence and built-in mechanical and structural issues which got you to buy new cars more often.  The Valiant was indeed a warrior – never a sketchy sound in the motor or rattle in the transmission.  The shocks and springs were made of some super-planet, alien material because despite the banging through deep New York potholes they never complained.  Even the clock worked.

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In 1968 I went to India where there were no muscle cars, nor any Volkswagens or Valiants, just Hindustan Ambassadors, basically unchanged from the Morris Oxford on which it was based.

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The Ambassador was indestructible.  The simplicity of its engine which had few moving parts made it easy to break down - which it always did.  Not only could it be fixed in minutes, it could be fixed using household products – gum, shoelaces, electrical tape, and piano wire.  The Amby had a number of features which endeared it to some, especially when they got rid of it and looked back on it nostalgically, but maddened all foreigners whose companies were too cheap to import foreign cars.  The Ambassador had three gears.  The ratio of first gear was so low, that you could only go 5MPH before you had to shift.  Most Indians didn’t even bother with first, and pinged along in second, riding the clutch until it eventually and quickly wore out which was never a problem given the simplicity of its mechanics and the cheapness of labor.  “Oh, there’s a first gear?”, said an Indian friend of mine.  “I never knew”.

The steering wheel of the Ambassador is canted towards the driver’s window so that there is more room to jam in extra passengers on the front seat.  Given the extreme cant of the wheel, most times you drove with an elbow out the window, 50s greaser style. 

The Ambassador had a firewall, but it too gave way within a thousand miles.  Great heat blasted from the engine into the cabin of the car, and on summer days when the outside temperature easily reached 110F, the temperature inside was unbearable.  The horn worked for about two weeks, then gave out.  This was a problem, for in those days in India the horn replaced regulated driving.  Drivers used their rearview mirrors to comb their hair, not to check what was gaining on them, so horns signaled presence and intention.  Horns also warned pedestrians who felt they always had the right of way.  Indian drivers used their horns so incessantly that it became a habit – kind of like a nervous cough.  There was no reason to cough or use your horn, you just did it.

The Indian-built Fiat which was available in only some ‘markets’, especially Bombay, was not much better.  It was smaller, far more comfortable, and much more zippy than the elephantine Ambassador.  It, however, broke down as much.  A hippy friend who stayed with us in Delhi had a theory about disease and infirmity which said that the stars, by their alignment at the time of your birth, determined what would be your body’s weakness.  Some people would always have a weak heart or would get frequent colds.  The Fiat was no different, and its weakness was the fuel pump.  No sooner had we labored 25 miles up  the steep and winding road from Bombay to Poona, did the fuel pump give out.  It was so predictable and so precise that there were at least four repair shops at the 25-mile point, stocked with fuel pumps and little else.

I gave up Third World driving after the nightmare of India – a miasma of cows, cyclists, rickshaws, pedestrians, chickens, overloaded Tata trucks, and swaying busses with flaccid springs.  Travelling at night, especially at railroad grade crossings where all lanes in both directions were jammed,with every vehicle possible from bullock cart to heavy truck, and when the gates finally went up, all converged on the tracks in a cloud of billowing, dark, diesel smoke.  I lived in Ecuador and Bolivia for a number of years after India, and never got behind the wheel.  As much of an inconvenience as it was, I wanted no more to do with cars.

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When we returned to the US after ten years abroad, it was car-buying time again, and since my father-in-law was a fan of big V8s (safer in crashes, by which he meant, you will survive but probably not the passengers in the smaller car you crush), we bought one used station wagon after another.  The jewel in the crown was the 1986 Buick Electra station wagon.

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This car was the biggest dinosaur on the road at the time.  Nineteen-eighty-six was at least a decade before the monster SUVs, and big station wagons gave you the safety and security of a tank, and the space for groceries and nine passengers.  The problem was that it swerved and swayed like a boat – the tight steering, ABS, and other safety features designed to improve safety and control were a long way off.  This particular car got more than its share of recalls for brakes (its hippy body weak point).  I was not happy that my son ran the car without oil for ten miles until the engine froze; but I was happy to have an excuse to ditch that behemoth.

I had one more old wagon – a 1976 Plymouth Volare.

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This car was great, and Chrysler must have slipped back into its quality ways between long stretches of inferiority and planned obsolescence because this car was indestructible.  We bought it with 100k miles and drove it another 75k at least until it gave up the ghost.  It had only one problem – rust – and the car leaked like a sieve.  It got so moldy inside that little mushrooms began growing on the passenger-side carpet.  One summer I took my young children on a vacation to the beach in North Carolina.  We loaded up the back with chairs, umbrellas, shovels and pails, suitcases, and coolers.  I knew that there was a chance of rain so I was sure to pack a plastic tarp.  Not only did it rain, but it poured.  I gave my six-year old son the job of constructing a makeshift drainage system so that the water coming in from the roof would flow easily down the valleys, culverts, and sluiceways that he would fashion in the plastic covering.  I could see him in the rearview mirror, clambering in the back, molding, readjusting, and modeling so that the water would go down and out.

“Fuck it”, I finally concluded. “Time to get a decent car”, and the long years of Corollas and Camrys began.  I don’t need to post a photo of these cars, because for years they have been among the most popular on the road.  In fact the Camry was so popular for a while that theft rates were extremely high – not because it was such a cool car, but because it could be cannibalized for parts.

So, the odyssey that began with the muscle car is all over but the shouting.  I still have to confess one automotive wet dream – driving a new Ferrari Testarossa.  The animal whine of that engine, played for me in 1958, is still in my dreams.

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One day, on a trip through Sonoma County, we visited a vineyard which just happened to be the venue for the Ferrari Club of California’s annual luncheon.  Outside in the parking lot were 50 of the most gorgeous machines ever.  I lovingly looked at every one.  In Hinduism, all gods have vehicles, usually animals that take them around the universe.  My vehicle on the way to another world will be a Ferrari.

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