The idea of buying a hot muscle car had always been unimaginable. My parents had big, finny Cadillacs, but all the sconces, parlors, bella figura, and El Dorados of goomba-land had been squeezed out of me by the time I was 12. Muirland Country Day, a New England boarding School, and Yale had expunged all traces of guinea, so my first car was a banged-up Volkswagen beetle and my second a ‘63 Valiant with 100K.
Why I bought a ‘65 GTO is still beyond me. I not only had beaters before the GTO, I have always had them afterwards. Three oil-leaking, overheating, splashy steering Buick Skylarks, third-hand rejects from my sister; a 1976 Volare with mildew, mushrooms, and a gat-toothed grille; a 1964 Falcon with no rear seat and a dodgy transmission; and a 1986 Buick Electra wagon, the biggest car on the road in an era before SUVs, a stone lemon with three recalls, bad brakes, and no springs. It must have been Laura DiMarco, a flamboyant, eccentric, Isadora Duncan exhibitionist who promised me the sensual delights of the Arabian Nights if I only gave up my Dodge.
So I bought the GTO. It was not just Detroit stock, but gussied up, tricked out, and given a racing tune by Joe D’Alessio, a no-show favorite of the Newark North Ward and stock car mechanic. It was a hardtop coupé, 389 cu in.V8, 325 BHP with a single Carter AFB four-barrel carburetor and dual exhaust, chromed valve covers and air cleaner, 7-blade clutch fan, a floor-shifted three-speed manual transmission with Hurst shifter, stiffer springs, larger diameter front sway bar, wider wheels with 7.50 × 14 redline tires, hood scoops, and GTO badges.
It was so hot that it was stolen within six months of delivery. By that time I realized that on my small starter salary the car payments were way beyond my means, and I quickly settled with the insurance company and went back to hoopdies, beaters, wrecks, and plain girlfriends. My last car before leaving the United States was a ‘61 Dart whose tires were so bald that I got flats other week.
I think I got the taste for muscle cars when I was still in high school. Richard Peterson had a ‘62 Corvette, and we would race for pink slips on the 4-lane unopened stretch of CT 71. Richie’s ‘Vet was fast, but if the red ‘61 hadn’t missed a shift, my racing days would have been over.
Even before I could drive, I had a thing for fast cars. Sammy Bridge and I would listen to vinyl LPs of the racing cars of the 50s. “The Aston Martins”, the sonorous British voice would intone, followed by the throaty rumble of the engine. “The Porsches”, the voice continued, and then the unmistakably smooth, deep, angry growl of the Carrera filled the room. There was a pause on the record, and after a second or two the announcer said, “And….the Ferraris….”. The scream of the monster V-12, high-pitched, revving to impossible RPMs, a powerful, inimitable, climax of sound followed. Oh, to drive one of those cars.
One weekend I drove up to Smith College with Sammy for a date. As we walked from the car to the dorm, we could hear the deep-throated, unmistakable throbbing engine exhaust of a big Porsche; and as we approached the quadrangle we could see this monster Carrera doing turns in first gear around the circular Senior Walk. Pure ego and arrogance from a piss-on-you Piping Rock WASP show-off asshole; but what a car! What a sound!
A few years ago and many decades after college, I was wine-tasting in Sonoma, and as I left the tasting room to return to my car, I saw 25 late-model Ferraris in the parking lot. The Ferrari Club of Northern California was having its annual wine-fest and lunch. I was surrounded by Spiders, Barchettas, Testarossas, Scagliettis, and Superamericas. They were elegant, classy, powerful, aerodynamic, and sweet.
I recently visited the Automobile Museum in Tupelo, Mississippi, a hanger-full of 100 cars from 1900 to the present. What struck me most was how within ten years (1900-1910) cars moved from being simple motorized horse-and-buggies:
to real cars:
On the next row were the elegant show-palace cars of the 20s, all polished brass, mahogany, leather, and fittings; the Al Capone black sedans of the 30s; the more sedate post-WWII cars of the 40s, the fins and two-tones of the 60s, and the more familiar muscle cars of the 70s.
I recently went to a car show in Columbus MS. On display were triple-chrome, high-glaze, super-polished dandies with jumping struts and mega-engines.
Not quite the classic and elegant Franklins, Chandlers, and Deusenbergs of the 20s; and more a celebration of brute power (the theme was to put monster engines in little frames); but impressive.
When I trade in my ‘99 Camry (getting dodgy at 200K) it will be for a new Camry. The least flashy car on the road. Mr. Dependable, alte kocker ride par excellence. Familiar, trusted, and simple. Like a Holiday Inn, so uniform and predictable that it is the preferred hotel for blind people. Getting behind the wheel of a 2014 is very little different from my ‘99.
Whenever I hear the growl of a Carrera, or the throaty rumble of a Cobra; or see a yellow Lamborghini Gallardo leave a gated community off River Road in Potomac (MD), I follow them and try to pull up alongside at the next light. I still want to ease into the contoured leather seats, palm the 7-speed gear shift, tap the accelerator and feel the surge of the V-10. I could buy one, I suppose; dip into my hedge fund futures and hock the inheritance and get back to my muscle car-cum-St. Tropez fantasy; but I know that the stolid, dependable, Camry has become my car. Even if I made it to the Lamborghini showroom, I would poke out a side door, embarrassed, and guilty. “What were you thinking?”, I would ask myself.
On the other hand, I could be throttling the Testarossa up to 90 in first gear, hearing the engine whine just like on the record Sammy Bridge and I listened to the 1957. Why not? You only live once.
Watch this space.