Thursday, July 15, 2010

Car Was King

Preface:  Remember your first car?  The steering wheel, the handles and knobs, the upholstery...they all seem familiar, as if you owned it yesterday.  The muscle car era was at its height during my high school and college years, at a time when cars defined who you were.  This memoir revisits a time when "Car was King." 

Car Was King
non-fiction memoir
by Greg Larson

    My friend, Ron, and I were driving in his car along Kansas Avenue in Garden City, Kansas, happy to flee the high school parking lot at the end of the school day.  I was just a passenger, but thrilled for the chance to ride in such a special car.  It was the hottest car in town, his brother’s 1967 Plymouth GTX, with a 440 hemi engine, Hurst four-speed shifter, Holly quad carburetor and Walker mufflers.  A 10,000 RPM, Borg-Warner tachometer was strategically mounted for easy viewing near the steering wheel.

     Let’s face it, I told myself, I’m just a passenger wherever I go.  I have no wheels of my own.   My parents had given me keys to my mom’s baby-blue Plymouth Valiant, and I was allowed to drive it only when it was available.  As a junior in high school in 1968, I was embarrassed to be seen driving such a wimpy-looking car.

     I was torn out of my daydream as Ron stepped on the accelerator.  The pressure slammed my body back into the bucket seat, and the roar of the engine throbbed on my eardrums.  There had been no warning when he unleashed the raw power in the GTX.  As Ron aptly stated later while chuckling, “All hell broke loose!”

     I wasn’t aware that another high school classmate, Jim, in his 1967 yellow Pontiac GTO, had slyly pulled up in the blind spot to our side, then punched his accelerator.  That’s when Ron lit up the hemi, and we blasted off like an Apollo V rocket.  Ron shifted through the gears, screeching the tires between second and third at 60 mph.  Yet, just as quickly as the race was on, it was over, and we coasted at 90 mph.  In a few short seconds, Ron had shut down his competitor.  Jim had taken a cheap shot, trying to sneak up and beat the GTX for bragging rights, but Ron had carried the burden well, keeping his brother’s car as king of the streets.

1967 Plymouth GTX
internet photo
1967 Pontiac GTO
internet photo

     Ron drove to the A&W drive-in and we rumbled through the parking lot.  The stalls were filling up with the high-school crowd ordering snacks and waving at friends.  My favorite snack wasn’t on the menu, but I knew that I could get french-fried pickles if I asked for them.

     Garden City was a boom town with money from the agriculture, oil, and the cattle business.  I drooled at all of the shiny cars…Olds 442’s, Chevelle Super Sports and Camaros, Dodge Chargers and Super Bees, Pontiac GTOs and Firebirds…and all I had was a baby-blue Valiant!  I need wheels of my own, I thought.

     I was smack in the middle of the muscle-car culture as a teen-ager.  Whether I liked it or not, every male student’s identity was his car.  You were what you drove.

     When I tossed out the idea of getting a car to my mom, you’d thought I’d committed heresy.

     She got misty-eyed and sad, filling me with guilt, “You’ve been saving your money for college.  You don’t want to throw it away on a car.”

     “But Mom, I can get a summer job and drive to work in my own car.  I’ll make more money than I’ve saved now,” I replied.

     I changed my strategy and started working to get my dad on board with the idea of my own car.  Yeah, work on that macho car vein in my dad…that will get me what I need.

     By a stroke of luck, my friend’s family had inherited his grandmother’s car and wanted to sell it.  It was the proverbial cream puff that had been driven once each week to church and the beauty parlor.  This has possibilities, I thought, as I ran my hand along the light gold-brown 1963 Plymouth, with a 318-V8 engine.  It had only 30,000 original miles on it.  They were asking $800.  I had $1,500 of hard-earned money in the bank, mostly from my paper-route and from my job at the burger joint.

     In keeping with my strategy, I asked Dad to come and take a look at the Plymouth.  He and my friend’s dad talked cars as we looked it over, checking out the engine, the tires, and the trunk.  Then we took it for a test drive.

     “This car’s in good shape,” said my dad.

     Yes! He likes it. I’ve won my dad over! My heart was singing!

     “Do you think I should buy it?” I politely asked.

     “Let me talk to your mom, first, but I think she’ll be okay.  This car should last a long time.”

     Mom still had reservations about me buying the car, but she caved in to the idea after Dad talked to her.

     I took a cashier’s check to the neighbor, and drove the car down the block to our house.  Within fifteen minutes, I’d pried off the “grandma” wheel covers.  Now I can proudly drive this into the high school parking lot, I thought.  The high school was only four blocks away, but I would drive it every day, performing my rite of passage into adulthood.

     I invited some of my friends to come by for a ride.  On the way to the A&W, I began to hear comments from the back seat, like “You’ve got a four-door taxi. You should paint it yellow.” or snickers along with, “Woo, a push button transmission!”  I didn’t care.  I was happy to have my own car, and I thought it looked good on the street.

     My friend, Dave, said, “Larson, those triple-stripe white-walls have gotta go.”

     I worked 12-hour shifts at the hay mill in the summer, and as soon as I had enough money, I bought new tires and four chrome-plated wheels.  My friend, Ron, was able to get me a discount on auto parts through his dad’s radiator shop, so I could buy a Walker muffler to improve the sound of the exhaust and Monroe air shocks to jack up the rear of the car a little bit.  It doesn’t look like grandma’s car anymore, I told myself.

     My friend, Charlie, was one of the last to get his own car.  He still drove his parents white ‘67 Dodge.  Bob had an old Corvair, until his parents bought him a new ’68 Mustang. Steve had a big white Buick convertible, but sometimes drove his mom’s Lincoln Continental, especially when we all wanted to go to the drive-in theater.

     Four of us climbed into the humongous trunk, and Steve drove the Lincoln up to the theater, alone in the car, with his library briefcase (stuffed with wine and other spirits) in the back seat.  From the driver’s seat, he popped the trunk lid latch every few minutes, and we dropped out of the trunk and rolled away from the car, one at a time.  Then we met at the snack bar to buy a drink, before returning to the car.

     One winter night, Charlie and I walked out of the downtown movie theater.  An ice-storm had coated everything.  The streets were dead.  Traffic was non-existent.  Charlie drove the family’s white Dodge precariously down the side streets at a slow pace.  At one intersection, he couldn’t get the car to move forward, no matter how hard he pushed on the accelerator.  We started laughing, and as the car began to move, he cranked the wheel and we spun a perfect circle in the dark and deserted intersection.

     “Wow, a glazed donut!” I shouted.  Then we laughed uncontrollably; Charlie and I were having a blast.

     “Let’s take this baby up to the high school parking lot and see if we can bury this speedometer needle,” said Charlie.

     Once there, Charlie began slowly pushing the accelerator just to see what would happen.  The car was going nowhere, and the engine revved higher and higher.  The speedometer needle hit 90, while the two of us sat there inside two tons of Mopar, gliding along at 5 miles per hour.

     “How were the streets?” my mom queried when I got home. “We were worried sick.”

     “Oh, it was nasty but we were careful.  Charlie’s a good driver,” I replied nonchalantly.

     I thought I was a pretty good driver until one hot summer night.  I was driving up and down Main Street looking for my buddies who were “draggin’ Main.”  I circled the city park near downtown, to make another circuit, but when I made the last turn, I was jolted with a loud THUNK.  In the twilight, I hadn’t noticed the single parked car in the angled slot nearest the intersection.  I’d smacked a taillight on the tailfin of the car that was parked in the stall.

     There was no damage to my car, but I’d broken the lens on the other car’s tail light.  Before long, all of the cars that were dragging Main had slowed to a crawl, creating a bumper-to-bumper line of cars to see what happened.  A police car pulled over and turned on its flashing lights.

     My friends parked and walked up to the scene and blurted out, “Way to go, Larson!”

     I was embarrassed beyond belief.  I wanted to crawl in a big hole and disappear.  Once the police wrote up the report and gave me a ticket for inattentive driving, I drove home to park my car and ride with my friends.  I told my dad what happened, but couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t let me stay out for the rest of the night, especially if I wasn’t going to drive.

     My dad made me feel two inches tall as he hit me with his mini-sermon.

     “You need to stay home for the rest of the evening and think long and hard about what you did.  Maybe you’ll learn something from this.  You’ll have to pay for your ticket and the repairs to the other vehicle.  You don’t deserve to keep riding around this evening as if nothing happened.”

     Dad’s verdict was final, so I said good-bye to the guys and went back inside the house, wishing that I could replay the evening.

     Western Kansas was a great place to learn how to drive on the highway.  There wasn’t a lot of traffic, and the distances between towns were significant.  We always found some excuse to drive to another town. One Sunday, my friends and I loaded into my Plymouth for a day trip to the drag races in Dodge City.

1963 Plymouth Fury
internet photo
     It was a beautiful day; we talked cars and watched the races.  The fun ended when we left the races and drove out of the gate in the field that was used for a parking lot.  Some local jerk filled with testosterone revved his engine and followed me in the line of cars.  He popped the clutch and slammed into the rear of my car, putting a crease in the bumper just as I went through the gate.  It took several months and a visit from my dad before the guy paid for a replacement bumper.

     My Plymouth served me well all through high school and on through college.  At Kansas State, my new friends and roommates dubbed it “the taxi”, and we used it frequently to make midnight taco runs.  But it didn’t hold a candle to Val’s white 1967 GTO convertible and Ted’s red 1967 GTO.  The gold paint was beginning to fade on the Plymouth, and it had finally become…well…just a taxi.

     In May of 1974, I graduated from K-State, and loaded up all of my worldly possessions into the ’63 Plymouth.  My friends came out to say “good-bye” for my final send-off.

     About five miles south of Manhattan, I heard something flopping on the top of the car.  I pulled over to the side of the highway, got out of the car and looked at the roof.  The taxi sign, procured by my roommates at the local junk yard and attached with duct tape had started to come loose.  I smiled, realizing that my buddies had given me one last memory of my college days.  I put the taxi sign on the pile of stuff in the car and climbed into the driver’s seat.  Memories of the taco smells flooded my senses...maybe I can find a taco place in the next town.