"Nobody gonna take my car, I'm gonna race it to the ground
nobody gonna beat my car, it's gonna break the speed of sound
Ooh it's a killing machine it's got everything
Like a driving power, big fat tires, everything"
- Deep Purple - "Highway Star"
My first car … Her.
All of my life, as far back and
as long as I can remember I have loved cars, especially fast
cars. Car commercials on TV always captivated me. When I
was a child I played with toy cars. I had lots of toy cars of
every shape, size and color. Hot Wheels were my favorite but
Matchbox was a close second. I marveled at their lines, their
shapes and I always imagined that I was somehow small enough to get in
them and drive them. I loved little toy cars that had opening
doors where you could see the interior or opening hoods where you could
see the engines. Cars with numbers always got my attention
because I thought of them as “race cars” and I loved to watch cars go
fast on TV.
I guess my fascination with fast cars started early in my childhood with all the car chases on the popular cop shows on TV (“Starsky and Hutch’s” red with the white stripe Ford Gran Torino, “Zebra-3” aka “The Flying Tomato”), watching early NASCAR with my dad (Richard Petty was my hero in his blue and red car) and playing with all of my diecast Mattel “Hot Wheels” and Matchbox toy cars and race tracks.
I remember being really young, living in Birmingham, Alabama, and my dad took me over to the Talladega race track. That’s back when the Alabama State Troopers were driving AMC Javelins which I thought was a really cool looking car … so different than the other boxy four door cop cars that all the other officers were driving. My dad and I even got to tour the race track itself, riding around the track in a VW bus, going on the embankments, down the straight-aways … it was an awesome day.
However, my love of cars didn’t really hit its peak until late September of 1977 when my dad took me to see “Smokey and the Bandit” at the Cloverleaf Twin Cinema in the Cloverleaf Mall in Hattiesburg, Mississippi where we lived. All the kids at school had been talking about this movie and I had to see it so I begged my dad to take me to see it one Friday night.
“Smokey and the Bandit” was a funny car film, it just didn’t have a funny car in it and while the iconic black and gold ’77 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am was as much a star of the film as Jerry Reed, Burt Reynolds, Sally Field and Jackie Gleason it didn’t talk and it didn’t do anything other than haul ass and make a mockery of all the cops that were chasing it.
Suddenly, my views on car films had changed.
This wasn’t a “Herbie the Love Bug” film, this wasn’t a light hearted comedy, no this was … serious. This movie kicked ass on so many levels it blew my eight year old mind! This movie had cars getting wrecked and smashed and burnouts and brakes locking up and V8s screaming and a black Pontiac Trans Am hauling ass seven epic ways to sundown!
This movie was intense!
This was a first for me because I was used to the good guys, the cops, winning in car chases, I was used to the cops always getting their man and here was a bad guy who I liked as a good guy winning a car chase in a really bad ass car. Suddenly the good guys were the bad guys and the bad guys were the good guys. It was a paradigm shift to be sure and “Smokey and the Bandit” redefined the car movie and the big screen car chase for me.
I loved that movie and right then my life changed.
Two months later I would finally get to see “Star Wars” for the first time, in the same theater as I saw “Smokey and the Bandit” (it took “Star Wars” almost six months to reach a theater in Hattiesburg, Mississippi after its initial release way back in May …). My already overloaded child’s mind was blown, totally blown, right out of my tiny cranium and I had the two main interests of my life set out in front of me at the young age of 8 years old; fast Pontiacs (especially black Trans Ams) and epic science fiction.
Burning rubber and screaming engines, lightsabers and spaceships.
It was easy for me to make the jump between Darth Vader and Sheriff Bufford T. Justice as well as Han Solo and Bo "Bandit" Darville. In fact, you could even say that in the scheme of things that Bo “Bandit” Darville’s black and gold 1977 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am in “Smokey and the Bandit” fulfilled the same role as the “Millennium Falcon” did for Han Solo in “Star Wars.” The stories between the two films were even pretty similar … the good guys were trying to get something important smuggled somewhere (for a profit) that would make a lot of people very happy and the bad guys were trying to stop them using everything that they could. In between those two plot points, mayhem, destruction, comedy and adventure happened, a lot of hardware got wrecked and you walked out of the theater feeling like you had just experienced something grand.
Science fiction and high performance.
Like science fiction, my love of high performance cars could not be satisfied or quenched. I couldn’t get enough of either of those two things and so until I got my driver’s license at age 15 in 1984, I subsisted on a diet of reading everything science fiction I could find. Heinlein, Asimov, Smith, and all the other classics. I read every science fiction magazine, every comic book and watched every movie that came out (some of them pretty awful in hindsight). I supplemented this intellectual diet with reading magazines like “Hot Rod”, “Car Craft”, “Popular Hot Rodding”, “Motor Trend” and “Car and Driver.” The last two magazines seemed a bit pretentious to me, even as a child because they always featured and worshipped cars that I thought were ugly and dumb … stuff like Audis, Volvos, BMWs, Mercedes … cars that were, to me, boring yet the magazine article authors fell to their knees and worshipped these cars and they gave them high accolades on such mundane aspects like “fit and finish” and “ride quality.” When stuff like wood grain paneling and the size of the trunk took on more importance than engine size, horsepower and top speed, it was easy to see why at an early age I thought some of the more well-thought of car article authors and contributors in the car magazines weren’t on the same wavelength as I was.
The people who put together stuff like “Car Craft” and “Hot Rod” seemed to know what I wanted.
To me, magazines like “Motor Trend” and “Car and Driver” seemed to rate performance on how comfy a car was, or how well it was put together rather than what it could do in the quarter mile or how fast it could go on the top end. These magazines seemed to be for the kind of people who drove station wagons and never got a parking ticket, who pulled their Volvo station wagons out of their garage on Saturday morning to lovingly wash and wax them before taking the kids to a soccer game and then going to get groceries. These people wanted an engine to be smooth, a transmission to shift itself, and for the wood grain dash to be made out of the rarest of African trees. The kind of person who would drive a Volvo is the kind of person who would rather have a cup holder than a tachometer in their car.
“Car and Driver” and “Motor Trend” were the kind of magazines you found at the doctor’s office or the dentist so I read those magazines there. Occasionally my father would bring one of those two magazines home with him, something he kept from a long airplane flight or something he picked up at the airport to read while he waited on a transfer flight. When mom went shopping at the grocery store, I went to the magazine rack and read the other magazines … the magazines that featured real cars (at least to me) … American muscle cars, not the pretentious boxes on wheels that Europe was trying to pass off on our shores.
“Car and Driver” and “Motor Trend” it seemed to me, only wrote articles about boring cars, cars that the other magazines would laugh at so I stuck to the real world cars and learned about things like dual plane intake manifolds and superchargers and nitrous oxide and dual exhausts. I learned what cubic inches were and how a torque converter worked and I began to study cars like the Ford Mustang and the Pontiac Firebird and the Chevy Camaro and the Dodge Challenger.
The only time I picked up a “Car and Driver” or “Motor Trend” was when it had something flashy on the cover, like a Porsche or Ferrari.
Pretty soon my enthusiasm allowed me not only to spot old muscle cars and sports cars in traffic and parking lots but also to tell what year they were just by their body style or their options. I wasn’t even a teenager yet and I was identifying muscle cars and sports cars at a distance just by their brake lights.
I was a highly opinionated child, even at an early age.
I liked cars, I knew what type of cars that I liked and I liked to read about those cars. I looked forward to going to the grocery store with my mom every chance that I got just so I could sit down at the magazine rack and read the latest sports car magazines, the latest “Mad” and “Cracked” magazines and the latest Warren “Creepy” and “Eerie” horror magazines while she shopped. Usually I was lucky enough to be able to read all of those magazines before she was finished. Not only could I read the articles at that age, I had already begun to understand how engines and transmissions worked. I could read the specifications of a certain car and compare it to other cars in its class.
I knew the stats of classic muscle cars like some kids knew the stats of their favorite professional baseball players.
Sometime in late 1979 I started noticing girls and began getting interested in them.
Really interested. Of course that was about the time that I started to find dirty magazines in the vacant lots around my neighborhood.
I was nine years old and already collecting “Playboy”, “Penthouse” and “Hustler” thanks to the Porn Fairy or whoever it was that was leaving whole collections of men’s magazines in the wooded vacant lots around the area where I lived. I read those magazines from cover to cover as well, especially enjoying the cartoons and the articles which told me even more about the mystery of the female body.
By age ten I was sternly correcting several of my friends and peers on the myths that they had picked up regarding sex and the parts of the female body. By age 13 I would have the largest collection of pornography, Heavy Metal, and car magazines of any kid my age.
Women fascinated me.
fascination with women would eventually complicate my love for science
fiction and my love for fast cars and compete for the total amount of
time that I could devote to cars and sci-fi. While car magazines
satisfied my intellectual need for speed, “Heavy Metal” magazine and
the other men’s magazines that I found and kept awake my desire for
nudity and sex.
I was tall for my age.
I developed early, both mentally and physically.
In 1982 I was 13 years old and I learned to drive a car with an automatic transmission. My father started to teach me to drive because I was big enough and coordinated enough to actually drive a car and because he knew that I wanted to drive … I couldn’t wait to drive because driving gave me something that I’d never had before … freedom. Real freedom. Total freedom. Driving gave me total freedom to go where I wanted to go and do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it.
That freedom was my drug and I lived for the weekends when dad would take me out and let me drive his car around the neighborhood or on short trips around Hattiesburg. I remember one time passing one of my friends from school. He was riding in the back seat of his mom’s Chevy station wagon and we made eye contact as we passed going opposite directions … him sitting there behind his mom and me in the driver’s seat.
We were both 13 years old ... but I felt so much older, at least on the inside.
From 1982 to 1983 my father let me drive his car on longer trips when he and I went out of town. Sometimes it was driving to a basketball game on a Saturday or sometimes it was going to a Boy Scout event like a hike in a military park or a hike over a moutain. Dad would sit in the passenger seat and let me drive to wherever it was that we were going if it was a short trip, call it forty-five miles more or less. We never once got pulled over or stopped by any officer, even when I was driving on the highway and interstate.
During 1983 when I played high school basketball I’d often drive my father’s car, with my father sitting in the passenger seat, to our away games. While the other kids had to ride the bus, I was driving my father’s car, at 14 years old.
I was driving.
Without a license, without insurance, without any kind of driver’s education or training program … I was driving … and not only was I driving but I was driving well!
I loved driving!
It was such a sense of freedom … such a sense of individualism … that steering wheel gripped in my left hand, the long black road shimmering ahead of me, the scenery rushing by on each side, the stripes on the road being reeled in under the car. I lived for those moments when my dad let me drive his car. I realized then that not only could I drive a car but that I did it so well that my dad trusted not only me behind the wheel with his car but also he trusted me with his life as he sat there, riding in the passenger seat. Rarely did I do something that would invite his rebuke and a few times I actually managed to avoid an accident in such a way that he tempered his second guessing of letting me drive with praise on my driving skills.
That meant a lot to me at that age.
When I was fourteen, my father let me drive his two door ’81 silver and burgundy Chrysler Cordoba to and from several of my high school out of town basketball games … of course he was sitting in the passenger seat but I was doing the driving.
1980 Chrysler Cordoba; silver with a burgundy half vinyl roof … that was what my dad drove from 1982 to 1984.
I loved that car … it had this stance to it, it had two doors, it was sleek and tough looking with its hard angles, smoothed edges and long tail lights. It had a 318 cubic inch V8 with a two barrel carburetor under the hood, a console mounted three speed automatic Torqueflite transmission, and a burgundy leather interior. It looked nice, it drove well, it rode fine yet it had enough power (and then some) to pass on a lonely two lane. I really wanted that car but my father sold it right before I got my license and I regretted that because I wanted that Cordoba.
Oh, that car had potential.
Even at the age of fourteen years old I had started to draw out plans for the ’81 Chrysler Cordoba … I wanted to put a 340 cubic inch V8 under the hood, top it with a Six Pack of three, two barrel Holley carburetors and put in a heavy duty Torqueflite automatic transmission and a limited slip rear differential with some low street gears. I wanted to swap out the sway bars for larger diameter replacements, get some bigger aluminum wheels and fatter tires. I wanted a two door “executive” ride with a “hooligan” powertrain and I even entertained thoughts of putting a AAR Cuda type hood scoop on the Cordoba all the better to feed the hungry Six Pack that I wanted to drop in there. I made sketches of my dad’s car with the mods I wanted to add … I started looking through my car magazines, PAW Performance Automotive Wholesale and other big performance parts clearing houses to get prices on the parts I thought I would need. I even called around trying to locate a junkyard that had a used 340 small block. In the summer of 1983 I built a paper tiger … and I told my dad that when I turned 15 and got my license that I wanted to buy his Cordoba from him. I don’t think he realized how serious I was about that …
The Cordoba was an awesome car. I wanted a real “sleeper” car, one that looked “nice” but kicked ass. I wanted to take the ’80 Cordoba and build something like what Chevrolet would soon do to the Monte Carlo SS. Where I was going to get the money to do all of that I didn’t know but back then daydreams were cheap and I was richer for them and every article I read taught me more and more about how a car was put together, what it took to take one apart and what it took to make one go faster.
I spent most of my freshman year in junior high thinking about my driver’s license and my first car. My father and I looked at several cars during that time, everything from an Opel GT to a VW Kharman Ghia, old Porsche Targas and VW bugs. For a time I thought my father was trying to get me to buy a car that he liked and it was quickly evident that he and I did not share the same tastes in cars, styling or body styles.
My initial budget of fifteen hundred dollars climbed to two thousand, then twenty-five hundred. When no good deals were found for that price range, my dad raised the purchase limit to three grand. Three thousand dollars seemed to be my upper price limit and for that time it was a rather substantial amount of money but nothing that wasn’t junk was selling for less than about three grand locally.
I saw a lot of people I knew getting brand new cars when they got their driver’s license but my parents weren’t that rich … or I wasn’t that spoiled. The high school parking lot my sophomore year was filled with a brand new dark blue 1984 aero package Pontiac Trans Am, a red and silver 1984 Chevy Camaro Z28 with the L69 HO motor, a white and gold Crossfire Injected Camaro Z28, a Chrysler Laser XT, a gun metal gray 1984 Nissan 300ZX, and a brand new white 1984 Chevy Corvette with the bigger Crossfire Injected motor under the clamshell hood. It blew my mind to see all of that new, high performance hardware in the parking lot of the school but then most of it belonged to the children of lawyers, doctors, local television celebrities and, of course, the resident oil field trash which tended to spend their money as quick as they got it.
I wasn’t that lucky …
A popular radio commercial for a local junk yard had the slogan “why buy new when used will do.” My father told me that exact same thing several times while we were shopping for my first car. I understood that my parents didn’t have the kind of money that other parents had and that didn’t bother me. If they were going to buy me my first car and if that car had a price limit of $3000 then I was going to get the best car that I could for four grand.
It was a personal quest … and it took the better part of a year. A year that was full of hope and despair, happiness and sadness, good times and bad. It was one part bargain shopping and one part archaeology and I can say that while I thought I knew everything there was about cars before I started looking for my own first car, man was I wrong. I learned something new every day. In fact, like the old saying went, when it came to knowing about cars, used cars in particular, I was twice as smart as yesterday, but only half as smart as tomorrow.
I knew what I wanted …
I wanted a black and gold 1977 or 1978 Pontiac Trans Am with the big motor under the hood. I wanted a “Bandit” Trans Am just like Burt Reynolds drove in “Smokey and the Bandit.” I wanted a 400 cubic inch V8, a four speed stick, factory aluminum wheels and T-tops. I wanted to slam gears and fry tires. I wanted to slide sideways through an intersection, I wanted to do bootlegger reverses and J-turns like Jim Rockford did in his '77 Firebird on TV. I wanted power and I wanted freedom. Of course, wanting and getting, as I’d learn over and over again, were two very different things in life and often came nowhere near each other outside of daydreaming and wishful thinking.
I found two Camaros, a 1975 and a 1976 model, both black. Neither was really good looking but they were Camaros. I came close on both to buying them but I missed out and had each of them bought out from under me by Juniors at my high school. I got the last laugh though when one of the juniors tried to show out in his “new” Camaro, lost control and flipped it. He managed to crawl out of it but the car was demolished … two weeks after he had bought it … two weeks after I had almost bought it and that Camaro was destroyed.
I kept looking.
I searched the local newspaper, the Hattiesburg American but it never had very much of interest for sale in the For Sale ads. My main source of finding a car to buy was rubbernecking the inventory on the used car lots whenever we drove by one or getting my dad to drive me around to the various car dealerships to look at their inventory. I window shopped new Trans Ams, Camaros, Mustangs and Dodge Daytonas with the sad realization that I could never afford a $12,000 sports car. Still, it was fun to look at the brand new high performance sports cars sitting there in the show room or on the dealer lot, to get a salesman to show the cars to us and to get a sales brochure to carry home and staple to my bedroom wall.
From the summer of 1983 to the summer of 1984 there were many hopes that were dashed, many dreams that were shattered in that year long time. I made compromises that I wasn’t proud of, I lowered my standards to the point where I almost became a car slut willing to take anything as long as it had a motor, a transmission and a pair of pedals in it. My dad and I fought over cars, sometimes rather loudly.
It was one of the first times that I’d ever heard my dad use profanity around me, even against me, but that’s how heated our arguments became sometimes.
Personally, I had quite a few cars that I liked that were passed on by my parents. Like I said, our views differed … they felt that I needed a big, safe car, something like a four door Buick LeSabre, while I felt that I needed something with about half that weight, half of the doors, a third of the coefficient of drag and twice the engine displacement under the hood.
They were thinking of safety.
I was thinking that if I ever got what my parents wanted me to get then they could rest assured that my virginity would be something that I’d probably carry with me intact into college if not into a much later stage of my life.
Needless to say, heads were banged and banged hard during those many months and some unkind words were said by both sides. My parents felt that I was trying to buy a car that I would end up dying in at an early age and I felt that they were trying to buy me a car that would automatically qualify me for senior discounts at any fast food joint and a complimentary membership in the AARP.
A lot of arguing and fighting later the four doors finally became two doors, the six cylinder became a V8 and a lot of the boring cars were off the negotiating block. It was progress, hard fought, tooth and nail, hurt feelings and spiteful words, but still progress.
It was late 1983 and the best of the two doors that I could find that were anywhere near being considered as “cool” were some late ‘70’s Ford Thunderbirds or Mercury Cougars or mid to late ‘70’s GM products like Chevy Monte Carlos, Pontiac Grand Prixs, Oldsmobile Cutlasses or Buick Regals and the late ‘70’s versions of these cars were a far cry from their early ‘70’s performance siblings. The mid ‘70’s offerings of any of the car companies, except maybe Pontiac, just didn’t bear thinking too much about.
The 1977 to 1979 Ford Thundebirds were interesting because of their name, their heritage, their long hoods, two doors, the still somewhat big 351 cubic inch motor and they could be found with T-tops. The Thunderbird of the late 1970’s was a tough looking car from its long hood to its fender vents, big metal bumpers, opera type side windows and turbine style wheels. The Thunderbird was something I could see a supercharger sticking out the hood ala “Mad Max”, maybe even a factory Ford hood tach. I think I was completely missing the point that my parents were trying to make and they quickly realized that the emerging hot-rodder in me was going to modify and soup-up anything that they got me.
It always came back to the black and gold Pontiac Trans Am.
I really wanted a black and gold Pontiac “Bandit” Trans Am, with T-tops, a big 400 cubic inch V8 under the shaker hood, a stick shift, aluminum wheels, the big gold bird on the hood and what seemed like four hundred feet of gold pin striping. I wanted that car so bad I could taste it and I’d wanted it ever since I’d seen “Smokey and the Bandit” in the theater way back in the Summer of 1977 but in all of that time looking at cars and searching through the used car dealers, used dealer lots and for sale ads in the newspaper and trade papers I never once saw a black and gold Trans Am for sale.
I found a few Firebirds.
I found one Firebird that had T-tops but it was a BlueBird edition and there was no way in hell I was going to be caught dead driving that thing.
I found a Trans Am, a 1981 Trans Am, that had T-tops, scuffed up five spoke chrome American Racing rims and big balloon tires that looked way out of size with what it should have had. In fact, the tires looked like off road truck tires instead of street radials. It was $4400 and sitting on a used car lot near the river bridge on the old two lane going into Petal. The Pontiac’s interior was a kind of golden brown color and the body color was a kind of chocolate brown with gold decals. It had no pin stripe and the engine was a rough running 301 cubic inch Pontiac V8 backed by a three speed automatic transmission … a far cry from the 400 cubic inch V8 and four speed manual transmission that I was looking for. I liked the 1981 Trans Am, I liked the styling with the fender flares, the spoilers, the wrap around tail-lights and the quad headlights but I just couldn’t get my head to take on that weird chocolate color and so with a great amount of disappointment I turned my back on the only thing that had come even close to being like my dream car.
It was the spring of 1984.
I would turn 15 in June.
I still didn’t have my car and time was running out. Soon I’d be going to Driver’s Ed (taught at the local university) and I’d get my driver’s license. Then, if I was lucky, I’d get my car … my own car … my first car … and I’d get the kind of freedom that I’d been dreaming about for the last seven years of my life.
The budget had been set … $3000 or less.
Anything less than $3000 and I could use that extra money to buy stuff for the car like a better radio. Time was running out. I had months, a couple of weeks, and a few days to find a car … to find a good car, no, a great car! I looked at the classified ads in all of the local newspapers. There were some nice cars in the Hattiesburg American, all of them were way out of my price range. The few cars that were in my price range were either not what I was looking for or were what I was looking for but were junk … ragged out, worn out pieces of crap that someone was trying to shove off on someone else.
I wanted a sports car.
I didn’t want a station wagon.
I didn’t want a Volkswagen.
I didn’t want a Mustang.
I didn’t want a truck.
I wanted something with two doors and an attitude.
Chevy seemed okay, not as cool as Pontiacs but at that point the old adage of “beggars can’t be choosers” kicked in and I realized that with time running out that I was rapidly going from the “chooser” outlook to the “beggar” outlook.
Chevy wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t a Pontiac and it wasn’t as cool as a Pontiac but Chevy wasn’t bad.
Lots of guys owned Chevys, it was better than a Ford Mustang (at least to me) because the Mustangs up to that point in time all pretty much sucked starting with the Mustang II and continuing with the new Fox body based Mustangs. If I had a choice in the matter, it was going to come down to a Firebird or a Camaro and preferably a Firebird … but Fate wasn’t that kind.
After months of looking, after months of arguing with my parents, after months of hope and despair, of promising leads and dead ends I’d finally found her.
I found Her for sale in The Advertiser, a small, weekly published local trade paper that ran discount ads across several counties.
My first car.
Fate stepped in, put her foot down and firmly decreed that my first car would be a Camaro and not just any Camaro but a late ‘70’s Camaro which was better than fine with me because the mid-‘70’s Camaros that had the big visible front and rear pickup truck-like metal bumpers sucked big in the looks department. In fact, any Camaro from about 1974 to 1977 was trailerpark fugly … homegrown fugly like a fat girl with braces.
No. I’d looked at several fugly Camaros over the last six months and this Camaro was beautiful. In fact, when I first saw her I knew she was the one. She was a 1978 Chevy Camaro, She was my first love and even though our relationship would only last a little over two years that relationship would become the stuff of tales and stories told for years to come and would provide precious memories that would be carried through decades to come long after She was gone.
She was beautiful.
I can’t really say it any other way than that. For a guy, a real guy, he knows … he just knows that first time when he puts eyes on his first car that that car is the one.
She was my first car.
She would be my first car in a lot of ways.
My first car where I would swing my own set of wrenches and do my own maintenance work.
My first car where I would learn how to not only take care of a car but to modify it as well.
My first car that I would go out of town by myself in.
My first car that I would use to go faster than a hundred miles an hour.
My first car that I would get into a lot of trouble and out of a lot of trouble with.
My first car that I would get my first speeding ticket in.
My first car that I would pick up a girl and go on a date in.
My first car to make out in with a girl.
My first car the back seat of which would be where I would lose my virginity.
My first car that I would form a friendship with stronger than any I’d ever formed before …and my first car that I would all too soon sell and leave for another, far prettier, far more capable machine.
You never forget your first car just like you never forget your first kiss.
She was going to be my first for so many things.
Somehow, I knew that.
Somehow, I knew all of that when I first set eyes on her the late Spring of 1984.
There She was, parked against the old cracked and crumbling curb, under the dark shade of that giant old oak tree. She was parked in the street, in front of a renovated and well maintained house built in the 1940’s in an old, almost forgotten suburb of Petal, Mississippi. It was almost like a suburb that time had forgotten, on the backside of the old train tracks, invisible from the main thoroughfare that ran through the city. You couldn’t see the Camaro from the street, no, you had to drive off the beaten path to find it and She taught me that the best deals are the ones you find on the not often traveled streets and the hard to find roads.
Like all treasures of old, She was hidden.
I got out of my dad’s white ’77 Buick LeSabre and stood there, staring at Her … so out of place in this neighborhood. Speed amid tranquility. It was like seeing a lion sitting in a cow pasture.
She was advertised as a two owner 1978 Chevrolet Camaro Z28, painted Firethorn Metallic which is Corvette red to anyone else who looked at it … but She wasn’t a Z28 even though that’s what the owner said She was in the advertisement. No, She was actually a Rally Sport, She had no decorative hood scoop, no decorative side fender scoops, no three piece front chin spoiler or rear fender skirts and no Z28 decals or badges but She did have the three piece rear deck lid spoiler and She had originally been painted yellow and black if a bit of cracking paint on the edge of the hood and driver’s side fender told any story of her past. All of her Rally Sport decals had been removed before the new paint had been applied …The owner said She was a Z28 but even at almost fifteen years old I knew better … She was no Z28 but She was what I wanted because She had potential. Already my mind was spinning thinking what I could and what I would do to this car; this Camaro had so much potential!
Oh, I had really, really wanted a Firebird, especially a Trans Am with T-tops but this hard top Camaro was the best thing that I’d seen yet and I’d been looking for almost a year now. Even though beggars can’t be choosers I knew, as soon as I saw it, that this was going to be my first car.
The current owner, a divorcee in his late 30’s, admitted that the Camaro wasn’t a Z28 but rather a Rally Sport. He said that the newspaper had misquoted his ad but he also said that this Camaro had the optional “Z” motor in it and that it was a special order motor that year. NADA even listed an optional “Z” motor for 1978 and gave it 185 horsepower. When we asked him about the paint he told my father and I that the Camaro’s total body repaint had come courtesy of a Corvette color catalog and a father and son pair of inbred jack yokels who were lucky to have a complete set of teeth between the two of them. The paint work had been done about a year ago, in a barn, literally, and when the two were tracked down a few miles away, in a barn, and asked about the quality of their work they refused to warranty their re-coloration efforts even though the job was less than a year old and obviously showing signs of coming undone in quality.
Still, despite some peeling paint at the edge of the back of the hood the Camaro was beautiful … and quick, too. Her motivation when the long skinny pedal went flat to the floor came from a factory stock but surprisingly gutsy 350 cubic inch small block Chevy V8 processing air and fuel through a factory stock Rochester Quadrajet four barrel carburetor. She was the fastest car I’d ever been in and She was easily the fastest car in the Shields’ family.
She had a TurboHydraMatic THM350 three speed automatic transmission with console mounted shifter and She rode on 15” aluminum alloy turbine styled wheels shod with Goodyear rubber that was in almost new tread condition. These weren’t the big, fat Goodyear Eagle GT “Gatorbacks” that they were putting on new Z28s and Trans Ams but they weren’t the economy tires on my dad’s ’77 Buick either.
She had power steering, front power disc brakes, power rear drums and an unlimited slip non-posi rear end geared high for highway speed and fuel economy.
The windows were manual and so were the door locks.
No T-tops (a bitter disappointment for me since I really wanted T-tops).
No cruise control.
She had a four spoke factory steering wheel, a piece of crap aftermarket Craig AM/FM 8 track stereo, black vinyl no-frills base line interior, low back seats, black carpet, black trim and a black headliner that was starting to droop. The AC worked but the interior smelled like an old woman’s car, specifically my aunt’s old Cadillac. There was the smell of cigarettes (but no burns), and that hot old smell a car gets when it’s parked for long periods in warm weather without being used and without being opened up to let the stale air out.
She smelled old, a lot older than her 6 years should allow for.
My father turned his nose up at the odors, complaining that the car was a smoker’s car and that I could never get the smell out. To me the smell that greeted me when I sat down in the driver’s seat wasn’t the smell of a chain smoker, no, it was the smell of performance, the smell of a V8, the smell of freedom and possibility.
She was going to be my first car.
She was six years old, She had 48,000 and change showing on the odometer and She was rust as well as accident free. The air conditioning blew cold and She had a clean title which is why my grandmother bought her for me for the sum of $3600 cash … three months before I ever turned 15 and got my license. I knew the Camaro wouldn’t last long in the used car market, not with every other fifteen year old looking for something like this and knowing that, my dad and grandmother helped me get the ’78 Camaro Z28 that was really a repainted Rally Sport.
I was the luckiest kid in the world; the first kid on my block to have a sports car and a Camaro at that.
June 1st came.
I took a Driver’s Ed class at the local university, a class taught by bored instructors using outdated simulator equipment and scratchy, sometimes humorously ill- synced black and white training films from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The films included humorous safety situations that once were cause for concern when the films had been made but since then most if not all had been corrected by the factories and government safety regulations. Stuff like what to do if your hood suddenly blew up and obstructed your view of the road ahead. What to do if your driver’s side door just fell off while you were doing 55 mph down the highway and what to do if your convertible top suddenly came unlatched at 55mph. It wasn’t quite “The Three Stooges” but it was close and I found myself laughing quietly through most of the training films.
I remember one instructor, Mary, an older black woman, didn’t seem to know anything at all about driver’s ed. In fact, I think they had probably been short an instructor and had grabbed her from the physical plant where she had been a janitor or something because she knew nothing about being a driver’s ed instructor.
Nothing at all.
We’d get in the test car for our driving test and she would put the stereo on some urban minority radio station, turn the volume up and then tell whoever was behind the wheel to just drive … and we’d drive. I grew weary of hearing R.J.’s Latest Arrival sing “Shackles on my feet” and of having the instructor sing out loud to that song. Whenever she started singing all I could think of was Eddie Murphy singing “Roxanne” in his jail cell in the 1982 hit comedy crime drama movie “48 Hours”.
Every time that we got in the car to take a driving test that song would soon be playing on the radio and Mary would be singing there in the passenger seat, clapping her hands and swaying back and forth like she was at a tent revival. Mary wasn’t a very good singer and she never let us change the radio to anything else but that one particular station.
Mary would also have us drive through different neighborhoods around Hattiesburg so she could see if any of her friends were home or sitting outside of their houses. If her friends were home, we’d stop and wait in the car, idling, parked at the curb while the instructor got out, walked up, pulled up a chair and visited for a few minutes with her friend. Usually we had to turn the car off and sit there, windows rolled down, in the hot sun while Mary sat in the shade and chatted.
Others soon came to dislike Mary but I’d disliked her from the start. I didn’t like Mary because she was highly critical of everyone’s driving and she seemed to see the students as an excuse to taxi her around to her friends’ house so she could chit-chat and waste time while getting paid to do it.
Mary was useless as a driver’s ed instructor but for comedy relief and fun made behind her back she was gold in sandals and pants.
Another of our driver’s ed instructors was a long blonde haired burned out Vietnam veteran turned post-conflict hippie. I could tell he was fried most of the time because he was so laid back and sometimes he had a funny smell to him, especially after we got back from lunch. He drove this beat up old 1978 Datsun B-210 “Honey Bee” that somehow fit his character exactly.
Nothing bothered him and sometimes he would just laugh for no reason at all. Most of the time when he laughed we were watching one of the old, outdated training films. He had a very distinctive laugh and a loud one at that. Sometimes he’d laugh and then excuse himself and go outside of the trailer where he would stay until the film was over. The term “pot-head” was used more than once by other students to describe him but he was cool and laid back and doing driving lessons with him was easy as could be. He’d just sit in the passenger seat, head back in the headrest, and he’d close his eyes and let you drive. Every now and then he’d tell you to turn right or turn left or pull over and let another student take a turn and that would be it.
We did our road experience and training drives in brand new 1984 Pontiac Parisiennes … four door, charisma-less, soul sucking, underpowered, mush handling family cars on loan from Dossett Pontiac Cadillac GMC, the local Pontiac dealership over on Broadway Drive. I gritted my teeth while the other fifteen year old boys and girls hamfisted their way through the driving tests.
I made it look so easy because it was easy, at least to me. After all, I had been driving for nearly two years now and I had a car, a 1978 Chevrolet Camaro Rally Sport, just sitting in the driveway at home waiting on me to get my license.
The others had real hand / foot coordination problems. I mean, come on! One pedal made the car go faster, one pedal made the car go slower. You gently applied ever increasing pressure to whichever pedal you needed to. You didn’t stomp them like they were on fire. For some kids in the group, the brake pedal and the accelerator had only two positions … straight up or straight down and they operated those pedals with all the grace of an 80 year old Parkinson’s sufferer trying to do brain surgery.
It’s a wonder I didn’t get whiplash during that week of driver’s ed. I certainly got car sick a few times, sitting there in the back seat … nauseous from the constant start and stop driving that I had to endure at the hands of the other uncoordinated and clueless fifteen year olds some of which had been my class mates at one time.
After a while it became clear who was going to be able to drive and who was just going to be a menace to society if they ever passed their driver’s license test and got behind the wheel.
Remember; I’d been driving since I was thirteen so I had a two year head start on all the other kids in my driver’s ed class but that wasn’t the only advantage that I had. No, I genuinely loved to drive and I loved cars.
Driving came easy to me.
The complex act of using hands and feet to operate a several thousand pound motor vehicle was an orchestra to me. It wasn’t a chore, it was an escape and I had a talent for it … a real talent. I loved the sound a car made when you pressed the accelerator flat to the floor and the transmission kicked down into passing gear and the engine under the hood bucked hard to the right and screamed. I loved the feel of being pushed back into the driver’s seat, of seeing the needle on the speedometer climb fast up and up and up through the numbers. I loved the feel of twisting that big steering wheel and sliding from one lane to another and back again. It was the start of a love affair that would last the rest of my life and for which I would spend a small fortune to indulge in … and I guess I knew it at the time.
And then I turned 15 and I got my driver’s license the third week in June 1984.
With my brand new license in hand I felt a kind of freedom that I thought only existed in books and in movies. The first time that I drove my ’78 Rally Sport by myself through the streets of Hattiesburg, the first time that I cruised the mall, the first time that I drove my Camaro to high school and parked it in the parking lot with all the other cars … that was a feeling that is hard to put into words … it’s like being freed from a prison you didn’t know you were doing a lengthy sentence in. Fifteen years into this world and not only was I finally mobile but I was mobile with the blessing of internal combustion and the grace of high performance.
It was the summer of 1984.
Van Halen had released their new album, “1984” just six months prior.
The Cold War was a hot topic.
Reagan was in the White House.
Gas was cheap … a gallon of regular unleaded went for a dollar and a quarter.
GM, Ford and Chrysler were starting up another horsepower / muscle-car / pony car war based on high technology this time.
I got a job at County Market, a big discount grocery store that had been built in the abandoned Coca-Cola bottling plant. I made $3.55 an hour working part-time. I spent my money on plastic models, lead figures and role playing games from the Hobby Shop, comic books and graphic novels from Brendon’s comic book store, “Car Craft”, “Hot Rod”, “Popular Hot Rodding”, “Super Chevy”, “Soldier of Fortune”, and “Heavy Metal” magazine from Bookland, heavy metal and movie soundtrack cassette tapes from Camelot Music, fast food, gas and aftermarket car parts mostly from Auto Shack and Honest Charlie’s Speed Shop over on the bypass.
Life was good.
No, life was great!
Life was insanely great!
my 15th birthday my parents bought me a new stereo for the Rally
Sport. A Kraco AM/FM Stereo cassette player, purchased from the
local Western Auto, went into the dash to replace the old, outdated
Craig 8 track tape player. It was the first stereo that I’d ever
installed along with a set of budget Kraco speakers. It wasn’t a
great radio by any stretch of the word but it was still loads better
than the Craig unit.
The Kraco was a cheap unit which only had three settings for the cassette tape; eject, fast forward and play. If you wanted to hear a song again, you had to eject the tape, flip it over, fast forward on the reverse side (which really was rewind on the side you wanted to hear the song on) and then eject the tape, flip it, and hope you made it close enough for listening enjoyment. If not, you got there, eventually, by repeating those steps. Listening to a tape on the Kraco was an exercise in early teenage sadomasochism and I vowed then and there that I would get a much better stereo system for the Camaro when I could afford it. I promised myself that a great stereo system was going to be my next priority because at that point in time music was really important to me because it helped me cope with being a teenager. I lost myself in my music. Music became a really good friend, always there when I needed it.
My father and I went to several local junk yards that summer looking for spare parts for my Camaro from less fortunate examples of the breed … little stuff, interior and exterior trim parts that you could give a couple of dollars for a handful at the junk yard but that the dealer wanted an arm and a leg for over the parts counter. Headlight trim, spare body emblems, spare turn signals, turn signal lenses, little interior parts, spare ash tray, spare console storage compartment lid, spare dome light cover … stuff like that. Nothing really important but stuff that if it broke it would be nice if you had a spare and didn’t have to get fleeced by the dealer trying to order a new one.
The summer of 1984 was a time that was still early enough in the decade when it wasn’t uncommon to see a wrecked second generation F-body coming into the junk yard on a more or less weekly basis. Back then late ‘70’s F-bodies were common in the salvage yard, often stacked two or three high and in rows three to four deep and any salvage yard had a pretty good supply of these cars to pick over giving me plenty of chances to turn late ‘70’s F-body corpses into organ donors for my ’78 Camaro Rally Sport.
It was then that I noticed the ratio of Camaros to Firebirds in the junkyard was woefully one sided; I found far more Camaros than I ever did Firebirds when I went junkyarding … it was easy to find a Z28 but it was rare, if then, to find a Trans Am. That struck me as odd because I often daydreamed about finding a slightly wrecked Trans Am, buying it out of the junkyard and restoring it as I could while I drove my Rally Sport then selling my Rally Sport and finally having the Trans Am that I had always wanted.
But I never found a black and gold TA in the junkyard …
Still, Camaro spare parts were ripe for the picking and I got to spend a lot of time with my dad walking through the local junk yards looking at wrecked cars. He pointed out models of old cars that he’d once owned or that his friends had owned and often he had a story to tell about that type of car or a story from his youth when he was my age. We’d look at every car, truck, construction vehicle, bus, or whatever it was that we found in the junkyard, all the while trying to figure out what happened to the vehicle or, if we could find some paperwork or artifact that belonged to the owner, maybe try to guess who had owned the wrecked car and how long ago the accident might have happened. It was post-facto detective work, accident and former owner reconstruction and it was always a fun thing to do.
Dad had gone off to look at the wreck … or what was left of … an old 1950’s era delivery van … and that’s when I first saw the wrecked dark blue 1980 Camaro Z28. It was partially hidden near the tree line, in a group of cars and trucks that didn’t seem to share the performance heritage that the Z28 could lay claim to. In fact, the Z28 seemed really out of place, a dead soldier amid a bunch of dead civilians. The Z28 hadn’t been hit hard on the front but it apparently had flipped if the slightly compressed roof and broken front and rear glass was any indication of its demise. The hood was buckled, the once functional hood long cowl induction scoop was smashed in and the 350 small block Chevy that had once resided between the fenders was gone … along with the THM350 transmission that had backed it up.
The factory five spoke aluminum alloy wheels were beautiful, bigger and tougher looking than the turbine style wheels that my ’78 sported and I wanted them on my car. The wheels were in good condition and the rear differential was a ten bolt posi unit. The driveshaft hung limp beneath the car, connected only at the rear differential. She had been a T-top car but the T-tops were nowhere to be found and because they had either been destroyed in the wreck or bought off the car early the interior had been exposed to the elements long enough that anything inside was pretty much useless and covered in green and black mold.
Standing puddles of stagnant water filled the front and rear passenger foot wells, ruining the carpet inside and providing a home to a myriad of bugs, algae and tadpoles. Parts, nuts and bolts from whatever was taken from under the hood filled the dark blue cloth seats, staining them with lubricants, oils and mechanical fluids. The good news was that all of her spoilers were intact if a bit scraped up in regard to the three piece wrap around front spoiler and the spoilers that adorned the rear wheel wells. I already had the three piece rear wrap around trunk spoiler but I wanted the rear side spoilers for the rear wheel openings and the front three piece wrap around spoiler that went under the nose.
I made a small list of parts that I wanted from the Z28 and asked for a price on the parts when I returned to the front office. The three piece front spoiler and the two single piece rear fender spoilers the yard owner would let me have for $50 for all of them and I had to pull them. The wheels he wanted a hundred and a half for which I didn’t have the money for … it would be the end of the month before I had saved up that money and no, he wouldn’t take a down payment on the wheels and hold them for me. He also wouldn’t take a credit card or a check and my dad didn’t have that amount of cash on him to cover me on the wheels. I paid for the spoilers and my dad and I pulled them and their mounting hardware from the Z28.
Quite by chance that very week my windshield caught a rock from an 18 wheeler on the highway and cracked so much that it had to be replaced. Insurance paid for the replacement and I found a more reputable (and much more skilled) body and paint specialist in Jimmy, a young black man who worked for Dixie Glass Company and installed my replacement windshield. Our conversation during his work on my windshield led me to letting him paint the spoilers that I had taken off of the dark blue 1980 Z28. Jimmy matched the spoilers almost perfectly to the Firethorn Metallic red that covered the rest of the car, all done after hours and all done on the side for cash. It was my first introduction to some of the underground mechanics, body workers and hot rodders in the Hattiesburg area, people who operated on their own, didn’t hang a sign advertising their skills, did good work and expected to be paid in cash. These were the kinds of people who issued a warranty with their word, didn’t give you a receipt, and who you had to get introduced to by someone else that they trusted and the fewer questions you asked the more they were prone to doing business with you.
Now my ’78 Rally Sport looked like a ’80 Z28, minus the fender vents and the functional cowl induction hood scoop. I loved the aerodynamics of the ’78 Rally Sport with the full ’80 Z28 wrap around spoiler package and I liked the fact that during the first repainting of the Camaro that the only badges to survive were the red, white and blue bowtie crest badges located in the front grille and the rear gas door flap. The Camaro had a very clean look to it, a tough look without going overboard on the macho tone. In the mid ‘80’s my Camaro was right in the middle of the cresting trend of clean, monochromatic street machines … a far cry from the tape and decal monstrosities that had graced the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s in lieu of any identifiable factory performance.
The next weekend my father handed me fifteen $10 bills and said that we were going back to the junk yard to pick up the five spoke wheels off of the 1980 Z28. I was excited, feeling really good about getting the wheels for my Rally Sport and some new tires as well. When we got there we asked the owner if he could get someone to pull the aluminum wheels for us. He told us that the wheels were gone from the Z28. When I asked him who had bought the wheels the owner of the junk yard said that he had given them to an employee of the junk yard and that the employee was going to put the wheels on his hopped up ’76 Monte Carlo. The whole thing seemed like a sorry deal, like the junk yard owner had been holding out on us. Dad said that we’d find another set and that we’d just have to be patient.
Eight months after I owned the car I went back to the same junk yard and looked at that old dark blue 1980 Z28 again. It was slowly getting stripped to the frame in a weird analogy of natural decay. Most of the accessories under the hood were gone leaving a big vacant cavity where once beat a thundering 190 horsepower small block heart. Emission and hydraulic hoses and electrical wires lay limp in the engine bay like so many dead veins. The five spoke factory aluminum wheels were long gone (I had been screwed out of my chance on those) and all the spoilers were gone (most of those had found a new home on my car). The trunk was empty, the tail lights were gone leaving a wide gaping wound across the back of the Z28 broken only by the rusty snout of the gas fill tube. Both side view mirrors and the center console were gone.
The interior was gutted and the constant influx of elements, sun, rain, heat and cold had done a great deal of harm to the parts still inside the car. The dash was cracked, where the stereo and air conditioning controls had once been were now just empty gaping holes and even the glove compartment door was missing leaving a gaping cavity in the dash. The seats were ripped and piled high with an even greater assortment of parts from the rest of the car … the catalytic converter, a radiator cap and the rusty base of the air cleaner.
She was an automotive skeleton now, long ago picked clean by scavengers like me.
I turned to walk away for the last time when I got an idea.
Another friend of mine had an old pickup truck and he had flipped the lid on his air cleaner so that every time he stomped the accelerator it made the greatest sound in the world … a really tough, really deep, really authoritative and muscular “whuuuumph!” sound. I tried this with my Camaro but the low clearance under the hood didn’t allow me to close the hood with the air cleaner flipped; a Camaro had a lot less underhood clearance than a pickup truck did. I could have gone with an open element chrome plated air cleaner like the kind you found at Auto Shack but I didn’t like chrome. In fact, I hated chrome … chrome wheels, chrome valve covers, chrome air cleaners, chrome anything. I liked the factory look with the long snake-like air intake tubing and that black, round air cleaner for the enclosed filter element.
After that, I had been looking for a way to get more air to the 350 under the hood and not just any air but the coldest, densest air possible in order to make more power without spending a lot of money. Hood scoops and cold air induction had been all the rage in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s but federal mandates had closed all of those off in the name of drive by noise reduction by the mid-70’s. Now all cars breathed what air they could through some of the worst factory setups imaginable. My Rally Sport was a little better off since it grabbed cold air through a single intake up near the top of the radiator where cold air could still hit it directly from the flow taken in by the upper front grille.
If I couldn’t flip the air cleaner lid maybe I could … double the available air flow to the carburetor?
I had an idea, right then and there … an awesome idea!
I really liked how the new L69 5.0 liter High Output motors in the new ’83 and ‘84 Z28 had a twin snorkel air cleaner to breathe through and I liked the way that the entire setup looked. I’d even thought and hoped that I could find a new wrecked Z28 in the junkyard and grab the dual snorkel air cleaner and hoses from it but my luck hadn’t been great so far.
I walked back over to the picked clean 1980 Z28 and reached down inside, picking up the rusty old air cleaner base. I turned it around, holding up the rusty old air cleaner and realizing it was an identical one to the air cleaner sitting on top of the engine of my car. I wondered if I could duplicate the look (and performance) of the new L69 High Output engine’s dual snorkel air cleaner by chopping up two single snorkel air cleaners and getting someone to build me a dual snorkel air cleaner by welding the parts together? It seemed feasible and something that would be cool to do, something that would set my Camaro apart from all the others especially at car shows when I popped the hood.
I spent another twenty minutes finding the little bolt on hose clamp that went on the driver’s side exhaust manifold, the piece that the cold weather warm-up hose fit down onto in order to allow the engine to take in warm air on cold days so it could warm up faster. I had no idea what the part was called but I figured if I was going to attach a dual snorkel air cleaner to the Rally Sport I was going to have to get all the parts from the driver’s side of the motor so that I could duplicate the setup on the passenger side.
Taking the rusty air cleaner pan and the warm-up hose bracket up to the front office I paid three dollars for everything and by that afternoon I had sanded the surface rust off, had a friend cut and weld it up for me and then sanded the weld lines down smooth so it looked factory. I painted the custom dual snorkel air cleaner flat black using a rattle can of high temp Krylon spray paint bought from K-Mart and stood back to admire my ingenuity once it was in place.
The effect was awesome …
I now had a dual snorkel air cleaner on my 350 just like the new Z28’s had on their 5.0 liter L69 High Output motors, I had gotten it for almost nothing and it looked awesome, almost factory. Immediately I had just doubled the amount of air that my Camaro was able to get to the Rochester four barrel Quadrajet carburetor and it looked better than any generic chrome open element air cleaner would have.
The following Monday afternoon, after school, I went by the local Chevrolet dealer, walked into the parts department and ordered another radiator cowl intake vent, a flexible air intake hose, and the hot air pipe, three OEM pieces identical to the ones that currently fed the factory setup. I paid cash and was told that the parts were in a warehouse up north and that they would be delivered on Thursday.
I was patient.
Later that night I installed the hose clamp on the passenger side exhaust manifold, after the motor had cooled. That way, when the parts came in Thursday, all I’d have to do is drill two holes on the radiator support to mount the air scoop, run the hot air hose, run the air intake hose and set up the vacuum lines to feed the solenoid in the snorkel.
Getting spirited in the Rally Sport and testing out my homemade dual snorkel air cleaner gave me a noticeable feel in performance. The Rally Sport felt different, like it wasn’t struggling to breathe as hard now and the sound was a lot better when I pushed the loud pedal to the floor. I was happy and for the fifteen dollars and some hard work that I’d put into the project it seemed to have paid off.
That Thursday, I dropped by the Chevy dealership after school and was told that my parts had been delivered. I picked them up, checked that they were correct and a quick trip to Auto Shack bought six feet of vacuum tubing and some vacuum cap plugs to make the Auto-Thermac assembly on the second snorkel functional as well. I hurried home to finish the installation and spent the next half hour installing everything, plumbing everything into the stock vacuum system and making it look factory. By that late afternoon, with a little drill work, I was looking at a bigger, custom version of the new L69 dual snorkel factory setup.
There was only two words to describe how it looked; bad ass. Even my friend had to stare at it and give praise where praise was due. We high-fived each other there in his driveway and then took the Rally Sport for a cruise. He was impressed with the way that the twin snorkel air cleaner had improved the sound and throttle response of the Camaro.
The motor was louder as well, just a bit, but it was a difference that I could tell, a difference that I could hear and the motor felt like it was breathing a lot easier now. I had increased the flow of air to my motor by double the original amount … not the amount it was processing, just the amount it was getting all by opening up its breathing capacity and now I needed to work on how that motor got rid of its exhaust gasses. I understood that a motor, any motor, was just a big air pump and the more air you could move through the motor and the quicker you could move that volume of air then the more power you made. In simplistic terms, that is. It got a whole lot more complicated real quick but starting out if you freed up your engine to the point where it was pulling in as much air as it could possibly use and getting rid of the exhaust as fast as it could as well then you were doing good.
The factory emissions rated Y-pipe setup, a two pipe (one off of each exhaust manifold) into one catalytic converter and then still into one single inlet, dual outlet muffler on the back type setup just wasn’t going to cut it for performance. The stock exhaust system of the late second generation smogger model Camaros was highly restrictive. I needed headers and a true dual exhaust if I was going to make any kind of power and that meant that I had a fight ahead of me.
You see, even though my father took care of the family cars and performed routine maintenance with a passion unlike any other person that I’d ever known, he never was much of a hot rodder nor did he care for modifying cars beyond stock. He firmly believed that the factory was the absolute law when it came to what a car could and should have on it. He always told me that cars, from the factory, had been designed by engineers, men with degrees and years and even decades of experience in designing cars and that I shouldn’t try to second guess the engineers in Detroit. My father never understood the one basic truth of why aftermarket performance parts companies existed (and did great business) because all cars were essentially compromises as they rolled off the assembly line … compromises of comfort, power, fuel economy, emissions regulations, and a host of other government and corporate mandated nonsense. The Camaro, as it sat, wasn’t the best example of engineering, no, it was an example of engineering strangled and constrained by federal regulations and do goody hopes.
All cars were a compromise but my dad didn’t seem to understand that. He didn’t seem to understand that the reason why companies that made aftermarket parts existed was that the aftermarket parts were better than factory parts. The aftermarket parts were more expensive than the factory parts but it was a no-compromise versus compromise situation. The factory could have put in a better camshaft or better heads and intake and exhaust on the engine but it would have raised the price and might not have met corporate emissions requirements therefore everything that went into a car was by result a compromise.
For him, hot rodding a car was something that just wasn’t done because he believed that the moment that you changed something on your car with anything that didn’t come on it from the factory that you were headed towards a whole lot of heartache and grief, that changing parts on a car to high performance parts meant that the car was going to break down a lot more often. I disagreed with him, so much so that we often had fights over my Camaro, sometimes calm and sometimes not so calm.
We said unkind things.
Our ideas on what the Camaro was and what the Camaro could become were direct opposites. I saw the Camaro as a potential street machine, powered by a modified small block Chevy that was wide open to affordable parts that would make it fast as hell. He saw it as a potential money pit that would soon be at the family mechanic’s far more than it was on the street and something that would guzzle gas faster than he or I could afford to put gas in the tank.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that my father and I would never see eye to eye on high performance and if I ever wanted a fast car I was going to have to do it myself and in such a way that my father never knew it. So, with this in mind, I began a stealth campaign to hot rod my ’78 Camaro behind my father’s back. I knew he would never give his support or approval to anything that made my car faster so anything that I did to my car would have to be hidden in plain sight mainly because he worked on my Camaro as much as I did when it came to basic maintenance and he would know if something was different. Cosmetic changes weren’t a problem (he liked the factory spoilers and the custom dual snorkel air cleaner); no, it was mechanical changes that would need to be done on the sly. Of course that ruled out such obvious things as a set of new heads, a new intake manifold or headers under the hood.
Except for the headers …
I got close a few times, really close, on the headers and one time while we were walking through the local Auto Shack I almost talked my father into helping me install a set of Hooker headers on the Rally Sport but he felt that the car would be too loud if we did so and he didn’t want the loudest car in the neighborhood to be parked in his driveway. He had initially approached the idea of headers out of understanding that the headers would improve fuel economy (we didn’t discuss that horsepower would improve as well, you picked your battles if you wanted to win the performance parts war with my dad). A few weeks later, my father agreed to install a true dual exhaust system (which surprised the hell out of me) and even paid for it (about $110). He liked the idea of a dual exhaust system on the Rally Sport and said that type of exhaust system had been factory back during the muscle car days when he was young. He also said it would give me better gas mileage.
I didn’t mention that it would give me more horsepower as well.
Jerry’s Muffler, a custom exhaust shop on the bypass in Hattiesburg, did the work. Twin pipes, one leading off each exhaust manifold, a cross-over pipe (installed by the head welder who said it helped balance the gas flow between both sides), no catalytic converter, going straight back to dual glass packed mufflers and custom tips. Dad picked out the mufflers, he had put glass packs on his old car when he was a teenager and he liked the sound of them. It sounded good but it was loud as hell, especially at full throttle (which I tested out as often as I could) so a few months later, much to my next door neighbor’s delight, I had the same exhaust shop cut off the glass packs and put on a set of Thrush turbo mufflers that I had picked up from Auto Shack. The Thrush turbos had a much mellower, authoritative tone than the glass packs and didn’t seem so feral. It also seemed like I’d lost a little bit of power … the Camaro was quieter but it didn’t hit quite as hard when I nailed the long skinny pedal to the floor. It was a change that I could live with because truth be known the glasspacks had been a little over the top for even me.
Still, I had a true dual exhaust system!
I finally had a dual exhaust system on the Rally Sport!
Now we were getting somewhere!
In the space of a month I had just doubled the flow of available air to my engine and added a custom high flow exhaust system. I was fifteen years old and at that moment in time I wanted nothing more than a six foot high, multi-drawer rolling tool chest under the carport of my parents’ house in order to swing wrenches on my Rally Sport but I settled for a basic socket set and my dad’s hand-me-down tools in the old green military surplus ammo box.
That same old ’80 Z28 in that junkyard, the Z28 which had provided a lot of parts for my ’78 over the last few months, was called on to make one last sacrifice for the performance cause of my Rally Sport. I took the deep geared rear end out from under the car as well as the instrument cluster out of the car’s dash, figuring that the speedometer was geared to the rear end and thus swapping them would get rid of a lot of hassle. Unfortunately, my Rally Sport hadn’t come with the sport gauge cluster, no, it had come with a speedometer and a bunch of idiot lights.
The family mechanic threw the posi rear end under the ’78 (promising not to tell my dad), replaced the U-joints with new high performance units that I’d bought at Honest Charlie’s Speed Shop over on the bypass and rigged the instrument cluster into the dash, rewiring it all with the proper sending units for nearly $250 cash but I now had a tachometer … a big fat factory tachometer sitting right next to the speedometer and that made two big spinning needles set into the dash in front of me. The lower geared posi made a huge difference in both acceleration as well as lowering my gas mileage but dad never seemed to notice. He thought that the dual exhausts had really added some pick up to the old girl’s off the line grunt. From my calculations, the cogs in the rear worked out to be about 3.55 maybe so I had gone from a 2.73 to a 3.55 rear gear set. The seat of the pants feel after swapping out the rear end was both immediate and badass, really waking up the Camaro performance-wise.
So, in less than eight months of owning the Rally Sport, I had taken care of adding a factory original Z28 front three piece wrap around chin spoiler, rear factory Z28 fender flares, improved the air induction, added a dual exhaust system with turbo mufflers and now I had a low geared posi rear end and rally gauges. The feeling of stomping the long, skinny pedal to the floor from a dead stop, of having the needles in front of me start to swing left to right as the tires behind me began to scream and fray … that was the best feeling in the world, an orgy of mechanical performance rushing headlong beside an orchestra of the best mechanical noises I had ever heard.
I was pleased as hell with the car (She would outrun any 5.0 liter Mustang or any new F-body, even the new L69 Z28 with its 190 horse 305 under the hood) but like any wrench swinging, red blooded, American male I wanted even more performance. An engine swap seemed to be the best way to get more power under the hood but the chances that my father would let me rip out the perfectly good (and still working) factory 350 cubic inch V8 and drop in a more powerful, thirstier 396 cubic inch V8 or an even bigger 454 cubic inch big block V8 was about equal to the chance that Kristian Alfonso was going to float down naked from the heavens and declare her undying love for me right there in my drive way.
Having to be satisfied with the Camaro’s performance for now I decided that the next “big thing” that I needed to improve was to get rid of the crappy stereo and get a real sound system. That wasn’t going to be cheap, a new CD player alone was nearly a thousand bucks and since I had a large cassette tape collection I didn’t feel the need to buy a CD player and start a CD collection from scratch.
I went to Hi-Fi Cruisin (“the car stereo experts, in the sky blue building”) down on Hardy Street and looked through their offerings. Hi-Fi Cruisin had a “radio cave” that was a room built with every radio they offered and every speaker that they offered, wired in combination so that you could hear any radio with any speaker set. It was awesome! The salesman reminded me of Dennis DeYoung from Styx but he was patient and knew his stuff. After looking at my Rally Sport he showed me several Pioneer, Sony and Kenwood systems. It was the Kenwood systems that seemed to grab my interest and I finally settled on an all Kenwood system. He gave me a written estimate of the cost of the hardware and installation and went over it with me; one Kenwood AM/FM stereo cassette player with digital tuning, two Kenwood amps, one pre-amp EQ, two tweeters, two door speakers and two rear speakers. Total price … $1186.97.
Almost twelve hundred dollars.
If I had gotten a CD player added to that it would have nearly doubled that amount!
To a fifteen year old kid working part-time at a grocery store and making about fifty dollars a week $1186.97 was a hell of a lot of money … almost like having to win the lottery to get a decent stereo. Still … If I could save up twelve hundred dollars for a stereo then I could save up for anything!
I thanked the salesman and told him I’d be back. As I drove away my thoughts were half on how good the Kenwood was going to sound in my Rally Sport and how hard it was going to be to save up that much money.
From January 1985 to May 1985 I worked my ass off at County Market, getting any extra shifts that I could pick up. I saved my money and finally, with $1357 cash in hand I did what I’d said that I’d do when I first bought the Camaro … I drove it to Hi-Fi Cruisin’ (in the sky blue building) down on Hardy Street and had them install the kick ass Kenwood AM/FM cassette stereo system that I had the tech put together for me six months ago. Lit in military low impact green (like fighter jet head up displays and Atari’s “Battlezone” video game) the stereo system rocked almighty ass! I celebrated my new purchase by going to Pizza Hut next door for lunch then driving to Cloverleaf Mall and buying The Sisters of Mercy’s new album “First and Last and Always” at Camelot Music.
“Black Planet” was playing on MTV on a somewhat regular basis and the idea of cruising around in a classic drop top convertible, driving past the cooling towers of nuclear reactors on an overcast day was a strong image to my teenage mind, especially during the height of the Cold War and with so much post-apocalyptic media in print. “Black Planet” and “First and Last and Always” were two songs I listened to over and over again, followed shortly thereafter by the haunting melody of “Marian”.
Buying the Kenwood had proven to me that I could work hard and save up the money I needed in order to do something really expensive to the Camaro … but did I want to make the sacrifice? Right then I felt tired, even empty. Having almost fourteen hundred dollars in your hand and then not having fourteen hundred dollars in your hand is a heady experience, especially when you’re fifteen years old and you worked your ass off for that money. Still, cruising around Hattiesburg late at night listening to heavy metal on the Kenwood or stretched out on the hood of the Camaro, my legs crossed at the ankles, my back to the front window, sitting off somewhere quiet all by myself listening to heavy metal and watching the sunset or the stars at night … somehow those moments made it worth every penny.
The Rally Sport had a lot more performance potential left in her but the number of places that I could make improvements to her performance were coming to an end. Anything left to do to her to increase her performance was definitely going to be noticeable … and seen … and commented on … and fought over. I realized then and there that any serious modifications to the Camaro would have to be done after high school, when I moved out on my own and started college.
Right now I was working part-time at County Market. I was working eighteen to twenty-four hours a week, three or four six hour shifts a week and clearing about a hundred and a half every two weeks on my paycheck after taxes. It had taken me a little over five months to save up for the Kenwood system … I loved my Camaro but I had other hobbies and fancies as well … models, books, music, clothes, video games … girls.
How was I going to make enough money to pay for everything that I wanted?
Maybe I could get a second job?
How many hours in a week could I work?
How much sleep did I really need?
How hard could I work before my grades suffered?
Would my parents let me work two jobs while I was in high school?
It was June of 1985 and not only was I the first kid on my block with a Rally Sport Camaro but I was the first kid on the block to own a sports car that could both lay a strip of rubber for nearly a block from a dead stop and had a kick ass high powered stereo system that could make your ears bleed. These are important things … when you’re sixteen years old and you’re a guy with a fast car.