Image Isn’t Everything

I’m a 70’s child, which apparently makes me a member of Generation X.  I’ve never liked being defined or labeled by others but less so by my own self.  For someone who’s not shy about making a fool of herself to get a laugh among friends and is sometimes too fast to express an opinion with in-laws, a public show of any sort of affiliation, belief system, or political leaning was not my thing.  I don’t know that I ever felt educated or confident enough about one particular subject to defend myself when challenged about what I was projecting. But why did I feel that I would become a target of an interrogation based on what my fucking t-shirt said?  Because I thought people cared more than they really did.  As a kid, I hated going to school after Momma cut my bangs too short. She would say, “Not everyone is waiting to see what Janet Chambers looks like today!”  I remember being at once comforted, but then like, “wait…why not?”

What a relief to grow up and find out that you are not the center of the universe.

So when it comes to choosing a car to fix up with Pop, I feel a complete freedom to find something that is just right, that ‘speaks’ to me and makes me happy.  It is true that for some, a car can be one of the most obvious, outwardly ways of defining yourself.  Old dudes do it with their little penis cars.  City kids with their high pitched mufflers on their way to go Tokyo drifting or whatever and old hippies living in their VWs for instance.  Country folk have their Chevy pickups with gun racks and Calvin & Hobbes praying to an American flag at half mast (or peeing on a Ford logo, both very strong statements.)

Me, I just want to ‘ride, ride like the wind, to be free again’ so I am embracing the time frame I was born in and am looking for a late 60’s early 70’s car. Looked at Ford Falcons and Fairlanes but wanted something less boxy, which pushed me more towards the muscle cars that I love.  Looked at GTOs and Chevelles but these were bigger cars than I wanted, heavy cars over 3,000 pounds.  Camaros were easy to find as project cars, but pricier than I wanted.

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Momma and me coming home from the hospital in the Ford Falcon in 1970.  No seat belts, no baby seat, right up front where I can see my four day old life pass me by in an instant.  That’s how we rolled.

I’m looking at Chevy Novas and late 60’s Firebirds.  I like the power of a V8 but Pop thinks we could also have fun souping up a slant 6.  This has me looking at Dodge and Plymouth.  The slant 6 was standard on the first Dodge Darts and then the Demon was introduced in 1971.  It had a pointier front end which was one of the things I took issue with on the Bird so that is out.  The Demon was Dodge’s response to the popular Plymouth Duster.  Now, this is a car I like the look of.  The ’72 Duster had a V8 but was only a tad over 3K pounds and shorter.  Short I like because I still need to get this thing up my steep driveway when all is said and done.

I saw this Duster in my neighborhood.  It had been sitting on the street so long it had a parking ticket.  I left a message on the car asking the owner if they would consider selling it, but have heard nothing.  It does look pretty ‘done’ though.

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I found a ’75 Duster on Craig’s List and Mike and I went to check it out.  I was VERY excited and kept seeing ‘signs’ along the way there that I was sure were guiding me to the car of my dreams.  We passed Chambers road, my maiden name, and another street named Kentucky, where I would be working on the car with Pop.  I saw a feather hanging from a dream catcher on someone’s review mirror, which the Navajo shaman I had recently visited said I would.  (I know, just go with it.)  I took a lot of pics of the car to talk over with Pop later and got a chance to test drive it.

Sounds a bit rough, but my heart still pounded when I revved it.  Came with lots of extra parts, solid body I thought, in my price range…it was looking good.  Talked to Pop later and it was a no go.  Too much rust, liner gone, extensive body work, etc.  Shit!  Throughout the coming weeks, I would send him links to cars and get responses from him:

1972 Ford Maverick:  “I’m afraid that one is just too rough. That would be a body off restoration which is more than we really want to handle.”

1971 Chevy Chevelle:  “Basically the same engine, trans and body style as the Bird and much rougher shape. 3k would be out of the question.”

1968 Chevy Chevelle: “That is rough. Body work on that order I am afraid is beyond us.”

1972 Chevy Nova: “That car is basically done. Very masculine, fast and a 4 door.”

1969 Mercury Cougar: “We really don’t want a fabric type roof although the Bird started out that  way. I don’t think you would be happy with a cougar as they were a pretty big car and parts would  be difficult to find.”

Getting closer but neither of the following led to anything:

1975 Plymouth Duster: “I’m impressed with the slant six and all the chrome. I can’t tell but looks like a lot of rust in the quarters, fenders and door bottoms. Also I can’t tell if that is a white vinyl top or not, if it’s in good condition I suppose that’s okay.”

Another Duster: “I like the red 1975 the best. Although it says it’s a V6 I don’t find they made one with a V6, it’s probably a slant six which would make it even a better deal.”

I’ll continue looking online but Pop says we’ll probably find our car sitting by the side of the road in a little town somewhere.  He and Momma travel a lot in their camper and are always on the look out.  Besides, Pop’s leery about the online sales world.  He has discovered that he was now officially the ‘target’ of target marketing.

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So the search continues.  The right car will come along at the right time, I know that.  I’m having a blast looking.

And by the way, I’m currently wearing a Rolling Stones t-shirt, can’t stand Donald Trump, am a pro-choice female business owner who prays to Mother Earth but I don’t have any tattoos.  A permanent symbol of personal expression forever imprinted on my body?  Not quite there yet.

Take it to the Drags

You know that feeling you get when you ask for something you’re almost afraid to get? Like being young and egging your brother on to chase you. When he finally comes after you, you’ve got this giddy fear thing going on and you run wild-eyed, laughing like a crazy person.  I understand this is a very specific emotion, but it’s pretty much spot on how I felt after reaching out to my dad with the big ask.  Although a little scary in a good way, I knew in my gut rebuilding an old car was what I wanted to do and this was the time to do it.  The only person I needed to egg on was myself.  Pop responded that same day.

Janet,

The idea of working with you on an old car rebuild makes my heart sing. Mom and I would love you out here more for any reason. 1970 era Chevys and Pontiacs are great looking and premium vehicles. Big money to start with and hard to find in general. Although I’m sure we could find them on e-bay. Of course I would have to finish or at least put the Firebird back into running shape. You’re correct that I seem to have some sort of block in getting back into it. I’ve forgotten so much that I will have to relearn and some new things like painting I want to teach myself. Tell me what you think of this. I think the old girl is still a great looking muscle car and the engine and transmission are practically new. I’ll give it to you, you can finance the rest of the project and we can learn what we need to know. There are also plenty of old gear heads, junk yards and cheaper parts I know around here.

Love, Dad

Wow, wow, wow…makes his “heart sing.”  I about broke down there.  Then he lands the final blow to the heartstrings with:

P.S. This could also just be our first car.

1990 76 Firebird

1976 Pontiac Firebird “The Bird” in 1989 when Pop first got it.

So this is amazing. Pop’s on board, I’m incredibly grateful, except…I’m not quite sure I want the Bird.  I mean, it’s always been HIS car, the 1976 body shape doesn’t blow my skirt up and besides, the thing’s a beast!  I don’t know that I can handle that much car.  Here’s the deets according to Pop:

My Firebird has the original Pontiac, this makes it more valuable as some had Oldsmobile engines, 350 cubic inch V-8 with a 350 turbo automatic transmission. The transmission was rebuilt about 5K miles ago and the engine has an Edelbrock performer cam, roller rockers, Accell ignition, Hooker headers and a 600 CFM Holly 4 barrel carburetor. It was a 15 second 91 MPH car when Ron Silverman and I took it to the drags. I have the original wheels and most of the original trim. It would be my suggestion to return it to as original a look as possible but not change the performance features of the engine. It would truly be even more of a sleeper than your Mustang. Whatever you decide to do, I am excited, bye.

Honestly, does this not sound like a man who is in love with his car?  As Freddie Mercury would say, he’s “got a feel for his automobile.”  Pop obviously needs to see this thing back on the road and I really don’t need something  I can  ‘take to the drags’, which totally cracks me up.  In the 90’s he and his buddy Ron from up the street would take the Bird and Ron’s 318 V8 Dodge Dart to Byron Dragway (the ‘Playground of Power’) to drag them legally and get certified times for the 1/4 mile.  Legally, as opposed to the old days when Pop and his friends would go to Richard’s Drive-In on Greenbay Road in Wilmette looking for a race.  In 1960 he was 17 and traded his 1955 Chevy Belair with an inline 6 and ‘three on the tree’ (the car he had when he dated Momma) for a 1951 Ford with a Cadillac engine.  The story at the time was that the square 4 Cadillac V8 came out of one of Granatelli’s dragsters. Andy Granatelli and his brothers grew up in Chicago and were big into racing in the 40’s and 50′.  Andy went on to become the president of STP as well as one of he greatest promoters and innovative designers in the racing world.

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The Bird’s results from Bryon.  A scant win by car 27 but a win none the less!

Bryon Results

 

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Momma and Pop and a ’55 Belair like the one they dated in.

Not taking the Bird has ended up being the right decision.  I called the other day and Momma told me he was out in the garage working on it.  The fire was back.  She’s just about as excited as he is as she’s been looking at that yellow monster in pieces for about 25 years now.  As he progresses, Pop’s been keeping me up to date. Unbeknownst to me, I had already entered Automotive 101.

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The hunt…good question.  If I wasn’t taking the Bird, its was time to figure out what I did want.  I knew what I liked when I saw it, but I had a lot to learn about the world of vintage muscle cars.

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PS: Here’s Pop giving us the real Bird.

The Big Ask

The idea to fix up an old car with my dad started some months ago when I was visiting him and Momma in Eddyville, Kentucky where they’ve retired.  I was in the garage looking at the Bird with him and said something about getting it out of there so he can help me rebuild a car.  It actually took me by surprise but it was out of my mouth before I knew it.  I think he may have chuckled, if he even heard me.

My first car was a ’77 Chevy Chevette that my grandfather had owned.  It was blue, had a luggage rack and a petrified chocolate chip cookie that was permanently stuck to the carpet under the seat.  It shook over 55mph and I would take it into the city and pray it wouldn’t overheat in the Chicago traffic. I could see the road through the rusted floor on the driver’s side.  Driving in the winter would pack the slush up underneath the floor mat and I’d have to kick it out before it mounded so high I couldn’t brake.  We eventually laid down an old stop sign or something to keep it street legal.

Pop found my second car locally.  It was a northern Illinois barn find.  I thought I paid $2500 for it but he thinks it was closer to a grand.  It was an 8 cylinder ’79 Mustang and it hauled ass.  Now, definitely not the prettiest body shape and the bright red interior was an interesting bonus feature, but I really loved that car and drove it into my late 20’s. After the Stang, I got all grown up and shit and got the token Honda Civic, then finally my incredibly responsible, much loved Subaru Forrester; a predictable choice for a middle aged female Denverite.

1997 Mustang

The mighty Stang. Fast as hell and just as ugly. Although as I look at it now I kind of dig it.

I’m no grease monkey, but I was raised to appreciate a good car.  I also love the road.  I love driving and road trips, traveling through big cities and small towns.  I love the differences in the people, the landscapes and the general vibe.  I love driving with the windows down and music loud; it makes me feel free and young and hopeful.  It also makes me feel bad ass, if bad ass is rockin’ out in a Subaru sipping a healthy fruit smoothie from a mason jar.  (It’s not, but screw it, love life.)  I love truck stops, family-owned cafes and roadside attractions.  I love having the choice to turn down any road I want to see what I can find.

So, before I could change my mind, figure out a way to talk myself out of it, run through the list of why this was a bad idea, I emailed Pop.

Hi Pop,

I mentioned this in passing when I was out there, but I’m serious about wanting to rebuild/fix up an old car with you!  I’m in this crazy transitional time in my life, I’m feeling a bit lost about my purpose, future, etc. and I’m tired of it.  I’m tired of feeling guilty for nothing, feeling unsatisfied with everything, but most of all, of having ideas that I continually dismiss because of some bullshit reason.  I have the freedom to do what I want, the means to indulge myself a bit and the desire to spend more time with my parents.

Something is continually pulling me back to this idea/project…it almost feels spiritual.  I’m hoping it could be something that would be fulfilling and wonderful for you.  Perhaps the Firebird has been holding you back, blocking some advancement, and this could be just what you’ve been needing!

I was looking into some type of class on engines/motors the other day and all I could find was tech schools and electronic classes, etc.  Too involved for what I want.  I was thinking, “I just need some old gear head to take me under his wing and show me.”  Then of course, I realized I knew that old gear head.  To give you an idea of what I’m thinking…  I would finance this as I want to own the car.  I want to learn how to work on the car to be able to maintain it.  I would spend numerous 1-2 week long trips out there with you and Momma regularly to work on it.  (Flying of course, with the final trip a triumphant drive home.)

I’ve been looking at Chevy Malibu’s (1970-72) and Chevelle’s.   That’s the look I’m liking.  Two door.  Mat just sent me some shots of a Buick Skylark which I could totally get into, a little less muscle, but I’m not necessarily going for flashy.  Automatic would be best, but I realize I may need to learn manual.  I think it would be fun to write a blog on this experience too, pics and all.  I thought of calling it “Pop my Ride” but friends thought that was disgusting and inappropriate.

BEFORE you poo-poo this, think about it.  Mat wants to come work on brakes, Mike is supportive and Momma thinks it’s a great idea.  Let’s live!!!

Love you!

J

I wrote it quickly and sent it straight off. While rereading it later to Mike, I found I couldn’t get through it without tears.  Lost? Guilty? Unsatisfied?  Dang woman, what the fuck’s going on here? Something hit home hard and Pop’s answer became for me more important than ever.  He’s a cool dude, but I wasn’t sure if this was something he would want to tackle.  All I could do was wait and see.

Cigarettes and Diesel Fuel

One of my favorite smells is a mixture of cigarettes and diesel fuel. T’is true.  Pop drove a truck for a living and wasn’t around much when my sister and brothers and I were young.   Pop coming home was a big deal. Shit, Pop being home was a big deal. He once picked me up from the nurse’s office at school after a pre-Brownies ‘lunchbox to the head’ incident.  I hadn’t known he had come home during the day and freaked when I saw him; arms wrapped around his neck, big hugs and probably some (more) tears.  The ladies in the office must have thought I hadn’t seen him for weeks and I probably hadn’t.  When he would come home after bedtime, I remember being woken up with a rough hand on my forehead and the smell of cigarettes and diesel fuel in the room.  That was a good smell.  Pop was home, at least for a little bit.

Pop messed with cars as a kid, dropped out of high school and joined the army.  He was going to be a mechanic but ended up being a recovery and evacuation specialist.  They drove wreckers and 10 ton Dragin’ Wagons that hauled army tanks.

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Pop with a 10 ton M123 Tracker “Dragin’ Wagon” (844 cubic inch Leroy V8, 5 speed transmission, 2 speed transfer case) – March 1963, Germany

He had a project going on in the garage all the time that I can remember. He rebuilt a Triumph 500cc Daytona into a chopper with a Springer fork that his welding buddy Wally up the street raked at about 30 degrees.  He thinks it was a ’63 or ’64. This all I learned later, but at the time I just knew that it had a sparkly blue gas tank with two lace stripes down the center and riding on the back of it was the best thing in the world.  I was really young.  My head must have bobbed around on my little neck under the weight of the helmet, which sounds adorable, like a baby bird.  It had a tall, metal sissy bar that I’d constantly bang the helmet on when we took off due to the wobbly neck thing.  My job was to throw down the hand signals when called out, “Gimme a Ralph…gimme a Louie!”  I recently asked him why a Triumph, and he said the British bikes were popular then, Triumphs and BSA’s.  Then I asked why the chopper.  “Those were the thing man, I mean, who wanted a 500cc Triumph back then?”  Uh, me?!  He ended up selling the chopper to a buddy named John, who was an Outlaw rider in Chicago at the time.

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The only known photo of the Triumph – July 1981

There were always engine parts and oily rags around.  He forever had grease under his nails and in the cracks of his big, gorilla hands that would never fully wash off.  (We used to say we were going to cut them off, polyurethane them and sell them as ashtrays.)  He’d run boat engines in a metal garbage can filled with water.  He worked on all of our cars as we got older, because he was usually the one to have found them for us.  He’d haul them back home from the rust free areas of the states.  Change the oil, tweak them, tune them, diagnose any issues, etc.  I remember him tasting stains on the driveway to determine what exactly was leaking.  Yes, safety wise, not so concerned I guess.  He seemed to always have a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth directly over whatever engine he was working on.  You’d watch the ash get longer and longer…then he’d flick it off to the side at the last minute.

The last project car he had was the Firebird.  He got it in the 80’s and still has it.  He used to take it to the drags with his buddy who did the body work and said it could do 91mph in 15 seconds and that it was “not bad for a sleeper.” The Bird is currently completely pulled apart in his garage in Kentucky.  He has been saying he is going to get it running again for the past 10-15 years…but nothing.  I guess you could say he’s stuck.  And me, today on my 46th birthday, have to admit that I’m also a bit stuck, been feeling this way for over a year now.  Something must be done.  Hence, project ‘Pop my Ride’ has officially begun.