JIM DODSON: My Checkered Automotive Past
General Motors announced plans in Michigan this week to reintroduce the Camaro sports car for 2010 -- a restyled, updated, fuel-efficient version of the popular muscle car the company officially retired back in 2002.
The Camaro is being revived, according to a company spokesman, "to attract a new, younger generation of sports car enthusiast."
In other words, in the face of a rapidly downsizing world, the folks at beleaguered GM hope a legendary sports car sometimes associated with Southern rednecks and dirt-track culture can somehow improve the company's slumping bottom line.
I wish them luck. Call me a latter-day redneck, but I also wish I had my old gold Camaro back.
At the end of the faraway summer of 1970, the summer before my senior year in high school, see, I spent everything I'd saved from years of mowing neighborhood yards and working at the golf club on a brand new Chevy Camaro, a metallic-gold five-speed with 307-horsepower engine, bucket seats and a killer eight-track tape player.
It was my first car, and I remember exactly what I paid for it: $3,117. I made the $1,500 down payment on this teenage American dream machine and paid the first year's insurance plus gas and maintenance. My dad agreed to cover the rest. I believe gas that year was 39 cents per gallon. It cost me about 12 bucks to fill up.
I drove off the lot in Greensboro feeling like a young dude who'd found the car keys to happiness, especially after I heard through the grapevine that three certain girls in my high school wanted me to ask them out.
Their attraction proved mostly automotive in nature. At my 25th high school reunion, the prettiest of the three -- the one I never asked out -- came up to me and coyly asked, "Do you still have that hot gold Camaro? We can go out if you want to." She's now a happily married physician in Salt Lake.
Is the Pinto Next?
Ironically, on the same day GM announced the comeback of the Camaro in Michigan, the equally beleaguered Ford Motor Company over in Indiana marked the 100th anniversary of the introduction of the Model T -- the low-cost, mass-produced car that helped make this country a nation of car fanatics -- by posting the worst quarterly loss in automotive history.
On a brighter note, Ford announced it plans to ditch some of its larger trucks and gas-guzzling SUVs in favor of rolling out a "new generation of smaller, low-cost, fuel-efficient" vehicles using the latest hybrid technology and lighter materials, many of which are already in use in Europe. So it's back to the future for Ford, too. Maybe they'll revive the legendary Pinto.
Whatever they do, I suspect my sweet redneck granddad would be cheering them on. He was a rural Orange County farmer and carpenter who bought his first car, a used Ford Model T, for $200 in 1926 -- and kept it for almost 25 years.
I have a picture of Walter Dodson and his beloved Model T taken sometime during the Great Depression. He's standing proudly beside his basic American dream machine at a family summer reunion near Chapel Hill, with a foot resting on the car's running board. He looks like a fellow who wishes he could own a swank new DeSoto.
That, in fact, was his next car.
"Americans have a fabled love affair with their cars," declared a GM official at the official unveiling ceremonies for the "new and improved" Camaro. "Many of us can mark our lives by the cars we've owned. Our cars tell our histories."
He's right, of course -- and I have the checkered automotive history to prove it, beginning with that hot gold Camaro.
That car carried me off to college and to the beaches and mountains probably half a dozen times over the five years I owned it -- remarkably without a single moving violation. It even took me on a tumultuous post-college road trip across America the summer I worked for my dad selling advertising and trying to decide if I wanted to work for a newspaper or go on to graduate school.
During the big trip west with my college girlfriend -- a self-described Marxist who planned either to do graduate studies in anthropology or take over a small country somewhere in South America -- convinced me that my beloved gold Camaro was a "true redneck car."
Upon our return, for reasons that now elude me, I drove into the same Greensboro dealership and "traded up" for something more "sophisticated," a snazzy new thing called a Chevy Monza, a beige car with air conditioning. My sporty Camaro never had air conditioning. Nature is a redneck's definition of "air conditioning."
About that same time, I also bought my first business suit, a snappy Palm Beach three-piece rig. The suit was beige, too. In fact, this was the start of my "beige" period -- when nothing I did made much sense in either cars, girlfriends, or clothes.
On top of everything, I turned out to be the world's worst advertising salesman. During the mercifully brief four months I attempted to work for my dad, I think I sold one new advertising account.
The problem, I decided, was the suit. I hated that beige suit. Come to think of it, I hated that beige Chevy Monza, too. When I admitted to my dad that I probably wasn't cracked up to be an advertising salesman, he politely suggested I go work for the newspaper or go back to graduate school.
The Pacer Era
So I ditched the suit and went to work for The Greensboro Daily News, taking a job as a roving reporter whose job it was to roam around the countryside and find interesting characters to interview.
This job even came with a small automotive perk. The paper provided me with a staff vehicle -- a day-glow orange AMC Pacer with a bright lime-green roof. It looked a little like a melting Popsicle or perhaps a radioactive bubble on wheels.
My most embarrassing moment as a cub reporter came when I drove out to Level Cross to interview Richard Petty, the King of NASCAR. Petty took one look at my day-glow bubble car and gave a big, lazy smile.
"That thing looks like something you'd see clowns climbing out of at the circus," he drawled pleasantly.
"It's not mine," I quickly informed him, adding, "I used to own a Camaro." I didn't have the nerve to tell him I'd sold it to buy a beige Monza with air conditioning.
"Camaros are fantastic cars," agreed the King of NASCAR -- and beloved patron saint of proud rednecks everywhere.
That very afternoon -- and I'm not making this up -- I traded in my Monza for a metallic-copper Datsun 280-Z -- probably the greatest muscle car ever made. My beige days were finally over.
Opening It Up
The only picture I have of this legendary car, unfortunately, remains in my head. It looked like something you'd see in a Bond film with a busty Italian starlet leaning out the window. It was metallic copper with a long, low profile and a sleek hood housing a massive V-8 engine. The speedometer went to 180.
One late winter afternoon up in the mountains, somewhere near Little Switzerland, I opened up my "Z-car" down a long stretch of road just to see what it felt like to do 100 mph. I zoomed over a hill and hit an unexpected icy patch and did several impressive 360-degree spins on the asphalt before coming to a halt in the middle of the highway.
I was so thrilled to still be alive, frankly, I sold that car two weeks later.
Next I bought a vintage baby blue Triumph Spitfire. Something about that classy Spitfire just spoke to me in plummy British tones. I was, after all, getting older and wiser, now a serious aspiring twentysomething who read a lot of Graham Greene novels. I could just picture myself tooling around town with a girl who looked like Julie Christie riding in the passenger seat, laughing at my urbane jokes on our way to the Steeplechase.
I completed the ensemble by getting tortoiseshell eyeglasses and even took up smoking a pipe and found a tweed sports jacket with genuine leather elbow patches. I started dated a pretty blond dental assistant named Cheryl.
Unfortunately, my vintage Spitfire was in the mechanic's shop more than it was on the road, and Cheryl soon married her dentist employer. I sold the car to the mechanic who was always working on it but kept the pipe and tweed jacket in case I ever met the real Julie Christie.
Three 'Old Blues'
A short time later, I moved to Atlanta in my mom's borrowed Buick Skylark, the automotive equivalent of a leisure suit.
Atlanta was the self-proclaimed "Swinging Singles" capital of America in those days. Carter was in office, gas lines were ridiculously long. Everyone I knew was driving hip BMWs, but I -- having sewn my wild automotive oats -- opted for an aging navy blue Volvo 245-DL station wagon with heated leather seats, a speedometer that went only to 100 mph, and a dozen extra features that made Volvo wagons the official "safest cars on the road."
The TV reporter I started dating about that time took one look at it and declared with a laugh, "You've got yourself the perfect family tank. Now all you need is the family to go with it."
I nicknamed my tank "Old Blue."
One morning, as I was cruising through swinging Buckhead on my way to work, a chap coming home from an all-night party ran a red light and hit me broadside at 50 mph. I never saw what hit me. When I came around, both the Volvo and I were inside the most popular singles bar in Atlanta, having been slammed completely through the picture window. Startled customers were still seated at the bar. They gave me a friendly little cheer when I climbed out of my smashed Volvo wearing only a large goose egg on my forehead. Old Blue had saved my skin.
I bought two more Volvo wagons after that. All tanks on wheels. All navy blue. I named each of them "Old Blue" for good luck.
The "Old Blues" carried me safely through the next 20 years of life -- through job relocations to Washington and Boston, eventually on to marriage and children, midlife and divorce, remarriage and a new blended family.
Five years ago, I splurged on a big forest-green Ford Excursion so we could all go on vacation in the same car. One of our kids named the car "Big Mama." Big Mama came equipped with 62 cup holders, deluxe captain seats, a speaker system fit for a baseball stadium, and enough room to carry the entire family plus three big dogs, a large canoe, and maybe an NFL cheerleading squad with or without pompons on vacation.
Alas, we took only two long family vacations in Big Mama, during which nobody could agree on anything, including fast-food joints, theme parks, and radio stations. I began having nostalgic fantasies about owning a broken-down two-seat sports car and leather elbow patches.
We sold Big Mama two years ago when a friend who works in the oil business confidentially advised me that gas would soon top two-fifty a gallon. I shuddered to think what it would cost to fill up Big Mama if gas ever got that high.
Whereupon I purchased a brand-new, fuel-efficient, low-emission, Subaru Outback (Atlantic-blue, natch) with air conditioning, six-CD stereo, heated leather seats, and a large moon roof. A buddy who keeps track of such things informs me that Subarus are the hottest car going with a certain demographic of American drivers.
"Aging hippies, gay women, and urban soccer moms," he said. "Which are you?"
This pretty much completes my checkered automotive history -- save for the fact that, not three days after learning that GM plans to bring back a "new" Camaro, I was coming out of an optician's shop in Aberdeen with my latest tortoiseshell specs when my newly improved eyes fell on a truly astounding sight -- none other than a beautiful silver 1970 Chevy Camaro.
I walked over to where it was parked and found a young dude sitting in the driver's seat listening to his iPod. He looked about 22 and turned out to be waiting for his girlfriend to come out of Best Buy.
"Nice car," I said. "Yours?" After all, he hadn't even been a mischievous glimmer in his daddy's eye when this muscle car ruled the roads of Redneckdom.
"I restore vintage cars," he explained. "I just finished this one. It's for sale, if you're interested."
"How much?" I couldn't stop myself from asking, even though I have one kid in college and another on the way. I need a vintage car like I need a hole in my head.
"Thirty-one hundred," he replied.
"That's 17 dollars less than I paid for this very car 38 years ago," I said with a note of nostalgia.
He seemed impressed, whereupon I gave him a brief thumbnail of my migration across the American car-owning landscape. He was moved to hand me his business card. "At least take this," he said, "in case you decide you want it. Lots of old guys are buying these."
On the way home, I opened the moon roof and windows of my beautiful blue Subaru just to feel some natural redneck air conditioning for old times' sake. The business card flew out the window onto busy U.S. 15-501.
It's probably just as well, I decided, rolling up the windows and flipping on the air, still trying to figure out which demographic might have me.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, The Pilot's writer-in-residence can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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