Midlife meditations next to an abandoned disco Vette

The grass crunches under foot on a frosty fall morning as I inch closer.  Abandoned in the back yard of an empty house sits a 1980-82 Corvette showing its age and bearing the scars inflicted by life’s travails. 

A cold silence fills this lonely country field as the dawn’s light trickles on the disco-era Vette. I mark the moment, trying to savor the odd satisfaction mixed with sadness that my car-spotting adventures always bring me. Even though this later C3 doesn’t top my list of favorite Corvettes, today I find a strange connection to this car.

The 1980 Corvette’s flabby face still hints at the sleek, muscular lines of the original ’68 Mako Shark II design. Earlier that morning as I shaved, I felt the same way upon gazing at the middle-age man’s face looking back at me. The same chiseled jawline and steely blue eyes of my rebellious youth were there, albeit hiding amid a double chin and baggy eyelids. My complexion mottled by dark spots, just like the paint on this aged sports car.

Such metaphors constantly fill my mind, a side effect from being a life-long daydreamer.  I give into my wandering thoughts and soon picture my own life experiences on the tattered fiberglass body of my latest archeological discovery.

Once this was a gleaming white symbol to glorify an era celebrating the individual.  Its larger front and rear ends exaggerating those C3 curves in almost comical proportions. Just as it debuted in 1980, the world was changing fast, a new decade dawned and minivans, front-wheel drive and European-influence designs would make these disco-era Vettes look like ridiculous dinosaurs. Its day was over already.

Much like my own Generation X, I see these cars as a relic caught between two more-influential models. The early chrome-bumpered, third-generation Corvettes epitomized the muscle car era with big-block power and cutting-edge styling. (Baby Boomers). The fourth-gens reintroduced high performance, added computer-controlled technology and became one of the best handling cars of the 1980s. (Millennials).  I gaze upon this broken old Vette and see my own middle-age malaise staring back at me. Not old enough to be a celebrated collector car, not young enough to perform like a modern sports car.

And then there are other reminders of life’s journey. The cracked bodywork and windshield bear evidence to the three-decade-long trip through an indifferent world. An aftermarket 1978 Z28-style hood sadly illustrates a last-ditch effort to retain some sort of youthful image and resist time’s forward march of fashion. I can’t buy any article of clothing these days without the brief thought flashing through my mind: Does this look absurd on a man my age?   

At age 45, part of me feels very much like this little Vette. I bear the scars and imperfections that come with age. I still wear the styling once popular in my youth. And today I find myself alone, in a sun-dappled field at dawn searching for a new meaning, a new direction, to life.

                                                                                                          — Michael Gouge

Seen a Chevy Monza lately? Didn’t think so

Gone now — like roller disco, feathered hair and polyester pantsuits. But once upon a time they were so common as to hide in plain sight and escape notice. Now, the Chevy Monza is still invisible, but because few people bothered to save them.

Spotting a cluster of Monzas in a South Carolina junkyard recently took me back to my childhood in the 1970s when these cars filled the parking lots of every suburban shopping center.

It got its name from the death of the Corvair and its chassis from the outgoing Vega, but the Monza seemed to avoid the image problems of those two cars.  Ironically, it also seems to have avoided gaining a cult following like those models.

In the mid- to late-‘70s, Chevy offered the little car with optional V-8 power and a sleek Spyder 2+2 model, which did rather well on the sports car racing circuit.

In late 1978, my mother special ordered a 1979-model Monza Towne Coupe very similar to the one pictured at the top of the page.  I fondly remember pouring over the brochures and sales materials as she let my brother and I select the color — dark blue metallic. (I couldn’t talk her into the Camaro). It seemed to take forever for the car to arrive after placing our order. But once it did, we happily abandoned mom’s old Dodge (Mitsubishi) Colt GT. 

I loved the 4-speed transmission, rear-wheel drive and Camaro-style steering wheel.  My cousin taught me to drive a stick shift in that car on a family vacation one year. I took to washing it weekly (since mom never did) and became much more upset than she did when a delivery truck at her office dented the front fender (on two occasions!).  I vividly remember the disappointment when she traded the Monza for a Ford Fiesta less than two years later.  

By the early 1980s, GM moved to the front-wheel drive “J platform,” leaving the aging-but-strong-selling “H bodies” slightly out of style. It was this front-drive craze that partially prompted my mother to trade her Monza.

Frequently readers of CARSPOTTING may notice my penchant for Malaise Era automobiles, particularly the Mustang II. While muscle car fans often deride my cherished Mustang II as not a worthy competitor to the Camaro, the truth is the Monza was its real competition. Any judging from this 1975 Car and Driver road test, the Monza seemed to outside my little pony car.

Today the Monza’s peer group, the Vega, Pinto and Mustang II, all still carry a stigma of shoddy build quality or poor performance from that post-Watergate era. Yet, I still see them on the road now and then. Also, there are some few-but-proud fans out there to keep the love for these cars alive.  The Monza rarely gets cast into that same “worst car” category. Despite this shinier reputation, it never seems to get as much appreciation either. Like when they were new, nobody seems to notice them.

                                                                                                          — Michael Gouge

Corvair: Wrongly maligned scapegoat for a nanny state

“Unsafe at any speed.” That phrase forever associated with the Chevy Corvair makes many an educated car person cringe. We know the real story. We know Chevy’s sporty little car gets a bad rap. We know how truly remarkable the Corvair was, and how the controversy surrounding it forever diminished the innovative spirit of GM and other domestic automakers.

In a South Carolina junkyard sits a sleet 1965-67 Corvair Monza coupe. Barely visible next to it lies an older, less comely, brethren that provoked the ire of consumer advocate Ralph Nader in his 1965 book, “Unsafe at Any Speed.”

But aficionados know the Corvair boasted some impressive features.  With an optional turbocharger, it was one of the first mass production cars with forced induction. That was two decades before the turbo became all the rage in the 1980s. Its six-cylinder, air-cooled rear engine was the formula that made the Porsche 911 famous. It sat low to the ground, offered good gas mileage, sporty looks and better performance that the VW Beetle, which was its intended rival. Motor Trend named it “Car of the Year” in 1960.

Often called the “poor man’s Porsche,” the Corvair, like the 911, required a different driving style and closer attention to tire pressures. Americans used to front-engine, heavy cars didn’t always respect the rear-engine weight bias. Plus, improper tire inflation could led to increased oversteer. 

Responding to consumer lawsuits, Chevy redesign the rear suspension in 1965, so the Corvair pictured above was never the subject of Nader’s wrath, for all the good it did. By the time Nader’s book was released, Chevy had fixed the problem. But the character assassination ultimately killed Corvair sales and ruined the car’s reputation with the general public.

At issue was the first-generation Corvair’s swing-arm rear suspension, similar to the set-ups used by Porsche, Volkswagen, Renault and even Mercedes-Benz. Years after Chevy killed the model in 1969, a 1972 study found the Corvair’s handling was no more unsafe in extreme situations than similar cars of the era. Vindicated, but not redeemed.

As a teen, one of the joys of springtime was the annual Chimney Rock Hillclimb. Now defunct, the hillclimb drew sports car racers and fans from around the country to see who could reach the summit the fastest. One memorable hillclimb competitor was a second-gen Corvair with a V-8 crammed in the rear engine bay. It emitted such a loud and impressive exhaust note that I can still remember it echoing off the cliffs of the Hickory Nut Gorge here in beautiful western North Carolina.

The controversy Nader sparked over the Corvair fueled support for the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act in 1966. This legislation gave the federal government the power to regulate safety standards for automobiles. The intention was to lower traffic deaths. A good idea, but the effect created different kinds of death: The death of daring designs, rebellious innovations, and the view of the car as more than just a household appliance.

Federal guidelines, not an artist’s imagination, would dictate design decisions in the decades to follow. Exotic foreign beauties would be driven from our shores because the nanny state said they didn’t comply with the doctrine of safety above style. Our government will protect you from yourself. 

I look at this junkyard Corvair with a bit of melancholy, for its namesake became the symbol that veered our automotive history away from daring designs and personal risks toward the world of protection at any costs.  We sacrificed the Corvair on the altar of Safety. And a few iconoclasts like myself think the world is a lesser place because of it — a safer place, it’s true, but diminished somehow.

Four decades later, our bloated safety-mandated automobiles lack both the timeless styling and the sensory feel of those classic cars from the mid-‘60s.  Once upon a time, my children, cars featured steel bumpers, dashboards and door panels. 

Today, computer-controlled steering, throttle and brake inputs allow a silicone-chip brain to drive the car. We only give the computer suggestions – which the ECU often overrides – about what we want the car to do.

Side impact standards, mandatory air bags, crumple zones, higher door heights, etc., all become law for good reasons.  They even took away my beloved pop-up headlights in the name of pedestrian safety. (I say, stay the hell out of the road!) But at what costs to our car-loving culture has this ideology of safety-first had? Heck, teenagers today would rather have Internet access than a car and often don’t bother getting a driver’s license until their 20s. 

The Corvair wasn’t the problem. But the solution designed to protect the public, regardless of cultural impact, has many car buffs lamenting an age when an automobile wasn’t a bloated, computer-controlled safety cocoon. My generation will be the last one to remember when automobiles were designed to unite car, driver and roadway in an existential journey of freedom and self-discovery. And such a journey might be “unsafe at any speed.”  SO BE IT!

                                                                                                          — Michael Gouge

Some respect for the unassuming pick-up truck

There’s something quintessentially American about a pick-up truck. With no pretensions of status, high performance, or luxury, the typical pick-up (until recently) embodied many of the virtues that fueled our nation’s massive expansion during the 20th century.

Resting amid the weeds of a South Carolina junkyard, I found these two Ford trucks, one looks like a ’50 and the other about a ’46 model. They still show that rugged nobility from a life of hard and unheralded work. 

No other nation conjures images of the pick-up truck. Australia comes close with those cool “utes” based on El Caminos and Rancheros. Here in America, the pick-up is as much a national symbol as the flag and apple pie.

Unlike their cousin the SUV, pick-up trucks don’t seem to attract the negative stereotype of overindulged, politically incorrect consumerism that the Sport Utility Vehicle hath wrought. Without much fanfare, the truck sits ready, a loyal workhorse — always there, always ready to do its part. Although I see that wholesome image changing quickly.

Maybe it’s my middle-class roots showing, but I think trucks shouldn’t be luxury touring vehicles. A recent GMC truck commercial shows the luxurious interior of a vehicle — lots of leather and creature comforts — only to cut to the bed being loaded with rocks. Lincoln and Cadillac pick-ups? To quote Buford T. Justice, “What the hell is the world coming to?” Trucks should be honest and utilitarian. They do an honest days work. They don’t haul accountants to office complexes.

I read with some sadness that Ford ended production of the popular Ranger. I had one, and it served me well until the long string of digits on the odometer led to its ultimate demise. Pick-ups have always adorned the sidelines of my life. My first job at 16 was with the Parks and Rec. The county, for some bizarre reason, gave a 16-year-old a V-8 powered Dodge truck with a stick shift and a route to run. That was some summer. Got my first speeding ticket in that county truck.

In the early ’70s, our neighbor around the corner used to babysit me while my parents were at work. Her husband drove a ’67 Ranger. I can still remember how exciting it felt to ride in that big, V-8 powered truck above the crowd of Pintos, Vegas and bloated Plymouths. It sure beat riding in mom’s VW beetle.

My dad bought a used ’63 Chevy truck when I was teenager. With metallic brown paint, it sported a chrome grill, chrome bumpers and extra wide 8-inch steel wheels. Under the hood, the straight six reputedly was rebuild by a local race engine builder. Backing it up was a “three-on-the-tree” 3 speed manual, which dad converted to a long, floor-mounted Hurst shifter. That Chevy rumbled with loud Thrush glasspack mufflers. Combined with a lowered front suspension, it certainly made an impression when you rolled up. No power steering or power brakes, it was a manly exercise to pilot that beast.

Forgive me for sounding chauvinistic, but seeing housewives and soccer moms driving pick-up trucks today still looks odd to my eyes. It feels like an imposition, an encroachment on that special bond between a man and his truck, a man and his toolbox, a man and his dog.  It just seems to me to be a bit “un-American.”

                                                                                                          — Michael Gouge

Two Thunderbirds in the bush (and none in my hand)

Thunderbird — another great car name now cast aside. Even when I didn’t particularly like certain styling eras (1958-60), I always loved that name. So seeing these mid- and late-’60s T-birds drew me in for a closer look. 

Of course the first generation (1955-57) — know affectionately as Baby Birds — will always be a study in design perfection. But these later models have a strange appeal as well.

Besides cars, movies are a major passion of mine. Somehow my brain always associates various automobiles with their film roles.

One of the greatest road movies of the 1990s, Thelma & Louise, featured a ’66 T-bird similar to the lower photo. And if you’re a real car movie buff, you’ve seen “Love the Beast” by Eric Bana, which features his father’s 1968 T-bird like the top photo.

                                                                                                            — Michael Gouge

Mopar spottings: Plymouth Duster 340 and Duster Twister

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Here’s a find for all the Mopar lovers out there. I realize this blog is heavy on Mustangs, Camaros and Firebirds, so I figure the Plymouth Duster needs another article.

A recent trip through Vic’s Classic Auto Parts in Chesnee, S.C., revealed two Plymouth Dusters amid the wealth of rusty gold.  Last fall, I profiled a Sassy Grass green Duster that brought back some fond childhood memories.

While roaming through the Ford section of the junkyard, I turned to notice that bold 340 graphic sticking out of the undergrowth. Not much left of this Valiant-based muscle car of the early ’70s. The horizontal bar on the rear taillights told me this was a Plymouth Duster instead of a Dodge Demon, which has vertical bars.

My first job after college was working as a copy editor with a small-town newspaper. The press foreman was a car/motorcycle guy, so we often wasted the company’s time talking cars. He was a diehard Mopar fan and occasionally drove his pride-and-joy Dodge Demon to work. I’d see it parked strategically to both avoid other cars and show off that striking black paintwork with big white 340 call-outs on the quarter panels.

The Valiant-based Duster cars were potent little performers and set sales records in the early ’70s. It prompted Dodge to badge engineer the Demon model. Sales of the Demon totaled fewer than half the number of Dusters, making them a rarer find. 

On the other side of the junkyard I find a Twister edition Plymouth Duster. The Twister package was more show than go, offering rally stripes and special decals but without the pavement-pounding 340 engine. Twisters came with straight-sixes or the 318 V-8.

Chrysler has emerged from its 2009 bankruptcy to post some impressive profits and market share this year. I’m sure I’m not the only car buff out there who wishes they’d put some of that money in to making a modern version of the Duster with a sloping fastback, two doors, sporty looks and rally stripes, oh… and of course a HEMI!

— Michael Gouge

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"My dad’s got an ultimate set of tools. I can fix it"

As an avid film buff, this gear head loves it when Hollywood combines my two great loves. Those tire-screaming dream machines start to form compound nouns forever attached to a model, for instance: “Vanishing Point” Challenger, “Bullitt” Mustang, “Bandit” Trans-Am. Here’s a less familiar turn-of-phrase: the “Fast Times” Z28. 

Seeing this 1980 or ’81 Camaro Z28 in a Chesnee, S.C., junkyard recently, I couldn’t help but utter to myself the immortal words of Jeff Spicoli – “My dad’s got an ultimate set of tools. I can fix it.”

Those of you who were teenagers in the 1980s recognize the reference to “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the 1982 comedy that still tops my list of Sean Penn’s greatest acting performances. The video clip below features a slightly earlier (’78 or ’79) Z28 much like this one snaking its way through traffic to the sounds of the Red Rocker himself, Sammy Hagar, singing the title song.

At the risk of offending a few Camaro fans, I’ve always preferred the second-generation cars to the original. The ’67-’68 cars seem bland next to the original pony car, the Mustang. But I must give proper screen credit to that black 1967 Camaro in one of my favorite 1980s John Cusack movies, "Better Off Dead."

In 1969, some much-needed sheetmetal tweaks helped the Camaro’s looks. But it’s the European-influenced 1970-73 models that set the car apart from other makes. And if it wasn’t for Gary Busey goofing off, it would’ve won "The Gumball Rally"!  And as the disco decade advanced, the second-generation Camaro wore its era-defining, taped-on graphics with an understated grace.

As a mass communication scholar and lecturer, I’m fascinated by the cultural impact of motion pictures. I remember when “Fast Times” debuted in the theaters my sophomore year of high school. Everyone suddenly adopted surfer lingo in my school nearly 300 miles from the ocean. The catchphrases from that movie were many and long-lasting. I still catch myself utter a few of them at times. “People on ‘ludes should not drive!”  

And when it appears on TV, I can’t help but click the remote to revisit my own high school days, catch a glimpse of some ’80s fashions long departed, and hear that great soundtrack of my youth.  Despite years of quoting Spicoli in my head for the last three decades, the irony of life isn’t lost on me when I catch myself sounding more like “Mr. Hand” when addressing my college students.  Damn middle age!

These late gen-2 Camaros seem to picking up in price lately. For years, they languished as just used cars. Now, many people of the “Fast Times” generation seek to buy back a bit of their youth, which — if you’re like me — was spent hanging out in a parking lot near one of these machines.

                                                                                                  — Michael Gouge

Ford EXP: Bug-eyed beauty in the eyes of this beholder

From across the junkyard, I spot those frog eyes and quicken my pace to check out on of my favorite cars from the early 1980s. Laugh if you must, but the sight of a first-generation Ford EXP still thrills me like it did when I first saw one as a 14-year-old boy in 1981.

Piled one atop another, I find several EXPs stacked in the back corner of the yard with other Reagan-era scrap. Three decades on, they still make me smile.

Nothing on the road— then or now — looked like it. Two seats, exotic curved body lines, and those bulging square headlights seemed so futuristic compared to the origami-folds on most early ’80s cars.  I remember how disappointed I was with the bland look of the first Fox-bodied Mustang in ’79 and how thrilled the EXP made me feel a few years later. I tore ads like the ones below out of magazines and adorned my bedroom walls. (You might win a bar bet concerning what the letters “EXP” really stands for by clicking here

In high school, a couple of good friends both owned EXPs. And while they weren’t the fastest cars in the parking lot, they still held a high cool factor with a teenage crowd. Plus, the rear hatchback allowed for open-air (and exhaust-fumed) motoring and a third (maybe fourth) teenage passenger to hang out of the back. Perfect for cruising with Aldo Nova blasting from the stereo cassette player.

The EXP (and its Mercury twin the LN7) was the first two-seater from Ford since the original Thunderbird, and its lower price aimed for a younger demographic looking for a sporty, European feel. The radical styling put off some buyers, and Ford replaced the frog eyes with a more conservative front end from the Escort in 1985. However, I find those googly eyes as charming as a Bug-eyed Sprite.

A buddy in college owned one of these later EXPs exactly like the dark blue one pictured above. The redesign adopted the bubble glass hatchback from the Mercury LN7 and toned down some of the organic, space alien curves of the original car.

Today, I drive past the new car lots and see unending monotony: Four doors with wind-tunnel tested drag coefficients designed to meet CAFE and safety Nazi mandates, but displaying absolutely no soul. Even a lifelong carspotter like myself must peek at the badge to verify the marque. Contrast that to the final decade of small, sporty cars, when two-seat EXPs, Fieros, MR2s, sat on lots beside hot hatches like the GTI and Scirocco, the CRX and those Omni O24/Chargers.  

It wasn’t the glory days of the muscle-car era, but those mid-’80s offerings beat today’s obsession with convenience and practicality. Risky styling like the EXP would never see production in today’s design-by-committee world. Why not make a goofy looking hatchback with only two seats? Haven’t we got enough four-door Focuses, Civics, Camrys, etc.?

At a redlight a teenager pulls up next to me pumping out a bass line. I look over and he’s driving a four-door Honda sedan. Kid, I pity the world you’ve inherited where looking cool means looking just your soccer mom.

                                                                                                          — Michael Gouge 

The sublime roofline: A fastback Mustang

Ford may have preferred the terms “Sportsroof,” or “2+2,” but to me – and nearly everyone else – they’re ‘”fastbacks.” An appropriate nickname since that gently sloping rear window gives any model Mustang an exotic, muscular stance. This long, sweeping roofline turned a little “secretary’s car” in a work of art. The same trick worked just as well on the Torino.

To celebrate this gorgeous shape, I’ve gathered together a collection of my fastback Mustang finds. Even in death, their beauty still moves me. Pictured above is a 1968 fastback, not too different from the iconic Highland Green one made so famous by Steve McQueen in “Bullitt.” 

I’m a huge fan of the sports car styling of the mid-1960s, and the Mustang fastback holds up well when compared to exotic contemporaries like the Jaguar E-type coupe, the Ferrari 275 and the Aston Martin DBS. Similar lines show up in the first generation fastback 2+2 like these seen above. With such a classic shape, and it’s hard to imagine that the hardtop was more popular with Mustang buyers almost two decades. By the 1994 redesign, the hardtop was gone and the fastback shape became the standard trim level for the Mustang. 

Even though Mustang fans prefer the 1965 to ‘70 body style, I’ve always had a fondness for ’70s pony cars like these pictured above: 1971 Mach I and its descendant, the often-maligned (but I still love them) Mustang II Mach 1. I’ve declared my love for the unloved IIs here before. Thanks to the Internet, I’ve found a few fellow II fans who think the 2+2 version is one of the cleanest fastback designs of the Malaise Era. 

The picture below shows a customized 1970 fastback that once sported a massive hood scoop, purple paintwork with white accent stripes and Cragar S/S mags. I can still picture it cruising the drive-ins and skating rink parking lots looking for its next stop-light victim.

Rumor has it, Ford plans to abandon the retro-styling of the current Mustang in favor of a new design aimed at younger car buyers. I’m happy to report some of the Internet photos I’ve seen still show a fastback roofline!

                                                                                                        — Michael Gouge

Here’s a collection of rare Torinos I discovered on a recent CARSPOTTING expedition to a Ford junkyard also filled with several Mustangs.

Here’s a collection of rare Torinos I discovered on a recent CARSPOTTING expedition to a Ford junkyard also filled with several Mustangs.