I was born too late to catch the muscle cars when they came out. By the time I came along, emissions controls and clumsy downtuning had crippled or killed every car worth driving. The first family car I can remember sitting in was a '78 Toyota Corolla hatchback -- the "hunchback," my dad used to call it -- that was so reliable and boring that it was still going when my older brother took it to college in 1990. The other family cars were Mazdas, a 626 and an RX-7, which were what passed for zippy at the time.
The first time I even heard about the great American muscle car, my -- of all things -- elderly German neighbor suddenly had his son's 1967 Camaro parked in his driveway. I was only eight years old, but somehow I knew the love of my life had arrived, and that someday I would have one of those.
You Never Forget Your First
It's funny, but at the time I don't think I even had an understanding of what it meant to own a thing. Of course, I had my toys and clothes, and I knew in a theoretical way that we "owned" our home and cars, but all that was something other people did. The idea that a 1967 Camaro was a physical object that could someday belong to me, the same way my toys did or the way my dad owned the magazines under his bed, would have seemed an alien, foreign concept at the time. If I had to put my finger on just what I was thinking when I first felt the noble emotion of avarice, I'd have to say my fantasy of ownership was that I'd be able to sit in that Chevrolet Camaro any time I wanted to, and that nobody would yell if I touched something inside it.
Even as a teen, I think I still had that abstract understanding of "ownership." I was a good kid, despite what my mom will tell you, and I always got good grades. Part of the reason why was that Dad had promised to let me use the moped when I was 16, if I kept up the good work. I did, and he made good on the promise.
"A lonely old 1967 Camaro that needed a good home."
I rode that thing for two years, until I was ready to head out on my own; not to college, like my showoff braniac brother, or to the Marines, like the tough-guy middle brother in the family, but right after high school to work with my uncle's roofing business. For a solid four years, I crashed on my uncle's couch in L.A., worked with him all day long in the sun -- this was before Los Angeles started planting all those trees and trying to look like Paris or something -- and saved my money. In 2002, I finally found what I was looking for -- a lonely old 1967 Camaro that needed a good home.
It was the catch of a lifetime; I found the car on the newfangled internet and was immediately suspicious. The Chevrolet Camaro was being offered as part of a package muscle car deal by a private seller. The deal described in the ad was for two cars, a 1967 Camaro SS, bright eyeball-searing cherry red with Z28 stripes and an aftermarket hood cowl (which they didn't actually have until the next model year), and a matching '71 Dodge Challenger with three on the tree and an authentic Hemi under the hood. Both of them together were going for $15,000, but with the catch you had to come get them both today; right now, not tomorrow.
Of course my first thought was that the guy was a serial killer and my uncle and I were going to get stabbed if we went up there. No way does anybody let $50,000-worth of classic pure-sex-muscle car go for $15k, even if you're screwed up on drugs and stole them you'd ask for 25, right? Well, the guy was on the up-and-up. Turns out he was a lawyer with two overfed brat sons, 16 and 17, who drove the cars he'd paid for.
The boys didn't keep their grades up, and mean old dad was selling them out from under them. They lived in a huge palace, so it's not like the dad needed the money; he just wanted those cars gone today. He told me he had "other priorities."
I sure as hell didn't, so my uncle and I practically threw the money at the guy, tried not to make eye contact with his poor kids, and burned an inch off the top of the street racing 60 miles home from Victorville. It must have been the work of the Lord, because the Challenger was my uncle's dream car, just like the one he -- uh, had his first kiss in. We'll go with that.
I still have the car. It's been almost 20 years and I'm old and fat. I got married, got divorced and had a kid -- in that order. I've paid school fees, back-to-school shopping bills and more money than I thought was physically possible to divorce lawyers, but I never sold her.
When my son was just a baby, I used to take him out in the Chevrolet Camaro for bedtime rides. It's a good trick, and you have my permission to use it: Toss the baby in back and let the growling 396 gently purr him to sleep. When he was eight, in deference to my younger self, I'd let him sit in it and touch whatever he wanted, only occasionally telling him no. And now that he's 16, and his great-uncle has passed away, I'm teaching him about the mechanics of the Mopar heresy, so he can take good care of the matching '71 Challenger he's inherited.
My uncle was a million years older than me when I was 18, and somehow he was only a little past the age I am now when he died. If high blood pressure runs in some families, it gallops in mine. Maybe I'll make it to an obscenely old age, but I probably won't live to be a thousand. Maybe someday, if we all stay as lucky as we've been so far, my old and fat son will let a grandson of mine sit in his new 1967 Camaro and touch whatever he wants without yelling too much.