Gotta Take That One Last Ride

The gearheads and grease monkeys still gather, but is the great muscle car on its last lap?

Baltimore City Paper, June 26, 1996

"Well,there she sits, buddy, just a-gleaming in the sun"
	"There to greet a working man when his day is done"
		--Bruce Springsteen

It’s Saturday night, and as on every other Saturday night for who knows how many years, gearheads have come in from nearby towns to hang out at the Finksburg Pizza Hut parking lot. They’ve come from New Windsor, Westminster, Union Bridge, Sykesville. They’ve come to show off their machines.

All the classic muscle cars are here tonight, lined up on the asphalt—impeccably polished Camaros, Corvettes, Chevelles. There are also some of the rarer breeds—a Torino, a Monte Carlo SS, a Maverick.

There are cars with hallucinogenically large hood scoops, cars that run on illegal racing fuel costing $3.40 a gallon, cars with fat mags fresh from the dragstrip, their quarter-mile numbers still marked on the side windows with shoe polish, their owners stand around socializing, joking.

At first glance, this seems like the quintessential American parking-lot scene, bursting with teenhood and teen hoods. But these hoods have grown up and have kids of their own. No one in sight looks to be under 30. And while there is a beer here and there, the parking lot looks less like a party than a PTA meeting—albeit a racy one—with parents whose kids probably wear Richard Petty T-shirts.

Jay Burda sits with two of his children, Megan, 11, and Jay, 4 , in a rare 1969 Camaro SS convertible.

Dawn Wilderson, 30, shows off her white 1970 Chevelle SS with her 11-year-old son, Chris. A decade ago, Wilderson was doing 11.9-second quarter-mile runs with a muscled-out Pinto at a dragstrip in Monrovia. These days, her Chevelle is kept mostly for weekend family outings.

One guy, Wayne Hill, even brought his cranberry-red ‘69 Camaro SS to the lot in a fully enclosed trailer. But he lays rubber on his way across the parking lot to load it back up for the trip home.

For the past 30 years, American muscle cars—high performance passenger cars built between 1964 and 1972 with unnecessarily large engines—have been a regular sight on the roadway, painted in either some unearthly fluorescent color or in dull primer gray, making an unearthly racket, burning up precious fossil fuel, with some T-shirted motorhead behind the wheel.

The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration doesn’t keep statistics on the makes of older models which are still around, but it does seem as if each summer, there are fewer muscle cars on road. The most popular models—the Camaros, the Mustangs—are bought by boomers nostalgic for their wilder days; they’ve squirreled the vehicles away, lest they rust in the humid mid-Atlantic climate. As for the teenagers who've always longed to get their hands greasy working on one and to get the wind in their hair driving one, well, there are fewer automotive options to choose from.

A few guys are standing around a Ford Maverick, giving the owner advice about get ting the machine started, which it stubbornly refuses to do.

“Well, the first problem here is the name on the car,” one guy jokes, ribbing the distraught owner. “You know what ‘Ford’ stands for, don’t you?” Yeah, yeah, he knows—Fucked Over Rebuilt Dodge, or any of the other acronyms that are a source of seemingly endless amusement to Chevrolet fans. And tonight, clearly, it’s a Chevy crowd.

"Now, she ain't too good on gas and she burns a little oil"
	"But she was built with union labor on American soil"
		--Steve Earle 

Apparently, these are the days when you keep muscle cars under wraps, at least for many owners. Owners such as Bob Bucher, who keeps his silver 1966 Ford Fairlane GTA under covers and locked away at Bucher's workplace, an auto shop in north Baltimore, which he co-owns. It’s lunchtime and he and the other two workers are chowing down, using a car lift as a table. Bucher, 39, first got his silver beast back in 1979, when a B&H customer who was worried about rising gas prices offered to sell it to him for $500. It only had 54,000 miles on it—one of those old-man-driving-it-to-the-store-on-Sundays deals.

“Oh God, he and his wife looked so funny in the car,” Bucher recalls. “Here’s this performance car and here are these white-haired people in it.”

Now, Bucher wouldn’t take less than $6,000 for the car—not that he’s selling. Bucher rebuilt the engine and transmission, added custom headers, stripped the paint off to bare metal, and repainted the entire car.

For the first few years, he had a blast with the car, racing it on Perring Parkway, Goucher Boulevard, Interstate 70 on that straight section just east of 695. He’d pour bleach on the tires to get better traction and to make them smoke. He repeatedly pegged the speedometer—pushing it as high as it would go (120). He boasts of racing Porsches and leaving them in the dust from a standing start, although the Porsches tend to take over once they get up into the 100-mph zone.

Now, the Fairlane sees sunlight five, maybe six times a year. It’s not so much the gas mileage that deters Bucher from driving it more often (though it averages about 10 miles per gallon in the city), it’s fear of accidents. “I’m always afraid it’s going to get hit,” he says. “I don’t think I can find as good of a body panel for it. It’s getting tough to find things.”

Stuff that used to be easy to find at the nearest parts store can take months to track down. Computerization has streamlined the inventory, leaving fewer old parts in the bins. And there just aren’t too many Fairlane GTAs left on the road—he’s only seen about three or four 1966 models in the past 17 years. Bucher goes so far as to buy parts he sees at auto flea markets if he thinks he might need them one day—turn signals, heater switches, and the like.

"If I have any remote chance of needing it, I’ll buy it,” he says. “You never know.”

Sure, there are companies that make reproduction parts for his car. But for muscle-car enthusiasts, using reproduction parts smacks of plastic surgery.

“I only buy old stock, nothing that’s reproduction,” Bucher says. “It’s all original equipment, and I pay dearly For it”

He points out the letters F-A-I-R-L-A N-E on the rear quarter panel. The letters on the other side were stolen, and he spied a set at an auction about 10 years ago, but the vendor wanted $250 for them. For some things, the price is just too high.

Even under the optimum conditions in which Bucher stores his car, the Fairlane shows signs of aging. He takes pride in his all-original black vinyl interior; but the seam on the passenger front seat has dry rotted, and now some of the cushioning seeps out.

A quarter mile down the road from Bucher’s shop is D.J.’s Body & Paint Authority, where Charlie Stewart works. Stewart's spent more than 2,000 hours restoring a now-spotless cherry-red 1967 Chevelle Coupe. Unlike Bucher’s car, Stewart’s is his main source of transportation. He drives it to work each day, through the rain or snow or paint-cracking heat, from his home in Rosedale.

The Chevelle is just the latest of 20 cars that he’s bought and restored in the past 30 years. He’s been through GTOs, Camaros, Corvettes.

Stewart, who’s 51 and looks younger, is not the type given to sweeping rhetoric about why he does what he does. When asked why he won’t invest in a newer car, he replies, “I really prefer the older cars myself. They’re easier to work on. They seem to hold up better. There’s a lot less plastic and more metal on these cars.” But Stewart acknowledges that “the parts are getting harder to find, and that’s the problem.”

Stewart's favorite place to open it up is along Route 10 in Glen Burnie. “You go down there late when there’s not a lot of traffic. It's pretty straight and safe, and you can go through the gears pretty good and not get in any trouble.

“But I always go by the law,” he quickly adds. “I don’t go around burning the wheels. I’m getting older now.”

"I get pushed out of shape and it's hard to steer"
	"When I get rubber in all four gears"
		--Beach Boys

“Gutless,” Bucher calls today’s cars. “The only thing going for today’s cars is that the handling is better,” he says.

The muscle cars of yore handle like sleds, at least compared to the sleeker European sports buggies. The reason so many muscle cars have ended up in ditches or wrapped around telephone poles, the conventional wisdom goes, is that the engines are far too powerful for the stiff, bulky suspensions.

But when you talk about the allure of American muscle cars, it’s not the horse power, not even the speed, that holds so many in thrall. The magic word for many gearheads is “torque.”

Torque. It can be addictive. Torque is hard to explain—it’s just something you have to experience. Bucher calls it raw power. “There’s just nothing like a big block engine—there’s just an incredible amount of torque,” he gushes, “throw-you-back-in-your-seat torque.”

Back at the Finksburg Pizza Hut parking lot, Larry, owner of a 1967 Camaro with a 400 small-block engine, gives me a small sample of torque.

We pull over to the far end of the lot. He guns the engine in neutral from a bubbling growl to a metallic war cry chat I don’t so much hear as feel in my bones as it kicks to 6,000 rpm. Still stationary, the entire car seems to levitate from the engine being wound up so tightly. Then, Larry pops the clutch, the tires scream. smoke comes up From the pavement, and all of the sudden I feel as if I’ve been shot out of a cannon. The car fishtails somewhat, and the scenery starts coming toward me at a frightening rate as we leave long black tire marks across he parking-lot pavement.

These muscle cars are not merely cars; hey are death machines.

"Open up them engines, let 'em roar"
	"Tearing up the highway like a big old dinosaur"
		--Bruce Springsteen

Automobiles have always represented the empowerment of the individual, but the muscle-car phenomenon was the reckless empowerment of the individual,” Joe Goldsborough says. “It was taking things one step beyond where things should have gone.”

Goldsborough is the head of Baltimore-based Merkin Records and proud owner of a 1974 AMC Javelin, a long, low-slung car that looks more than a little like the Batmobile. We are talking about muscle cars and the myth of the sensible auto.

“I still encounter this with some of my friends: ‘Why don’t you get a sensible car?’ It's awful, but I feel like saying, `Look, I'm a North American male, it’s my birthright to burn fossil fuel. In another 1 0 years, you may not be able to do this.’”

Goldsborough’s only half kidding. He’s fed up with “the whole fixation on the idea [that] cars are only for talking you from point A to point B.” America’s love affair with the automobile has been cut short by this emphasis on efficiency, he says. “Not only did muscle cars fall out of fashion, but they were shamefully acknowledged as a wrong turn. I resent that. It’s evil-minded, especially when you consider the driving experience that a well maintained, performance-oriented American car provides....

“If you look at the amount of time you spend in an automobile, it’s not point A to point B. The truth is, it’s a visceral experience, and muscle cars release the visceral quality of the automotive experience. Hence, they are regarded as somewhat dangerous.”

What about saving gas, limiting air pollution, and all those other arguments for more efficient automobiles?

“Wouldn’t it be more efficient,” Goldsborough jabs back, “to mandate that we use public transportation?”

The first real muscle car was, arguably, the 1964 Pontiac GTO, later nicknamed the Goat. According to Life magazine, John DeLorean, then Pontiac’s chief engineer, dropped an eight-cylinder engine into the normally staid Tempest to see what it would feel like.

It must have felt good. Pontiac’s sales manager predicted the company wouldn’t sell more than a few thousand of DeLorean’s new breed, but within a year, more than 60,000 GTOs had been sold. The next seven years of American car-making could almost be described as surreal. Cars were implanted with engines that had 300, 400, and even 500 horsepower. They were painted bright colors. And as Road & Track point ed out in a 1990 muscle-car retrospective, they weren’t “just fast, they [were] effortlessly, Contemptuously, wickedly fast.”

The market was there for such automobiles—mainly high school and college kids, and soldiers returning from Vietnam. Every carmaker got into the game. Chevy produced the Camaro and the Super Sport (SS) Chevelle. The luxury trappings of the Monte Carlo and the utilitarian simplicity of the Nova were but clandestine covers for the 454 and 327 engines stuffed under their respective hoods. Buick had the GSX and Skylark. Oldsmobile had the 4-4-2 Cutlass. Pontiac had the GTO, of course, but also the Grand Prix, Firebird, and Trans Am.

Ford had the Mustang, and also packed a fair amount of muscle into the Fairlane and Torino. Mercury had the Cougar. And Chrysler, with its almost mythical Hemi engine, had the Barracuda, the Road Runner, and the Duster. Dodge offered Challengers, Chargers, Super Bees, Daytonas, and Darts. AMC had the Javelin, the Rebel Machine, and the AMX.

By the early 70s, though, sales of these souped-up models were starting to drop precipitously. Insurance companies had raised the premiums for such cars, and newly enacted Environmental Protection Agency regulations saddled them with emission control devices, which dampened their horsepower.

Yet American cars continued to grow in size even as their engines came with less horsepower. The delicate balance of style and speed in the late-60s models was upset by gaudy, oversized monstrosities such as the new Camaro, which night have looked fast but was mercilessly outrun by its predecessors. The once-mighty GTO was eliminated, its features reduced to options available with Pontiac’s sorry LeMans line. It was the start, many car enthusiasts feel, of a serious decline in American automobile making.

“In my opinion,” Robert Bravender, editorial director for the National Muscle Car Association, says, “everything Detroit made between 1974 and 1984 was junk.”

By the time the first of the mid-70s gas shortages hit, “You couldn’t give muscle cars away,” Bravender says. “So, they were put out back in the fields and in the barns.”

But like any other limited resource, muscle cars became collectible They were snapped up by Boomers, who had grown up in the muscle-car era but either couldn't afford them during their heyday or had long since traded in their Firebirds and Mustangs for more sensible, family-oriented cars. The stock-market crash of 1987 sent investors looking for something crash proof to put their money in, and what could be more crash proof than heavy old Detroit iron? Even Forbes wrote about muscle cars as investments. According to Bravender, Chryslers with Hemis--once the scourge of many a peaceful neighborhood--were being purchased by people living i n peaceful neighborhoods, at $70,000 a pop. Mint-condition Ford Cobras were getting half a million, clearly out of the price range of any kid working at McDonald’s after school.

"Well I was moving down the road in my V-8 Ford"
	"I had a shine on my boots, I had my sideburns low"
		--ZZ Top

“Young, dumb, and full of come,” Bucher calls teenagers with their first set of new wheels. Same as it ever was, same as it always will be. What is it about youth that makes teenagers want to drive their machines as fast and as hard as they can, pushing against the immutable laws of physics as if they arc another form of authority to question?

But with the investors and the boomers snapping up the heavy horsepower, what’s left for the kids to drive? None of the muscle cars built 1 0 years ago, Inning a few limp Camaros or Mustangs, seem to have much lasting popularity. Souped up Escorts? Hondas? Yeah, right.

As Goldsborough recalls, “I’ve rented a new Ford Taurus and I drove the stuffing out of it. The engine was like a whiny child. First of all, it had no low-end torque. There was literally no way you could pretend you had a performance-oriented car. When you punched the throttle, literally nothing would happen. . . . Tire smoking was not on the agenda.”

There are plenty of performance cars available today. The July 1996 issue of Motor Trend, for instance, compares this year’s Camaros and Ford Shelbys with those produced in the late 60s and determines that-~ surprise--the new models kick butt: They handle better, tear up the quarter mile quicker, and get better gas mileage to boot. All you need is $27,000 for the car and the insurance required to drive it.

To find out what the teen hoods are driving today, I had to hang where the teen hoods hang. A friend tipped me off to the 140 Village shopping center in Westminster. In her youth, it was the prime spot for gear-heads to hang out on Saturday night.

Sure enough, when we got there, vehicles were lined up and teenagers were hanging out, looking as bored, angry, and misunderstood as ever. The only difference was their mode of transportation. There wasn’t more than a handful of muscle cars, and they looked as forlorn and out of place as ex-varsity-football stars returning to their high school a few years after graduating.

No, the transportation of choice was the Iate-model pickup. At least a dozen of them were clustered together a few yards from the Martin’s grocery store mid-sized Chevys, Mazdas, Nissans, almost all of them immaculately painted red, white, maroon, or aqua blue. They were decked out, with skinny tires and custom rims. In many cases, the seats were removed and replaced with bucket seats; the backs of the cabs were cut and big speakers installed in what used to be the cargo areas. They boomed with techno music. Techno music, for goodness’ sake. And the pickups were slung low; at some point in the low rider's migration from West Coast to East, the concept got mixed up with custom trucks.

I get to talking with 24-year-old Jason Hoffman, founder of the Westminster chapter of the custom-truck club Extreme Dreams, which has 35 members. Hoffman is a soft-spoken man with a crew cut and a head for details. A decade or two ago, you’d have found a JasonHoffman under the hood of a Chevelle. Now, he dotes on a 1986 Mazda B2000 that looks as shiny as it must have when it came off the showroom floor. So far, he's put about $8,000 worth of additional work into the truck.

And that’s a pretty low figure in the crowd in which he runs. It’s not unusual, a few other truck owners tell me, to plow 30 or 40 grand into these machines.

But those in the pickup crowd say they don’t get the respect they deserve. Wes Hillsinger complains that at car-and-truck shows, the judges always give awards to restored older pick ups. “We don’t get noticed because they think, ‘Those are new, there’s nothing special about ‘em,” he says.

Show judges might ignore them, but more official authorities pay attention. Unlike their muscle-car forebears, pickup gearheads get cited by police for safety violations rather than speeding. Hillsinger proudly displays his framed collection of tickets for such in-fractions as low-and-dangerous suspension and tinted windows.

So what’s the appeal? Hillsinger mentions the speed bumps. Pickup artists, he says, treasure “the scrape” the screeching of metal against the concrete, the sparks flying up from behind, the stares of unbelieving onlookers. “Each part of the truck makes a different scraping sound, “ he adds.

The trick is not to get stuck. “You look like an ass if you get stuck,” Hillsinger says. He tells me one kid got his truck stuck in a car wash, another in his own driveway.

So the scrape has replaced the torque. And it goes against every principle of muscle-car etiquette. What if you mess something up? The exhaust, or the bumper, or ...

“Hey, they’re trucks,” Ron Brown, another customizer, says. They're meant to take a beating. Besides, that’s what parts are for.”

Ahh, parts. With these trucks, there are plenty of parts available. Anywhere. Inexhaustible youth.

"Nobody's gonna beat my car"
	"It's gonna break the speed of sound"
		--Deep Purple

A mechanic I once knew told me that his kid’s first car would be a $200 junker. That way, the kid would learn how cars work and how to fix them. In many ways, hopped-up muscle cars may be the last bastion of DIY auto-mobile repair.

Tomorrow’s kids might not have the same opportunity. A missing aspect of newer cars is the ability to work on them, to prod and poke and replace parts to improve performance. Federal and state emissions standards are getting tougher; the new laws bar tampering with or removing any device that affects emissions. It is just such goodies that motorheads love to toy with in their quest for increased speed and performance--adjusting the carburetor, for example, to take in a rich air/fuel mixture that improves performance but reduces the burning off of gasoline, which instead comes out of the tailpipe as fumes. No more of that sneaky removal of the catalytic converter after the emissions test, either--that’s now a federal offense that carries a fine of up to $2,500.

Maryland doesn’t emissions-test cars built before 1977, so this still leaves muscle-car owners relatively free to tinker at will. (As far as the effect on the atmosphere goes, many of the enthusiasts I spoke to claim a well-tuned muscle car expels far fewer air-fouling hydrocarbons than an untuned car from any year.) But as these pre-’77 cars die out, the idea of looking under the hood to see what can be done to improve performance will become more and more of an anachronism.

Further complicating the DIY ethic is on-board diagnostic equipment (OBD), a feature in many newer cars. The OBD is basically a computer chip that regulates many of the engine' elements--elements that used to be adjusted by the home mechanic with a few gauges and a trained ear. It’s difficult if not impossible for the home mechanic to readjust to OBD.

“You can, but it takes a degree of technical finesse greater than the average grease monkey possesses,” Goldsborough, says. One wrong setting and you might just blow a hole in your engine.

"Why don't you come with me little girl on a magic carpet ride"

Late one evening at the Middlesex Shopping Center in Essex, I approach a lone scarlet-flecked ‘68 Firebird at the far end of the parking lot. A man and his teenage daughter are sitting inside. The car shows the windswept signs of being day-to-day transportation-a ding here, some torn vinyl off the door there. Owner Bill Seitz, 44, is wearing sun-glasses and a button-down shirt, his graying hair swept back over his ears. I promise to take only 20 minutes of his time, but we end up talking well into the dusk, after the parking-lot lights blinker on, the stores shut down, and the customers head home. “I never had anybody talk to me about my car before, he says.

Seitz bought his ‘Bird in 1979 for $1,500 and has kept it on the road ever since. It may no longer. carry the same visceral thrill it did in 1979, the year he got eight speeding tickets, but perhaps it’s better to lay low anyway. Seitz says the cops just aren’t as understanding as they used to be.

“Even 15 years ago, police seemed as if they were more tolerant, but now they seem to be. . . . “ He pauses, then says, “There’s no way you can ride through Essex going 80 miles an hour. Years ago., they would have pulled you over but they might have wanted to talk about the car or something, and they might not have given you a ticket.”

Nonetheless, there are still good reasons to hold on to the car. “I never want to buy a new car and make the payments,” he says. “1’d rather get an old car, fix it up. Even if you put $800 or $1,000 into it a year, to me, you re better off with an old car, fixing it up.”

Seitz claims he’s never waxed the car, but he washes it every time he heads out to a concert. Next week is Bob Seger. Then the Moody Blues after that. “Gotta have the car looking good. “

The dashboard sits fat and wide across the narrow window, with an Elvis sticker plastered on it; the Rolling Stones’ signature red tongue hangs from the rearview mirror. The numbers 3-5-0 run along a raised, elongated portion of the hood. The speedometer goes up to 160, and Seitz says he’s had the car up to 130 or 140, “but that was back when I got those eight speeding ticket.”

Seitz starts it up. The engine’s a little rough at first, as any GM engine that’s 28 years old would be. But it warms up well enough after a minute or so.

--Joab Jackson

--Joab Jackson

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