Not Exactly Jay Leno’s Garage

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I’ve got posters of Lamborghini Murias; I once got to drive a Pantera GTS – the 351 Cleveland howling inches behind my right ear. I’ve spent the past 20-plus years driving other people’s new cars. But how about my own cars?

Here’s what happens when you’ve got a car journalist’s income to work with:

* 1978 Camaro Type LT 

This car was a POS but I loved it, nonetheless. The T-tops leaked like a pasta strainer; the 350 V-8 had no power; the cheap chrome on the Keystone Klassic mags was peeling off; the rear quarter panels had more decay than the teeth of the hillbillies in Deliverance – and it was painted pastel robin’s egg blue. But it was mine – my first car. It was also my Learning Curve Car – the car I made every beginner’s mistake you can think of, from pouring way too much money into all the wrong areas to achieve pointless or minimal results to simply crippling the car in one way or another through my lack of experience, patience, proper tools – the usual foibles of the idiot teenager.

I accelerated rust by sanding panels down, then leaving them spray-can primered for months. Primer is of course porous. I discovered this later.

I enhanced oil burning by flogging the already tired 350 – eventually killing it off entirely by letting a wingnut get sucked into the four barrel carb, past the throttle plates and directly into the valvetrain. It still ran – just not very well.

After this came my first “built” engine – another 350 but with a 400 crank (so 383 cubic inches). It ran great – until I wrapped the Camaro around a telephone pole one night – after drinking way too much and wanting too much speed for a wet road and bald tires.

RIP.

* 1981 Camaro Z28 

At least it was a Z28. And dark navy blue this time. But it was in much worse condition overall than the ’78 had been in originally. Holes in the floorpans, holes in the trunk. Mr. T air freshener dangling from the rearview.  Dead transmission. No engine at all. Still, it had that cool-looking Air Induction hood with the little flapper doors at the rear that popped open when you floored it – assuming you had an engine to floor, of course. I thought it was the coolest thing ever – or at least as cool as the lights on the same-year Trans-Am turbo’s hood. Things like this matter a lot to a 19-year-old. But that’s not why I bought it. I bought it because it was a cheap and mostly straight chassis into which I could transfer the 383 salvaged from the totaled Type LT. Once revived, I finally had a genuinely quick car for the first time. It looked rough – but it went. In the summer of ’87 I surprised a guy in an ’86 TPI Corvette. In my circle of hooligans, only my friend’s ’71 Plymouth GTX was faster.

I was also learning things. For instance, that Camaros of this vintage (’78-81) could be lightened up by unbolting the heavy battering ram bumpers that were underneath the flexible rubber (and painted body color, as is ubiquitous today) front and rear “fascias.” Once you pulled these off, you could remove these heavy metal battering rams and then reinstall the plastic bumper covers – securing them with aluminum brackets. Of course, the car now had zero impact resistance and you’d be accordionized in even a low-speed impact – but the car was lighter by about 300 pounds.

I eventually sold the Z to a fellow cracker who appreciated its merits.

* 1969 VW Squareback 

I acquired this specimen for $400 at just about the same time as I got the ’76 50th Anniversary Trans-Am (below), principally so I could avoid having to take the TA to work in downtown DC everyday – which I knew would kill it. Or get me killed. DC – especially the part of DC where I worked at the time – was not a safe place for a young white guy. Or a nice old Trans Am. The Squareback was exactly what the doctor ordered. It had factory fuel injection – one of the first cars that wasn’t an exotic/high dollar car to come with EFI. It was also indestructible. I abused this car worse than Obama has pissed on the Constitution – and like the American people, it just put up with everything.

Every once in awhile, the FI system would go balky and I accidentally discovered that by kicking the car hard in the left rear quarter panel, it would re-set whatever was not right and the car would start. One day, in winter, I spun the car several times before hitting the curb hard, sideways, at about 30 mph. It bent the hell out of the front suspension and the only way to keep the car going in a straight line after that was to crank the wheel over about halfway and hold it there – which needed strength and concentration. If you let up for a second the car would suddenly jerk hard to left and hit whatever was there. I drove it that way for months.

One day, coming home, a guy in a brand-new Mercedes S-Class hit me. He had been distracted by something, wandered inot my lane. It was clearly his fault. We stopped. I looked at the new crumples in my $400 VW and told the business suit wearing Yuppie that I was cool with each of us dealing with our own problems if he was cool with that. Mine were fixable with a crowbar and two spray cans of Duplicolor. His would be more involved.

Eventually, I sold the VW for $800 to some kid who probably did the same and worse to the car – and likely ended up selling the thing, in his turn, for more than he paid me.

* 1976 Trans Am LE 

My first really collectible car – a car that Jay Leno might be interested in.

The ’76 LE was the  first production Trans Am to be given the now-iconic black and gold exterior – with the neat-o German gothic script callouts on the shaker scoop front quarter panels and tail section. This was the template for the ’77 “Smokey and the Bandit” cars – which were all special edition (not limited edition) cars. The ’76 LE cars were also 50th Anniversary (for Pontiac) cars and had a unique octagonal badge commemorating this.

My car also had the Hurt T-tops (first year for these) and the big (but seriously watered down in power output) 455 V-8 plus the four-speed manual transmission. It was the last year this combo would ever be offered from the factory and it was also my first big-cube muscle car. I had a lot of fun with this TA. Though the 455 only made up 200 hp in stock trim, with the 4-speed and 3.23 gears it would do admirable smokey burnouts and you could make the rear end bust sideways on a really hard 1-2 gear change. I had big plans for this car, which even back then (early 1990s) I knew was going to be a collectible given its very low production and historical significance. Only a couple hundred were made with the 455/4-speed combo; even fewer with T-tops, too.

But my plans were ruined one day when a guy in an old van ran a light and T-boned the TA, totaling it.

I still have the shaker with the German script “455″ call-outs on the sides – it’s hanging on the wall in the garage -  but the rest of the car long ago went to that big pow-wow in the sky.

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