When I see an older car, I cannot help but wonder how the events of the day played out in the creation and purchase of that machine.
It was 1974, and time of flux in my life. The speed limit due to the energy crisis was lowered to 55 mph and gasoline was in short supply. The country was in a recession, and it was the last year for a production car with dual exhausts. 1975 would bring the advent of the catalytic converter and, at best, only twin tailpipes. I was years away from getting my driver’s license, and it appeared that I had missed the boat. The world that I was so anxious to become a part of had changed dramatically… and not for the better.
When not involved with helping my dad on the farm or doing my homework, I could be found riding my bicycle on our dirt road, with a little transistor radio attached to the handlebars. It was tuned to 1050 WRNJ. That was the first and only radio station near our farm. It had just recently begun broadcasting earlier that year.
Then on a damp autumn day, I heard a song come through the speaker. That melody changed everything. I fell in love for the first time. The tune was, “Have You Never Been Mellow”, by Olivia Newton-John. I was smitten by the potpourri of the melody, words and femininity of her voice.
Back then, the radio station appeared to play songs in rotation, most likely following the Billboard Top 40 ratings. So, whenever I had the chance to tune-in, I hoped to hear Olivia’s sweet voice sing to me, but I was yet to know what she looked like.
Hackettstown only had a five and dime store on Main Street called J.J. Newberry’s, but it did have a small record department. With our farm five miles from town, I had to hope that my mother needed to go there, and I would tag along as usual.
I would have to sneak off to the record department since I was embarrassed to tell anyone about my secret love. The one I was well convinced that I would eventually marry.
The day finally arrived. My mom’s 1970 Plymouth fired immediately and ran on fast idle, as did my anticipation of hopefully seeing what my radio bride looked like. My dad had told mom to never drive off until it kicked down to the lower step of the fast-idle cam… boy, how I wished that the choke spring had less tension that afternoon. The ride to town seemed like 500 and not five miles.
Would she be pretty? Would I be disappointed? Would J.J. Newberry’s have her album? Then I saw her picture. I was a goner.
Olivia’s blonde hair and beguiling face were more than this young farm boy could handle. I saved my money and bought every LP that she had out at the time. One album had a song titled, “Every Face Tells a Story.” I connected with it because even at that young age, I would always try to search out the story behind the obvious.
Being a car guy, I tend to chronicle my life around what was rolling off the Detroit assembly lines at the time. Rorschach test me and say 1986, and immediately I will think of the mandatory CMHSL (center-mounted high stoplight), to most normal people, the third brake light.
As a reader of this column, I owe it to you to provide full disclosure. I readily admit your humble scribe marches to the beat of a different drummer. If 1964 to 1974, was the real muscle car era, it is interesting to note that those years are the beginning and end of Pontiac GTO production. A coincidence or a prophecy? You decide.
During that decade, the country was experiencing diametrically opposed forces. It was the best of times and the worst of them. President and Senator Kennedy were assassinated along with Dr. Martin Luther King. The war in Vietnam was in full swing, and the anti-establishment movement that became known as hippies were gaining traction.
In contrast, the economy was booming, technological advancements were ours, America put a man on the Moon, and the muscle car became the possession of almost anyone that had the desire.
Bank and captive financing meant that a young man could go down to the dealership and drive out with a brand new, factory-built hot rod. The roads were empty, no one had heard of urban sprawl, and drag strips and street racing were as common as flies at a summer picnic.
When I see an older car, I cannot help but wonder how the events of the day played out in the creation and purchase of that machine. I am sure, in many instances, it went something like this:
Someone not much older than a boy with a pretty young bride wonders how they will make ends meet and achieve the American dream now that the thrill of the honeymoon was over. He tells her not to worry because tomorrow morning he is going down to the GM, Ford, Chrysler or AMC plant and putting in an application to work on the line. He gently kisses her good night, and she falls asleep, safe, and secure about tomorrow.
A kid on the family farm is helping to bring in the harvest on a sunny autumn day. Off to the distance out on the two-lane, he spots a car carrier going toward town. It is loaded with brand new Mustangs of every color. When his brain processed what his eye just saw, he quickly presses in the clutch on the tractor, and the corn chopper stops.
For a moment, he stares at the beautiful new Fords and pictures himself behind the wheel with the throbbing 390 V-8 under the hood. He lets the clutch out, the engine governor accepts the load with a blip in rpm, and he continues to cut corn, but with a gleam in his eye and a promise to himself that one day he will own a car like that.
Barely being able to grow a thick enough beard to dull a razor, a soldier sits as a POW in a North Vietnamese prison camp. He thinks of happier times and his Road Runner that he left covered up at home in the barn, not even a year old. How he prays that one day he can see his family again. At the same moment, his dad sneaks out to see the car and lifts the tarp off the fender. He touches it gently as if it were his son. Halfway around the world at that exact second, the young warrior feels a moment of peace.
Now I would like to share part of a letter a friend sent me. His name is Bob Reed:
“Todd’s 1973 Vega GT is still in storage for when you can get it. Remember, there is no charge, and no one else can have it. When you are ready, I will sign the title over to you. April 8th marked the 35th anniversary of Todd’s death, and it is hard to believe that if he were alive, he would be 50 years old. I think he will always be a 15-year-old to us. He was a passenger in a car carrying four teenagers when he was killed. It was alcohol-related. If you ever fix up the Vega, you can say that. Maybe it will spare another family the pain we suffered.”
It is the people that make a farm and its machines more than soil, iron, and steel. Please never forget that.
One day I will get that Vega.