I never dreamed that a car would tell a story about my life.
Or, be such a part of it.
Not many adults still have their first car.
I’m one who does.
I’ve always liked it. Never wanted to part with it.
“It” is a 1971 Oldsmobile 442 convertible, a classic muscle car.
Built in an era when a gallon of gas—the leaded real stuff, with none of this ethanol business, either—set you back around 35 cents.
Hoods were real metal. You could sit on ‘em and they wouldn’t bend, something I’d tell you to be very careful about trying these days.
FM? Cassette? 8-track? Nope. AM.
But the antenna was built in to the windshield. How cool was that?
Fixed speed windshield wipers (no interval/mist settings aboard this ship).
Want high beams? Push the floor switch with your left foot.
And, no, one headlight does not turn off when a turn signal activates—no daytime running lights, either.
Oh, and you want to lock or unlock the door? Pull up or push down on the lock pull or stick the key in the lock, ‘cause you can click that 21st century remote ‘til the end of time and nothin’s gonna happen.
Forget the fuel door and the remote switch for opening it—swing the license plate down and unscrew the gas cap.
Engine start? No push button start here, pal.
Engines were big.
Trust me when I say 455 cubic inches of 4 barrel–powered V8 will scoot.
And drink fuel.
The idea here is not about economy.
The idea is performance.
How fast will it go?
I honestly don’t know the answer, ‘though I started to ask that question one day in Mexico.
Aside from the motor that puts the top up and down, everything else about this car is pretty much manual. Right down to probably the only semi-high tech feature, which would be opening the trunk by pushing the button mounted inside the glove compartment.
And the glove compartment is where this story happens.
In 1972 or ’73, my father bought the car with 19,000 miles on it in immaculate condition from its first owner, Brooks Martin, a San Antonio, Texas, artist, architect and friend of the family.
My Dad had owned the car only a week or so when I laid eyes on it in the driveway at our San Antonio home.
As an about–to–be–driving student at Alamo Heights High School, I had the itch for my first set of wheels.
And the car I wanted was sitting in our driveway.
Thinking it would be a really nice gesture on my Dad’s part to give me the car (since this would be my first, and, hey, I was a good kid, and this just seemed like a heck of an idea, and he needs to do it!), I went to Dad and started dropping hints.
Well, Dad said, if you want the car, then you need to fork over a couple of thousand bucks. That’s the amount my Dad had paid—half the original selling price—as part of a bet he’d won with Mr. Martin over drinks at The Argyle.
Whether alcohol might have played any role in determining the wager price, well, I wasn’t there.
As for Dad’s response to my awesome idea, I could just about hear the squeaky sound of air speedily exiting my trial balloon.
I was steamed.
But Dad wasn’t backing down.
I had money saved up and:
I. Wanted. That. Car.
With blue passbook in hand, I walked into Alamo Savings and Loan on Broadway in Alamo Heights.
Later, we swapped; Dad got money, and I got keys.
I didn’t think so at the time, but making me pay for the car (instead of giving it to me) was the best favor my Dad could have ever done for me.
Nothing helps you appreciate the value of money like having to put skin in the game. I see so many examples of that lesson desperately needing to be taught to kids and adults today that it makes my head spin (I think this is one of the biggest reasons the world is so messed up today).
Spending $2,000 as a high school kid was a huge expenditure in my world.
I told myself the day I got the keys: I just shelled out two grand! Why would I be stupid and tear this car up?
Early on, I vowed: Drive it easy, take care of it…
And no hot rodding.
Oil changes every 5,000 miles. Religiously.
Over the coming years, the car would take me to more places than I could count…from Texas to southern California where I went to college for two years…back to different places in Texas and, in 1982, to Alabama to take a job in television news and weather in Birmingham.
The 442 was my daily general use vehicle. I treated it like a precious resource.
For many years, every visit to the gas pumps was meticulously logged: Date, mileage, number of gallons, price per gallon, total amount.
A file folder contains decades worth of repair receipts and license plate renewals.
The car would become much more a part of my life than I’d have ever guessed. To say that the car and I have a lot of history together is putting it mildly.
If the 442 could talk, there’d be stories aplenty.
Trips with high school friends to have lunch at Jim’s Restaurant on Broadway, The Bun ‘N’ Barrell (or a bunch of other places) on Austin Highway. High school dates and proms, including to Floore’s Country Store in Helotes.
Driving the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles, cruising up the Pacific Coast Highway (Californians call it PCH) from LA to San Francisco. Living in Austin while attending The University of Texas.
Going to work at television and radio broadcasting jobs in San Antonio, Austin, Beaumont and, later, nearly 10 years of driving up the hill below Vulcan to work at WVTM-TV, the NBC affiliate atop Red Mountain in Birmingham, Alabama.
Outrunning state troopers on I-10 west of Tucson, Arizona (their poor Crown Vics just couldn’t keep up).
Kidding on that last one.
But I did install a 23 channel Realistic TRC-24C CB radio, purchased from the Radio Shack on Broadway in Alamo Heights. Two-way radio was extremely cool, and I had not yet been introduced to amateur radio (way cooler).
I drove the car to Mexico City where I worked for Associated Press one summer. I lived with friends of my parents, and drove to work each day, parking at our office along the Paseo De La Reforma, the wide avenue that cuts through the center of Mexico City. I got a kick out of the freeway speed limit signs, which said 90 (kilometers an hour, that is).
Outside of Mexico City, as I was heading back to Texas, I wondered what kind of speed my muscle machine would deliver.
Since traffic law enforcement was basically non-existent, I decided to ‘throttle up’ some.
Remember, this is a convertible — don’t be thinking air tight quiet ride here, especially where the top adjoins the windshield.
The car sounded like a jet about to take off; the noise from so much air flow was almost deafening. There was still more accelerator room and I knew the engine was still not running wide open as the speedometer passed 100.
Call me chicken, but at 110—and with more throttle still available, but scenes from a fatal wreck I had passed earlier fresh in my mind—I said that’s it, and decided not to risk my still teenaged existence on the planet—or the car’s—any further.
Mario Andretti I’m not.
Maybe that’s why we’re both still around today.
What started out as my sitting in the passenger seat a couple of days ago turned into something I had no idea would happen.
As I sat, tightening a screw to reattach a sun visor I had had resewn, something made me open the glove compartment (which had not been gone through in decades).
Sifting through the dusty papers, items and debris, I started realizing what was happening.
I was opening a time capsule into my life.
And so much of it involved the car.
This sleek, powerful, mechanical creation with pin stripes and dual exhausts was taking me back in time, showing me—reminding me—who, and where, I was, and who, and what, were important, at various stages of my life, via the items inside:
Several people have asked over the years if the car was for sale, including the driver who stuck his head out of his window and yelled to me from the next lane while going down I-65 in Birmingham.
“What year is that?”
“How long have you had it?”
“This is your first car? Seriously?”
I got nervous one day while driving down a rural road in Shelby Co., Alabama, when a car started following me mysteriously, the driver flashing his headlights.
He kept following as I made various turns.
I began to wonder if he was planning something sinister.
I finally pull in to a busy convenience store parking lot.
He walks up and insists that I agree to take his name and number. “You have to promise me that if you ever want to sell that car, you’ll call,” he said.
Believe it or not, I’m not really a car freak. In fact, when I bought the 442, I sure didn’t think about driving it at age 60.
There never was any grand plan for the car, like entering car shows or anything else.
I just liked driving it.
Colleen drove it once, and said it scared her.
The car and I have had our stressful moments together, too, including a freak accident in which I was hit from behind while driving Loop 410 in San Antonio. Thanks to everything happening at slow speed, there were no serious injuries, but it could have been way worse. Metal pipes slid off the truck behind, bouncing off the trunk and crashing through my rear window, hitting my right shoulder and sliding inside the steering wheel into the dash, cracking part of the instrument cluster.
There was a middle of the night hit-and-run when the car was parked in front of my home in Helena, Alabama, causing major damage. The driver took off, but Helena police tracked him down.
The car had to endure more torture of its own when the owner of the Pelham, Alabama, body shop doing the repairs turned out to be a complete shyster who damaged the vehicle even more, lost parts and let it sit out in the rain with the windows down.
Although I sued, won and collected, I found that going to court—even when you win—is no fun.
The car has had its share of people who’ve been good to it over the years, too, like David Baird, owner of David’s Auto in Pelham.
David has worked on the 442 and other cars for me for decades.
I’ve never taken any problem to David that he couldn’t fix, and he’s as honest as the day is long.
Vini Madrigal, owner of Vini’s Hot Rods in Alabaster Alabama, is another automotive good guy.
Vini recently did interior renovation work on the 442, including restitching the sun visor. His folks did a good job—I’d use ’em again.
Put the top down, take it for a spin, and I almost feel like I’m the kid back in the ‘70s (maybe even with long hair again—wait—what was I thinking?)
Sure, some of today’s fancy, high-tech cars are fun to drive, but nothing matches the 442.
Driving with the top down is a total rush.
You’re much more connected to the world around you—it’s similar, I suspect, to how motorcycle riders probably feel.
While it’s no longer my daily use vehicle, I did learn—the hard way—that, let a car sit too long, and you’ll pay a huge price.
Cars want to run.
So, nearly 45 years after entering my life, the 442 continues to get regular exercise and care.
I guess cars really do have a way of sharing our souls with us.