By most accounts, I’m a good citizen. I work, I pay taxes, I keep my crimes to myself and I call my mother at least once a week. But I have a wild side. Like a vintage race, this part of my personality just begs to be taken out and let loose from time to time. I’m not going to tell you what I spent my first Bush tax rebate on. But I will tell you that when the $600 arrives in June, I will be at a $10/$20 No Limit table. So, when I was contacted by a guy in Prague to transport a 1981 Corvette from Oakland to a container ship in Los Angeles, I jumped at the chance. How could I lose?
It gets worse: The purchaser– whom we’ll call “Bob”– was actually a middle man for another Czech guy. The plan: wire transfer me the money for the merchandise, a one-way plane ticket and a small fee. You haven’t lived until you’re emailed your bank account info to a former communist country. I telephoned the seller to ask if he wanted a money order or a cashier’s check for the ‘Vette. “Cash,” was his not entirely unpredictable answer.
As I was unsure of the feasibility of a big cash withdrawal on a Saturday, I boarded a flight in Burbank with fifty-five $100 bills burning a worry-hole in my pocket.
Aside from a horrific speckled blue paint job, the Vette’s exterior looked ship shape. The interior was in remarkably good condition, too, with just the usual litany of malaise era Detroit bugaboos — shot HVAC, busted electric seats and a sun cracked dash. After handing over the bankroll, the seller fired her up.
As I headed out on the 880 towards the 101, a Led Zeppelin rock block started. Talk about apropos. “Hey hey mama said the way you move, going make you sweat, gonna make you groove!” Man, I was loving this. And felt just like a Jersey pot dealer. Hey, for all I knew, the gas tank was half-filled with smack.
By the time the last few chords of California ended, I was miserable. The turn signal lever had come off in my hand. There was no way to stop the hot air coming out of the vents, which meant I had to keep the windows down. On the freeway. The clutch literally has 14 inches of travel, and someone in the Czech Republic will be rebuilding a Chevy tranny sooner than later. Did I mention that the shocks are completely blown, and that the T-Tops sound as if they’re about to crack over every single road imperfection? Anyway…
My plan was to do the deed during daylight hours on a Saturday. I opted to take the slower, longer and more congested 101 because I’d be better off if the Corvette broke down. I also wanted to stop along the way and take some pretty pictures of the car along the coast, in a vineyard and maybe even parked in a mustard field.
Besides, the wind was a lot less annoying at 65 mph than at 80 mph. Also, why push it? The poor thing’s nearly as old as I am. All of that changed when I got to the Madonna Inn.
Figuring the garishness of the Corvette could only be matched by the surreal boorishness of the Inn, I stopped to snap some photos. And since C3s look so cool with their headlights up, I figured I’d pop ‘em. Only they wouldn’t pop. It was 3:00 pm, the day before daylight savings kicks in. I had 200 miles to go, and the last 30 of those were through Saturday night LA Traffic. I was now racing the sun.
Murliee Martin had been nice enough to check the Corvette out a few weeks before I showed up, so I called him. “There’s no headlights!” I shouted. “OK,” he replied. “You need to build up vacuum pressure. Take it up to 95 mph, shift into second, and let the engine haul you down to 40 mph.”
I’ve heard a lot of bad noises come out of cars in my day, but nothing quite like this. Imagine whacking a dozen circular saw blades with a crowbar. You get the idea, kinda.
I called Murilee back. “Nothing!” I screamed. “It’s probably a fuse,” he said. “You don’t have taillights either.”
So let’s recap: At this point I’m flying through wine country traffic without turn signals, headlights or taillights in a nearly 30-year-old example of the UAW’s finest work that’s titled to some guy in central Europe. And the gas tank’s (probably) stuffed with heroin. Yeah, this was big and dumb.