By on February 20, 2013

 

1969 Chevelle SS

 

A few weeks a go I had the opportunity to watch part of the Barrett Jackson auction. I found myself captivated by the colorful commentary that went along with each sale. Every car had a story and the commentators spent a great deal of time telling us about them. They also discussed the cars’ performance, available options and recited the original production numbers, contrasted by telling us exactly how many of those cars survive today. It turns out that many of the cars I regularly used to see back in the 1970s are extremely rare today. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, however, after all, I had a hand in making them go away.

By the time the 1980s got into full swing, around 1983, people were good and tired of the 1970s. The ‘70s had been pretty rough on the average American. We had our pride hurt when Saigon fell, we lost faith in our political institutions thanks to Watergate and we were embarrassed when our embassy was stormed by a bunch of kids in Iran. To make matters worse, we had gone way overboard on cheesy variety shows, bell bottoms and the cocaine and now we had one hell of a hangover. It was, we collectively decided, better if we just put the past behind us.

In 1983 I was a junior in high school and, with the economy still in a shambles, jobs in small-town America for kids my age were few and far between. Fortunately, my mom and dad weren’t stingy and I had enough money in my pocket to play Defender at the 7-11 and to put gas in my 6 cylinder Nova, but I aspired to bigger things. I wanted to build a fast car. It was my search for a job and my attempt to access to cheap parts that led me to form a friendship with the local hot-rodder.

Already married with three kids, Tim Harris was only about a decade older than me. He was the kind of guy who lived and breathed cars; the kind of guy who forever smelled of old crankcase oil and Dexron II. As a neighbor, he drove down your property values. His yard was filled with half stripped cars, disembodied engine and racks of body parts. Naturally, I thought he was the coolest guy around.

Easy Prey

The owner of several Chevrolet Vegas in his younger years, Tim had begun collecting parts to keep his own cars running but soon found that people were willing to pay a handsome premium for the parts they needed to keep their own cars going as well. Before long, Tim had an established business, buying up and parting out Chevrolets all over the county and, luckily for me, his business had grown to the point that he needed someone to help him. Since I was willing to work for a pittance, and bought most of my parts from him anyway, I got the job.

Tim had me do all sorts of work around the his house. I hauled wood, dug ditches, ran barbed wire and helped dismantle the cars he brought home. He worked me hard, but sometimes I got to ride along as Tim went to pick up one junker or another and, as we drove, he taught me the tricks of his trade. Like most money making ventures, the underlying idea was simple, the execution was not.

The process began in the driver’s seat and we drove about ceaselessly scouring the area for possible purchases. A potential buy was always a car that was sitting. Signs of a sitting car included a layer of dirt, pine needles or leaves on top and a patch of longish grass or other debris underneath. Flat tires were almost always good for us while an open hood or ongoing body work were usually not. With the economy in a protracted slump and high gas prices at the pump, that part was easy.

It took real skill, however, to know what you were actually looking at. I have, it turns out, a photographic memory and I soon developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the cars of the 60s and 70s. I knew their shapes, options, trim levels, possible power trains, even more esoteric things like whether or not they might be hiding disc brakes under their hubcaps. I could look at a car from the seat of the van and instantly report what it was. Tim would do the other important part, the mental math that told him just how much profit our find might actually bring. If a car was worth it, we knocked on the door of the house.

This system worked surprisingly well. Tim was a cash buyer and a great many people were swayed by the sight of his money. Together we purchased some of the great cars of the era.

One that should have been allowed to escape.

At one house, Tim scored a 1968 Chevy II with a 250 HP 327, a Muncie 4 speed and a positraction rear end for $300. It had been sitting for a while, but together Tim and I compression started the engine by rolling it down a small hill. The old car fired up and ran strong. I laid a great deal of rubber at every stop on the way home. Naturally, I was in love and wanted to save the baby blue car, but Tim would have none if it. In less than a month every part of value was sold and Tim and I hauled the stripped carcass to the recyclers in order to make room for the next victim.

So it went with dozens of cars and Novas, Camaros, Chevelles, Impalas and dozens upon dozens of late 60s Chevy trucks were sacrificed one piece at a time to the great god of commerce. Like a 19th century whaling operation, we stalked our prey, made the kill and then hauled the beast ashore where we stripped away every usable bit one piece at a time before taking the final remains to a place where they were rendered down into smelter fodder. There was one exception.

One that did get away.

The 1965 Impala SS 396 was truly a thing of beauty. Canary yellow with a black vinyl top, we found her on four flat tires and with a surprising amount of moss on the cement slab beneath her. I could see the cold calculation in Tim’s eyes as we walked around the dignified old girl, big block engine, SS wheel covers, disc brakes, all the trim pieces in good condition, flawless interior. This car was ripe for the picking. Tim ended up paying just $500 to an elderly lady who confessed she just wanted to be rid of it.

Once the title was in hand, we spent a few minutes getting the car prepped for the trip home. I pumped up the tires with a small compressor, checked the oil and water, and then we started the old big block using jumper cables. It ran rough at first but soon settled down and when we were ready, Tim let me go ahead while he followed in the van.

The old car was nice inside and the big engine ran well. The transmission shifted smoothly, and not for the first time I noticed what a really fine car it was. It did seem to wander around a bit out on the road and it had a fair amount of play in its steering, but old Impalas, especially big block cars, had a tendency to wear out suspension bushings. It was a minor problem, and I made the trip home without incident.

After parking the car, I got out and gave it a good serious look. I was still there when Tim pulled up a minute later. “This is a nice car.” I said.

“Yeah,” answered Tim, “A really nice car.”

“You think maybe someone would just buy the whole thing?” I asked.

“I could get more from parts than I could the whole thing.” Tim replied.

“It wouldn’t be right though.” I said.

‘I know.” Said Tim, “I know.”

The next week Tim put an ad in the paper and an elderly gentleman made the trip out to where we lived in the country to buy the car. Tim got $900 for it and seemed happy enough as the old car rolled down the driveway and away into the afternoon. But as it faded into the distance, he turned on me, “I could have made more money if I hadn’t listened to you.” he said accusingly.

“Somebody has to be your conscience.” I answered.

His expression lightened and he smiled. “I know.” said Tim heading for his van. “Come on, let’s go find something else we can make money on.” I paused a moment, then laughed and went with him, always ready to drive home another piece of history.

Teddy Roosevelt refusing to kill a captive bear.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

38 Comments on “My Role In The Extinction Of The American Muscle Car...”


  • avatar
    Zackman

    Certainly everything has a “shelf life”, doesn’t it?

    Yes, I miss the cars of my youth, especially the beautiful 1964 Impala SS convertible I enjoyed when in the air force. I owned the car from June, 1970 to July 1973. Wish I would have kept it when I got out, but it came down to money – I didn’t have any!

    I only miss the styling, as today’s lowliest Hyundai Accent is a million times better in every way save style than ANYTHING that existed even 20 years ago.

    Time moves only forward…

    Memories remain forever.

  • avatar
    Nate

    Great story. Thanks for sharing.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Thank you .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    Great story. I like this guy’s writing.

  • avatar
    Junebug

    I was a teen during the wonderful 70′s, lets see, fall of Saigon, Jimmy Carter, Iran, WTF – man, other than the teen sex, the 70′s were awful. But, you could buy sixty’s muscle cars dirt cheap, some had the original owner. IF, IF! I had known, I would have invested in cars and made a killin at Barrett Jackson today. But, spent all my money on women and weed.

  • avatar
    rpol35

    I greatly appreciate your story but I have to tell you that those who came a bit earlier than you have more responsibility than probably anyone for bringing about these car’s demise.

    My friends and I were buying them in the early ’70′s when they were just unwanted used cars and we were pretty much blowing them up by over modifying them and racing them hard. There seemed to be an endless supply of cheap, late ’60′s GM horsepower available, Chevies mostly but we gobbled up a few Pontiacs (GTO’s) and an Oldsmobile (442) or two, and as soon as we went through one, we just went on to the next. We’d spin bearings on big-blocks, strip counter-gears out of Muncie four-speeds, bust ring gears on BOP 10 bolt differentials (the Chevy 12-bolts were a lot tougher), take out guard rails street racing and on and on. These were the cars that collectors go ga-ga over at the classic car auctions today.

    It is a testament to the shear number of these cars that were manufactured that there are still so many today in existence. You are right, the ’80′s were a difficult time for survivability of these leviathans but many did make it into the ’90′s when the interest and appreciation started. I even bought a few late ’60′s Impalas, starting in the mid-90′s, with strictly the intention of putting them back together the way they were intended to be, certainly not to hot-rod them or flip them for profit.

    Oh yeah, one last point, the 250 HP 327 was not available in the ’68 Chevy II/Nova, it was only available in the full size B-body (Impala) and A-body (Chevelle/ElCamino). Your friend’s must have been the more potent 275 HP which was a Chevy II/Nova option.

    Thx!

    • 0 avatar
      -Nate

      What you said ~

      During the 1970′s my shop ran a short Classified Advert : “we fix or BUY any car ! “.

      We’d buy all the Muscle Cars we could find for $100 or so , as mentioned most were one owner passable bodies with usually bagged original interiors , we’d drag them straight to the crusher and made good $ on them , sorry about that , no one wanted gas guzzlers when gas was 0.50 cents the gallon .

      -Nate

  • avatar
    pdieten

    A car’s parts have no value unless somebody is trying to keep another of the same car on the road. Sometimes, some must die so that others can live.

  • avatar

    @ Rpol35- Sorry, that was a typo on my part. It was 350 horsepower L79 car.

    • 0 avatar
      rpol35

      Very rare & very cool! One of my reprobate friends had one of those too although I think in the Nova it was down-rated to 325 HP. Anyway, he babied it except for this horrible psychedelic paint job that he slopped on it.

      Like a nitwit, he parked it in a shopping center parking lot in a bad part of town in 1974 and it disappeared never to be seen again.

      • 0 avatar

        It was a toal rust bucket, but it was an awesome little car. God knows how long that thing had been sitting when we found it, but it bump started in the first 100 feet.

        I owned a lot of Novas an what stuck me about his car were two things, first, the novas from 69 – 74 were all the same inside, the 68 was weird and, two, the car had zerop options on it. I think the Nova option on the 68 Chevy II was less than $20 dollars and got you chrome Nova badges and rubber floor mats – this car had neither. It also had a radio delete and baby moon hubcaps. It was quite the race car.

  • avatar
    dougjp

    Another great story, so enjoyable to read. I’m a fan. :)

  • avatar
    200k-min

    IIRC the 60′s muscle cars didn’t really get expensive until the 90′s…and I presume that to be about the time boomers had enough nostalgia and money to start collecting the things.

    I’m too young to have experienced those vehicles first hand but have heard story upon story from my father and people of his generation. Then I got to ride in some of those beloved “muscle cars.”

    Ummm….first impression was these cars are clumsy…handling is crap, styling is crude (especially interior), they’re heavy, loud and a twin turbo ricer could smoke this thing. You paid how much for this??!!

    Guess you had to have been there.

    My friends and I in senior high were meanwhile drooling over this new supercar Acura NSX, Supra’s and Nissan 300′s. I wonder…should I be buying early 90′s vehicles now???

    • 0 avatar
      hubcap

      “I wonder…should I be buying early 90′s vehicles now???”

      Depends. Do any of the vehicles you mentioned tickle your fancy? Is so, yes you should buy one, if not save your money. I do understand where you’re coming from but for some people the experience is a big part of wanting to own and drive these cars.

      And yes many we’re clumsy but there are remedies for that (just take a look at the pro-touring cars).

      I’m an aviation nut as well as a gear head. The Camcords of the sky (Cessna 172, Piper Warrior and their ilk) are much better aircraft than a Tiger Moth or a Stearman. Ask me which one I’d rather fly?

      • 0 avatar
        Summicron

        @200k-min

        “Guess you had to have been there.”

        If you were kidnapped and dumped in Zimbabwe, you wouldn’t be in as strange a world as 2013 America is to the 50′s/60′s America some of us grew up in.

        In fact, Zimbabwe would….. nah, not going there.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      You’re just a few years late. The time to buy those was back in 2009 when the economy was in the toilet and folks needed quick cash. Still, if you can find the few unmolested examples left and can maintain them for a few decades, then you might make out pretty well.

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        The economy is STILL in the toilet. We’re in a depression, which usually has at least two dips, with a couple peaks before and after. If you can afford to tie up your money until about 2018, it’s still a good time to pick up some early ’90s investments.

  • avatar
    skor

    In 1983 I was in college. The classic muscle cars of the 60s were old heaps that didn’t much love….with a few exceptions. My friends and I smashed quite a few 289 and 390 Mustangs. We also wrecked a number of 1st gen Camaros/Firebirds and a number of Mopar products. I’ll always fondly remember the time we drove a Chrysler Imperial into the swamp near Giants Stadium, and shot it to bits with a Marlin .444 lever gun.

    • 0 avatar
      Summicron

      Quite the pedigree. Should be well positioned to become an HVE.

    • 0 avatar
      econobiker

      Most of the surviving 1960s to early 1970s cars were rust buckets in the rust belt areas such as Northeast and Midwest by the the 1980s.

      I remember that a friends’ older brother was a general miscreant and had associates of dubious quality. One of the brother’s more delinquent friends particularly favored Mopars from the early 1970s. He’d procure some Dodge or Plymouth vehicle, swap a big engine/transmission into it (numbers be damned) and then install a roll cage – for the street. And then proceed to street race it until he wrecked it and went on to the next one.

      I even remember seeing some weird 1960s Mustang parked on the street that did not have a rear seat, had and had weird air scoops in front of the back wheels, louvers over the rear quarter windows, the rust out areas at the rear trunk and quarter panels had been fixed up with a lot of Bondo and bodywork of shoddy quality. Of course this was probably a Shelby 350 but I was barely a teen and knew nothing of these at the time…

      • 0 avatar
        skor

        Exactly. Most of the the vaunted muscle cars of the 60′s were half eaten by the tin-worm when I first got behind the wheel. I can remember when the junkyards were full of 1st gen Mustangs (Mustang IIs as well), Camaros, Chargers and the like. When I was 16 a run-of-the-mill 289 Mustang could be had for $500, or less…….holes in the floorboards, rotted quarter panels, trashed interior. No one at the time thought cars like that would be worth any money. We were dumb kids and the cars were old wrecks. Put the two together, and what do think happens?

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    Quote-By the time the 1980s got into full swing, around 1983, people were good and tired of the 1970s. The ‘70s had been pretty rough on the average American. We had our pride hurt when Saigon fell, we lost faith in our political institutions thanks to Watergate and we were embarrassed when our embassy was stormed by a bunch of kids in Iran. To make matters worse, we had gone way overboard on cheesy variety shows, bell bottoms and the cocaine and now we had one hell of a hangover. It was, we collectively decided, better if we just put the past behind us.

    I suppose we are going to be saying something very similar in the next decade about 2001-2013. From the housing crisis to several bouts of record high oil prices, recessions, failed government policies, bland generic look alike cars, tasteless lack of any color, going overboard on cheesy fake reality shows, bodies littered with ink and earings, bath salts and meth with one hell of a hangover with the past hopefully left well behind us.

    • 0 avatar
      Toad

      I don’t know if we are ready to end this “phase” at year 2013. I’d like to hope so but don’t see too many signs of it yet. Whatever your politics we did not get out of the ’70s until we got better leadership. I’m not sure I see that on the horizon.

      I always thought that the nostalgia for the 1970′s was funny since it was a pretty crappy decade for most people who lived through it. The cars of the 1970′s were the absolute low point in our automotive history; ugly, underpowered, inefficient, with the added bonus of poor design and assembly.

      Our economy and leadership may be That 70′s Show quality, but at least now we have much better cars.

      • 0 avatar
        ixlar8

        “I always thought that the nostalgia for the 1970′s was funny since it was a pretty crappy decade for most people who lived through it.”

        Except for the Music. When I listen to my Sirius ’70s’ channel, I remember the tunes and my 71 Camaro SS thumping down the interstate.

  • avatar
    Mykl

    Another great read. :)

    I always thought that all the old cars got destroyed by being ramped over rivers by Burt Reynolds, Steve McQueen, or Bo and Luke Duke. Thanks for educating me.

  • avatar
    Synchromesh

    Excellent read. Keep ‘em coming!

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Great story. I myself over the years have bought and sold many potential collectibles of the future. Although if the car was solid and in one piece, I would almost always flip it whole to get the much faster return.

    The ones I parted were the ones with body damage, spun bearings or smoked transmissions. The problem with parting out is 1. The time it takes to recoup investment is much longer (you need storage space and patience) and 2. the hussle required to hock parts to bottom dwellers sometimes isn’t worth the return.

    • 0 avatar
      outback_ute

      Same as what I was thinking re the SS396 – $400 profit for an hours work versus maybe double for many more hours. Sure the money is there but not the rate, take the money & move on to the next one.

      I have seen an interview with a prominent local restorer/parts supplier reminiscing about not only the cars they wrecked 25-30 years ago, but the cars they deemed not worth bothering with – which are now worth $50k plus!

  • avatar
    highdesertcat

    Great story! I can relate. Reading the piece snapped me back to the days of when I owned big engines in powerful cars, like the 455 Toronado, or the 455 Custom Cruiser, both bought new and driven in Germany while I was stationed there.

    But it also made me remember cars I bought used, like the 396 Chevelle, the 430 Mercury, the 500 Cadillac, and the 454 Suburban. They were not muscle cars per se but they had plenty of muscle.

    Our individual experiences make us what we are and how we present ourselves to society and my experiences with cars only enforces my belief that there is no replacement for displacement and that bigger is better.

    I’m no candidate for the rolling sardine cans that pass for the cars of today. And EVs? None for me, thanks! Give me big. Give me powerful. Who cares what gas costs!? It beats walking.

    I have all the signs of a gasoline addict.

  • avatar
    Felix Hoenikker

    The ad for the 65 Chevy Impala brings back memories. My first car was a blue coupe similar to the one shown above. It had the 283 V8 and the famous 2 speed slip’n slide tranny. No power anything either. I had it from 72-75, and it served me well.
    The main down side of this car was that it was a cop magnet. I would get stopped about once a week by the police. Never for speeding, just things like “someone just robbed a bank with a car like this”. etc. Once, the Philly police stopped me and asked me to roll down the window so they could shine a flashlight on my shoes. Whatever they were looking for I didn’t have so they sent me on my merry way. Another time a hick cop in one of the townships near my parents house stopped me at night, and wanted to know why I was driving there. He then said I wasn’t allowed to drive on that road anymore. WTF do they get these people? My dad wanted his name so he could go over to the station and go ballistic on him.
    As soon as I sold the car and bought a shiny new Opel Manta, all this stopped. The power of German social engineering?

  • avatar
    Fordson

    Assuage your guilt! Nowhere near as many of these cars disappeared this was as did through the efforts of the tin worm. Nowhere near.

  • avatar
    niky

    Lovely story. Great read.

    Sad how all those cars are gone, but really… time and rust would have done many of the worse ones in, eventually.


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting

Recent Comments

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Authors

  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • J & J Sutherland, Canada
  • Tycho de Feyter, China
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Faisal Ali Khan, India