It was 1984. Van Halen, Iron Maiden, and the Scorpions were on the radio stations I listened to, while Prince, Wham, and some guy named Michael Jackson were on the stations I avoided. I was a young punk and I ran with a fast crowd. Whatever, I was into fast.
At just 17 years old, my best buddy Rick had already owned a string of jalopies. His first car had been a VW Beetle of dubious quality and it had made him famous around the school when its throttle stuck wide-open. Fortunately the gate to the high school football field happened to open and Rick was able to pilot the car out onto the perfectly maintained grass where he was forced to do donuts for his very life until the poor beast finally sunk up to its axles. After that had come a string of unremarkable cars, but then finally, he managed to score some real muscle, a 1974 AMC Javelin.
Rick’s Javelin was an amazing machine and I was instantly taken with its quirky style and it funky purple color. Equipped with a 304 small block and an automatic transmission, the car was not really as muscular as it probably seemed at the time but it did alright on the road. We spent a lot of Friday and Saturday nights cruising the around looking for pick-up races, some of which we won or standing around in parking lots trying our best to look tough and pick up girls, both of which we failed at.
By 1991 those days were long gone. I was a 24 year old merchant marine and I spent about 8 months a year at sea. It was a good living for a young man. I got to see a lot of the world and, thanks to a plentiful overtime, I always came home with my pockets stuffed with cash. I took care of business first, of course, and after a couple of trips had paid off my only bill, the note on my Turbo Shadow. Because I lived at home with my parents when I wasn’t aboard ship, my money was my own and, like most young men, I was determined to waste as much of it as possible. That’s how a dirty brown 1972 Javelin SST ended up in my father’s driveway.
My father had probably the finest yard in Snohomish county, WA and today, many years later, I can understand how he felt when I brought the car home. At the time, however, I thought a barely running 18 year old muscle car decomposing alongside my father’s carefully tended lawn was perfectly acceptable and didn’t understand what he was so angry about. I didn’t have long to hear him complain though, less than a week after I purchased the car I was back to sea and headed to the far side of the world.
The mind wanders when you are at sea. Your 12 hour work day is spent in the heat of the engine room or out in the in the constant wind on deck but the tasks you must perform are generally menial. You spend most of your time underway chipping rust, sweeping, painting, wiping up spills or checking gauges and doing preventative maintenance on ancillary systems. That isn’t to say that you aren’t needed, ships are expensive and if you didn’t keep up with things the situation could deteriorate pretty quickly, but for the most part you are not doing work that occupies your mind. Thus, without a girl to think about, my thoughts naturally turned to the car I had waiting for me at home.
When I got home six months later, what I found was not what I thought I had left. Over the months at sea I had pictured in my mind’s eye a near perfect project car that I could put into showroom condition with just a little TLC and few magic twists of a wrench. What I found, after months of Washington state winter, was what appeared to be a giant molding turd that, thanks to four deflated tires, looked like it was glued to the ground. It was a mess and I was lucky my father hadn’t had it it dragged off in my absence.
Perhaps if I had known about the missing weather stripping and the leaking windows I could have added to my father’s unhappiness by throwing a blue tarp over it before I left, but now it was too late. While I had been overseas, at least three inches of water pooled on the floor inside of the car, soaking the carpet and anything I had been foolish enough to leave there. The headliner and the seats were water logged as well and the only thing that had prevented a full-on mildew attack was the fact it was still too cold outside. To make matters worse the car had a constant misfire and despite changing all the usual parts I was unable to solve the problem.
Now that I was looking at spending more hard earned cash I was looking with a more critical eye and it was obvious I had bought a whole load of trouble. That realization, in combination with the constant ass-chewing I was getting from my dad, made me want out of this mess in a hurry and I took quick action. First, I pumped up the four flats and then, using my dad’s shop vac, I pulled gallons of water out of the car’s interior. On sunny days I set up a window fan to blow air over the damp surfaces and gradually the car dried out. I worked on the engine and got it running passably if not exactly right and I spent some time working on the paint. The end result was nothing like the car I had imagined, but at the very least it was sellable.
The best way to sell anything is by word of mouth and I told my neighbor Kenny, who was better connected than I, to spread the word. In a small town news gets around fast and two days later a guy named Rusty was on my doorstep offering a deal. Would I take an old motorcycle in trade for the car?
It turned out that Rusty had bought the motorcycle, a big old GS-850 Suzuki, so he could go one rides with his father and brothers. But Rusty had never owned a bike and on one of his first outings he had laid the massive machine down. The damage, he told me, was not bad, a scuffed Vetter fairing, a smashed saddle bag and a ground-away crash bar. It was still usable he said, but the wreck had frightened him and he wanted no more of life out in the wind. Would I exchange my troubles for his?
Logic is a weird thing. Did I want a crappy old car that didn’t run right and came with its own marsh on the interior or some kind of big old wrecked motorcycle? It wasn’t a tough decision really, I already had a motorcycle and I liked riding so I really wasn’t afraid of getting the bike. To top it off, a car took up a lot of highly visible space in the driveway and I could keep the bike out of sight in the woodshed which my father wouldn’t yell about. Naturally, I took the deal.
Rusty got a good deal. He took the Javelin down to a local shop where they diagnosed its lingering engine troubles as a bad distributor and they made the repair for right around $100. He used the car for months afterwards, often roaring by my parent’s house in a gross display of power and arrogance, often honking at me when I was outside to make sure I knew it was he who had come out on top in our deal.
What Rusty didn’t know is that it was I who had got the better deal. Within a week of getting the old Suzuki home, I had stripped away the scuffed fairing and the other damaged parts to reveal a machine in surprisingly good condition. With some of my hard earned cash I bought a new exhaust header, got a racier set of handlebars and some sticky Metzler tires and turned the old bike into the hot rod I so earnestly desired. I ended up owning the GS Suzuki for the better part of a decade and the experience turned me from a casual motorcyclist into a real crotch-rocket jockey. The bike changed my life.
It was 1991 and who cares what was on the radio, I had the sound of wind in my ears. I was a young punk and I ran with a fast crowd. Whatever, I’m into fast.
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