The Turbo Dodge Shadow that I purchased in February of 1988 lived hard and fast but, thanks in part to my strict adherence to a maintenance schedule and my belief in the power of synthetic motor oil, it didn’t die young. By 1996 the little red car had more than 135K miles on the clock and a whole lot of hard fought-street racing victories – and maybe just a few losses – under its belt. After I changed the head gasket somewhere around the 80K mile mark, the car suffered a couple of broken timing belts, caused mostly by my inability to correctly adjust the belt’s tension, but otherwise had few problems. Still, as the miles added up, I became concerned about the car’s condition and eventually purchased a Geo Metro to take over daily driving duties. Later, after sliding the Metro off an icy highway, I traded up to a K5 Jimmy, but kept the Shadow as a my own special toy. The Jimmy came with a big loan payment, however, and all it took to totally derail my carefully balanced finances was a lay-off. Before I knew it, I was in over my head and flat broke. Stuff had to go.
I started by selling my guns, then my motorcycles, followed by my records, musical instruments and my books. Finally, as the period of unemployment became protracted and the grinding drudge of poverty really set in, it was the Shadow’s turn. Nothing, it turns out, takes longer to sell than yesterday’s hot rod and in those pre-Craigslist days it took weeks of sitting around with a red and black “for sale” sign in the window before I got the first call on it. More trickled in but, like everyone looking at well used cars, the people I spoke with all wanted something for practically nothing. I quickly sent their asses packing. I really didn’t care if they had a kid in college, had an abusive boyfriend, weren’t getting enough hours at Denny’s or whatever else their personal issues were, I had my own issues at the time and giving charity to strangers wasn’t high on my priority list. Eventually, my own family took pity on me and, although he probably didn’t really need it, the little Shadow ended up with my older brother Bruce, who had unexpectedly decided he wanted a bargain basement commuter car.
Bruce owned the Shadow for several years and about the time I had given up my untenable situation in the states for a dead end job in Japan, he passed the car on to his wife’s sister. Two years later, when I returned to the states with a few dollars in my pocket and memories of my protracted bout of poverty in very much in the forefront of my mind, Bruce mentioned that his sister in law was looking to sell the Shadow. I could, he said, buy it back for a song. I really didn’t think about it very long, I knew the car and knew that there was no way the last few years of its life had been anywhere near as hard as the first few, but in the thought of owning it again brought back all of the struggle and frustration that I was hoping to put permanently behind me. My time with the Shadow was done, I decided, and a week or two later plunked down $500 on a smelly, well worn 1986 Nissan 200SX. The rest is history.
In the decade that has passed since my first return from Japan my life has improved a thousand fold. The instability and financial strife that hung over my life like a specter is gone and I have settled into a life of middle-aged contentment that I had begun to believe I would never attain. The psychological scars of that earlier time, however, remain. Like the hammer of a blacksmith, the merciless, relentless pounding I took during those dark days forced out much of my happy-go-lucky attitude and forged me into the harder, sharper and maybe even fiercer adult that I am today. I have only to think about those days and my siege mentality returns with a real force, I can feel it now as a physical pressure inside my head as I write about it now.
Since so much of what I do on TTAC is storytelling, I am constantly forced search my past for material. As I recall the events of those days, I find the feelings associated with those times are close at hand. The bad times have colored the good ones that came before and the happy feelings I got from purchasing my little car and racing it around the streets of the Pacific Northwest have been replaced by bitterness and anger over the way that people tried to take advantage of me when I was at my most vulnerable.
Until I started writing about cars, I did what a lot of men do, I avoided the issue by not thinking about it. But to get at the stories in my past, I have had to pick away at the scab. To my surprise, the more I work at it the more healing I have found beneath. The raw feelings, while still there, have begun to mute and the real joy of those days is beginning to shine through once more. While the experience has not always been pleasant, it has been cathartic.
Last week, my sister Connie posted that old Youtube video where a man’s adult children go out and find his mid-sixties Impala, a car he sold when times were hard. If you haven’t seen it, go ahead and watch now, I won’t spoil it for you. She thought that I, as a lover of cars and a big sap for happy endings, would be touched by the video and the truth is that despite having seen it a dozen or so times, I was. I’m happy for the man and amazed at how hard his children worked to make this happen. But as I sat here thinking about that video today I suddenly realized have my own missing car out there somewhere, my own touchstone from a better time that I sold when my own future was not as bright. Naturally, I have to wonder if it is still out there.
I know that a 1988 Dodge Shadow, even one equipped with a turbo, doesn’t have the provenance of a mid sixties Impala or Papa John’s lost and then recovered Camaro, but I’d like to think the old car is still out there. Perhaps it endures in someone’s barn or stuffed into the back of some junk filled garage. Maybe it sits now at the curb, paint peeling, but still in use awaiting it’s moment of fame as the subject of one of Paul Niedermeyer’s photo spreads at Curbside Classic. The VIN could tell me for sure, and I am working on getting it now. I have reached out to my brother and even called the insurance agent I used to use in the hopes that the VIN might be on some old scrap of paper somewhere in their files. Maybe you can help, too.
The car is a 1988 Dodge Shadow two door in Graphic red with a charcoal grey interior. The only options the car had were a turbo engine and the five pointed alloy wheels offered that year. It had the top of the line cassette deck, the one with the joystick, and I added black and white tape pinstripes the week after I bought it. I purchased it at Dwayne Lane’s Dodge in Everett Washington in February of that year and was originally licensed in Washington State, receiving the number 506 BGE. Its last known location was Oregon where my brother’s sister in law lives.
To be honest, I don’t know what might happen if I find the car. With my plans to rotate back overseas next year firmly fixed, throwing the car into the mix would surely be problematic. Still, I might be able to store it and put it back into shape when we come home a few years from now, so I am open to the idea of looking for it. I know that it will no longer be the cutting edge performance car it once was, it was already well past its prime when I sold it, but it would be nice to have it come home. The car’s return won’t erase all the hard knocks I had to take during those dark days, but it might help take away some of the sting I still feel when I think back upon that time.
I understand now, why the man cries when his kids bring the old car home. It’s not because he loved it, it’s because he has overcome the hard times that forced him to sell the car and its return is a tangible proof of his own, ultimate victory over all the crap that life once threw at him. That’s the real power of a touchstone, to bring back the good memories and mute the bad. I think I’m ready for some of that.
Thomas M 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.