By on September 18, 2013

chevelle

Sometime around 1977, the little orange Opel Kadette wagon that had carried the Stork family through the lean times of the Arab oil embargo disappeared from its place above the truly enormous oil stain on their carport and a midsize Chevrolet two door arrived. The kids in our neighborhood were unimpressed. It was, to our eyes, just another in the long line of well used cars that Wayne had brought home and, while we had all hoped he would bring home something cool, we were disappointed that he had chosen a Chevelle. They were quite literally everywhere, most often driven by little old ladies who plowed the country roads below the posted 35 mph limit, and as such could not possibly be of interest to us. Even if it did have white racing stripes and a bulging hood with a little flapping door that opened and closed when you stepped on the gas, we were all in agreement that Wayne’s most recent choice was a total disappointment.

Wayne ran the Chevelle hard, one hand on the wheel the other gripping the door frame as he slung it through the curves. Looking back, I am sure he had a great deal of fun in the old car and the sound of its big engine booming through the trees as he roared home after work became a regular part of our childhood afternoons. As we played outside or rode our bicycles, the sound would first reach us as a faint roll of distant thunder. It increased in intensity as he drew closer, its tone rising and falling as he crested hillocks or dropped into dips along the roadway as he worked his way closer. When he was about a mile out, we would hear the sound of sudden, explosive acceleration as he hit the straightaway and then a steady drone as he held the gas and worked the car through a sweeping right hander. At the curve’s exit, the sound would fall off to near silence as he stepped fully off the gas to slow his speed as he neared the turn off to our road. Finally would come the slow burble of the big block at near idle as he guided the car onto our road and rolled slowly past before turning into the third driveway on the left.

ss_chevelle-396_rear_panel_69_emblem

As time passed, we grew to the point where we learned that some cars were “different” than others. We heard the other fathers talk about the car in low tones as it passed and, although we were never specifically told, we grew to understand that the big Chevelle was marked out from the others by more than just its racing stripes and bulging hood. The other cars didn’t bear “SS” badges and although we didn’t know just what the 396 on the front fender meant, we knew it was bigger and therefore better than the 307 we saw affixed to so many other Chevelles in our neighborhood. Soon, the sound of distant thunder was a call to action and we lined our bicycles along the roadside to watch as it rolled by.

One memorable Autumn afternoon the big car appeared unexpectedly at the end of our street. The sound and fury that typically announced its arrival had gone missing and, like some battle damaged World War II fighter returning to base, the big car trailed a plume of white, wet smelling smoke in its wake. Wayne crawled slowly past, turned the wounded car into the driveway and then unexpectedly veered onto the gravel path that led back into the woods behind the house. He left it there, parked close to a barn beside a massive blackberry bush that concealed the remains of a white 58 Impala and walked back to the house. We didn’t know it then, but it was the last time the car would move under its own power.

In the days that followed, Wayne took his truck to work and then one day an ugly green AMC Gremlin appeared on the car port. Fall turned to winter and the Washington rains set in with a vengeance, soaking the earth and turning the ground by the barn into a sea of mud. Within weeks, the car had sunk up to its hubs in the mud and its paint was streaked with the first growth of moss and mold. The following summer the mud turned rock hard, tall grass grew up around the car’s body and green spots of mold appeared on the inside of the car’s windows. Nature was taking its course and the old car began to disintegrate into the elements from which it had come.

001

By the time I was in high school the old Chevelle was simply another lifeless hulk among many in the woods behind the Stork’s house. The 1958 Impala, which so far as I know had never moved during my lifetime, seemed as immobile and as permanent as a mountain and nearby an ancient Dodge truck was covered in so many layers of pine needles that it appeared to be a part of the tree it sat beneath. Close by sat a bulldozer, then a tractor and a machine that had once been used to bail hay. Strewn among the machines were any number of rusty bicycle frames, old motorcycles, cast off construction material and dozens of broken appliances. As children, all of these things had been our playthings, but by the time the Chevelle was left among them we had learned to keep our hands off of the things that did not belong to us. And so the car remained there, untouched, a half submerged time capsule.

Although I never laid a hand upon it, the Chevelle still spoke to me. I mentioned it often to my friends at school, speculating about the possibility of rescue, repair and restoration and, surprisingly, people listened. One Saturday morning a school friend went to the Stork’s house to ask about the car I had said lay hidden in the woods. To my shock and dismay, Wayne denied the car existed. There was an old Nova out there, he told them, but it was nothing special. He had no clue why I would be excited about the car, maybe I was just telling stories. I was left looking like a liar.

I’m not sure if it was guilt over the great car’s demise or the hope that someday he would pull the car from the forest and return it to its former glory that made Wayne deny its very existence but I learned a lesson. In the same way that I had learned not to touch things that were not mine, I learned not to speak of them either. A few years after my friend had knocked on the door, a friend of Wayne’s son showed up with a handful cold hard cash and struck the deal that would bring the Chevelle back into the light, but by then, of course, it was too late. The car, I was told, was to be broken up for the few good parts that remained.

I saw it as they hauled it away on the back of a truck. Muddy water flowed out through a thousand holes in the bottom of the great car and pooled on the deck of the big truck. As the truck rolled away, the puddle of dirty water flowed to the edge of the ramp and the wind wicked it away as individual drops; bitter tears that left sad trail upon the road to mark the car’s final passage. Not every ending is happy.

thunder

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.

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34 Comments on “The Roll Of Distant Thunder...”


  • avatar
    7402

    Cowl induction was worth maybe 5 horsepower, but man was it cool.

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      That’s pretty much the story for the vast majority of hood scoops. They really aren’t much good at actually increasing engine performance but they sure look cool.

      The only scoops that truly do anything are the huge boxes plopped down on the middle of the hood, with the only OEM versions belonging to Chrysler’s ’69/’70 ‘Six-Pack’ cars. Chrysler’s aerodynamic research had discovered that there was a ‘boundary layer’ of air that passed over the surface of the hood, preventing any air from actually entering the engine compartment on surface-mounted scoops.

      For a hood scoop to have any real impact, the opening(s) had to be above this boundary layer. Chrysler was the only one bold enough to come up with production designs that worked, and they were quite impractical for everyday use and very short-lived.

    • 0 avatar
      Detroit-Iron

      http://www.sportrider.com/tech/146_9912_ram/

      Works pretty well on bikes at very high speeds, but the aerodynamic profile of a bike is completely different.

  • avatar
    doctor olds

    Great read, Thomas! As a kid, I had a model similar to the red Chevelle, thought the 450HP 454CI was one of the coolest muscle cars ever!

    It is a shame to see nice cars sit out and rust into the ground. We used to drive by a ’66 Cutlass convertible parked beside a house for years. The body was in great shape, initially. My dad asked if it was for sale a couple of times. The guy would say, “No. I am taking it to Grand Rapids to get it fixed next month.” After 20 years or so, once it became complete junk, it was hauled to a salvage yard for scrap.

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      There are worse losses than a 396SS Chevelle. Like the 1953 Corvette my father brought home, new, one summer’s day to give mom and me a ride in it before trading it to another dealer for a couple of Bel Air hardtops. Supposedly #14 off the line, according to dad years later.

      Found it again in 1970, four blocks from the family home and rotting. Dad and I tried to buy it from the old woman who owned the property for four years, but got “That’s my late son’s car and it’s staying right here where it belongs.” She died in ’74. I got home immediately upon finding out, and the car was already missing.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    So sad ~

    As a kid I watched many fine 1940′s vehicles succumb to the exact same fate .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Halftruth

    Cool story. The ending reminds me of when I picked up my 65 Newport. I had looked at the car and agreed to a price. I arrived days later with a flatbed and saw the car was pushed out to the street. Turns out the car was being sent to the crusher if I didn’t show. It was garaged at a friend’s condo complex and he had long moved out. The condo association demanded removal of the car immediately. Glad I saved it though. I wish I could save them all but.. you can’t.. That’s life.. at least the ending was happy (more or less)..

  • avatar
    lmike51b

    It’s sad and frustrating to see cars like this neglected until there’s not much left to save. Most of us know of instances that a car like this is inquired about and the answer is something along the lines of “I’m gonna start restoring it soon.”, or “It’s not for sale.”, or the price they’re asking is ridiculous. There’s a lot of Waynes out there that drive ‘em till it has an issue, then it’s parked on the fence line or beside the barn. Thanks Thomas for another interesting story.

  • avatar
    rpol35

    Fortunately, total neglect of cars like this doesn’t happen that much anymore (certainly not in the case of a Chevelle SS and others of its ilk).

    The restored value is just too high to let them rot away into nothingness ($$$ talks!). That coupled with the facts that these cars are infinitely rebuildable parts-wise and there were enormous build volumes to start with has made them very desireable for a good number of years now.

  • avatar
    gkhize

    Great story. Brings back memories of being a kid in the 60s. My dad had a Galaxie 500 so a 500 had to be way better than any car with a lower number anywhere on the car like 427, 390, or whatever. Saw Shelby Mustangs driving around and thought they were just a messed up ugly Mustang; and the teenage neighbors were out in the driveway working on their ’55 Chevys with the front end jacked up and the front bumper removed. Another neighbor came home with a brand new light blue ’65 Galaxie fastback that was to me the coolest thing on wheels. Sadly those cars were discarded and replaced without a thought of preserving them and they now reside only in our memories.

    • 0 avatar
      danio3834

      Those kind of people are frustrating. There is an old guy a few towns over who quite literally has an entire private junkyard of cars from the 1930s to current. Won’t sell anything, won’t talk to you about anything, won’t let you look at anything.

      Fine, sooner than later, he’ll die and it’ll all get auctioned off for peanuts.

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    “simply another lifeless hulk among many in the woods behind the Stork’s house”

    Creepy. One of my DILs came from a Stork family. God bless the iron will and whatever genetics allowed her to blossom into the marvelous woman, PhD and mother, she is today.

    Among the vehicles her father bought and eternaly parked in the weeds of his rural property was a Volvo 264 GL that by the time I met him had a maple tree literally growing up through the passenger compartment.

    He also added some motorcycles to his vehicular purgatory and I’ve watched most of the rotting process for an originally beautiful CX 650 that needed nothing more than a master cylinder, pads and some wiring that had gotten rodented when stored in a barn.

    Guys like this won’t fix ‘em, won’t sell ‘em, just let ‘em rot. Ugh!

    Another excellently painted scene from Mr. K that hits too close to home.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Great story, I’m surprised you have such a vivid memory of such things. I recall similar cars from my youth, but the details are all clouded by the thousands of other cars that have come and gone since.

    When I was a kid just learning about cars, I recall the family on the street behind our house had two, then newish, late 2nd gen Camaro Z28s with all the factory tape stripes. One in burgundy with red/orange/black stripes and the other dark blue with blue/light blue stripes. Both had body color painted wheels. I remember thinking how striking both cars were and how awesome a family must be to have two Camaros as daily drivers.

    • 0 avatar
      dswilly

      I remember as a kid of the 70′s on my neighborhood paper route there was a ’69 Chevelle SS convertible in excellent shape, a Buick GS455 stage I also very nice and a GTO judge in not so nice shape rotting behind a garage.

  • avatar
    dswilly

    Back in the mid 90’s I was working as a sea kayak/river guide in Alaska for a company HQ’d in Seattle during the off season. One spring before making the trek north I was tasked to go get two new sea kayaks from a guy who was making them in a shop behind his house…er..trailer. The property was located North of Seattle near Everett off Hwy 9 way back up a dirt road deep in the woods. When I got there no one was around, just a couple dogs. I started nosing around to see if anyone was in the shop and noticed a car covered in moss half sunk in the ground. As I got closer it was obviously a early Mustang, then I noticed the snake on the gas cap. Sure enough, it was a Shelby GT350 I even popped the hood and it had the Shelby tag on the fender well. May have been a GT350H as I recall it was black with gold, the lower rocker was underground so I couldn’t see the stripe. I never found the owner and ended up heading to Alaska a few days later, someone else being tasked to pick up the kayaks, which were awful boats btw. As the Chevelle mentioned above this car was pretty far gone.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    In the mid-1960s, it was not uncommon for public high schools to offer driver training classes. When I was 15, I took mine in a ’63 Chevelle with the wheezy 140 hp (gross) “Blue Flame” 6 and the “three on the tree” manual transmission. The next year, the school replaced that car with an SS 396 (I kid you not; someone had a truly sick mind). So, thereafter, those of us in classrooms facing the street used for driving training were sometimes regaled with the roaring, screeching sound of a a big-bore motor inflicting punishment on the Goodyears, at the hands of some ham-footed kid who had yet to master the clutch-throttle operation of getting the car moving gently.

    The “country way” is to drive a car until it is beyond repair and then park it out back. At the ranch operated by my cousin’s grandparents in SE Colorado, they had a veritable private junkyard of old cars, pickups and farm tractors. The ranch had been homesteaded in the early teens. Given the arid climate, most of them were quite salvageable and often used as a source of spare parts for the running equipment.

  • avatar

    Of course had this story taken place in Buffalo it would have rotted away in, oh, about a month-and-a-half.

    (insert rimshot here)

    I learned the hard way you don’t leave ‘em out if you want to save ‘em. I have two projects now but both are garage-kept, out of the elements, and their frames/sheetmetal up off the dirt floor.

  • avatar
    azmtbkr81

    My best friend’s dad, who owned an electronics repair shop (were electronics really still worth repairing in the late ’90′s?) traded a freshly repaired big screen TV and $800 for a shabby avocado green, 1970 Chevelle SS 396. I’m not sure if it was an original SS or a badge and motor swap job as I’ve never seen another SS in the same color. Either way it had a big block and Hurst shifter which was still pretty cool in our smallish Oklahoma town where the import craze never really caught on.

    My friend and I would wrench on the old Chevelle all week and on Friday night tear past Walmart, the movie theater, and Sonic Drive-In with glasspacks roaring hunting for unsuspecting “rich” kids to race in their shiny new Z-28s and Mustang GTs. The Mustangs were easy prey but the Z-28s never a sure thing. The police mostly left us alone as long as we didn’t do anything too stupid; I suspect we brought back memories of their own very similar childhoods.

    I have no idea if high school kids in my hometown still race around in old (and new) muscle cars. I’d like to think that they still do, maybe someday I will go back and find out.

    • 0 avatar
      Tim_Turbo

      My old man is a television repairman, he’s got this ultimate set of tools. I can fix it. -Jeff Spicoli

      When I got my license in 1996 we would race anything with wheels on it. Before we could drive (legally) we always raced wheelers/dirtbikes and snowmobiles. The perks of growing up in a somewhat rural area I guess, as like you we were generally left alone as long as we were not going too fast in the 25mph areas of town.

      Hopefully future generations will carry on the tradition, although I think now in the years since “Fast and Furious”/import culture was big the cops around here crack down on shenanigans a lot more than they used to.

  • avatar

    Great story!

    Although in general I vastly prefer the cars of the ’60s (and especially those of the first half of the ’60s) to those of the Malaise era, that Chevelle is a nice looking car, and still looks like a Chevrolet, unlike those damn J cars that came after.

    The old cars parked in the back reminds me what I found behind Johnnie’s Sales and Service on Warwick Rd on the New Hampshire side of the border.

    (the URL goes to photos of the front, not the back)
    http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2012/12/holzmans-treasures-the-barn-find/

  • avatar
    Cubista

    “Everything ends badly. Otherwise it would never end.”

    -Brian Flanagan, “Cocktail”

  • avatar
    jkk6

    Does everyone also remember how well these cars used to break? My prof at school told me he stopped buying american since 1980 grudging against Ford and Chevy for offering 1000 mile warranties finally when the imports started invading. Anyhow I feel nostalgic reading everyone’s comments, I guess those were the good ol days huh?

  • avatar
    DGA

    Great story. Made me feel all melancholy inside.

    Living in Portland Oregon, I take my motorcycle out of the city quite a bit and when riding down some little driven roads I can see cars that have sat for decades, usually overgrown with blackberries, on a regular basis. It always makes me wonder what the story behind ‘em is.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    That really depressed me. I love cars like this and I just don’t understand why somebody would let it rot if they have no interest in driving or repairing it. I was always under the impression that these were pretty strong and well built cars.

  • avatar
    jim brewer

    Well, this stuff works both ways. Dad had a devil of a time selling his 1969 Superbird –You know, the kind of cars with a nose cone and a giant spoiler over the trunk that held the lap record at Talladega for like 12 years?

    This would have been in the early 2000s. Dad wanted 20K. That was a very fair price even in those days. Car was in reasonably good condition. it was a daily driver, actually. No rust whatsoever, restorable upholstery. No body damage, original paint in good condition. Car had been clocked on a track at 187 mph. Pretty good for 1969.

    To be sure, Dad wasn’t good at marketing. He advertised the car for 20K and that was it. No room for negotiation whatsoever. You would be surprised at how big a turn off that is for people.

    Not that many people were interested, really. Not even tire kickers. The thing I noticed is that people would talk themselves out of it. One guy hemmed and hawed for months. He was ticked off when Dad finally sold it.

    As little as I knew about cars, I knew it was a collector’s item. Anyone could see that–just look at it. I also knew it was a fair price and very little risk to the buyer. That was just as obvious. Sometimes people just have trouble accepting the obvious. The human ability at rationalization is just unparalleled, and it doesn’t always take the form of throwing caution to the wind. Sometimes it takes the form of a ridiculous conservatism.

    P.S. Dad was an infantry guy from the war. No way was he going to drive a Porsche (the builder of Germany’s most feared tanks). No way was he going to drive a car called “SS” either.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Once again, T, your story reached my soul.

    The demise of the car isn’t the saddest part to me – it’s whatever malaise gripped its owner to walk away from it.

  • avatar
    nrd515

    I knew a couple of people who did this to old cars. I never understood why they didn’t sell them, instead of letting them rot “out back” and become totally worthless. One guy did this with two cars before I found out the cars were “out back”. The first one was a ’66 GTO that was in a minor wreck, and was fixed enough to drive, but then was retired due to a cracked block. The replacement for that car was a ’68 (I think)Charger R/T that wasn’t in great shape when bought(lots of dings), and he drove it until he blew a head gasket, about 2 years. I found out about the junk “out back” when the Charger died. It was still in fair shape at that point, just a little rusty, and of course, with the dead engine. The owner of the house was a weird guy, and was kind of infamous for letting his back yard, and it was a really big back yard, grow to over a foot tall. He called me and a friend over, we were about to turn 16, it was like April ’72, and said, “I’ll give you guys a couple of bucks each to help me push this thing into the back yard!”, we agreed, and when we pushed it back around the house, there was the GTO, with the windows rolled down, and rusted badly and the interior had moss growing on it! Laying next to the GTO were several engines, some complete looking, some short blocks, and some bare blocks too. I asked him why he didn’t sell the GTO when it died and he looked at me like I was insane. Fast forward to 2006, I went over there to see if he had anything I might want as he was selling the house, and there sat the GTO, the Charger, and a 65 Plymouth Belvedere, in good shape, both the GTO and Charger were rotted to the point they were unusable for anything but future Chinese junk. I don’t think anything at all had been moved since we shoved the Charger back there. I don’t understand it at all.

    The other guy was one of those, “Put a cover on it, and put it in the garage and it will be worth a ton of money some day” guys. He had what was once a very nice red Olds 442 under that cover. He never touched it in about 40 years! When he got feeble and had to go to assisted living, his sons came in to help clear the house out, and the 442 was mostly a rusted hulk, some guy bought it for the motor and maybe the trans. I don’t think anything else was usable. The old man couldn’t seem to understand what happened to it.

    • 0 avatar
      WildcatMatt

      I think for a lot of folks the old cars out back take on the status of talisman: a reminder of better days, or lost loved ones, or a receptacle of broken and unspoken dreams.

      Never underestimate the power of the word “someday”.


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