That '70's Car
The prairie town where I grew up offered exactly one wholesome diversion for teenagers: an eight-block stretch of Central Avenue known as The Drag. On Friday and Saturday nights, you'd “shag The Drag.” You’d drive from 12th Street down to the city square, then back up to 12th Street, shouting at people you knew or people you wanted to know. Lather, rinse, repeat. Your goal: make time with a girl from school or, even better, entrance an out-of-towner who had no idea of your previous track record (or lack thereof). Of course, you had to come to The Drag in a cool car. In the late eighties, one car bestrode our teenage world like a colossus…
There were plenty of acceptable Drag shaggers: the Chrysler Cordoba, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and Mercury Cougar XR-7 spring immediately to mind. But there was only one King: the Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Oh, the Monte. That was the car you detassled corn for, spending ten or twelve hours under the unforgiving Iowa sun with your arms over your head with some college student (obviously majoring in sociopathy) telling you to work harder. Six weeks of that was like ten thousand years in purgatory. At the end, though, you had enough money for a '76 Monte Carlo, a set of Cragar mags, and the finest Sparkomatic tape deck K-Mart would sell you. You were ready to shag The Drag.
First, though, you had to straighten up the car a little. In the main, this involved applying approximately 3.8 cans of paste wax to your Monte's oxidized exterior. You had to buff that wax off with one of your dad's old, ominously stained t-shirts. Since you never got all the wax off, you’d then suffer the heartbreak of finding telltale beige smears all over your gleaming ride. But young men always suffer at the hands of their hormones, don't they? And it was all worth it– the first time you saw a girl stare a little too long at your car. Then you saw her staring at you. That was even better.
Profiling, of course, is about all those mid-Seventies disco sleds were good for. They barely ran, thanks to asthmatic, emissions-controlled V-8 engines that put out maybe 160 horsepower. Cornering was unlike anything this side of Twisted Metal. If you hadn't replaced your hooptie's shocks recently– and why would you, as shock absorbers can't be seen by casual onlookers– you hoped beyond hope that you wouldn't roll over onto the door handles if you tried to take a curve at anything close to the posted speed limit. Need I even mention the gas mileage? These prime examples of the North American Vinyl-Backed Road Pig make a Hummer H2 look like a Segway.
For these reasons and many others, your parents were on record as being 100% against buying a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Your mom thought it was just the perfect car for that nineteen-year-old with the Steve Perry hair and the sparse mustache, the one who'd already knocked over a couple Stop 'N Robs and spent time in juvie. No way was her little slugger going to cruise the street in the official car of the Future Felons of America. Needless to say, your dad was more practical. He knew exactly what that Monte meant for him: “Dad, can I borrow ten bucks for gas?”
Your mom thought you should buy the neighbors' Mercury Lynx station wagon. Your dad noted that there were a lot of nice, low mileage Renault Alliances in the newspaper. “Hey, son, with all you'll save on gas, you can probably buy hamburgers and Cokes for all those girls you meet on The Drag!” Right, dad. All the chicks dig that 1.4 liter engine. Can I have one of your Manhattan Transfer tapes while I'm at it?
You knew your strategy. You'd spent the entire summer circling every $1200 Camaro in the classifieds. You talked about the '72 Charger your study partner's cousin was selling– the one he parked behind a barn in 1977. Dad, did you know he's only asking $800 for it? After a couple months of you chasing every dumb two-door in a five-county area, the Monte you eventually found practically sold itself.
Looking back, the idea that a Chevrolet Monte Carlo could make anyone seem cool was completely preposterous. Even then, you may have suspected that you may not have been cool. But somewhere deep inside, where it counts, driving the Monte felt right. If, at sixteen years old, it only took a couple of opera windows and an elk-grain vinyl roof to give you a shot of self-confidence, what the Hell. It was a fair trade. It was the full Monte.
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Forgot the Grand Prix - that was one sweet ride as well. I recall the pinheads whose parents had money drove MG's or Fiat Bravo's, but the real Americans drove 2 door GM personal luxury cars, and wondered if those guys were "light in the loafers." I, on the other hand, had to share with siblings a 76 Maverick 4 door with a 200 inch straight 6 and AM radio only.
Mark, I agree that the flawed cars often get the love, and that was definitely part of the allure of the Falcon, although I also liked very much the way it looked. (But when the thing threw a rod, what with the transmission going from my frequent clutchless shifting, I let it go, because I knew it's time was up. (The '77 Corolla did a much better job of withstanding the clutchless shifting.)) But I love my Accord, too, of course for entirely different reasons. I'm sure I'll love my Porsche best of all when I finally get it.