Auto-Biography 13: Wildcat!

auto biography 13 wildcat

They were both gorgeous, in that all-American wholesome, sexy, energetic way. Voluptuous, but athletic. Heartland traditional, but ready for a good time. Exhilarating and accelerative. And they were both mine to do with as I pleased. So why was I, a healthy young man, having a problem?

I met Julie at a dance club in Iowa City. She was a student from Burlington, where she’d been a high-school cheerleader. She was everything I dreamed of in a girl when I was in the ninth grade: blonde, bouncy, sexy. She looked like she’d stepped right out of Playboy’s “The Co-eds of 1967” pictorial. Julie drove her Dad’s hand-me-down Buick Wildcat 2-door hardtop.

The ‘67 Wildcat occupied a similar special place in my ninth-grade fantasy life. Its entry into my fantasy life was also prompted by a magazine: spy shots of 1967 Buicks at GM’s testing grounds. The Wildcat, with its endless fastback, fender skirts and super-fluidic lines left me… aroused. GM styling-guru Bill Mitchell had somehow made a big Buick sexy.

Julie was happy to have me to drive the Wildcat (I was car-less at the time). The high-compression 360hp big-block V8 was still in its prime. It could really hustle the twin living-room size vinyl sofas down the road.

The Buick’s accelerative surges could be sustained until they exceeded even my youthful comfort level for the balding white-wall rubber it rode on. But the utterly numb steering, feeble drum brakes and soft suspension meant that driving the big ‘Cat in anything other than a straight line was frustrating and highly unsatisfying. It was a lot like trying to have an intelligent conversation with Julie.

Therein lay the source of my problems– with both of them.

I was in my artistic-intellectual-wannabe phase. Somehow, I had become a professional actor in an experimental theater company at the University. We performed our “avant-garde” pieces in NY and other cities to the artsy-fartsy elite. And even though our theater was more physical than verbal, Julie’s cheerleading background was no help in making my work comprehensible to her.

Outside of our youthful libidos and straight-line thrills in the Buick, Julie and I had nothing in common. When I broke up with her after a month, she said “I could have married you”. By invoking that taboo word, she instantly removed any trace of doubt or regret.

And so it also went with me and GM’s land-yachts in the early seventies. The cracks had started years earlier, but I was still a sucker for a sexy bod– like the exquisite 1970 Camaro. Although I mostly knew better, I couldn’t totally resist the siren lure of GM’s new-car introductions.

My artist friend Paul and I hit the dealerships and stood in awe (shock?) at the results of Bill Mitchell’s highly-fertile imagination. But now there was cynicism mixed with artistic appreciation of his powers. It had become increasingly difficult to see twenty-foot long coupes as viable transportation devices.

Mitchell’s XXXL-sized 1971 – 72 Buick Riviera epitomized the end of this era (as well as his own– he wasn’t cut out for the OPEC-forced downsizing to come). It was a flamboyant mélange of borrowed elements: the fastback lifted from the Sting Ray, the Classics-era boat-tail and the blatant exploitation of an earlier GM classic, the 1953 Buick Skylark. It all worked brilliantly, as long as you didn’t take it too seriously– a refined George Barris custom from the sixties. But now it was the seventies.

We didn’t just look. We took stacks of brochures home and out came scissors and glue— the photo-shop tools of the pre-digital age. We re-arranged, exaggerated and morphed Mitchell’s dreams into automotive nightmares. Or was it vice-versa?

Bill kept feeding us new raw material. The 1973 (full-size) intermediates were utterly amazing. We had a LOT of fun with redesigning the Pontiac Grand Am Colonnade Coupe. Our version of the giant Olds Custom Cruiser wagon looked like a cross between the space shuttle and a double-decker bus.

We were like kindergarten kids cutting out paper snowflakes, tongues sticking out. Or maybe we were just divining what GM would have built by 1980 if there hadn’t been an energy crisis.

Paul topped all of our paper-snipping with the real thing. I gave him a ride to his hometown Cincinnati, where he showed me the end result of a creative high-school shop project: A 1959 Chevrolet sedan that had been lifted and put on its frame backwards. Imagine looking in your rear-view mirror and seeing that set of bat-wings gaining on you.

The Twilight-Zone Chevy created havoc, traffic jams, and near-accidents on its ass-backwards joy-rides– until the police put a stop to it. I paid tribute to the rusting hulk in a weedy back yard. It was a truly fitting memorial to the death of an era.

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  • Confused1096 Confused1096 on Apr 26, 2007

    Great article. You reminded me fondly of my old '72 Coupe DeVille project car I had about 12 years ago. What a beast...accelerated and stopped just like a train. But I really loved that car. Thanks for the flash back.

  • Mrb00st Mrb00st on May 02, 2007

    Terry Parkhurst: I still think that the Grand National and Grand National GNX by McLaren are some of the most sinister, badass cars ever made and certainly the coolest thing to ever come out of GM. There is an '87 GNX McLaren on Ebay now with 9.5 miles (no typo) on it. Never titled. Less than ten miles on it. Current bid is at $90,000 and reserve isn't met. buy-it-now is $109,000 and i think the car will get it. Those cars are like darth vader on wheels.

  • Oberkanone There is nothing wrong marketing your products to wealthy customers. GMC is fully adopting this strategy. Seeking affordability, look elsewhere.
  • Sobro At least the filing wasn't for alphanumeric gibberish. Just alpha gibberish.
  • Oberkanone Does $63,350 include $1,500 mandatory optional Onstar?
  • Kendahl $1,500 is a good reason to turn OnStar into OffStar. I guess that means writing off Buick, Cadillac and GMC. The more garbage manufacturers stuff into otherwise very good vehicles, the less likely I am to trade in my 15-year-old Infiniti G37S. It's mechanically sound at 70k miles.
  • Kcflyer Great looking rigs. Too bad there in such short supply.
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