Muscle Car Writing Contest #3: Jarad Petroske Says Rocky You Met Your Match

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
muscle car writing contest 3 jarad petroske says rocky you met your match

The first time I met an American muscle car, my friend Ben was encouraging me to carve the donut in the Sears parking lot just a little tighter and give it just a little more gas. He wanted to hear the 1977 Chevy Malibu’s big block snarl like he knew it could when you pressed the pedal all the way to the floor boards.

The “Green Machine,” as we called it, would eventually die and give way to my friend Eric’s equally green 1969 Chevy Impala, motivated by a freshly rebuilt small block 327. If we weren’t busy buying gas, we were taking Eric’s ride out to the city’s unofficial drag strip (if they didn’t want racing, why did they build a quarter-mile stretch, straight as an arrow, right along the water front?) and going head-to-head with all varieties of tuned imports.

Oh, how those times have changed for my two friends. Eric has since moved to the big city and has sworn off cars, while Ben cruises around in a gas-sipping, 2wd Rav-4. Don’t even bother asking these two about either of their cars–Ben will laugh it off and remind me of the spade of problems the Malibu had and the family of raccoons who took up residence in the trunk once the car was put out to seed. Eric might reminisce for roughly 30 seconds before glancing down to the street and realizing he has about as much a chance of parking an Impala in New York City as Tara Reid does of being granted sainthood.

So what happened? Reality, that’s what. Before the this generation’s car buffs turned their attention to Hondas and Scions, the only reasonable thing to buy was eight cylinders of American power. As gas prices began steadily rising out of their $2 resting place, my friends were losing their $100-a-tank cherries well before $4-a-gallon fuel was even being fathomed by Detroit. The Impala was great, but at $100-a-week to drive it, there wasn’t much left over for date night.

From the girlfriends’ perspectives, switching to a car where the steering little less slippery and the acceleration a little less powerful was a good thing. The looks of European and Japanese cars were also easy bargaining ploys. Why should they drive something that (in their opinion) looks bloated when they were trying to keep their own bodies from appearing that way? For the ladies involved, a sensible Corolla was a no brainer–of course, this was before the automotive industry realized that a chrome bedecked grill and window trim are good things and not necessarily an out-moded design concepts.

But what was so great about these muscle cars wasn’t their design or their power (all though these factors did wonders for attracting hordes of allegiance pledging teenagers to the hot-rod cause), but rather their simplicity. With an engine compartment roughly the size of my first apartment, we could literally climb inside the Impala and take apart its carburetor or adjust the throttle control, the air filter, or whatever part was rattling around this week.

With today’s cars, people don’t even bother to look under the hood. When something as simple as a headlamp goes out on a Nissan Altima, those of us mechanically-disinclined begin groaning and looking for a qualified service rep. Now that every car has a transverse-mounted four banger shoe-horned into a compartment three sizes too small, the last thing a car nut (or anyone else for that matter) wants to think about is changing a starter, let alone tinkering around for another 20 or 30 horsepower.

Somewhere in the build up of technology toward more and more efficient cars, working on them stopped being fun and starting being a scary, confusing, diagnostics-machine-requiring money pit and therein lies the problem with the notion of an American muscle car. Unless Detroit can find a way to make them fun–not just to drive but to work on, too–we’ll never have the same passion for this particular automotive genre again. If gas prices continue to rise, the best American muscle will come in the form of highly tuned V6s or diesels that sip their fuel, rather than guzzle it by the gallon.

All this is not to say we shouldn’t keep trying. My lovely, modern-car disparaging wife sites the PT Cruiser and the Chevy HHR as her favorite cars, not because they’re loaded with muscle (which they ain’t) but because they made risky design choices during a time when dull was the automotive standard. As she sees it, if we can’t make them fun (i.e. faster than hell) let’s at least make them pretty. Until America can strike that happy balance between muscle and beauty, the big 2.8 are doomed to the go the way of that ’77 Malibu: up on blocks with a family of raccoons living out of the back.

[This article is presented without editing.]

Join the conversation
2 of 13 comments
  • Ron Ron on Oct 02, 2008
    Somewhere in the build up of technology toward more and more efficient cars, working on them stopped being fun and starting being a scary, confusing, diagnostics-machine-requiring money pit and therein lies the problem with the notion of an American muscle car. I realize this is a muscle car article after all, but this problem is the very one that also plagues the entire industry, not just muscle cars. I used to enjoy wrenching on my own cars as a hobby. Then I started working on customer's cars at a couple of dealers. After a few months had passed, I swore off ever looking under the hoods of modern cars ever again.

  • KingElvis KingElvis on Oct 02, 2008

    Specific: The '77 Malibu's biggest engine was a 350 4bbl - what you describe is a 'hot rod' if it had a bigger engine (MK iv 'big block') installed later. General: A central aspect of the supercar phenomenon was the notion of the 'out of the box' or 'showroom floor' performance - ergo the notion of wrench twisting and modification you describe really goes with the kustom kar and hot rod. By confusing/conflating factory supercars with hot-rods, you have completely missed the point.

  • 28-Cars-Later Hydroelectric of course.
  • Spookiness I have the ugly 2010 model with old fashioned 4AT and is has been the best used car I've owned, and for the longest. Still quite solid at 150k. I keep my eyes open for a 2012+ MT, but they are hard to find. DCT, no way. It's a shame bc otherwise the car is good.
  • Chris P Bacon "One nice touch? When you shut the PHEV down, you get a charge-time estimate in the cluster, both for Level II and wall."So does my Wrangler 4xe. It's all Stellantis parts bin. The fact that so little was changed from the Tonale interior to the Hornet only points out how much Stellantis relies on common switchgear. I've driven a couple Stelvios (Stelvi?) and noticed the same thing as soon as I got in the car. I feel like this car stole the price point that the Tonale should've occupied. The only reason Alfa went all EV with the Tonale was to justify the higher price. They'll sell more units combined because of the Dodge branding. But it shouldn't be a Hornet. It's a Fugazi.
  • Chris P Bacon If you listen closely, you can hear Chevy dealers everywhere slapping "market adjustment" stickers on the windows of any Camaro they have in stock.
  • Chris P Bacon Charge on the L1 overnight. I've used a public charger once. Because we have choice of electric suppliers in my state I keep an eye on supplier offers to make sure I'm paying the lowest rate possible.