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Reelin’ In The Years – Memories of Cars I Never Owned

It has often been said us Mopar folks are a different breed. While we don’t want to always admit it, a lot of us were like that guy in the ‘got a Hemi’ advertisement a couple of years. Not the clean-cut one towing his car, but the one in the beat-up Duster. A little unkempt, a little too loud, a little out of style – that’s me. The era I grew up in was one where a lot of pre-owned cars from 1960-1975 were out and about, and the old adage in Philly street racing circles was that rougher it looked, the more likely it was to clean your clock. You learned quickly to look for genuine suspension science and quiet owners.

At any rate, when we look back on that time period, it easy to get a melancholy sense of nostalgia. While there are still cars out there today, you really need to look for them; what is left and visible is often outside decaying and not for sale at any price since the owner’s gonna restore it someday. The cars that were our Saturday night specials have disappeared into the crusher of time.

But what if you could go back? Let’s say you had $10,000 in 1978 money. The second gas crunch is on, and the musclecars that are available are cheap and plentiful. Would you have had the foresight to ante up when somebody decided their Hemi car was ready go on to greener pastures? Would you have been able to search for the one car you really thought was cool? Those of us who remember the era probably recall a couple of things in particular. We all had a subscription to Hot Rod, Car Craft, or both, even though they only ran about one Mopar a year, and when it came to Hemi anything, they were not around.

I remember the first Hemi I saw. It was a red ‘67 GTX with very high mileage that a professional plumber in Claymont, Delaware owned. This old guy had been driving this thing as his work car, and I always tried to talk to him. He tolerated me (you know, sort of like the straight guy in the ‘got a Hemi?’ ad), but the car was not restored and showed its age from the tough salty winters. It sort of disappeared after a while and I have no clue where it went to. Besides not being for sale, I didn’t have any money at the time anyhow, so it’s a moot issue.

Then there was the used ’63 Plymouth four-door down in Newport, Delaware that my pal Chuck Smith and I went to go see one afternoon. The guy who owned it worked at one of the local junkyards and was on parole or something or another. With a haircut that looked like George Thoroughgood’s, he met us at the door and closed it quickly as he walked out. His ‘old lady’ was making him sell it since the next door neighbors called the cops every time he started it up. This thing was pretty stout as a street racer – 426 street wedge with dual fours (of junkyard origin), pushbuttons on the dash, and Cragars that hung out of the fenderwells with actual cheater slicks on them. Chuck was serious about buying it, so we went for a ride, idling down the narrow side streets until there was enough space to do a wide open one-two shift. I was in the back seat.

I’d been in a few fast cars, but this thing was a monster. The tires spun in agony and the motor screamed as the car kicked sideways and forward; everything was a blur. Our host, who had that edgy eye look of someone who was buying homemade nose powder from the Pagan motorcycle club up in Trainer, Pa. (you couldn’t smell meth cooking where there are oil refineries nearby), barely got it straight. Just when I thought it was over, he typed in another key and – wham – we were sideways again. That ended that. Chuck decided that it was more than he could handle, even if he did have the $400.00 cash in his pocket.

But there were cars around. The gas station monkeys that I made my living with always found something new. Lots of Chevelles and Camaros, or course, but one guy bought a ‘71 383 Charger for the whopping sum of $50.00. Running. It was grey primer and had a rod knock but was a good daily driver for him for a few weeks, and after Earl Scheib sprayed some paint on it, he made some money on it.

By 1985, things were considerably tighter, though. There were not many cars on the market, and real musclecars, those that had made through the past decade without getting thrashed, crashed, raced or rusted into oblivion were getting valuable. Like I said, there were never tons of Hemi cars around; I never saw one for sale by a non-collector owner in those days. There were a few Six Packs in the trailer parks, and lots of 383 Road Runners, non R/T Chargers, and Super Bee, but a lot of what was offered on the street showed the signs of hard use. Just like today, you had know what you were doing if you were going to spend more than junk money.

The final ‘muscle’ driver I had back then was a ’71 Satellite with a 400 inch B-motor and enough Bondo in the rear quarters to sink the Bismark. It was a cruiser, but I got tired of putting gas in it after I met Linda, the woman who has now been my wonderful wife for 20 years, and sold it to buy a ‘72 Swinger with a Slant Six. That one went on its head only two weeks into our marriage, but that will be a story for another day.   

The last car I bought as a project in that era was a 1970 Barracuda. A local guy was going into the Army, and he had this car he had been fiddling with. It was nothing special – 318 with a replacement factory steel scalloped hood and not a straight piece of sheetmetal to be seen. The thing was, he was trying to convert it from a three-on-the tree to a four-speed so it was not running, and though I got all the parts from him, my heart wasn’t in it. I was in college part-time and holding down a couple of jobs, including the start of my writing career, which was based primarily in drag racing at that time. It sat at the end of my parents driveway for about six months, and I realized I was over project street cars for the near term. I called a friend from Jersey who always had great Mopars (including Hemi cars) and told him he could have it for the 500.00 I had in it.

‘Course, if I had that $10,000 back then, maybe things would have been a little different…  

Stunkard can be found here at MoparMax once a month, or all the time over at www.quartermilestones.com.

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