The first car that I tend to claim as mine was a1979 Ford Thunderbird, which was so 1979 that pimps were stopping me and saying, “Bro, that car just ain’t right.” Dad bought it from a guy he knew to give me something to learn on when I was 15. Since he drove the station wagon and Mom couldn’t figure out the complex way in which you start a Ford (she was a GM lady), the car was essentially mine.
However, the first car that had my name on the coveted pink slip was aPontiac Firebird. Red. Of course. I bought it from Dad who had apparently finished his mid-life crisis and acquiesced to the car of the late-life crowd, the Cadillac. For something like four years, I paid him $100 a month, which he would dutifully check off of a payment schedule posted in my room back home. My folks could have given the car to me, but felt this was yet another way to teach me the value of something. It worked. When I paid off the final installment, I drove around on the freeway for about an hour, feeling the wind whipping through my hair (I still had some at the time).
Many other folks have bemoaned the loss of the Pontiac division this week and with good reason.Job loss, loyal customers getting jobbed and the general sense that we’re giving up all seemed to flow forth.Some reports have cast this move as GM lopping off limbs to save the company’s torso for its greed-filled executives. To be fair, I haven’t bought a domestic car in nearly a decade, so I’m sure I’m partially to blame for these closures.
Still, I fondly remember that car and all its two-door, V-8, bat-out-of-hell glory seemed to represent.
Hot cars for college guys were supposed to be like Spanish Fly. The first time the Missus saw the car, I figured she’d be impressed. Instead, she dubbed it “The Penis Mobile” for its supple shaping and the sense I was overcompensating for something. Friends of mine with a better sense of car savvy called it “The Rocket” after having dubbed me “The Rocketeer” for one particularly insane ride in which I drove 70 miles in 42 minutes. (For the record, I didn’t do it in the Firebird. I was driving Dad’s old Chevy Celebrity. Go figure.) Neither name stuck, but “The Penis Mobile” became part of our group’s lexicon.
Winters with that car were particularly painful, as it had the back-end weight of Kate Moss. The thing would fishtail on about two flakes of snow and that was before you put it into gear. I ended up taking Dad’s weight bench out of his workout room one year, stealing all the weights off of it and loading them into the trunk of the car. It didn’t help the traction much, especially since the car was already about three inches off the ground. The noise made when plastic scrapes the asphalt while driving down a steep driveway was my like a soundtrack to my life at that point.
Still, it never failed me. One time, my boss at the newspaper sent me down a two-lane highway in the middle of a blizzard on an assignment. The goal? To pick up photos of three people who had died in a horrible crash earlier that day on that same two-lane highway when the roads were much better. I was going about 35 miles per hour and no one was passing me. The snow was scraping the undercarriage of the car and it was so loud, I couldn’t hear the stereo. Suddenly, some jerkbag in an SUV behind me was honking and flashing his lights and gesturing that I should move more quickly. When I failed to do so, he tried passing on the left, swerved in front of me and over-corrected into the ditch. The Firebird, however, never wavered.
In the 15-plus moves I made during college, I got through most of them with the Firebird, cramming my crates of crap and parts of a rickety futon into the back of it. The car developed serious problems after being used as a pack mule/U-Haul, including some issues with the tailgate seal. This meant the occasional spring rainstorm would fill the depths of my trunk with water. I’d often get out of work at 2 a.m., see drops of rain on the windshield and then spend the next half hour bailing out the trunk with a margarine cup. The thing smelled like a tuna boat in dry dock for the three days after that. The compression springs in the front had failed as well, so when I had to change the plugs or the oil, I’d need a broom to prop the hood open.
But it was mine.
When the steering started to go and the transmission finally started to fail, the Missus and I went looking for a new car. We weren’t married at the time, but it felt like a transition to married life was occurring. We swapped out a car that had such lousy back seats that they would give a dwarf leg cramps for an SUV that felt like an airplane hangar. The touchy gas pedal and unbridled speed was traded in for something that seemed to go from 0-60 in a month and a half. The winter sliding gave way to the sureness of four-wheel drive. Rebellion was replaced by responsibility.
As GM shutters its Pontiac plants, I’m sure gear heads across the nation are also reflecting on their beloved muscle cars. From the GTOs to the Firebirds to the Trans Ams, Pontiac seemed to represent a feeling of freedom. Many of its cars were irresponsibly poor in adverse conditions and lousy on gas mileage, but to own one was to walk with a swagger.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the fact that I can haul, literally, a ton of shit (we just filled the garden with about 50 bags of cow manure) and that the snow doesn’t phase me. Still, on warm days when the sun hangs low in the sky and the radio has something particularly Fog Hat-esque on, it’s hard not to long for the days of the Rocket, a long stretch of untamed road and the hair the wind used to blow through.