growing up fast

Growing up fast in the Detroit Suburbs

1967 finally arrived, and not a minute too soon.  That was the year I began my driver’s ed.  Back then, the public schools in Michigan allowed teachers to teach driver’s education in the summertime.  I could not wait that long, so my parents paid for my initial time behind the wheel.

My first experience behind the wheel was my mom letting me drive our Ford Galaxy Station Wagon complete with rear facing back seats around our small town.  A boat to say the least, but I learned everything from staying between the lines, obeying the speed limits, and that long forgotten challenge of parallel parking…that hardest requirement to get past the BMV driver’s test ever.  Do they still even require that outdated task??

My private instruction required learning to drive three different styles of vehicles.  The first, a very normal and bland Pontiac Tempest, then a station wagon (I still don’t know why!), and finally a manual transmission coupe.  Well, back in 1967, the Pontiac Tempest that came with a stick shift was really a GTO.  So, when I pulled up behind a tractor pulling a trailer stuffed high with bales of wheat on a rural back road with the triangle caution sign prominently displayed on the rear of the wagon, my instructor asked me, “What does that sign mean?”

I promptly replied, “Pass it!”  I crushed the clutch down with my left foot, crashed the Hurst shifter back down into 1st gear, popped the clutch.  When the tach red-lined, I power shifted into second.  Within moments we were nearing 60 mph and as readied my hand for third gear, I saw total terror in the eyes of my instructor.

I decided to gently slide the transmission into forth gear and slow back down to the posted speed limit and let the man sitting next to me close his eyes, and he probably lifted a desperate prayer.  I don’t think the other student sitting in the back seat ever opened his eyes for the duration of the trip!

I was so excited!  Freedom.  Get off my bicycle and make my way onto that dragstrip commonly known in the suburbs of Detroit, as every traffic light!  My high school was literally a Mecam Action in real time.  There were muscle cars from every major car manufacturer just impatiently waiting for school to dismiss and head out to the parking lot to find their over horse-powered cars.  Quickly, all those testosterone filled teenage boys started up those thumping engines, pushed down on the clutch, slid their Hurst shifters into 1st gear and waiting in line to pull out onto 6-mile road and drop the accelerator. 

The line up of muscle cars ranged from overpowered pony cars to those slightly bigger cars that our moms used to drive to the grocery store with huge engines sucking in air from 4-barrel carburetors.

That list included but was not limited to:

  • Chevy Nova SS 396
  • Chevelle SS 396 and 454
  • Camaro SS/RS 327/396 and Z-28
  • Corvettes with everything from 327 to 427
  • Dodge Chargers 440 6-packs
  • Dodge Super Bee
  • Hemi Dodge Challengers
  • Road Runners with the standard 383, 440 6-packs, or the legendary optional 426 Hemi
  • Hemi Cudas
  • 340 Cudas and Dusters
  • Pontiac Firebirds
  • Olds 442
  • Even the AMC Javelin
  • And the first real muscle car – the 1966 Pontiac GTO

Since my dad worked for the Ford Motor Company, my personal favorite was the Mustang, which came in various forms.  The 1968 fastback equipped with a 390 cubic inch V-8 with a massive 4-barrel carburetor, the Boss 302, and my first car – the mighty 1969 428 SCJ Mach 1.

While the Big Three automobile makers have recently realized that all those kids growing up back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, could know afford insurance again, they upped the ante (and retails) and finally began producing those pony cars with more horsepower than probably necessary.  Yes, there are overpowered Mustangs, Challengers, and Camaros back in dealers’ showrooms, but it’s just not the same! 

The newer  generations kind of resemble their older sisters from the heyday of muscle cars, are better built, much faster, have better gas mileage, provide better handling, traded in their 4-barrel carburetors for fuel injectors, and are much safer…but it’s just not the same sound rumbling from the exhaust.  And there aren’t many races from every traffic light like the good old days.  Legendary drag racing from light to light on Telegraph Road and Woodward Avenue in Detroit are history today.  Only the annual Woodward Avenue Dream Cruise remains trying desperately to resurrect those good old days, only at a much, too much, slower pace.

Who could have ever thought there might be an eight-gear transmission?  Paddle shifters – are you kidding me?  What about the smell of Polyglas tires burning rubber?  700 horsepower right off the showroom floor with 10 second quarter mile elapsed times standard.  Cars with up to 40 computers on board?

I even saw a Dodge Challenger the other day boasting a Hemi, but with an exterior burgundy color that I can only compare to a Mini-Van he might have bought for his wife to haul around toddlers in car seats!   What was he thinking?  A Dodge Challenger must be bright limelight green, brilliant hemi orange, or yellow lemon twist.  For crying out loud, know your lineage and history man!

For Christ’s sake, next year Ford will release an electric Mustang Mach-E that more resembles a mini SUV to me than a muscle car.  Where will the exhaust pipes get that great rumble.  Where will be exhaust pipes?? 

I don’t know about you, but when I still look at pictures from the muscle car heyday, they look fast standing still.  Unfortunately, I can only watch the Mecam Auto Auction and dream.  Who can afford a half million-dollar Mustang Mach 1 or a 3 million-dollar Plymouth Hemi Cuda?

“God, I miss that high school parking lot!”

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kirkspencer0444@gmail.com

I've been married for 40 years with 3 children and 7 grandchildren. I spent my 45 year career in the grocery retailing industry, from bagging groceries to president of a customer dedicated national food brokerage company. I enjoy golfing, cooking, writing, all kinds of music, and more importantly watching my grandchildren thrive, especially in education and sports.

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