In segment #32, I told you all about the many demonstrators I had through the years, which prompted inquiries about what I drove before that.
My parents were not wealthy people by any stretch, but about six months before my 16th birthday, my Dad ran across a car he thought would make a great first car. I had no idea he was even looking yet. I got home from school one day and my Mother told me to go out in the backyard to check on the dog, and there it sat: my first car. I could not drive it yet, I had not finished driver education to get my learner’s permit.
It was a 1967 Chevy Malibu coupe, blue exterior with blue vinyl seats. It had a 283 V8, air conditioning, and a 3-speed manual transmission on the steering column. It could have been a new Corvette and I wouldn’t have been happier. I got “the speech” from my Dad with all the ground rules that day.
This was “the only car he’d ever buy me” he explained. He handed me the title and told me I could do with it “as I wished.” I could sell it that day if I wanted to, but he was finished with my car needs.
For the next six months, I did something to the Malibu every day while it was just sitting there. I cranked it, I polished it repeatedly, shampooed the interior, checked the fluids, SOMETHING just to be around it.
I got my driver license when I turned sixteen and the Malibu and I became fast friends. Remember from an earlier True Story that I was working at a Ford dealership after school and during the summers. At the time, I was assigned to the used car manager, a guy who really liked me, named Joe Davis.
I spent every extra dollar I had on the car. Glass packs came first to give it some sound. I added an 8-track player under the dash, and I bought a chrome air cleaner to replace the factory one.
One day I got to work straight from school and Joe told me we’d traded for a GM vehicle that was wrecked badly BUT had a beautiful set of Cragar mag wheels he was sure would fit the Malibu. It also had a nearly new set of tires. Joe told me that after I got off, if I wanted the tires and wheels, I could have them, the car was going to be sold to a junkyard. What a dream for a 16-year old, and it completely changed the looks of the Malibu.
Bear in mind, I was around cool cars often at work, driving different cars all the time, and a youngster gets antsy driving the same car every day.
I had to stock-in every car that was traded in, drive them, give a report to Joe on what needed to be done, and he decided whether to resell the car or wholesale it.
I went in after school one day and grabbed the trade-in key box, and headed to the back lot to locate and look over the new inventory. The first car up was a 1968 Pontiac LeMans coupe. It was love at first sight. I asked Joe if he would allow me to buy it and what he could give me for my Malibu. He told me to put the Malibu on the front line and whatever it sold for, I could have. I don’t recall the dollar amount, but the Malibu sold for enough to purchase the LeMans, and I was a happy camper, especially since the Cragar mags fit the Pontiac!
Well, I was happy until a few months later when a 1969 Buick Skylark 2-door rolled in. It was a dark jade green color with a matching vinyl top. I was sure this was “the one” I wanted. I put it through the same process I used for the other two, complete detail, swapped the tires and wheels, except this time I went a little farther and added dual exhaust with glass packs, and I changed the top from green to white. It was a beauty.
The Buick got me through my entire junior year in high school. We all had CB radios, so of course, my handle was the Skylark. Finally, I was completely happy with a car, and then it happened. I pulled up to work at the Ford dealership just to run into the dealership for a minute, and somebody asked me: “is that Skylark for sale?” I’d been around the dealership now for a couple of years and knew the correct answer was: “everything is for sale at the right price.”
The man looked to be around 30-years old, and this number I do remember: he said he had $2500 in cash, to which I said: “you own yourself a Skylark”.
The elation quickly wore off when I realized I didn’t have a car. Now what? I checked the lot and there just wasn’t anything there. Joe said I could drive something off the back lot while I figured it out. I grabbed a 1974 Ford Gran Torino 4-door that had been traded in by a big fleet company called PH&H. It was ugly, in a baby blue color, black wall tires, and complete with dog pan hubcaps. It had around 60,000 miles on it, which was a lot for a one-year-old car. It looked very much like an unmarked police car.
Much to my surprise, I really liked the way the Gran Torino drove. I had $2500 burning a hole in my pocket, so I asked Joe, just for grins, how much the Torino was and he said we had $1800 into it. The wheels started to turn in my head, and I made a quick decision to buy it but knew I had to do something to make it look better. I fully knew this was not a long-term car, but I was kind of getting into this “flipping cars” thing by now.
Step one was I sent it to a place called Loop 12 Trim for a dark blue vinyl top and matching pinstripe. I had a guy burn-on white wall tires, which was something we did a lot of. We had a used wheel cover guy and he had a set of Gran Torino Elite wire wheel covers, and I put those on the car. I detailed it, and it had transformed from the ugly duckling to a real beauty.
All total, I had roughly $2200 invested in the car, and I’d had it for about six weeks when Joe Meharg (my friend who died tragically in episode #32) asked if I wanted to sell the Torino. I actually said: “not really” but he went on to say his customer had $3500 to spend and that we didn’t have anything on the lot that would work. I told Joe to get him to $3700 and I’d give Joe $200 in cash. It went down like a Disney movie.
I have no wheels-AGAIN-but I’ve got $3500 cash and just to recap, I have not spent any money since the $450 Malibu my Dad gave me.
The following day, a wholesaler named Tommy pulled into the lot in a 1973 Pontiac Grand Ville coupe, red with a white vinyl roof, white interior, and a 455-cubic inch engine under the hood. It was love at first site. Tommy had just bought the car and I told him I wanted it for a “driver”, the term we used for our personal cars. He had $3300 in it and sold it to me for the same amount since we were friends. Finally, a car I had to do nothing to, it was perfect and low miles.
The Pontiac kept me happy through my senior year of high school, and a friend’s Mom had always admired the car. Something happened with hers, and she asked if I was ready to sell it. I said yes, and I’d love to see it go to a good home. We settled on $4750 and she wrote me a check.
I wanted a Corvette so bad I couldn’t stand it, but just could not afford what I wanted, so I found a chocolate brown 1976 Trans Am, but I had to get a loan for it, I didn’t have enough cash. My Dad co-signed a note for me at the Grove State bank, explaining that he’d only do this once. He introduced me to a loan officer named Clyde and I was off to the races. Oh, how I loved the sound of that Trans Am when I got on it.
I was perfectly happy with it, until…I saw the new 1979 Trans Am that debuted in Smokey and the Bandit II. When Bo Darville (Burt Reynolds, may he rest in peace) showed up on the screen, I knew I had to have the same car.
After the movie, I called a guy I knew with a very small Pontiac dealership in Kaufman, TX and told him what I wanted. It was in the fall as I recall, and he said he’d try to get it to me before Christmas. We verified the equipment, black inside and outside, T-Tops, gold wheels, gold eagle on the hood, and an automatic.
A month or so later he called and said someone else had ordered the same car, except it had a gold interior, and the guy backed out. I immediately said SOLD, that I’d be there in an hour. He gave me top dollar for my old Trans Am and I called Clyde at the bank and asked if he’d do a loan for me. He was a cool guy and said: “sure, just tell the dealer to draft on me, and when you get time, stop by and sign the note”. Ahhhh, how I miss the good old days.
Clyde and I did this many times over the years. It was a standing joke between us, I’d call and say “we bought something” and he would just simply say: “you know what to do”.
I loved this new Trans Am, I had the T-Tops off and the heater blowing as hard as it would go those first few weeks, it was winter by then.
One night I found myself coming off highway 175 toward home. It was around 10 PM when I hit a long, straight stretch of road we called the Bruton bottoms. A lot of racing happened there, and as long as you got off the gas pedal before a big hill headed eastbound, it was a six-lane NASCAR track.
When I got to the straight part, I hit it…pedal to the metal as my hero Bo Darville would say. I was getting pretty close to the hill, the speedo was showing 120 and was still climbing, when a Dallas Police car popped over the hill, coming toward me. Immediately, the red lights went on. I thought to myself, “you’re screwed” and just pulled over.
When I get stopped, I smelled something burning and smoke overcame the car. I can tell it’s coming from the engine. I managed to get the hood open and the entire engine was engulfed by the time the police car pulled up. He had already radioed for the fire department.
I was extremely happy to see my friend Jerry (from episode #23) get out of his squad car. As it turns out, he had recognized my T/A immediately (he knew my car well) and flipped the lights on to tell me there were flames coming out the bottom. We’d had an ice and snowstorm a few days earlier and there was still ice on the ground. We started chunking ice on the engine, and by the time Dallas Fire got there, it was pretty well out.
I could see the wiring had burned to a crisp, the beautiful eagle on the hood bubbled up, and the fenders were scorched. It was a sad sight. I had it towed to the nearest Pontiac dealership and they determined that the transmission fluid was over-filled at the factory. When I got on it that hard, the transmission got hot enough to push the dipstick out, and transmission fluid hit the manifold starting the fire.
It took a month to get the car back after arguing between GM and my insurance company. Finally, GM took responsibility and fixed the car, but it was never the same. Odd things would happen: like I’d turn on a blinker and the horn would blow. The lights would go off for no reason on the dash. It just truly was not “my car” anymore.
Black and gold Trans Ams were a hot commodity, thanks to Bo and his movie, and I sold the car with 800 miles on it. That begins the previous episode, #32, Demos.
Tags: True Stories From a Former Car Dealer