Wednesday, May 16, 2012

'67 Camaro Convertible: The Car of My Dreams, and Screams

In last week's post about North Carolina's same-sex marriage ban, I mentioned that years ago, I had owned a 1967 Camaro convertible.

After reading that post, my colleague and FB buddy Fred Sandsmark wrote: "You buried the lede. I want to see pictures of that yellow 1967 Camaro convertible." 

Several others commented on the Camaro, too, which sent me reeling back to my days with "Cammie." Days when I sweated profusely. And screamed. And cried. And sang along to eight-track tapes. And lost all my savings. And skipped school a million times. And feared for my life, more than once.

I'll start at the beginning.

My father bought the '67 Camaro in 1970 as a car for my sisters Mimi and Julia and me. The idea was that as each of us came of driving age, we'd share the car. Being the youngest, I lucked out. There was no one I'd have to pass the car onto.

Cammie and me, circa 1980-81
I'd never been in a convertible before, not that I could remember, and once I rode in the Camaro, I knew convertibles would forever be my style. (I still drive a convertible, a Mini Cooper.) Cammie had character. You got attention riding around in it. You felt slightly rebellious.

And I was rebellious. In high school, my friends and I would skip school, pile into Cammie, smoke a joint (or three), and ride around Greensboro, top down (even when it was cold; that was what the heater was for). We'd sing along to eight-track tapes of David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Elton John, and their ilk. And then, inevitably, we'd head to Krispy Kreme for doughnuts. If I ever write a story about those fun, mid 1970s experiences, I must call it Glazed and Confused.

Let's see, where was I? Oh, yes. I mentioned earlier that I'd screamed in the Camaro. That would have happened when I was living and working in Charleston. I'd left the car windows down overnight, got in, drove up the highway, and discovered a gecko on the inside of my windshield. For those of you who've seen the fantastic opening sequence in the movie Contact, you know that my scream is still floating around in space, along with Lucille Ball's laugh.

I also feared for my life in Cammie. The first time, I somehow found myself lost in the Great Dismal Swamp, a 112,000-acre wetland preserve on the N.C./Virginia border. It was dusk. I grew fearful that I wouldn't find my way out before the blackness of night set in and therefore I was doomed to be eaten by alligators. Miraculously, I discovered the exit at last and returned to civilization with all my limbs (but not all my nerves) intact.

On another occasion, I was driving the Camaro over the old Cooper River Bridge that connected Charleston to its eastern neighbors. Anyone who had the misfortune of driving on that bridge might understand why I called it the Crack Your Face bridge, because its narrow lanes and flimsy feel (to me) would quickly erode any composure you had.

The Crack Your Face Bridge
One afternoon, I was at the highest point of the bridge when traffic came to a halt due to a summer squall. For what must have been 15 or 20 minutes, I was stuck in place, feeling the old bridge sway and creak against the fierce winds and relentless rain. A couple of times, Cammie stalled, which only added to my undoing. Finally, the winds died down and the traffic moved on, and the Camaro, after a few more lurches, started up again and took me home.

I'd also mentioned losing all my savings because of Cammie. When I was working at the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald as a reporter, I made a ridiculously low salary--just under $10,000. I had about $1,200 in savings, mostly money my father had set aside for me. During this time (late 1981), the Camaro's engine started to go. I suspected as much when I thought there always seemed to be a four-alarm fire nearby--and realized it was Cammie's engine.

I was told a new engine would cost me about $2,000. At the office, I mentioned to a co-worker my dilemma. Her husband, a mechanic, and his friends would gladly rebuild my engine for $1,100, she said.

I paid her husband the money up front, which was my second mistake. (The first was to even consider having a co-worker's no-count husband work on my car.) He and his buddies fixed the Camaro and it ran fine. For one week. And then, the black smoke returned. I insisted that my co-worker's husband fix the engine; he said he would; and despite numerous pleas and threats, he never did. I was incredulous and distraught and didn't know what to do.

"Cut your losses," Nick said--a life lesson if there ever was one. Humiliated, I had to ask my father for money to get the engine replaced.

If you'll recall, a few paragraphs back I mentioned sweating profusely. This was because Cammie lacked air conditioning. And it had a black interior. You drove it in the summer, you perspired. Epically. Like Mark Zuckerberg being interviewed on stage.

Mark Zuckerberg's famous meltdown
As a teenager, I wasn't too concerned about that. But when I started working full-time, the lack of AC became a problem. I'd sometimes carry an extra shirt to change into, so that I wouldn't arrive at a business meeting looking like a wet T-shirt contestant. When Nick and I lived in Atlanta, I'd often get stuck in horrendous traffic jams on the freeway, with no choice but to inhale the fumes of idling transfer trucks. 

Following one particularly excruciating freeway jam without air conditioning, I vowed that that summer would be my last with Cammie. And it was. 

In spring 1987, as Nick and I prepared to move to San Francisco, I decided not to have the Camaro shipped West, that it was time for me to buy a new car. I advertised Cammie in a local paper and almost immediately, the calls started. I sold her to a vintage car enthusiast who, after the deal was cinched, said he was going to paint her red. 

The night before I was to hand over the keys, I took Cammie for one last ride. I'd created a cassette mix tape especially for the occasion, with songs I'd loved as a teenager, music I listened to as a young adult, and, with a nod to my future, a few songs about San Francisco. And that was the night I cried in my Camaro.


I bet you've got a few tales to share about your beloved car. Put your phone down, pull over, and tell me all about it. 

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  1. A boy and his car.
    A feel like I have just watched a favorite old film.

    You are a roll, great posts...nothing to add.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I've never felt that way about a car; maybe it's a guy thing?

    What sweet detail; I can almost see you riding in Cammie. :)

    1. Claudia, I suspect it is something of a 'guy thing.'

  4. I never had a special car, probably because all the cars I've driven have been stoopid with two o's. (pinto wagon anyone?) I do love this post, all those memories for so many years, and this car was your "vehicle" to all those times.
    I love that you've kept the convertible tradition going. My husband drives a mini cooper, but he's keeping the English thing going. ;-)

    1. JuJu, Thanks for your comments, as always.

      A Pinto wagon reminds me of the time when a friend told me and some other friends that he'd bought a new car. When asked what it was, he replied, "A Pinto," to which another friend replied: "I thought you said you'd bought a CAR!"

  5. My favorite car was a 1976 Renault 4-- "Rennie." My wife and I bought it from another American couple for 200 pounds when we lived in England in the late-80s while I was in grad school. Rennie was yellow with a blue hood (or, as the British say, "bonnet"), which the previous owners had attached after a friend's parents had borrowed the car and gotten into an accident. The steering wheel was on the right, of course, and like all Renault 4s, the gear shift came straight out from the dashboard. And, like all old cars, things started to fail. The glass bottle for the radiator overflow burst one day while driving (only the French would put a glass bottle next to the engine). When the hood latch broke, we held down the hood with bungee cords. Those stayed on for months before we finally replaced the latch. The heating system was a couple flaps in the dashboard that allowed hot air to flow in from the engine. But, it was a fun car with the most comfortable seats ever-- like sitting in an easy chair while driving. Our only regret is that we didn't bring Rennie back to the States with us when we moved home in 1989.

    1. Michael, that's a hilarious tale. I especially love the glass bottle next to the engine, and the heat from the engine acting as your heater. Classic. Or should I say "Classique"?

  6. I started with the family "pass along" car - a 1972 VW Beetle 111 (that's the basic one folks, not the Superbeetle). Rubber mats on the floor, no radio no options. You learned to drive with your head just slightly out the window on foggy spring mornings in Southern California. You also learned how to "heel and toe" the accelerator and brake pedals to keep the engine revs high enough to keep the heat and defroster working when stopped in traffic (the heater and defroster fan was an option and Dad didn't want it). Bosch manufactuer porous distributor caps for a while in the 1970's, so you learned that, with all the vents across the back, you had to keep change for telephone calls - for another ride or for the Auto Club - if you parked outside during a severe Pacific storm. I drove that car for close to ten years - through high school, college, throughout the Los Angeles freeway system (tip - build up your head of steam early to make it over the Conejo Grade, the Calabasas Grade, or the transition from I-5 to the southbound Pasadena Freeway), up and down I-5, my first job doing field calls from the north Santa Barbara County line to the Mexican border. The fact that I am alive today is proof that the lord does indeed protect fools and children. Thinking about it now, I am amazed that my parents were able to sleep at all during those years.

    It was considered an icon of an era, but it was a pretty miserable driving experience.

    1. Will, I used to want a VW Beetle so badly. After reading your comment, um, kinda glad I didn't get one.

  7. There’s something about convertibles that makes most people stick to it. Convertibles are instant attention grabbers. They are also a perfect summer car. Their appeal will never change. But today, it may not be practical to let your roof down all the time since pollution has become worse.

  8. @Ellsworth: I really think of convertibles as one of those luxurious cars, in which I would agree with what you said. Once you show off your convertible on the road, it’s guaranteed to turn heads for sure!