Driving on a Wing and a Prayer
In the spring of 1980 I was seventeen, just finishing my junior year of high school. I lived at 355 Main Street in Old Saybrook, but I went to the Hammonasset School in Madison. To get there, I caught a bus from the TV repair shop next to the Chevy dealership. It was a bit of a haul from Main Street to the bus stop at 7 am and it wasn’t at a good time for catching a ride, so I usually took my bike or walked.
Being without a car of my own was rough on a teenage gearhead with a driver’s license in his pocket. I was constantly looking at cars for sale and scheming. I knew every make and model of car sold in the US, but 60s and 70s GM cars had my eye. Pontiac was probably my favorite, but any GM A-body would do. One of my favorites was the El Camino of the mid-70s. I had my eye on a 1977 El Camino Classic at the Chevy dealer. I tried to convince my mother we needed it. Not even the swivel bucket seats could convince her.
One car I walked past on Main Street was an old Buick Gran Sport. It had been an exceptional car in its day. It was a red convertible with a black top and interior. It was the GS400 model, which had a 400 cubic inch (6.6L) Buick motor with 340 BHP. It was no racer, but it was different enough to pique my interest. And it sat in the sand parking lot next to the NAPA store. A prime location for eyeballing as I walked home from the bus stop.
It was no beauty queen. It was older, a little dinged up, sat on steel wheels with bias belted tires, and the paint had faded by the time I first saw it. But it looked like a fun project and a great daily driver. It was one of the many cars that frequented my dreams.
Fast forward to Spring of 1981. I had just joined the Navy and was working at the Cumberland Farms on Route 1 while waiting for my boot camp entry date in the fall. I didn’t have much money, but I needed wheels to get me from Springbrook Road where we lived by then to work across from Johnny Ads. I had been looking around and soon I saw the Buick with a for sale sign in the window.
By that time the tires were bald, the hubcaps were all gone, there had been a fire in the carb and the paint on the hood cracked and peeled. But for $175, which was about all I had, the car was mine. I eased it home. Even with old gas and fouled plugs, the 440 ft lbs of torque chugged it up the steep grade to my parents’ house on Ferry Hill.
And there I was, the broke owner of a vintage muscle car. Those two things do not go together well, but I took a crash course in grease monkey as I climbed under the hood. It took no time at all for me to bond with the car. After the bond came the Bondo, as I went over the entire body with grinder and sander and a few cans of black primer. I removed the chrome and took off the hood.
The car soon came alive again and my mother referred to it as a phoenix. I told her a Phoenix is a Pontiac, and that I would have to come up with something else. I had taken to calling it Moribund (dying, near death) and that name stuck before I could come up with a better one. I thought of Bennu, the Egyptian firebird, but didn’t like the sound of it. Soon my mother shortened Moribund to Mori, which holds in our lexicon even now, 30+ years since I let him go to another dreamer.
But he wouldn’t pass inspection with bald tires, so I went downtown to the wheel and tire store and ordered my favorite wheels, American Racing aluminum slotted mags. I wanted the fifteen inch wheels fitted with BF Goodrich radial T/A tires. The wheels and tires were only slightly wider than the originals and fit safely inside the wheel wells. The package cost over three times what I paid for the car.
I didn’t have the cash for the wheels and tires, so I paid some every week. It took six weeks for me to pay off the garage, but when I went in with my last payment, the owner had already ordered the set and had them in the shop. I impressed him with how dedicated I was to making the payments and rewarded me by upgrading the tires to the white-letter version. The change compared to the old tires was radical. It blossomed into a real muscle car.
You don’t want me to tell all the tales. I’d write a book. Like the time I fishtailed onto Elm Street, spinning the tires and raising the right front wheel off the ground, only to meet up with a kid on a bike, cutting the wheel the other way and sliding off the road sideways. Or the trip home from Kowloon Gardens when I hit 120 mph on Essex Road by Ayers Point. Or the time I went rocketing down the off-ramp at Ingham Hill Road and found out that drum brakes fade away to no brakes when they get hot. Or how about flying down the Hammonasset Connector with seven kids in that five passenger car? No, you don’t want me to go into that.
Or we could talk about the sad times. Like when I had to leave Mori behind and go off to boot camp. Or how my uncle drove the car while I was away and blew a head gasket. Or how my step-father cleaned the garage for the first and last time in his life and tossed out all of that original chrome I had taken off to prep it for paint. Or the bill I got for replacing the head gasket (plus a few goodies that I couldn’t resist adding.)
And I don’t even want to think about the day in 1987 when I gave it up so I could clear out the garage and “grow up” when my first child was born. I didn’t sell it for $175, but it was still only about a thousand. Look up the value of a 1968 Buick GS400 Convertible today. Then you can cry with me. No, let’s not talk about that.