The Return of a Simple American Pleasure
By 1975, a visit to a new car dealership became approximately as enjoyable as a day at jury duty or the airport. All 3 destinations featured several things in common; 1) bad coffee, 2) uncomfortably tedious questioning and 3) interminably long, boring hours spent in close proximity to people we’d ordinarily avoid.
This wasn’t breaking news for car dealerships - but for the emergence of the word BORING.
Growing up in the 1960s, absolutely nothing was boring about cars. The arrival of a new car (often a full-sized American wagon) on our Massachusetts cul-de-sac was a neighborhood social event. The Dads would congregate around the open hood, poking and gawking knowingly at the 318 MoPar, 390 Ford or small block Chevy. Moms would pile into the interior – tuning the radio, folding the third row seat, opening or closing the tailgate.
The Fisher boys and friends would pore over the window sticker and owner’s manual, eager to discover the rated horsepower of the engine and find out how close Dad came to selecting the top dog “Cobra Jet”, “Turbo Jet” or “Commando” V8. Sadly, Dad’s engine selections often were closer to the "Thriftmaster Six” end of the spectrum.
We were the most hardcore FoMoCo enthusiasts growing up. From 1969 to 1973, my older brother Paul and I would ride our Stingray bikes to West Ford in Newtonville, MA., or in the summer, H.A. Suddard Ford in Wareham. We’d walk the rows and showroom for hours, ogling Mach 1/Boss Mustangs, GT500 Shelbys and Torino Cobras. We’d load up on brochures and color pamphlets, ask (and repeatedly be denied) permission to sit in the cars and row the Hurst T-handle shifters.
The 1973 arrival of the `74 Mustang II was simply heartbreaking. Tape stripes, Magnum 500 rims and fastback roof profile suggested “Total Performance” but weren’t fooling us for a minute. “In Window Sticker Veritas” says the Romans, and the miserable 4 cylinder and 2.8 Cologne V6 engines were gross betrayals of all we held dear. Ford slipped from that hallowed spot in our consciousness, and visits to West and H.A. Suddard Ford all but ceased.
I began to drift over to GM. At least they hadn’t forgotten their roots, and for a couple of years anyway continued to offer “real” 454s and 455s to choose from.
I started pedaling the heavily trafficked 6-7 miles to Berejik Oldsmobile on Highland Avenue in Needham, MA. These guys were hardcore – exhaust headers hung in the front showroom window directly under the “442 Specialists” sign! The Musclecar era might have been ending, but red-fender lined W-30s and 455 powered 442s were still abundant at Berejik. The sales crew understood and patiently indulged the passions and questions of a young man with no driver’s license and no money.
But by 1976, it was all over. The industry sputtered, and American cars reflected clumsy responses to the new realities of EPA mandates, CAFE mileage standards and formidible foreign competition. The showrooms no longer held anything remotely worthy of a long bike trip, particularly if that something was a cynical "tape stripe" performance package like the Trans-Am or Mustang Cobra.
Motorcycles became our thing, then girls, college, careers and parenthood.
The passion for cars never fully disappeared – but after the disappointment of the mid-70s we just needed some sign that our hearts wouldn’t again be broken before once again indulging our passions.
It made me sad – the post-war era of automotive fantasy and wonderment had seemingly ended for good. My two sons would never know the tension as their Dad’s hand hovered over the new vehicle order form – so tantalizing close to finally ticking off the “429 4V Cobrajet High Output” checkbox…..
In 1982, signs of life again began to appear, such as; Mustang GT, Hurst Olds, IROC Camaro and Buick Grand National. But like Kevin Costner in “Dances with Wolves” those re-emergent performance cars were anomalies, isolated outposts in a vast wilderness of otherwise drab, lousy cars.
In 2012, my faith in the automotive industry is restored. Once again I eagerly await a visit to the dealership and car shows to evaluate the newest offerings. Yup, dealership coffee still stinks, and I still have to endure interminable questions like; “What will it take to get you into the car today?” or “how much per month do you have to spend?” The days of the Boss 429 may be over, but the cars are so good again - at least I’m never bored.
Most importantly, our kids come along, and at ages 13 and 11, react just like Paul and I did back in 1970. “Dad, check out the Challenger SRT-8” or “Cool, here’s a ZR-1, this thing has 640 horsepower!!” They know their iron, commit the vital specs to memory and can spot a Corvette Z06 (and distinguish it from a lesser Grand Sport) from 500 paces. They come along on drives of great cars like Mustang GT, MazdaSpeed 3 and Focus ST. I punch the throttle, they laugh and I feel like a hero for introducing them to the simple, visceral joy of a fast run through the gears.
And, this makes me very, very happy indeed.
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