American Muscle

There was once a magic era when America built screaming, asphalt-gobbling, tire smoking, monster-motor muscle cars, and I’m happy to say that I still remember those days clearly, even though they were, in the immortal song by Don Maclean, “a long, long time ago”.    Back during the “far out” 60’s and 70’s the game was for the Big Three to stuff giant, gas-gulping 426 Hemis, 427 Tri-Powers, and 429 Cobra Jets into the coolest-looking cars they could build and send them straight to the drag strip, Daytona, or even, in one case, to the local Hertz Rent a Car pool to create what became known as the most insane cars to ever emerge from Motown design studios-the rompin’, stompin’, all-American muscle car.

That these beasts couldn’t exactly stop on a dime and more or less plowed into turns didn’t seem to bother anyone-all that mattered is that they had bucket seats, some fat rubber, and that they could go, baby, go-and so fast that most insurance companies wouldn’t let a kid like me touch them, at least not without a responsible adult cosigning. But it wasn’t all about speed: the color palettes also reflected the magnificent excess and in-your-face audacity of these machines: “flavors” like Plum Crazy Metallic, Vitamin C, Hemi Orange, Go Mango, Top Banana Yellow, Sassy Grass Green, and Lime Light are just a few examples of the retina-popping, show-stopping paint schemes that were available.  Back before I could drive, I used to dream about one day owning one of those iconic rides.  Well, I’m happy to say I saw tons of them- nearly every make and model– at the American Muscle Car Museum in Melbourne, Florida last Veteran’s Day.  

We can all thank entrepreneur and philanthropist  Mark Pielock for assembling this outstanding collection of rolling Americana.  It’s all housed in a giant hangar-like facility that is well-lit, impeccably clean, and brimming over with neon nostalgia.  I didn’t get a chance to talk to him, but at the end of the day, he and his supermodel wife gave away tens of thousands of dollars worth of prizes (courtesy of the many sponsors of the event).  Thanks from all of us vets, Mark!

Wandering through the exhibits was a walk down memory lane.  There in all their glory were perfectly preserved specimens of all those oldies I used to salivate over (and still do): Pontiac GTO “Judges”, split-window Sting Rays, Plymouth Road Runners, Oldsmobile 442 convertibles, Dodge Daytonas, and, crowning a turntable at the building’s entrance, the mother of all muscle cars-an iconic 427 Shelby Cobra.  Really, if you were any kind of car enthusiast at all, there was something of interest for you at the show. 

I’ve owned many of the great ones myself-a ’69 convertible Camaro, a 1970 Challenger R/T with the 440-“6 pack”, a ’69 ‘Vette with a 350 and Hurst shifter, a brace of ’69 Chargers (one in “Dukes of Hazard” orange), and my favorite-a 1971 ‘Cuda 340 that was my “datemobile” in high school and served me well on into college.  The memories were bittersweet in some cases-my (now long gone) Dad used to love to go to car shows with me-but mostly just sweet, as in the time when, as a young and foolish 1st lieutenant, I managed to shoehorn two ladies into my ‘Vette, one sitting high up on the convertible hatch cover like a prom queen, and drive through Hurlburt Field’s’ main gate after a night of drinking and carousing.  The MPs weren’t amused, and it took a phone call to the base commander to get me out of that one.

If it’s a fair description to say that cars tell you something about national character, then what the muscle car era tells us about America is that we love over-the-top excess, competition, and more, more, more: that just when you think you can’t build something stronger, faster, meaner, or more bad-ass, you probably just haven’t tried hard enough.  And while that line of thinking might seem rather comical and unsophisticated to the rest of the world, they weren’t laughing at all when we repeatedly dominated the Ferraris, Jaguars, and Porsches at LeMans, Daytona, and Sebring for 4 years running in the mid 60s with our “primitive” machines, proving that what Americans love more than anything, as General Patton once so pithily said, is winning.  It also proved that we have some pretty good engineers and some damned fine cars on this side of the Atlantic as well.

We’ve been called a car culture, with some justification, and while I know that’s meant as a bit of a put down by some of our “betters”, I don’t look at it that way at all.  There’s nothing wrong with car culture, at least not the way I remember it.  After all, who doesn’t recall their first solo drive?  I know I do.  I was sitting at a stop light with the top down in my ’69 Camaro convertible not a mile from home in Enterprise, Alabama where the 84 bypass intersects with East Park Avenue.  The sun was going down under the visor, the wind was in my hair, and the smell of burnt oil was in the air.  I was thinking I could drive all the way to California if I wanted to, and there’d be no one to stop me.  All it would take to get there was a tap on the accelerator and a turn of the wheel-that, and the gas money a 16 year-old didn’t have.  In that brief moment, I toyed with the idea of just chucking it all-high school, college, friends, and family-to just go and not give a care about where or what lay in front of me; to finally take the “road less traveled” towards the adventure and excitement of the world that lay beyond my small town.  Then the light turned green, my thoughts turned back to my empty stomach, Mom, and home, and of course I turned left, “(back to) the door where it began, toward our old house at the end of the cul-de-sac on Averett Avenue.  I didn’t know it then, but I’d wind up eventually seeing a big part of that world beyond, and maybe my wander lust can be credited, at least in part, to my love of cars, and the freedom of movement that they represent.  

Like most of my friends, my ride was a connection to everything important to me at the time.  It was how I met my buddies, got to school and work, and went on my first real date.  My car is where my friends and I listened to “Freebird” on an 8-track tape as we cruised to Panama City Beach for Spring Break.  It’s where I rolled more than a few fat doobies and kissed some of the most beautiful girls in the world (I didn’t realize it then, but yeah).  I busted my knuckles fixing her up and spent my spare time waxing her. It was as big a part of my identity as what I wore or who I was going steady with-even more so.   Not many people knew much about me back then, but they did know I was the guy who drove the totally cool fly-yellow 340 ‘Cuda with custom side pipes.  It was my mobile office, beer hauler, living room, music hall, and babe magnet all rolled up into one, and I will tell you the truth, maybe it’s just that I’m getting old now, but I miss those good ol’ days of aimless small town cruising with an aching sentimentality that’s hard to describe.  

Americans-real Americans, not those trapped inside the hamster cages on the coasts-love muscle cars because they’re a throwback to those halcyon days when horsepower was king, seat belts were optional, and Sunoco 105 was only 65 cents a gallon.  Back then, a blue-collar working man could realistically afford to buy one (as well as a rancher in suburbia), and you’d have to look hard to find an automobile not made in the USA, let alone see an appliance like a plug-in Volvo at the local car dealer.  They remind of us of a time when dinosaurs ruled the earth, and, while they could be terrifying in their tire-smoking, earth-shaking glory, at least they were our dinosaurs- born in the USA , forged in steel, and shaped by our own hands-and they were and are a joy to behold and drive.   We may never see their like again, but they still call us, like memories of a long lost love, back to the places we came from…back to when our country was more honest with us, and, perhaps, we were more honest with ourselves- to a time of our youth and even (dare I say) our innocence…and the older I get, the sweeter that seems to me.

PS-The museum isn’t open to the public.  To see it, I’d recommend hitting up their website and find out if you’d qualify as a guest at any events coming up.

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