The long, HARD way home

Ed links to the greatest road-trip article EVAR.

The car in question was a Nocturne Blue 1979 Pontiac Trans Am, complete with the WS6 handling package. It was a non-T-top car with stunning paint, a perfect Camel Tan vinyl interior, gold 15 x 8-inch “snowflake” wheels, and A/C, and it was located just a few hours from Chris’ home. Now, I’ve no doubt that when he forwarded me the classified listing, he knew his life was about to get complicated. I was 2,000 miles away in Northern California, while he was basically within walking distance. Friends, however, are friends, and when they’re good ones they’ll go above and beyond to help a buddy out.

I’d been looking for another second-gen Trans Am ever since I sold my 1981 Turbo T/A a few years ago. It was a true Y84-code Special Edition WS6 T-top car with just 34,000 miles, and it was about as clean as they get. With so few miles on the clock though, I just never felt comfortable driving it, thus it was sold with the idea that I’d one day find another. My parameters were simple: I was looking for either a 1979 Silver 10th Anniversary Limited Edition or one in Nocturne Blue. Chris located the latter first.

After a thorough inspection, I struck a deal with the seller and the T/A was loaded onto a carrier bound for Chris’ house. Being overly critical about vehicles is what Chris does—it’s his profession—so when he said the Trans Am was a good car, I knew it would be.

The combination of Nocturne Blue paint, gold snowflakes, and that Camel Tan interior was a match made in heaven, and is perhaps the only combo that can soften the Trans Am’s mullet vibe. There were a couple of miniscule nicks and some minor swirls, but for the most part, many people would have considered it to be a show car. More exceptional still was the fact that the Trans Am was completely stock, showed just over 76,000 miles, and everything (except the damn clock) worked.

Heh. The old analog clocks in cars from that era almost never worked, seemed like. They went on the blink permanently the moment they rolled off the dealer lot, most of ’em.

For some, the prospect of clicking off a 700-mile day in an untested 41-year-old Pontiac might seem a bit unnerving. But Chris and I are two of the most optimistic automotive masochists you’re ever likely to meet, so for us, it was just another Wednesday. This is the type of experiential stuff we live for. Sure, you can do a road trip in a modern car, but, let’s face it, that’s just lazy. Plus, nobody gives a damn when you pull into a fuel station with a new car. A vintage Trans Am, though, is a whole other story.

Try it in a 56 Fairlane sometime, bub. I swear, half the fun of driving mine was the conversations it would spark with perfect strangers. That, and all the honking and waving and grinning as I cruised on down the highway.

On the road, the T/A confirmed what I already knew: that GM F-bodies are some of the best-driving cars of that era. They sit low, offering great comfort and road manners, and, when equipped with the optional WS6 suspension, they handle like a dream. Powered by the original 403-cu.in. Oldsmobile engine and backed by a three-speed TH350 automatic transmission, the Trans Am ran like a top. That is, until it didn’t.

Ain’t it always the way? Click on through for a damned enjoyable read. For some of us geezers, the fabled American love affair with the automobile will never dim or fade.

I turned 16—legal driving age in NC back then—in 1976, and had spent most of the entire year previous trying to wheedle and cajole my dad into getting me a Nocturne Blue ‘Zam—powered by the mighty 455ci Pontiac engine, thanksveddymuch—which sold for a whopping, unattainable four grand. I mean, I wanted one of those badass beauties so bad it made my hair hurt.

My dad, though, patiently reminded me again and again that he wasn’t, and I quote, “made of money,” that I would have to take what I got and be glad of it. Which, naturally, I did and I was. Being a great dad and a car geek himself, he did chaffeur me on repeated weekend trips to various local Pony-ack dealerships, where I collected all the sales brochures and posters I could carry for expansion of the ever-growing Trans Am shrine my bedroom had become.

So no, no Trans Am for me, alas. I ended up with a beautiful, pristine appliance-white 66 Mustang instead; my pop bought it off the auto-mechanics teacher at my high school, who had meticulously maintained and tweaked it over a good few years. I spent the next year or so that faithful little car mercilessly: drag-racing it up and down Franklin Blvd in Gastonia (where my sturdy little 289 handily shamed many a 350 Chevy); wrecking it a cpl-three times; nearly wrecking it even more times; having it repainted when the dents had become just too unsightly to tolerate, then adding a sporty crimson pinstripe down each side myself; adding a top-of-the-line Craig 8-track system (100 watts!!) with Jensen Triaxial 6×9 speakers on the back deck; washing, cleaning, polishing, wrenching, and just generally having myself a total ball with that little Pony-car.

Then, once I had gotten the ‘Stang all covered with sweat and its tongue hanging out from my abusive hot-rodding, it got traded in for a 73 Pontiac LeMans, 350/350, my first and only GM product for many a long, long year. That’s the car that I had to swap out the tranny three damned times over one broiling-hot summer, lying underneath the thing in the backyard with that heavy-ass transmission balanced on my chest as I tried to reach up and get the top two bolts started.

Good times, good times. So sad that nowadays you can scarcely tell today’s anonymous, nondescript plastic egg-mobiles apart, and hardly anybody still cares anyway. They’re missing out on something truly wonderful.

5 thoughts on “The long, HARD way home

  1. Nice story. I have so many from when I was young it’s hard to know where to start. From driving an MG through 4 foot snow drifts to having an electrical failure, in the dark, in the mountains, doing about 80 with turn coming up. And those are just snippets of an earlier age.

    For those of us that were car nuts, we learned mechanical skills that would last a lifetime.

    Oh, and I knew from the first the problem would be a clogged fuel filter/ fuel line. Been there, done that.

    Oh 2, and that electrical failure, it was pouring down rain. Hwy 25 between Greenville SC and Asheville NC.

  2. Swap out the tranny THREE TIMES!?!  Didn’t you learn a lesson then and there about Ford vs. GM products?

    My first car was a ‘59 Fiat 500. Suicide doors, 4-speed on the column (yeah, no shit, I swear) put in the highest 8-track I could afford (think it was a Craig), ditched the rear seat and put in a Fender duel Showman speaker cabinet (duel 15” speakers…heh) and had a blast for a long time.

    1. Going to Italy in the early 80’s was Fiat 500 mania. I’ve never seen so many of the same thing, literally everywhere.

  3. I had a ’69 Impala with just a 327. Once it got going it could cruise great. it just took forever to get going. Oh, and I got to drive it in 1981 after over 100k in miles already on it.

    I used to play Rev It Up and Go by the Stray Cats as its theme song:

    Well, I got a big old bomb and it won’t be around for long,
    Well, I got a big old bomb and it won’t be around for long,
    Well, it’s a big old bomb but it gets me where I’m goin’
    Rev It Up and Go!

    Plus the trunk was so huge we could fit three amps, 3 guitars and strap the column speakers to the roof so my friend’s band could get to gigs on Lawn Guyland. Drums went separately (drummers are always lone wolves, aren’t they?)

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