LAST EDITED ON Mar-31-19 AT 08:41 PM (EDT)
The best thing that happened when I was in high school was that my dad had his midlife crisis.
That's oversimplified and probably unfair, but it's such a good lede, I couldn't not use it.
Anyway, as previously described, I got my driver's license in February 1989, during the second half of my sophomore year in high school. My mother had moved out a while previously, and today, if you ask either of my parents about it, each will say it was the other's idea. I guess it doesn't really matter now. Point is, she moved out (although she didn't go far), and suddenly Dad was in his late 30s and single.
Now, I know that's a bit early for a midlife crisis, but there's no other joke to make when you get to our next destination, which was the spring of 1989. I'd had my license for a couple-three months, the end of the school year was approaching, and Dad and I had a major road trip planned for the summer. We were going to drive out to the Midwest, hit a number of museums we'd heard of and always meant to visit, and generally just bomb around the countryside for a couple-three weeks.
The previous summer, we'd undertaken a less ambitious but similar trip, driving out to Geneseo, New York (in the Finger Lakes region, south of Rochester) to attend an air show being held there. Now, from my previous post, you may have a sense of the stable of vehicles we had available to us in the summer of '88. Which car do you figure we took on that trip? Long drive to points south (of Maine, anyway) at the height of summer. The Oldsmobile, right?
No; no, we took the Malibu for that trip. The one with the tiny straight-six engine, vinyl seats, and nothing even approximating air conditioning. The one with the wheelbase that was just the right length for the suspension to get into a kind of harmonic wave with the expansion joints in the concrete freeways they had in New York State in those days.
Why did we do that when we had a rolling palace with AC and a velour sofa for a front seat? Neither of us now has any idea, but we did. (I suspect it was because Dad figured it would get better gas mileage, but he denies that he was ever that cheap.)
Anyway, it was a great air show, but the trip out and back was a kind of hell, and we were determined not to do that to ourselves for the '89 trip. The trouble was, Dad had given me the Toronado and put me on his insurance as its primary driver, and we figured the insurance company we used at the time (I won't name names, but it rhymes with "slate harm") would have a fit if they thought we were going on a thousand-mile road trip with me driving.
So Dad, in a fit of extravagance the like of which I had never seen, announced one Saturday morning that we were going to Bangor to buy a new car for the trip.
Even then, I assume he meant a new-to-us car. In my lifetime to that point, I had seen my father purchase at least a dozen motor vehicles, and one of them was new, the first and only brand-new car he had ever bought in his life. It was a 1977 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, an inspirationally ugly automobile that depreciated so fast it would have been more financially responsible to set fire to it in the dealer's lot rather than take delivery, and by early 1978 he had begun to swear vehemently that he would never, never again in his life be the sucker who takes the hit on the first year of a car's lifetime. Even the Toronado had belonged to someone else (two someones, if you count the leasing company) before it came to us.
Fig. A Adult film professionals of the late 1970s, your automobile has arrived. Yes, Dad's was even this color.
However it went down, we climbed into the Olds and drove down to the big Chevrolet dealer that used to be in downtown Bangor (it's gone now, like so much of the cool stuff that used to be in downtown Bangor). When we arrived, I saw that they had a new Corvette in the showroom, so I went to check that out, assuming that Dad was heading for the used-cars portion of the lot to find the car in the worst color they had and make an offer on it, regardless of model.
Instead, he bought a brand-new Camaro.
Fig. B This very one, in fact.
That picture must have been taken almost immediately after we got it home. It still has the front license plate frame on it, and Dad took that off almost instantly. He had a pathological hatred of front license plates anyway, and he considered that the afterthought bracket on the Camaro ruined the lines of the front end.
(Also, note the Malibu and the old Dodge pickup in the background. I believe the Dodge's rear fender got like that because Dad lost an argument with a trailer, but don't quote me.)
I've always thought this was the most funny thing about our Camaro. It was an RS, which in 1989 was the base model. It came standard with a 2.8-liter V6 engine developing all of 135 horsepower, or approximately 2¼ Volkswagen Super Beetles. Dad bought that one because, with a 15-year-old driver in the household, his insurance company told him they wouldn't cover it if he bought one with any of the available V8s in it; it had to be the model with the smallest available engine or nothing.
Here's why that's funny. The most powerful Camaro you could buy that year was the IROC-Z with the 350-cubic-inch V8, the hottest version of which had 240 horsepower. The least powerful Camaro you can buy today is the base-model 1LT coupe with the inline four-cylinder engine.
It has 275 horsepower, or 0.583 Super Beetles more than the most powerful one from 1989.
(The most powerful new Camaro has six hundred and fifty.)
Yeah. Things have... moved on a bit. I wonder whether insurance companies apply the same rubric nowadays. If so, that's hilarious.
Anyway, weenie power level aside, Dad bought a brand new red T-top sports car for our summer road trip. Like I said: best thing that happened in high school was his midlife crisis.
Of course, the car had its foibles. It was a GM product from 1989, so it wasn't particularly well-put-together. It didn't get particularly good gas mileage, despite the small engine, although I admit that may have had as much to do with how we drove it as anything. It was the base model and had exactly one option (the T-top), so there were a lot of blank switches and missing luxury features inside.
Most entertainingly, it was equipped with a very early, very primitive anti-theft system. The keys looked like normal pre-remote-control GM keys, except they had a little electronic chip built into them.
Fig. C GM VATS key. Sadly, that stands for Vehicle Anti-Theft System, not Vault-Tec Automated Targeting System.
The idea with these things was that you could use them like ordinary car keys of the period and the car would figure it out, but anyone who had a key made from an ordinary blank like you got at the hardware store wouldn't be able to start the car. The problem was that the reader gizmo in the lock cylinder would eventually fail, at which point the car would refuse to acknowledge its actual owner either. This gave up the ghost on a day when I happened to have taken the Camaro to school, stranding me. By random chance, my friend whose father ran the local Chevy dealership was getting a ride home with me that day (he had an old Pontiac that was very cool, but broke down a lot), and when that happened he knew instantly what the problem was. (He had, by then, forgiven us for buying the car from a different dealer.)
The service department's official response to the failure of this system was to bypass it and say no more about it, which should tell you something about how well VATS worked in general. :)
Remember when I said I never got pulled over in the Oldsmobile? Well, over the next three years, I got pulled over a lot in the Camaro. Not for speeding (well, except that one time), and once again I never got a ticket, but I came in for a lot of harassment from the local carabinieri for driving that car. They used to pull me over just to see what I was up to, check the paperwork, or generally be a pain in my ass. Typical conversation, 10:30 PM on a Saturday night:
Is this your car?
No, it's my father's.
Does he know you have it?
(Pause, while I consider saying that he was asleep when I left the house, so probably not.)
You don't sound too sure about that. Maybe we should go check with him.
They never actually did that, but I was always vaguely entertained considering his reaction if they woke him up to quiz him about the whereabouts of his Camaro, once he'd determined I hadn't actually been doing anything but minding my own business driving around town.
I should probably explain, for people who didn't grow up in the 1980s in nowheresville towns like this one—in those days, just driving aimlessly around town of an evening was a Standard Activity for people of a certain age. One reason for this was that our cars were, by and large, where the best stereo equipment we had access to was located. The car was also a good place to have long-ass rambling conversations about random bullshit without our parents overhearing and wondering what in the hell we were talking about. Most of the mileage I drove when I was in high school was racked up in the course of making trips to Bangor, 75 miles distant, where everything to see/buy/do actually was, but I'm sure just riding around town listening to Def Leppard with the guys was in second place, when we weren't doing that in Mike Shaw's father's Crown Vic.
Anyway, the local police didn't much care for it, and the Camaro was such an obvious car that they would take pretty much any opportunity to brace me. Once, on the state highway between this nowhere town and the next nowhere town over, an officer who pulled me over claimed he thought I might be fatigued because I was dimming my headlights too much. I thought you were supposed to do that when you met oncoming traffic (n.b. you are), but to this guy it was evidently a Suspicious Pattern of Behavior.
And yet, the one time I got caught speeding in that car, I was doing so unintentionally (the Camaro didn't have cruise control) and the officer let me off with a warning, and the one time I did speed intentionally, I absolutely, totally got away with it.
I don't remember why I was in Bangor that afternoon. It was a Friday during the spring of my senior year, but I had an excused absence that took me down there for some reason, on my own, with the Camaro. Whatever I was doing, I was finished with it early in the afternoon. As I was getting onto the Interstate for the 75-mile drive home, I noticed that the clock in the car radio said it was quarter-past two, which was quitting time at my high school at the time.
There was a softball game starting at 3 o'clock, and out of nowhere I thought, Hmm, I wonder if I could get back to town in time for that game?
Answer: Yes, even with the 135-hp V6. (Keep in mind that only 60ish miles of that was on the Interstate. Then I had to get through two towns and cross about 10 miles of state highway through the woods, and I didn't drive like a maniac through the towns, for sure. I didn't take note of my top speed, but I must have been caning it pretty good on I-95 to end up with a 100-mph average speed at the end of that.)
I had never driven like that before and I've never driven like it again since. Even while I was doing it I didn't know why I was doing it. It certainly wasn't to impress the girl I liked on the softball team, because I never told her, or anyone else, that I did it. It was just some kind of a private wish to unlock an achievement or something. I mention it here because I'm sure the statute of limitations on driving like an adolescent moron has elapsed by now.
Still, despite its unimpressive power level, the car had zero problems making that run, and the road gods smiled upon me, because I encountered no police and didn't crash into a moose and die.*
A couple years later, not long after I dropped out of WPI and returned home in disgrace, Dad got fed up and sold the Camaro to some kid, who promptly put some godawful aftermarket wheels and a fake IROC deco kit on it, boy-racered around town for a few months, ruined the valve train, and then tried to drive it up a telephone pole out on the Baxter State Park road. And that was the end of that. But it was good while it lasted—better than conventional wisdom would have advised anyone to expect out of a Camaro made in that dark valley of GM's corporate history.
I've kind of wanted another Camaro ever since, but they don't make a cheap one any more. Nostalgia isn't what it used to be, and today's retro performance cars (the new Camaro, the new Mustang, the new Challenger) are marketed at guys my dad's age who miss the cars of the '60s, not people my age who miss the rather more modest offerings from the '80s. As for the '89 RS, I would put that at number five on my cars-I'd-like-to-get-back list.
* That happens around here sometimes, even in broad daylight.
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Mod
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/
zgryphon at that email service Google has
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