Culture

Three Hot Rods From Hell

The day I learned that I was going to be a father, an inner voice began impelling me to sell my “Judas Priest-mobile”—a demonically customized 1970 Chevy Camaro. Before that day, my vehicular history had been a study in heavy rock music and the best cars Detroit had to offer.

I was soon to become acquainted with the responsibilities of being a husband and parent, and the need to project an acceptable image. I’ve had some nice cars and solid work trucks since the day I traded heaviosity for respectability, but the Camaro was the last great car I ever owned. Before that I owned a 1968 Ford Ranchero and a 1972 Plymouth Duster.

The Ranchero was sitting in the back row of an Oakland car lot, its masculine stance undermined by the boneyard it shared with neglected nags and poorly-envisioned foreign scrap heaps. The exterior was dappled with Bondo, and burgundy-primed for a paint job the previous owner never got around to.

There were serious dents in the metal trim around the bed, and a rock chip in the windshield seemed on the verge of snaking into an illegal crack, but the matching burgundy interior was in great condition. The 289 cubic inch small block engine sounded as smooth and tuned as a Foghat boogie.

It was 1973; the Ranchero was five years old. The lot proprietor had the pink slip and I had the $1,200 bucks.

I needed a truck for my new job as a landscape maintenance worker, mowing lawns and trimming hedges in Oakland’s hilly enclaves, far from the troubles downtown and to the east. In the early seventies, there were still a lot of white guys in the landscaping business. I didn’t let the fact that the Ranchero would be primarily used to transport shovels, post hole diggers, and ground cover plantings stop me from dumping every available dollar into tricking her out.

Ranchero

I dropped a high-performance carb on the 289, brought the blood-burgundy paint job to fruition, and had the body shop expand the wheel wells to accommodate the giant BF Goodrich radial tires mounted on my new brushed magnesium wheels. Through my new windshield, things were looking good. Several of the landscape company’s clients noted the coolness of my car.

For all its visual appeal, all the Ranchero had for music was a factory-installed AM-FM radio. No problem; the FM band had enough Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, and yes, Foghat, to get you anywhere.

I know I didn’t wreck the Ranchero, but how it came out of my possession is one of those things I don’t  remember from the seventies. By 1975 I owned a separate vehicle for work, an underpowered canary-yellow Japanese-made Ford Courier, and so was looking for a personal use vehicle that would rock everybody’s socks off.

Duster

I found the Duster under ‘Used Cars’ in the Oakland Tribune. “Great condition, only driven back and forth to work.” The veracity of the ad was confirmed when I met the Duster’s owner, a registered nurse who indeed only drove the car a few miles to Highland Hospital every day, and spent the weekends tooling around in her boyfriend’s car.

Stock rims made the rear end look fat. Three years in the California sun was fading the competition orange to a washy cantaloupe. But it had the high-back buckets, and on the back panel, right below the trunk lid, was “little tornado guy,” that sirocco with eyes that Plymouth stuck on every Duster.

Three thousand dollars was the price I paid for the car I planned to remake into a “Sabbath-Mobile.”

I took the competition orange up a notch, to a burnt, Halloween orange, carefully instructing the auto painter to spare little tornado guy, to tape him off and leave him faded around the edges.

The 340 V-8 provided more power than I probably should have been allowed to have. Again, the wheel wells were made to accept a set of big Goodrich tires. A truncheon-like black antenna completed the package.

With the dark-tinted windows slightly lowered, and Dio’s “Holy Diver” loud on my Fisher cassette player with woofers, I fancied myself a suburban devil, incongruous and cartoonish by day, a fat-rolling crypto-demonic specter by night.

Image Courtesy of Play Toys Classic Cars

Image Courtesy of Play Toys Classic Cars

By 1982, the classic Camaro with the supersonic front grill had been gathering dust in my cousin’s garage for months, and he wanted to unload it.  By the time I was finished customizing the vehicle, I’d overhauled and souped-up the 350 engine, installed a dual glass-pack exhaust system, applied a funeral-gray metallic paint job, and added black louvers and restored an appropriately reptilian black vinyl top.

My vision was to create a moveable homage to my next musical obsession, a band that broke to mega-platinum that year with the album Screaming for Vengeance and Judas Priest’s all-time biggest hit, “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin‘.”

Count D was already taken in the California state log of personalized license plates, so I opted for Count D1. Aided by a never-ending loop of Priest, Sabbath and WASP, I fancied myself a rolling, blaring messenger of doom.

She was subtle about broaching the subject, but clearly my wife was worried about how the monster I’d created might look in the pediatrician’s parking lot. I had the Courier for work; one other car was all we could afford.

I remember the day we traded the Camaro in on a white, 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. In San Francisco’s East Bay area, it didn’t get more respectable than that. The salesman understood exactly what was going on, because the missus was just beginning to show.

You don’t want to hear about the Cutlass, which threw a rod on the highway to Lake Tahoe, with the wife and kid in the car, no cell phone, and 87,000 miles on the odometer. You probably don’t want to hear about the new 1990 Honda Accord I bought after that, the only foreign nameplate I’ve ever purchased, which lasted forever, never had a breakdown, and that I should have kept and given to one of my kids.

You also don’t want to hear about my new 1996 Chevy Blazer, which was declared unsafe in collision tests by whoever declares such things, and was subject to several recalls.

What you want to hear about is the classic Detroit muscle-cars, the cars we drove back when American automakers were the undisputed champions of the road.