The Battle Buick, Part II
By J. Smith
Summer 1990. The Soviet Union still exists. China still slumps from the Tiananmen Square Massacre. MC Hammer rides high on a karaoke exercise to the tune of “Super Freak.” And I did my share contributing to global warming by endlessly cruising the mean streets of Grand Ledge, MI in my 1976 Deuce and a Quarter.
And I loved it. Until the first time I filled the tank. It had a massive 26 gallon stomach and demanded to be fed. Often. My driving habits did not help.
The 455 ate via a Rochester Quadrajet. Having supped on Iron Duke-powered Chevy Citations up to this point, I exercised the Rochester often. Behind the wheel of the Battle Buick, I drove as if possessed. Every stoplight met with screeching brakes and every green light greeted with a stomp of the pedal. When that proved insufficient to melt my rear tires-which was often, given the archaic emissions piping sprouting here and there like IVs from he body of an intensive care patient-I learned the art of brake torquing. Press the brakes down, hit the gas to build up RPMs and thus power, and move your foot from the brake. Worked every time.
In fact, it worked a little too well. Towards the end of the summer, I could see the gray bristles of the steel belts peeking out from underneath the rubber. Being 17, this just meant that I needed to rotate the less worn front tires to the rear.
Rotating the damn things proved troublesome. The ancient, unsafe at all speeds bumper jack worked well enough, but the lugs were near impossible to remove. One hot afternoon, while attempting to rotate the tires, I became so frustrated with the recalcitrance of the lugs that, in a fit of teen rage, I took the jack handle out and hit the rear fender as hard as my 160-pound frame would allow. This produced a tiny dimple in the fender. I was no match for thick American steel and stood in awe for a few moments before returning to my toil.
And it was costly to feed. I made the handsome sum of $4.00 for each and every hour of labor as a recycling technician at Feldpaush’s. I spent my hours sorting bottles and cans, the latter going into the can cruncher. By the end of a shift, I’d be covered in stale beer and pop with a scent only the rats could love. Every Thursday I would pick up my check-usually $60-100 after taxes. And about $30 of it went straight down the filler neck. And mid week, I’d have to fill it up again. Being the only one of my peeps with a car, I served taxi duties on our daily jaunts.
The thing ate a little oil, too. Being on a low budget, I opted for a long-gone brand of oil called Empire State. The tagline on the oil can read “When economy is a major consideration.” Indeed. Especially when it was API-A, which was formulated for things like Model Ts. And especially when it was $.99 a quart.
And it had some exhaust problems. The exhaust pipe detached itself from the catalytic converter, probably after I jumped some railroad tracks out in the country. Well, it seemed like I jumped them at any rate. At least two of the wheels left the ground. Once detached, the exhaust volume went to 11, sounding like a nest of machine guns firing on an empty battlefield. I drove it to a friend’s place and, declining to work under the death-trap bumper jack, backed it over a shallow ditch. I climbed under, and with the assistance of a few household tools, a spoon and some wire hangers, managed to reattach it. But it would come detached many more times. I have to admit, however, that once school started, I loved the sound of those machine guns as I menacingly trolled through the high school parking lot, although I felt a little sorry that I woke everyone within a mile radius when I started it in the morning.
By that point, the Battle Buick had assumed a malevolent visage. The grill was missing a few pieces and I let some friends spray paint a massive anarchy symbol on the hood. When the exhaust was detached, it induced chills in all vehicles in the vicinity. And my driving didn’t help.
You see, the Battle Buick was a little like Frodo’s ring. It affected the driver’s mind. I darted between cars on the highway, cut off whomever I pleased, and treated local thoroughfares like a NASCAR track, shitty FM stereo blasting out the hair metal of the day or more sophisticated fare from the college station. Istanbul, not Constantinople. A friend, commenting on defensive driving, labeled my driving as offensive driving. And it was a run-and-shoot offense at that.
Because it had no AC, everyone could hear whatever I played because the windows were down constantly. Being a four-door hardtop, it looked sort of cool with all the windows down, creating an open-air feel.
Adding a comical touch, the air shocks had long ago deteriorated, leaving no functioning suspension. The rear bounced up and down, like a meth fiend on a pogo stick. Boing-boing-boing it rolled down the road.
Despite the flaws in both the car and my driving, June and July passed in pure hydrocarbon bliss. Until the invasion of Kuwait. Overnight gas jumped up to $1.30 per gallon. Then on to $1.40 per gallon. Most of my checks were going to gas. By the end of the summer, it became clear that things would have to change.
I knew that I wasn’t going to make any more money. Demand for my occupation was modest and recession was setting in. I changed my driving style. I lightly feathered the gas pedal. I bought newer tires and kept them properly inflated. This pushed me up into the 14 MPG range. But I was still bleeding green every week.
I began to look for more miserly pastures. Those crappy Citations I had driven before I bit the apple of knowledge now looked like paradise lost.
But there was still a touch of evil left in the Battle Buick. Once the first big snowfall hit in November, a friend and I skipped school and spent the day doing donuts. In iced-over parking lots, the Battle Buick whipped its rear end around like a champ. At some point, we crashed into a massive drift and smashed clean through it. Inspired, we spent the next several days plowing through every accessible drift we could find, eventually breaking the grill and depositing it into a bank of snow. I rescued it and reattached it with some wire. If now looked a little like the Jaws character of the James Bond films.
By early December, I had found a Chevette. Boring, slow, but cheap. Its 30+ MPG thriftiness was quite welcome. But I wasn’t quite done with the Battle Buick. That winter and spring, I rebuilt the carb, giving it a mild performance upgrade. I painted the valve covers and air cleaner housing. Put new rear shocks on and fixed the exhaust. New plugs and wires. I planned on keeping the Battle Buick, slowly restoring it and upgrading the performance.
Shortly after graduation in early June, I slapped insurance on it. It purred to the tune of the rebuilt carb. I picked up a friend. We drove out to Cochrane Road-a stretch of two-lane rural highway that went several miles without a stop sign. I wanted to see what the Battle Buick would do unleashed.
I floored it and kept my foot to the floor. The ribbon-type speedo went higher and higher. It topped out around 110 MPH, which is very fast in a 5,000 pound Detroit beast built during the Ford Administration.
It ran well. Time to ease off the throttle and slow down. When I took my foot off the gas pedal, it kept accelerating. Not good. It wouldn’t slow down. I hit the brakes. Within a few minutes, the fluid boiled and the brakes were gone. And now there was traffic on the road!
I had to dodge cars-and watch out for oncoming traffic as I did so. The Battle Buick weaved through lanes and wallowed up and down over potholes, pavement dips and hills. The only thing to do was turn the ignition off. This had the unfortunate effect of cutting the power steering, which is more a necessity than a luxury in a mid-1970s Electra 225. Somehow, eventually, we managed to drift to a stop.
Smoke and steam rose from the front of the car. I tried to start it. Nothing. I opened the hood. A gale of steam and smoke met me. At least nothing was on fire. After 10 or 15 minutes, I looked over the carb. The throttle linkage had come undone-the lengthy acceleration had heated the throttle valves so much that they expanded and got stuck in the wide-open position. My auto shop instructor had warned our class of that a few months before . . .
We managed to find a nearby house. And old man was home and let us house his phone, but not before telling us about how he knew Elvis and about his son who lived overseas. He was friendly . . . a little too friendly, asking us if we wanted anything to drink, telling us about Elvis, how he missed his son . . . We decided to wait by the car for our ride.
The car was impounded, and I later towed it to my dad’s house in Lansing. He tried his best to get it started, but it wouldn’t do more than half-heartedly crank over. He checked the oil: it was low and sludge-like. The last ride of the Battle Buick had broken down the already low engine oil and caused the cylinders to seize. A friend-the one who the previous summer had painted the anarchy symbol on the hood-asked his parents if he could buy it, but they declined. Sometime in late June, we had it towed to the junkyard.
A few months after that, I was trolling for Chevette parts at the junkyard and saw the Buick for the last time. It was in a pile of other cars, waiting to be recycled.
My own negligence caused the Battle Buick’s death. And now, 18 years after the fact, I still have a little hole in my heart for that car. Inefficient and strangled by add-on emissions equipment, further emasculated by post-oil embargo attempts to wring a few more miles to the gallon out of the 455, my first big block was not in prime shape. But the love inspired by that massive low-end torque haunts me to this day.
Every now and then, I still dream about being behind the wheel. I’ve dreamt of finding it and driving it, of still having it and even of flying it. Once, I dreamt I was driving it on a local highway, hell-bent for speed, feeling the lure of the One Ring echoing in my brain, telling me to go just a little faster, to hear the open-throttle rush of the Rochester, and feel the wind rushing through the open windows.
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