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Project Apollo, Part I: Finding My Vintage Buick

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Story and photos by Joe Essid.

Hemmings writers really should be more careful with the $5,000 Challenge. In my case, that regular feature of the blog led me to buy a car I’d never imagined owning again: a 1974 Buick Apollo.

As what I have come to call “Project Apollo” takes shape, I will share some of my mishaps and adventures with this car. Many readers here are pros about buying and restoring old cars. I’m not. We have experience with restored classics; my wife owns a mild-custom ’68 Chevy C-10 that her late uncle redid, and she comes from a family of car enthusiasts. We often drive her late father’s ’70 El Camino, in the family since new. We have only needed to replace small trim and make minor repairs on both vehicles, often within the scope of our wrench-turning skills.

Yet for readers who have never bought a project car long-distance and sight-unseen, my story may prove educational.

Apollo One: 1974-1988

My Buick, an X-Body clone of GM’s Nova, shares many parts save exterior and interior trim with Pontiac’s Ventura and Oldmobile’s Omega. Apollos are rare for many reasons. First, not too many were made: less than 15,000 coupes and 10,000 hatcbacks in 1973; 28,000 coupes and 12,000 hatches in ’74. More than 10 times that number of Novas rolled off the assembly line in those years.

Second, Apollos like to rust; poor build quality lets in cascades of water and metal-on-metal rattles remove paint and primer. I know this well. A ’74 hatchback also happened to be my first car. I was no good with weather-stripping, or much else, in my teens, so I carried a roll of paper towels at all times to dam up drips around the windshield and driver’s side door. The hatch was a disaster, with the entire area under the rear-window rusting through at the bottom, twice. The rest of the car creaked and groaned at speed, and cheap door straps and other interior parts loved to break and fall off.

If this is not enough to make one wonder why I bought a second example of this Malaise-Era X-Body, read on. It gets even stranger.

apollo at AT

My original car sported—if that is the word!—a gutless 350 and two-barrel carburetor. My mom bought it new, not getting the ’73 Cougar she really wanted, yet the car got me through part of high school, all of college, and the first few years of graduate school. It carried my gear and friends to backpacking trips and hauled my worldly possessions, and itself, into storage for a year when I taught English in Madrid. With the rear seat folded flat, my mom once toted me and about 10 other 12-year-olds home from a soccer game, some of us lying flat in the hatch. Yes, soccer moms in the ’70s treated the kids like cordwood, and we loved it.

For 14 leaky, creaky, years, the Apollo never let me down, mechanically. I changed oil every 3,000 miles, rotated the raised-white-letter Goodyear Polyglas GTs often, and fought a series of retreating actions against rust with sandpaper, primer, and aluminum tape.

Apollo Grad School

Then, at the urging of my father in 1988, who figured a rear-wheel-drive car would not be good in Indiana’s snowy winters, I sold the ’74 for $500 and piloted two boring, unreliable front-wheel-drive Buick sedans until I could finish grad school and get cars, mostly foreign, that I actually liked. Like many my age, Malaise-Era American cars led me away from anything made in Detroit. Though a Chevrolet Silverado does the heavy lifting for our family farm, our driveway hosts a Mini, a Honda, and a Volvo. If you have not guessed by now, my wife’s family is famous for keeping old cars forever, and 14 years with the Apollo seemed a short-term relationship to them.

I never really mourned my Buick, beyond recalling how much it could tote for a student and how bulletproof the anemic motor had been.

The Apollo Two Mission

So why did I get another Apollo? In the waning years of the Muscle Car, GM’s X-Bodies almost had it nailed: basic car, light weight, engine bay that promised more than the motor in there delivered. I fantasized, as penniless undergrad, what a real V-8, a good carburetor, and better rear axle might do on the road. Of course, it being the ’70s and ’80s, I envisioned Keystone Classics and custom paint. Trim painting as well as simple fabrication were within my reach as an experienced builder of plastic models including tiny details on 1/700-scale ships. Thus my car featured tacky, if laser-straight, pinstripes down the hood. I masked and blacked-out the lower quarter panels, grille, and headlight buckets. My hands were as steady as my wallet was empty.

As I crept toward retirement and acquired a capacious garage, I had occasionally looked for ’73 or ’74 Apollos online, wanting a coupe this time since its shape retains the fastback and loses most of the unprimed cisterns inside the sheet metal where rust begins its work.


The fateful choice was made after reading a Hemmings story by Lou Savarese, who found a Fiat Spider to replace one he’d sold many years before. That same day, an ad on Hemmings promised a solid ’74 Apollo in Washington state. The paint looked awful with some flash-rust and much fading, but the car was not rusting underneath or in the corners of the quarter panels. The engine, a later Chevy 350 mated to a Turbo-Hydramatic 400, promised far more power than my original car.

I’m not a stickler about originality: I would have dropped a Ford or Mopar mill in my original ’74 had it delivered the performance I craved. Back then I wanted a street fighter; now, my driving habits far saner, I want a fast car that looks like a sleeper. No stripes or mag wheels this time. I did like the period-correct aftermarket chrome rims on the car I had spotted, down to the patina. One must make some concessions to vanished teenage dreams. My original car had dreadful Buick hubcaps that sometimes fell off under normal driving conditions.

That afternoon, I phoned AJ, the Apollo’s owner. I’ll soon cover how I went about buying and shipping a car I had never seen in person, and the first problem I encountered.

Joe Essid is a farmer and writer based in Goochland County, Virginia. You can follow his exploits at