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Reminiscing – Firebird Dreams

Published in blog.hemmings.com

1968 Pontiac Firebird 400. Magazine ad from editor’s collection.

[Editor’s note: This “Reminiscing” story, edited by Richard Lentinello, comes to us from Hemmings Classic Car reader Mark Pittman of Austin, Texas.]

These stories usually start out with tales of how the writer had to work long and hard at all manner of menial jobs until he saved enough money to buy the car which inspired the story; not so with me. I was a rich kid. I didn’t know it, but I was. It was a relative thing, no pun intended, but since my father owned a business and I had a job there (more like indentured servitude), I was rich. Even so I, too, saved my money gleaned from my labor at my dad’s dry cleaners to buy my first car, my dream car, a 1968 Firebird.

I paid half and Dad paid the other half of the hefty sum, a total that would have been less, as I was often reminded, had I preferred a Camaro. But I didn’t want a Camaro; I wanted that wide-tracking beast with the massive bumper and hood spear. My deal with Dad was that he would pay half up to $2,000 but, really big but here, it couldn’t have a V-8. Dad wisely knew that I would likely kill myself with a muscle car, and I have to admit he was probably right, so the overhead-cam straight-six engine it was. But not even a Sprint, just the base six-cylinder with the two-barrel carb.

I knew nothing of cars at the time: didn’t know what “overhead-cam” meant, certainly didn’t understand what “plastic timing-belt” meant, either. Boy, was I lucky. What an engine! What a car! I fell in love and I still am, though my love is long gone.

I ordered the Firebird with power steering and A/C, one necessitated by the wide-track and wide ovals, the other by the Texas heat. Is it a secret how great the drum brakes were on those cars? Power assist? Not needed. Disc brakes? Not needed, at least with the six-cylinder. It was Verdoro Green with a white top and interior. I called it “goat vomit” green.

I cut a hole in the teensy glovebox and installed a combo 4 AND 8 track player with two massive speakers on the package tray, along with the smaller two under the dash. Why 4 AND 8? Because “Inna Gadda Da Vida” could play all the way through without pausing to change programs with the 4-track, but Steppenwolf and Jimi Hendrix were all on 8-track. I was so cool. I carried around a few boxy cases specially made to carry the tapes, but one was for looks only. I kept a fifth of bourbon in it to impress both ladies and gentlemen. On the driver’s-side rear window I had a large decal of Old Glory contained within a peace symbol.

Ah, the stories I could tell about that car: how I could smoke the tires, take 30-mph corners at 70, suckered guys into speed traps, the time I broke a power-steering hose in Mexico and some old guy made me a new one overnight. And don’t think for a moment that little back seat was a hindrance at the drive-in.

Everything changed one rainy day on a sweeping curve when a guy hydroplaned into me. My Firebird was totaled, but still cheaper to fix than replace. The guy had no insurance and was just getting out of the military, and he split the country, so my sympathetic and gracious dad paid to have the frame straightened, and on I went. The car was never the same, but it still saw me into marriage. My buddies did all the appropriate shoe polish stuff, and one broke a 10-pound bag of rice in the trunk. I washed the shoe polish off as soon as I could, but some remained on the faded paint forever. After a few days, the car started to smell funny, and I found I was making saki in the trunk. The first OPEC embargo hit, the throw-out bearing quit, and it was time for the Firebird to go.

I sold the car to a fellow about my age for $600, and with a heavy heart bid it goodbye. About a week later, however, the car reentered my life; I got a call from the Austin Police Department. It seems it had been involved in a hit-and-run accident late one night and the pleasure of my company was requested down at the station. “Oh, no.” I replied. “I sold that car, you want the other guy.” It was at that time that the small town, naïve kid found out that some people don’t always transfer titles in a timely manner. To this day, I don’t know how much of it was a bluff, but the detective told me to either find the buyer or face the wrath of the legal system.

“What was this guy’s name?” Inquired the detective. “Uh, I don’t remember.” I feebly replied. “What did the buyer look like?” Asked the detective. I told him he was of medium height, with shoulder length dirty blonde hair and a mustache. He was wearing a blue work shirt, jeans, and sandals. Holy crap! I had just described myself! We non-conformists at the University of Texas were so intent on forming our distinctive counter-culture style that we were a pocket of uniformity in a community rebelling against conformity. Oh, man! I had to do something. The detective rang off, no doubt bored with dealing with another hippie.

Where to start? What had we talked about? I racked my brain and finally remembered bits and pieces. He had told me he was in school, but didn’t say which one. He said he had sold an El Camino the previous day. That was the straw I clutched at. I headed to the Travis County Courthouse.

I stated my case at the courthouse and was led into a room full of filing cabinets. I looked for the day prior to my sale, then for El Caminos that changed title that day. If the buyer of the El Camino hadn’t transferred title, I was dead. I was hoping I’d recognize my buyer’s name if I saw it. I flipped index card after index card. Who knew that many people bought cars every day in Austin? I was worried, sweating bullets. Flip, flip, flip, BANG! There it was! As soon as I saw the name I remembered it. I remember it to this day; it’s burned into my mind! If you’re out there, K.K., I hope you have become a productive member of society, and please don’t come after me, I won’t tell!

This was great, but I still didn’t know where he was. He wasn’t in the phone book, and there was no Internet to help me. Okay, he was in school. Was it UT? That was worth a shot, but I found that the University had no central information center. I would have to check with each college. Eventually, I got lucky again. I found him in the RTF (Radio, Television, and Film) college. I had an address.

I drove by the address and saw my precious Firebird with a dent in one fender sitting out front, and then I called the quite impressed detective who suggested I go into law enforcement.

So here I am, AARP member, codger, geezer, whatever you like, but I ain’t dead! I’m still thinking: Second childhood? Bring it on, baby! There might be a ’68 “goat vomit green” Firebird out there for me yet!