Muscle Car Mission

This car was my dream. But was it worth it?

Posted in , Jan 1, 2008

I was 15 years old and it was love at first sight when the white 1970 Plymouth Superbird rolled into the dealership one day where I worked after school. I fell head over heels. I wanted to grab the keys and take it for a joyride around my neighborhood, and hear my friends ooh and ah.

No other car could beat its look–its space-age nose, the trademark spoiler that rose high from the trunk like a futuristic goalpost. That car was prettier even than Farah Fawcett. NASCAR champion Richard Petty drove one just like it. A Superbird. It was the ultimate muscle car.

I eyed the owner enviously. The car was immaculate. Not a scrape or a nick anywhere. I caressed its gleaming finish. And to think that I was about to work on it, to run an inspection on it. I'm in heaven, I thought.

"Be careful," the man said. "Now don't go scratching up the paint."

Someday, I found myself thinking, someday this Superbird will be mine. And I made a note, jotting down the man's name and address.

But I never followed through. Life got in the way. I married my wife, Julie, had three kids. When I was 18, Dad and I decided to open up our own auto-repair shop. I worked long hours and always got the job done.

One Saturday I plopped down on the couch, grabbed the remote and flipped the channel to a NASCAR race. Thomas, my son, watched with me. By nine, he'd already caught the fever, just like I had.

"Let me tell you about Richard Petty and his Superbird," I said. I spooled out racing stories, one after the other.

Just talking about the Superbird got my juices flowing again. It's not too late, I told myself. I'm going to find that car and buy it. I grabbed Thomas. "Wanna take a ride?" I asked.

I had no idea whether the Superbird owner still lived at the address I had scrawled on a piece of paper and shoved into the bottom of a drawer. Thomas and I drove over to the house anyway. Looked around. Nothing on the street. I craned my neck, trying to see behind the house.

There it was! The white tip of the Superbird's spoiler. I felt my heart quicken.

I spotted the owner sitting in a lawn chair out front. I parked and jumped out. "I worked on your Superbird when I was a kid," I told him. "Do you mind if I show it to my son?"

"Heck, no," he said. He led us to the backyard. There it sat.

"That's your dream car?" Thomas asked, his voice cracking.

I can't say I blamed him for being skeptical. The Superbird, the immaculate Superbird of memory, had rusted into a heap of junk. The paint job had faded. The finish was pocked with more holes than Swiss cheese. The man caught my surprise.

"She's been sitting out here for the last nine years," he said. "I didn't have anywhere else to put her."

I ran my fingers over the car's fender, just as I did at 15. It still looked beautiful to me. "Any chance you would sell it?" I asked him.

"Heck, no," he said, shaking his head. "That car's not for sale."

I led Thomas back to our car and we drove away. "Dad," he said, "you really want that car, don't you?"

"More than any other car in the whole world," I said.

"Then keep asking him. The same way I bug you when I really want something. I bet he'll sell it to you," Thomas said, nodding wisely.

I glanced at him. Out of the mouths of babes, I thought.

I heard through the grapevine that the car might be up for sale.

One day the owner called me. "I sold my house," he said. "I can't take the Superbird with me. It's yours if you want to buy it."

Did I ever! I carted that Superbird home on the back of my flatbed wrecker. "I'm going to restore it like new," I told Thomas. Later I showed him a picture of the car in an old magazine. "You and me will cruise."

"Wow!" he said. "I can't wait!"

Now it was our dream, my son's and mine. This would be a good way to teach him the lesson of persistence. You had to chase your dream till you caught it.

That night, after Thomas and the rest of the family had gone to sleep, I slipped out of the house to the driveway where I had unloaded the car. There it stood in the Georgia moonlight. On a whim, I opened the Superbird's glove compartment and felt around. I found a bundle of papers.

I riffled through them till I found the one I was looking for–the original paperwork from the work I had done on the car 25 years before. "No way!" I said, holding the page aloft. I patted the cracked dashboard. "I knew you would be mine one day," I whispered.

It didn't matter to me that the body was rusted through. Or that the floorboard had a crater-size hole near the gas pedal. I would make this 'bird fly.

The next morning I hauled it to our shop. In between customers I worked on the old car. The first thing to strip was the paint. I figured it would take maybe a few weeks.

Boy, was I wrong. It took six months. The metal was so fragile, so eaten by rust, I had to sand the paint off by hand. But the phone would always ring. Or a mechanic would interrupt me with a question. Before I knew it, I was bushed from a day's work, ready to head home and flop down on the couch.

For awhile Thomas greeted me at the door. "How far did you get today?" he'd ask.

I didn't have the heart to tell him. With each part I disassembled, more decay showed up. The car was 31 years old. Parts were no longer available. I had to hire someone to remake parts. I started spending nights and Saturdays at the shop.

The bodywork I hired out. But many of the engine parts had corroded as well. I sent the car to a sandblaster. Months later it came back–in pieces. Thousands of parts, an automotive jigsaw puzzle. If I misplaced a bolt, it could take months to find.

I had to tear out and replace the vinyl interior, rebuild the suspension and transmission, give it a new paint job.

One day I looked up and realized that five years had passed by. And the end wasn't anywhere in sight. I've bitten off way more than I can chew, I thought. Was this a dream or a nightmare?

Then came a hot August afternoon. The car had just been painted its original Alpine white. I was inside it, sweating like crazy, working on the interior, when I heard a crash. A brake drum fell from another car in the shop and bounced toward the Superbird. "No!" I screamed.

It thudded into the restored front fender, leaving a baseball-sized dent.

The fender was ruined. All that work down the drain. I sat on the cement floor and dropped my head in my arms. The bird had become an albatross.

For a few days I just let the car sit. I hated even looking at it.

One Friday I was about to head home when a customer–a Superbird lover like me–entered the shop. He eyed the car like I once had years before. "I'll pay you everything you put into her, plus a little extra," he told me.

I was tempted, real tempted. Selling the Superbird meant an end to years of hassles. No more nights and weekends spent in the garage. No more money that we could use for a hundred things thrown away on a youthful dream.

Julie would be happy if I sold it. And Thomas? He was 14 years old now and more into baseball than cars.

"I'll let you know on Monday," I told the man. Driving home, I made up my mind to sell the car.

I got home and saw Thomas. "Wanna play catch?" I asked. We went out back. Between tosses I told him my decision to sell the car.

Thomas said nothing. We kept tossing the ball. Then he snatched a throw with his glove and held it. "Remember back in Little League when I was struggling on the pitcher's mound and told the coach that my arm hurt?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"I asked the coach to take me out of the game," he continued.

"That night I caught you tossing the ball against the side wall of the house," I said.

Thomas pulled the ball from his glove. He wound up and threw a sharp curve to me. "And you knew my arm was fine," he said.

"You've got a good memory," I said.

"Remember what you said to me next?" he asked. He fired a hot fastball back to me then said, "You told me to never, ever give up. You said, 'When you feel like quitting, dig down deep and ask God to help you, and then keep at it and trust that he will.'"

I fired the ball right back at him. "Wait just a minute," I said.

I turned around and walked into the house and called the customer. "The Superbird is not for sale," I told him.

It would take me until last year to finish restoring that old dream car. Thomas was right there beside me when I finally turned the ignition on for the first time. Just as he had been there that evening when I almost let the 'bird go, there to remind me of the lesson about persistence that I had tried to teach him.

And, really, isn't persistence just another word for faith?

"Let's take her out," I said. "It's been a long, long time."

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