After my much-loved Datsun 310 died, I was in need of another car. Through an acquaintance, I had heard of an old Camaro that might be for sale. I tracked down the owner, and went to inquire about it.
"Oh hell, I don't remember what year it is," said the owner, a gruff, greasy local mechanic who lacked the idea of customer service. "But I'll bring it over to the shop and you can see it."
So my father and I, along with our car-guy friend, Don, went to inspect it.
The car turned out to be a 1977 Camaro Z28. It was silver with black vinyl interior, and some obnoxiously loud, two-tone orange stripes. Except for a front fender, here wasn't a single body panel that wasn't dented or rusted through somewhere, the vinyl interior was cracked and falling apart, and the trunk opened with the turn of a screwdriver. This was fine, however, since the ignition key was stuck in the switch.
I loved it instantly.
For as bad as this car looked, it was a screamer on the road. It idled with a nasty rumble, it had a Muncie M21 4-speed transmission, and a 3.73 Posi rear end. The original 350 disappeared long ago, and had been replaced with one from a pickup truck. Its engine was slow to rev, but the torque-biased cam meant that when you got on it, you could smoke the tires through third gear. It was everything that a 19-year-old repressed car guy could ever want.
Somehow, a pile of paperwork managed to survive with the car, including its original window sticker. The car was purchased at a dealer in Virginia, and was optioned for speed, including the Gymkhana suspension and a/c delete. If it had survived in that condition, it would have been an amazing car.
But the problems started mounting quickly. A local mechanic freed the ignition key, and installed a new lock set all the way around. In the process, he also noted the radiator was bad, and replaced it.
Soon afterwards, the car failed emissions due to a lack of catalytic converters, so those were welded into place by another local mechanic. This, unfortunately, took away that great rumble at idle, and the NASCAR-like wail it had during interstate driving. “You young guys just have to own those damn cars, don’t you?” he said.
Despite the newfound quiet from the car, I still loved it in all of its awfulness. The speed from the engine was awesome. Shifting a big, Hurst-style manual transmission felt amazing. And I felt like it was the car I’d always dreamed of owning.
I was even willing to turn a blind eye to the rust deterioration, which included the floorpan. It was always great fun to lift up the driver’s floor mat, and watch the road pass under you at speed through a 3” hole.
One of the luxury items from a previous owner was an old Blaupunkt cassette player, which I discovered wasn’t grounded. This, combined with the lack of shielding on the engine’s rear-mounted distributor cap, instantly de-magnetized my tapes under hard acceleration. To this day, if I were to listen to “Sleeping Bag” by ZZ Top, you’ll hear a whine during the guitar solo that quickly increases in pitch. This, of course, was me downshifting into 2nd gear and revving the engine for full effect with the music!
But despite its wicked-fast nature, I kept it pretty calm. I found out quickly that this trait would come in handy, as the car attracted police like crazy. On several occasions, I had police cruisers follow me for 10 miles. In some cases, they’d even turned around to follow me.
After a year ownership, my friend, Chris, and I went out one night for some food. On the way there, we decided to take the scenic route through the country. All was well until we came across an eight-point buck. I locked up the brakes, but I hit the deer on the left front of the car, breaking out the fiberglass nose and putting a large dent in the car’s only unscathed body panel. The force spun the car 180 degrees, and we somehow avoided sliding into a drainage ditch.
The damage would have been worse if not for the steel bumpers, of which 1977 was the last year. So for the next six months, I drove with a broken fiberglass nose, which really made for a sad-looking ride. Eventually, the car was traded in for $1500 at a local car dealer, and a new car purchase was made. It was the only muscle car I ever owned.
It’s been 16 years since I sold that car, but I still look back on that death trap with fond memories. I’ve never seen another in person done in that color combination, and I always wondered what happened to the beast. Sometimes, I even regret letting it go.
But one of the biggest regrets I have about getting rid of that car came from my friend, Renee. When I told her I owned it, she said, “Wow, a Bitchin’ Camaro!”
I looked at her with a strange gaze, but six months after selling the car, I finally understood her reference to The Dead Milkmen’s Song, “Bitchin’ Camaro.” If only I’d have known, I’d have kept that car just for the irony!
Christian's 1977 Camaro Z28, circa 1995.