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Car Corner
My Cars From New York

February 1, 2014
By Scott Lewis

I graduated high school in 1981, on Long Island, where I grew up. Back then... when you got out of high school making $3-4/hour while going to college, you were looking for cars that were $1000-$2500 (at least I did). That meant 8-12 year old American cars. So we looked at lots of GM and Ford cars because they were everywhere and parts were cheap (you expected to be making repairs). Mopars (Chrysler products) tended to be a little more on the repairs, but certainly viable as well.

My first few cars.... in order... where:

1973 Ford Grand Torino. Think Starsky & Hutch, but all black. I totaled it after 2 months. Oops! My Grandmother cosigned a signature load for me to buy this car. I never missed one payment for two years... on a car I did not own (yea, I did not have full coverage insurance).

1972 Buick Skylark Wagon. Given to me by my Grandmother’s boyfriend because my Grandmother was trying to help me out after totaling the Torino (yes, the same Grandmother). This car was junk, but it was free. It was really the car I started to learn about cars on. I replaced the starter by... yep... driving it up on the curb to get under it enough. Then it needed shocks so I went to Motion Performance (yes... that Motion Performance, from the Baldwin-Motion cars of the late 60s to early 70s). I bought a set of adjustable Koni shocks for this wagon. Hey... they had a lifetime warranty. I had a friend that worked at an import tuner store. He got me an Addco front sway bar for the wagon. Heck, these parts could fit on almost any GM car of the era. And they worked. That wagon was totally transformed. A friend's father had a Buick Wagon with a 455 and factory front & rear sway bars. My POS wagon ran circles around his Dad's car. Unfortunately, after a couple of month the trans went, so I got a cheap swap from a small tranny shop for $200. Then a couple months later it broke a connecting rod. I sold it for $50... but I kept those Koni shocks (and installed them on two other cars, keep reading).

1973 Plymouth Road Runner GTX. I bought this off a friend’s brother... the original owner... for $500. He allowed me to make payments. After two months I needed to replace the timing chain. The guy I bought it from said I did not have to make anymore payments because of this (I had paid $320 by that time). Another couple of months later it spun a bearing. So it sat in the garage as I drove my mom's car (more later) while I saved to rebuild the engine, a 440 big block. I did not know enough about cars to rebuild an engine... but I knew what I wanted. I was buying parts from Summit (Holley carb, Edelbrock intake, B&M torque converter, Comp Cams camshaft, Rhodes lifters, Blackjack Ceramic headers, etc. A friend (the same one who's father had the 455 Buick Wagon) was taking auto shop in high school at the time. He saw the parts in my closet building up and told me I was crazy. He said I can't just buy a bunch of parts and expect them to work. It will never run right. My aunt's boyfriend helped me with building and installing the engine. When I took that friend for a ride he ask me to show what it could do. So I proceeded to lay down 200 feet of rubber. He never doubted my "book smarts" on cars again. Alas, that car died from bad electrical wiring. I replaced the alternator, but it was bad, and on a trip to upstate New York it over loaded the wiring (a bad internal ground). By the time I got it home to "the Island" it was a mess. My best friend's new step father was a mechanic. He had me pick up a fuse block from a junk yard. I brought it to him with the car. After 8 hours of his time he had to give up. The damage was too far gone. Whole sections of wiring under the dash were melted together. It would have needed a custom wiring harness to be built (this was long before restoration wiring harnesses were available). He knew a guy that could do it... for $900 in labor alone, plus the parts. So... we pulled that awesome 440 motor out, I gave the hood to another friend that own a 73 Road Runner (on the idea he would save his original hood and use mine to cut a hole for a roots style supercharger), and junked the car. I eventually sold the engine for $1050... literally while I was in basic training for the Air Force (my brother closed the deal). I really missed this car the most of all. It had a 440... and after the rebuild it was blazing fast, and the interior was in mint condition.

1970 Chevrolet Chevelle. I bought this off my step-brother to help him out. He bought it for $800 hoping to sell his car (76 Cutlass) and be ahead on money. I looked at the car and knew it was junk. I offered him $500 knowing I would buy it to rebuild the engine. He sold it to me and I did just that... rebuilt the engine. Now... this was different from the Road Runner. I did not know how to rebuild an engine then... now I thought I did. This time I did it all by myself. Very satisfying. Anyway... it was a rust free car having been from South Carolina. So I thought I could always get it painted easily when the time came. I drove this car down to Texas in 1986. The trans went out just as I got my opportunity to move off base (Air Force) and so I parked it and got a Celica. Money and time never came together and it sat for a few years. My wife had me get rid of it because she did like us paying $15/month for storage (on base). I pulled the engine and gave the rest of the car away. Another car I miss, but not as much as the Road Runner. A friend stored the engine in his garage... and that is where it may still sit. I lost touch with that friend a dozen years ago, so I don't know for sure. And those Koni shocks... yea, they made there way onto this Chevelle.

1976 Pontiac Grand Prix. On Long Island... in between all the above cars... when I did not have a car of my own I drove my mother’s Grand Prix. She was the original owner. My older sister, I, and my younger brother each drove that car... a lot. I had saved my money after the Road Runner. I had about $2,500 saved and was looking for a car. Trying to find an early 70's Camaro. Then my Mom asked if I would lend my brother money to buy a car. She offered to sign the Grand Prix over to me if I did. So I loaned my brother $2,000 and I drove that Grand Prix. Yep... you guessed it... the Koni shock from the Skylark wagon fit perfectly on the Grand Prix. It was at this time that I used the last of my saved money to buy the Chevelle from my step brother. I remember installing cheap Monroe shocks (buy 3 get one free) in the GP when the Konis went to the Chevelle. I resigned the title to that car back to my Mom the morning I shipped off to the Air Force.

When I came home on my first leave from the Air Force, I pack up my stuff into that Chevelle and drove it down to Texas... where I swapped the cylinder heads and installed a shift kit... probably the demise of the transmission. That car lasted me about 10 months of daily driving before the tranny gave up.

Conclusion

I am not sure if it is a generational thing or what. I bought my son his first car... a very nice, one owner, 17 year old Lexus ES 300, while he was 17 years old. After he totaled it (after only two months with a license) I helped him buy an 11 year old Mazda Millenia. When that got totaled I help him buy a 9 year old Honda CR-V (the same age as my Mini Cooper at the time). All this in about 1 years time.

My parents never helped me. My Grandmother helped me get a loan for my first car, and she had her boyfriend give me his beat-up old Skylark wagon out of pity. My mother only gave me her car after her mother (same Grandmother) bought her a new car, and my mother only gave me her old car so I would lend my brother money to buy a car (I was shopping for a car myself at the time). My Grandmother would not help my brother with a loan because the car my brother wanted was not worth it... but my mother didn't see it that way. Sure enough my brother grenaded the engine in the car he bought. So who was right? Thankfully, my brother was just as reliable with making payment to me as I was to the bank for my first, totaled car. That saved my bacon, because during one semester of college I was only working one day a week because of my class schedule. So my brother's payments were the only cash I had, and my only way to put gas in my car during that semester.

What about you... what were your first few cars... and did you buy them yourself or did your parents do something to help you out?

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