Not that I was ever all that quick myself. But my friends run fast. I used to drive the sort of performance-enhanced machines that attracted attention and invariably led to code infractions. More recently, the passage of time, acts of God, the hand of man and the wrath of woman have conspired to remove me from that peak of automotive connoisseurship that once “required” there be 12 special-interest vehicles in my immediate familial vicinity. The current conveyance, a 1980 Chevrolet six-cylinder El Camino, came as an unexpected gift in a San Francisco parking lot from my friend Fausto Vitello. “Hey, you need a ride home, and besides, you’ll never get a speeding ticket in this bucket.” Thus I was consigned to my new vehicular fate and suddenly shackled to a different sort of albatross. At 45 miles an hour, I lumbered south for 10 interminable hours. I had the sucker floored and went through 39 gallons of fuel, four quarts of oil and three and a quarter cans of transmission fluid.
Praise the lowered. Falling from grace hurts on contact. Honestly, the strict adherence to such a rigorous doctrine was difficult initially. There was a time when I crewed on world-record-setting drag teams. Cars I then owned were lovingly displayed on the pages of mechanically masturbatory gearhead gazettes. Associates of mine garnered national racing championships as I turned art tricks that received support from the captains of industry at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. Chief executive officers of oil companies collected my stuff. Museums began to succumb to the notion that any cruise night on Whittier Boulevard beat the hell out of the anemic ascetic posturing being trafficked in their marble mausoleums. Header queens served as my spiritual inspiration. Women like auto-publishing czarina Margie Petersen (better known as Miss Rheingold 1964) would dispense philosophy to me at upper-social-tier soirees. Linda Vaughn — the Hurst Shifter girl — and I hung out at Oakland Roadster Shows. I shot Lowrider magazine Super Show models, carefully arranged Miss Budweisers across hoods and got Playboy Playmate centerfold archetypes to light up diamond tuck-and-roll interiors. If it was chopped, dropped, channeled, nosed, decked, hi-Boyd, Dutched, goosed, blown or injected, I drove it to distraction.
Now exiled to a beater, I couldn’t race if I had to; my days of noxiously heretical gallivanting about in luxury and status are a thing of my past. Pick Your Part’s locations in Sun Valley and Wilmington and Stanton became my haunts. I habitually scavenged acres of wrecks looking for the elusive parts required to return my ranfla to its original showroom-fresh specifications. The mantra was to become bone stock utilizing only discarded parts. This wasn’t to be a rebuild per se, but rather a massaging of what was there.
Having been existentially reinvented, I found myself obsessing over the mechanical reconfiguration of my current motoring affectation. The new mores demanded that I now strive for efficiency. The unassailably perverse logic was to hover at the speed limit and glide as far as I possibly could. Toward this effort, I tightened, realigned and tweaked my chassis and suspension components. I procured scads of junkyard tires that had the correct amount of run-in time, and their faces were dressed and recut for optimum traction under whatever road and climate conditions I would expect to encounter on a particular trip. Another day meant a different facial-surface contour and resilience. Because of the endless backlog of available previously owned rubber tires, I churned out innumerable experimental treads and edge profiles.
Balancing the power plant and drive train produced further yields, all of which were eminently provable on the dynamometer. Contact surfaces in the engine were cleaned, honed and polished. I took a plastic one-25th-scale model — formerly utilized by Felix Chevrolet as a dealer ’80 El Camino color-demonstration unit — into the wind tunnel to cost-effectively analyze the aerodynamic principles at work upon the real car’s body. In such a manner, the aero numbers were calculated and the vehicle’s stance was manipulated in the interest of improving down force and lessening the coefficient of drag in accordance with the properties demonstrated by the Bernoulli effect.
My junkyard dog may still have been incapable of biting; however, it now could bark for much longer.
The prospect of impending residence in a motor vehicle engenders such deep appraisals. If you’ve got no place to live, then you’ve got to go. I’m not a true citizen of the highway. At least not to the same extent as are those stalwart Interstate-rest-stop recluses. While they can be seen sitting at concrete picnic tables pounding out novels on laptops, I am factually just passing through.
“See the USA in your Chevrolet” was Dinah Shore’s musical expression. Though the sonic genius of this advertising jingle may be questionable, the value of proper extended automobile maintenance is not. In the United States, an estimated 16 million new cars are sold per year. The average service life of an auto is about 12 years. That works out to the purchase of at least four of the profligate things in the life span of a typical motorist. About 25 percent of the materials in an auto cannot be recycled. If the median weight of a car is about a ton, then the average motorist accounts for a couple thousand pounds of irretrievable waste during his or her driving career. As the recycling of the other 75 percent of a ride’s materials consumes massive amounts of fuel, water and labor, the implications are obvious: Reuse of and the continued use of a correctly maintained vehicle are the environmentally superior alternative.
But none of that has anything to do with why I’ve driven the 101 to San Francisco and back four times in the last five weeks. Yes, I have hauled on the order of 500 pounds of cargo on each leg of these excursions. And I made every transit using less than a single tank of gas. But the 440 miles covered each way offer a sublimely unparalleled aesthetic experience. The border of my El Camino window functions as a frame that aids in my grasping the entirety of the landscape. The sheer magnitude and volume of the topographic contours become apparent as I progress, enthralled all the while as the event horizon unfolds.
On a good night, one can pre-visualize the unbroken line and perfect arcs required to negotiate the route with the least amount of effort. Working the banks of the roadway and picking the correct gear ratios means that you are able to punch down the Gaviota pass without ever touching the brakes. Ditto for the Grapevine, except that is a landscape of another narrative form. A great longitudinal track, combined with unbroken concentration and avoidance of the temptation to pull over, produces an amalgamation with the horizontality of it all and an elevation of one’s ability to spatially conceive.
At present I’m lost in the oblivion of absolute transit, between here and there, neither coming nor simultaneously going. The manic disassociative state induced by long-haul motoring generates morphing image perspectives of exquisite transcendence. Interstate graphics and architecture already meant to be experienced at an accelerated pace become layered upon themselves until they are high-velocity Gestamkunstwerk. Nanoseconds of sensory overload expand into hours. A blurring together of: illuminated icons wrought from vacuformed Plexiglas Americana/ Raymond Loewy Shells/ lacquered Tony Scott femmes populating gas-town convenience-store counters/ Herbert Bayer Bauhaus ARCO glyphs/ In-N-Out disposable beverage cups with “JOHN 3:16” printed on the bottom inside rims/ Chevron Hallmark flat-roof pedestal canopies/ Next Available Service 36 Miles road signs/ Burger King My Name Is _____ badges/ 2,156 SPEEDING TICKETS WERE ISSUED HERE LAST YEAR billboards/ golden arches with Tony Hawk Happy Meals . . . All coming. At/ by/ past/ from side to side/ over you. Just as. Your means of transportation is piercing sleek holes in the wind. Drafting the slipstream found behind the rigs of fast freight truckers. Possession of a radar jammer is a felony, but the use of a laser-jamming device is legal and prudent. Why call Valhalla collect? When you can be. On the way there now. At ninety-five-point-three-three-three feet per second. Padre Serra had only a mule. I’ve got many horses.