Big Block Buick Wildcat Memoir
Dad bought the big Wildcat perhaps for several reasons: I begged him to, the power tempted him, he was getting restless in retirement or money was burning a hole in his pocket (it rarely did). I was seventeen and Dad was in his fourth year of early retirement which means he must have been about 58 at the time. The year was 1965. Dad was replacing our Olds Rocket 88 which was still a damn good car, because my brother, Ralph, was an executive working for GM and his position required him to buy a new car every two years and Dad liked to buy a new one himself every three or four years. So he would buy one through my brother, get a good deal, and help his son with the requirement of buying a new car so often.
As a seventeen year old, I was more than a little interested in this transaction. For the most part, I was relegated to driving the family white, Ford Falcon station wagon with a red vinyl interior which was one of crappiest cars ever built and completely unsuitable for dates, another subject that was of overwhelming concern to me. So, when Dad sat down at the dining table with all the new car brochures and the ordering form, I was right at his side trying to supervise the details of the purchase. Why he decided to switch to Buick from Olds was probably just a question of variety. His choice could have been the biggest car in the fleet, the Buick Electra, but instead he seemed to want a car that was a bit smaller and one that didn't just say outright "fat cat"(a Cadillac was out of the question for symbolic rather than financial reasons). So the Wildcat, still a large, comfortable car seemed to fit the bill. He liked the copper-brown color, and we decided upon the black naugahyde upholstery that was Buick's reasonably good imitation of leather (later this feature of the car led to many family jokes about shooting nauguses and late night hunting expeditions for the mighty naugus). But this wasn't the feature of central concern to me: it was the engine.
With my sharp eyes, I noticed an asterisk on the options page that mentioned the big block. Dad and I (I include myself rhetorically) could buy a 425 cubic inch engine with, count them, TWO four barrel carburetors and 365 (conservatively estimated) horsepower. Now, that "we" had to have. "C'mon Dad, imagine. Get the big engine." For some odd reason, I only had to implore him briefly (perhaps midlife crisis or early retirement had something to do with it) and he checked the right box and grinned at me like he was much closer to my age than was prudent for someone his age and stature. This was a rare occasion for Dad who was personally and fiscally quite conservative although politically very liberal. He had a strong sense of justice, favored civil rights and opposed the Vietnam War from an early date. He came from a family who believed that FDR was one of the first presidents who ever truly represented the "little guy" in American politics. As far as I know, Dad never voted for a Republican in his life. But I digress.
The big day arrived. My brother had taken delivery of the car in Detroit and driven it to our home in Nebraska. There it was, gleaming in all its glory. But like a kid at Christmas, I could hardly wait to lift the massive hood and see what beast resided there. I was greeted by a gigantic chrome air cleaner that housed the dual four-barrels and sat on top of an engine that shouted, metaphorically speaking: "Drag strip Dominator." It had beautifully machined valve covers and was so big that it had to be snuggly fit into the huge engine compartment. It was definitely a teenaged boy's dream come true. It was so awesome (I use an adjective here popular in a later generation because it seems to fit) that just admiring it in the driveway seemed enough of heaven.
It did not sit in the driveway for long. At first I was only allowed to drive it on special occasions and even then only with an adult present. But over time, in fact in a few mere months, the restrictions were recklessly lifted. After all, how does one take a girl to the prom with an "adult" present? The Wildcat was liberated to be driven through many wild nights. I particularly remember one near-death experience on an expedition to Missouri to buy fireworks that were illegal in my home state of Nebraska. On the way home, on the two lane highway, I was driving along minding my business when another muscle car, a GTO as I recall, with equally young occupants zoomed past me and then slowed down below the speed limit in front of us (I was with two smuggling accomplices). We took the other driver's action to be either a challenge or an insult, and so I proceeded to floor the gas pedal and roar past our competition. My friends fairly screamed with delight. We thought we had shown them who was boss, but evidently they had something big under the hood as well and weren't going to be so easily outdone. I could see them speeding up behind me even though I was still going perhaps 80 or 90 miles per hour, so I floored it again before my competitor could rush past. He came up alongside me but could not gain the advantage but even the big Wildcat couldn't seem to pull away. By this time we were both doing over 105. Fortunately the road was pretty straight and there was no oncoming traffic that I could see, but the highway was narrow, and we hurtled toward a railroad crossing. We hit the bump going far too fast and we both bounced careening on what seemed the edge of space. Both drivers had their fill of near death induced adrenalin and backed off the accelerators. Years later, I still assess the moment I hit the railroad tracks as the closest I have ever come to death, at least insofar as I am aware.
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