COURSEY: Dreaming of cheap gas and big engines
Published: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 12:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 12:09 p.m.
June is the cruelest month for boys who grew up before people cared about fuel efficiency and air pollution, when Detroit Steel was king and cruising was legal.
It's also the finest month in Sonoma County, when boys with thinning hair and thickening waists can squint at the shine, shake at the rumble and breathe in the hydrocarbons of an era gone by.
Last Saturday, on a warm evening reminiscent of summers from another time, hundreds of muscle cars thundered on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa. Small-block Chevys and big-block Fords, Mopars and Lincolns, deuce coupes and Coupes de Villes turned the clock back to a time when Fourth had four lanes and Saturday night was the gearheads' time to shine.
This Sunday, it happens again in Juilliard Park, where tuck-and-roll upholstery, candy-apple paint and four-on-the-floor transmissions will attract a Fathers' Day crowd of boys who can't wait to drive and men who remember when driving was fun.
Car-show season is the cruelest season.
It reminds us, as it did on Saturday, that Fourth Street isn't four lanes any more, and cruising not only isn't legal, but it isn't all that practical, either. Who wants to drive slowly in an endless line of cars on a Saturday night when they've spent all week doing the same thing twice a day on their way to and from work on Highway 101? Who can afford to pour gas into one of those thirsty V8s at $4 a gallon? Who wants to abuse their show car on streets that have become more pothole than pavement?
Ironically, Saturday was a Spare the Air Day in the Bay Area, when we're all asked to refrain from “unnecessary” driving to reduce emissions at times when atmospheric conditions hold them in place. But that didn't stop Peggy Sue's All-American Cruise.
“We're the second weekend in June, regardless of what happens,” said Peggy Williams, the organizer.
And why not? Most of the cars involved, having been manufactured before 1975, are exempt from California DMV smog rules. Not because they don't belch all kinds of pollutants, but because we love our old muscle machines in California.
They take us back to a simpler time, a time when the gasoline tax raised enough money to maintain our roads, for example. Now, with foreign-built four-bangers and silent hybrids and even Detroit-born roller-skates sipping gas like expensive champagne, we're not buying enough of the stuff to generate tax revenues that will keep up with the wear-and-tear caused by all of those additional miles traveled. (Even though we hardly travel any cruising-related miles any more.)
So now the powers-that-be are talking about taxing miles driven, instead of just taxing gas. Sure that's fair, but it's just another nail in the coffin of automotive nostalgics like me.
I long for the days when I could fill up my '37 Chevy coupe for 25 cents a gallon and drive around all night, looking for something to do but happy to just be driving — seeing and being seen. I bask in the memories of stretching out flat on my back under that car, my hands black with grease and my knuckles scabbed with reminders that amateur mechanics pay in skin what they save at the shop. I daydream about the wide bench seat, and how an occasional date would slide all the way over so I could put my arm around her in between shifting the three-on-the-floor.
Then I come back to reality. That Chevy, 34 years old when I acquired it, spent more time in the garage than on the road — particularly after I became its chief mechanic. The primo paint job, the V8 engine, the glass packs and the mag wheels were expensive ideas that never became a reality. By the time I sold it in 1974 (for $200 more than my great-aunt had paid for it in 1937), the Arab oil crisis had changed the way we thought about cars. I used the money to buy a VW Squareback that wasn't anywhere near as cool, but got great gas mileage.
I've been driving four-bangers ever since.
But that doesn't free me from the pull of car shows. It doesn't dull the shine of a chrome “SS” badge or mute the thrill of a thumping exhaust. It doesn't keep me from fantasizing about slipping behind the wheel of, say, a '72 Barracuda with a big V8 and seeing how much rubber I can leave behind before I pull the pistol-grip Hurst shifter into second gear.
A boy can still dream, can't he?
Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.