“The Fast and The Furious” is one of my all-time favorite car-flicks. In my opinion, it ranks right up there with Steve McQueen’s “Bullit” and Nicholas Cage’s “Gone in 60’s Seconds” (both the latter featuring Ford Mustangs, but I won’t hold that against them). Pure old-school muscle, torque, and rage under the hoods of those classic, late 1960’s beasts, man! Somewhere in the middle of The Fast and The Furious film, the two anti-heroes (Brian and Dominic) exchange some candid dialogue that only the car enthusiast can truly appreciate. They’re seen standing in front of an iconic1970 Charger.
Dom: “It’s a beast. Know what she ran at Palmdale?”
Brian: No. What’d she run?”
Dom: “Nine seconds flat. My Dad was driving. So much torque, the chassis twisted coming off the line. He barely kept it on the track.”
Brian: “So what’s your fastest time?”
Dom: “I’ve never driven her?”
Brian: “Why not?”
Dom: “Scares the $#*! out of me.”
I had a full understanding of that respectful fear, the moment that line was dropped. I’m the oldest of three children born to Chuck and Laura Smith, but I have a big sister grafted into the family long before I was born; my Dad’s 1968 Charger. This gold-leaf painted, metallic hulk struck fear and reverence in my heart for as long as I can remember, well into my adult life. My Dad bought her a few years before my birth, and maintained her upkeep over the years. The transmission was modified, the engine was tweaked, the suspension was adjusted, wider rear tires were equipped, and the fuel injection got an upgrade over the span of 39 years. Her paint job, however, never changed. It never dulled or blemished because my dad was (and still is) a master at maintaining her beauty.
I have vivid memories of my early childhood, spent riding around town in the backseat of the beast. Often times, I picture myself plastered against the tan leather upholstery, screaming at the top of my lungs, and hanging on for dear life, as my dad floored the gas pedal. Yet, I was never in any real danger, because he always had complete control of her. That knowledge never swayed my fear, however.
My dad once accidentally caught my fingers in the shutting driver’s-side door, when I was…five, maybe six. I remembered that being the day I grew terrified of that car. Somehow, I knew it was out to get me. There was once a time when I actually watched from a distance, as my father outran the local police, up Salliotte Road. The exhaust pipes were so loud and distinct, I could hear him running and bending corners for blocks. Then, just like in the chase movies, I saw the Charger drift around the corner, rear wheels spinning and screeching asphalt, the tail end of her swaying around the bend, before leveling out. He parked that car on a dime in front of the house, hopped out with folded arms and crossed legs while leaning against her, as if nothing had happened. My ten-year old friend, Keith, exploded.
“Whoa! Did you see that? That was sweet! Your Dad is bad!”
My dad; my hero. He and the car became the talk of my fifth-grade class for the next week, as the news of his driving hit the streets. And my fear and respect for that car grew stronger.
In my teenage years, my dad and I sort of drifted away from one another, not by his doing. It was more so my rebellion toward anything fatherly in nature. Rides in the Charger were few and far in between, but I still loved to hear her start up and rumble in idle. Every once in a while, my dad would have me open the gates to the backyard, so that he could drive her straight out, from the garage to the street. I’d swagger out to the sidewalk in time to catch a glimpse of him light up the tires on take-off. So much torque, the rear tires thinned out lifting the back end, just like watching competition drag races on television. I’d run out into the street to watch my dad, bend the right onto Outer Drive, at the end of the block. Once he was out of view, I listened as the engine of the beast ran through its gear changes, screeching asphalt between 1st, 2nd, and DRIVE. I would smile, because I always loved the sound of that car running full out.
“WE EAT VETTES” was the custom plate fastened to the front chrome bumper of the beast. In my young adult years, the car became something more than a car to me. Away at college, anything that remotely sounded like the guttural rumble of the ’68 Charger, made me homesick for my dad and his car. Sometimes, when I would come home on the weekends, I would make my way out to the garage, and gently run my hand across her perfect paint coat. It was my show of respect for her. I never sat behind her wheel, because she was bigger than life to me. She was more than a car. She was something that demanded my reverence.
In my early thirties, I had a young family of my own. Every so often, Poppa (as my dad came to be known by my children) would bring his ’68 Charger over to the house. For a long time, I refused to ride in it, and I think my children followed my lead. I was still afraid of her, after so many years. As time passed, my children began taking rides in Poppa’s car. He was always careful to drive civil with his grandchildren secured in the backseat. Following their lead, I found my way back into the passenger side of the beast, with my children in the backseat. Riding with my dad, was awesome again. It took me back to days long gone, when I used to be too small to see over the brown dashboard, but big enough to watch him shift the gears, hear the tires screech between shifts. Being in that seat was like coming home after a long hiatus. I loved the beast all over again.
Today, I’m 39 years old. My dad is 64 and still racing her around town. She’s just as loud and fearsome as I’ve ever known. This morning, I visited my dad. He had the beast propped up, preparing to bleed air from her brake lines, on all fours. I jumped right in and helped out. It was amazing to wrench on the beast with my dad. Sure, the job was simple, but the time was well spent. We laughed about the past; he taught me techniques to keep her running; and once we were done, he fired her up and we hit the streets for a ride.
Oh, how wonderful and terrifying, the guttural sound of the engine; how awesome, the kick of the seat into the back, between gear shifts; how exhilarating, the sheer speed of 0 to 50 in no time flat. My dad never really opened her up too wide, to let her run wild. I guess those days are behind him. Or maybe…he was protecting his son? He looked over at me as the wind blew past us; two Smiths just enjoying the ride.
“It’s hard to believe, I used to drive this thing with you sitting right here in my lap,” he said.
I smiled, reminiscing on times passed; times in the back seat, holding on for dear life. Good times.
We made a quick stop over to my sister’s to pay a short visit. On the way out the front door, my dad said something to me I will never forget.
“You wanna drive her home?”
I glanced at the beast, and for a split second, she looked larger than life; more than a mere car.
“Sure,” I replied, masking my fear. It was frightening and wonderful at the same time, just to think about sliding behind the wheel of her. The beast had always been God-like in my mind.
It was surreal, watching my dad slide into the passenger seat of the ’68 Charger. I didn’t let my excitement get the best of me, choosing instead to look at her like any other car. I shoved the key into the ignition and turned. Nothing happened.
“Okay, here’s the trick to starting her. First you gotta flip that red switch, for the pump. Then release the emergency brake. Good, now take her out of park, while you’re holding down on the brake petal. Now, turn the key.”
I followed his instructions and turned the key again. The beast roared to life, and adrenaline dumped into my bloodstream. I slowly backed her out of the driveway. Once on the street, I gently wrenched her silver slotted shift-arm, at my side, into 1st gear. The beast bucked, ready to be let loose and run wild.
‘Scares the $#*! out of me,’ I thought.
I slowly applied weight on the gas pedal and we were off. I smiled wide. I couldn’t help it! I was really here, in the driver’s seat of the Charger, with my dad sitting next to me. He ran me through the shifting sequence, as we began to pick up speed.
“The important thing to remember,” he said, “is don’t push the button while you’re shifting! If you push that button on the shifter, while you’re upshifting, you’ll throw her into reverse, and she’ll buck you right through the front windshield. I guarantee you that.”
Roger that, dad. No pressure, I thought.
“Got it. Hands off the button. Check,” I repeated as I shifted.
After a block or two, my dad said, “Okay, I think you got the hang of it now.”
I settled into a groove of shifting and driving while watching the scenery roll by. Driving the beast was fantastic.
“Dad, why do the gears operate this way, anyway? I’ve never seen a car setup like this.”
“That’s because I modified the transmission for racing. I did that to the gears box.”
I suddenly recalled watching him out run a cop car all those years ago. I was simultaneously aware of the raw power I was currently commanding. I glanced over at my dad, and caught him actually digging the ride, from the passenger seat. A smile lit the corners of his mouth. And there it was. That one moment in time I’ll always take with me, wherever I go, until the day I die. That magical snapshot: My dad riding shotgun, while his son drove the beast. He seemed so proud. I fought against a lump in my throat.
Once we turned off of Southfield road, onto Pepper road, I coasted her nice and easy to the stop sign. 12th street was roughly a quarter of a mile ahead of me. I just sat there at the sign. There was no traffic, and my dad didn’t say a word. He didn’t need to. He knew what was about to happen. My right hand gripped down on the shifter. My left hand squeezed the leather steering wheel tight. I leaned forward to counter the kick that was coming. My foot stomped the gas pedal, and the beast took flight! Her engine roared, set free to run wild finally. Everything blew past us in a blur of seconds. She moved so fast, I had just enough time to shift up into 2nd, then DRIVE, and then back down through the gears to 1st, before we were on top of the 12thstreet stop sign, and bending the corner headed home. As we coasted up the block, ever muscle in my body shook, drunk off adrenaline. I pulled the beast into the driveway, shifted into park, killed the engine, set the emergency parking brake, and flipped the fuel pump switch off. Then I exhaled long and slow.
“Good job,” my dad said.
I looked at him and smiled. As we walked into the house, I grabbed my dad around the waist and hugged him tight. He laughed and told me to let him go, but I held on anyway.
“Thanks dad.” I said.
“Thank you. I appreciate you helping me out this morning.” He said.
I left the house, and walked down the driveway, toward my car. Running my hand gently across the paint of the beast, I whispered to her.
“Thank you, girl. Thank you for all the years, you’ve been with me. Thank you for taking care of me today. Thanks for the ride.”
I walked to my car then, turned to look at the beast again. She didn’t seem so scary anymore. She seemed normal sized. She wasn’t a monster anymore; no horrid or frightening abomination out to do me in. She was nothing more than a car. She was…and is…my dad’s ’68 Charger. And for one brief moment in time, the beast allowed me to tame her.