The plan was to get Ethan L’Amour moved back to Texas from Chula Vista, after four years of Annapolis and eight years in the United States Navy.
More specifically, it involved getting his household possessions loaded into a storage unit and ferrying two cars back to Alpine. This was where it gets interesting, as the two cars were his 1980 Pontiac Trans Am and 1971 Dodge Challenger.
The Pontiac was a W87/WS6 Trans Am Special Edition, known back in the day as the ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ car. Since it was a California spec’d vehicle, the Pontiac had the mandated Chevrolet 305 V8, which shows how far the mighty had fallen by that time. That sad fact also underlines the debarkation point where California quit being such a fun place, but that is a different story for a different time.
But Ethan, armed with a Texas registration as well as a hot rodder’s adaptability, had fortified that black and gold beauty with a new Chevrolet 383 small block making about three times the horsepower, with a transmission and suspension to match. Problem was all the bugs weren’t worked out just yet. There in lay the challenge, which naturally leads us to…
The 1971 Dodge Challenger. He bought this car while still in the Persian Gulf, basically sight unseen. Older brother Levi took a flatbed and brought the orange Dodge to his home north of Albuquerque, and tinkered with it while my two year old granddaughter sat in the driver’s seat and made engine noises. We start them out early in our family.
Once back stateside Ethan got the Challenger to Chula Vista and began wrenching for reliability. With a 383 Magnum and a four speed pistol grip, the basics were already there. However, much of the car was still original with worn suspension, steering and brakes, as well as many other things.
This was my ride home. After all, I drive a 1971 Charger with a 440 Magnum and a four speed as daily transportation, so it was not that big of a stretch.
Pulling from the curb that Friday afternoon behind Ethan in the Trans Am, I started summing the situation up. I was in a fifty year old, mostly original car with no heater, no windshield wipers, no radio, recalcitrant windows, a lazy passenger mirror, and no working factory gauges or interior lights.
However, there was a tach that I could use for a speedometer, and a couple of cheap aftermarket gauges to monitor the engine.
Our destination lay a thousand miles to the east, across three different deserts and time zones, during a time of the year when those deserts are often hottest and the most unpredictable.
And did I mention this was during Memorial Day Weekend?
What could possibly go wrong?
We made it without incident to Alpine all right, but it was Alpine, California and not Alpine Texas. Yet it was the Trans Am that laid down because of a junky ignition module. And of course, this happened on Interstate 8 with half of the west coast headed in the same direction.
Ethan managed to make the improved shoulder before rolling to a halt. I parked the Challenger about a hundred feet to the rear and opened that bright Hemi orange trunk lid as a make do warning signal. Actually, that idea worked better than any safety flares I ever used in the Highway Patrol.
We diagnosed the dead motor and installed an AC Delco replacement module. The engine roared to life again and we hustled away, already an hour or so behind. The T/A never gave us another moment’s concern.
Over the mountains we went, and along with that went our comfy eighty degree ambient temperatures. West of El Centro you drop below sea level and the thermometer moved into the triple digit range. By the time we fueled up, it was so hot the throttle linkage on that Dodge’s Holley four barrel was sticking a bit.
No biggie, that is what boot toes are for. Stick one under the gas pedal and lift up to bring ‘er back to idle.
This ain’t my first rodeo, folks.
From then on it was a continual blur of traffic, miles, discoveries, consternations and even a laugh or two. Outside of Yuma a bunch of girls in a silver Toyota were ogling Ethan and the Trans Am. I sat in the Challenger slack jawed at seventy miles an hour, as they paced alongside and tried to pass him a note.
Ethan, a true gear head of the first order, shied the black and gold Pontiac away and gave them a half dirty look. Girls in Toyotas come and go, but there was six months of hard work invested in that Trans Am.
And thus they went; swept away amidst a never-still sea of semis, RVs, pickup trucks, mini-vans, cars and an occasional suicide jockey on a motorcycle.
We pulled into Gila Bend for supper and more gas, just as the last fading rays of sunlight were swallowed by the vastness of night. Sitting at a Burger King, we decided to push on to Benson before shutting our little traveling car show down. I had gained even more confidence in that orange Challenger, even after finding a couple of quirks like an alternator that refused to charge over 3,000 RPM.
One thing of note to my fellow Mopar lovers: Ladies and gents, I have driven a lot of 383s in my time but this ol’ dude was STRONG. That engine was mechanical music to my ears, and all it took was a merest tickle of the pedal to break any speed limit in the nation.
Right quickly, too.
Next morning we were up early and Ethan announced he was going to check the Trans Am. Minutes later I heard voices, and looked outside to see a blonde doing her darndest to strike up a conversation with him about the car.
My mind went to the silver Toyota the day before.
Which leads to the eternal question; was it him, or was it the black and gold Trans Am?
Since he looks a lot like me (sorry about that, Son), I figured it was the car.
We made it home that evening through blistering heat, blowing sand, gale force winds, bolting wildlife and a deluge of rain so hard you could barely see the center stripe. The first photograph was taken at the end of the journey, in front of our home.
Cactus the Shop Manager, also in the photo, was on hand to check everything over.
And if you want to see either of these two examples of vintage American muscle in person, stop by The Stable Performance Cars here in Alpine, where both are presently on display.
And of course by now you’re asking the sixty four thousand dollar question:
Would I do it again?
God bless to all,
Ben H. English
Author of ‘Yonderings’ (TCU Press)
‘Destiny’s Way’ (Creative Texts Publishers)
‘Out There: Essays on the Lower Big Bend’ (Creative Texts Publishers)
‘The Uvalde Raider’ (Creative Texts Publishers)
Facebook: Ben H. English
‘Graying but still game’