The first car I owned was a 1969 Dodge Charger. I got it the summer before my senior year of high school and it meant that I no longer had to drive to school in my mother's green 1974 Gremlin.
Earlier that summer, a friend of my brother's mentioned that he knew someone selling a dependable but high mileage car at a decent price. It was a green 10-year-old 1969 Charger with a ton of Michigan rust. It showed 90,000 miles but it was all original. It was the Special Edition which meant that it had leather seats and power windows. It had a 2 barrel 383 and a Torqueflite auto. They wanted $300 for it.
My brother Dave had restored a few cars recently and had gotten quite good at it. He told me he'd redo the car for me if I paid for supplies. With that offer, I had to buy the car. I remember driving the Charger home the day I bought it and noticing how huge the car seemed compared to the Gremlin. It also had a little more pep. When I got home it went in the family garage where just a few years earlier another brother had rebuilt a Hemi .
Dave and I went to the paint supply store and bought materials. Bondo was high on the list since the bottoms of the rear quarters were long gone. And we weren't going to repaint it green. The car we had thought of when seeing it was the yellow Charger from Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. If you have not seen the movie, I highly recommend it. It's not high art but it is one of the greatest car chase movies ever made. It's got some people in it who yammer on about stuff but you can turn the sound off when that happens.
I hung around the garage and watched Dave perform the body work. I can still imagine the smell of the Bondo and picture him walking in from the garage, covered in the dust which came off the car when he sanded it. Eventually he sprayed the yellow and then painted a stripe on the back. I remember Dave asking me if I had a picture he could use as a reference. I found a good picture of an R/T in a 1969 Dodge brochure. He eyeballed it, using the rear marker lens for scale. Purists might notice that the stripe is not identical to one from the factory but in the entire time I owned the car, no one ever mentioned it. They were too blown away by the fantastic paint job. People asked me for the name of the "shop" that painted it.
I worked at a gas station at the time and one weekend we slapped a 4-barrel on the 383. Why not? The way I drove the car the fuel economy was already shot. I also picked up a set of Mopar magnum wheels for it, to replace the hubcaps you see in these photos.
I got in some good driving before the summer ended. When I returned to school that fall, things felt different. Whether it had or not, I believed my social standing had been upgraded from when I had driven the Gremlin. I parked at the far edge of the parking lot to avoid door dings and savored my commutes to and from school. Anyone need a ride home? I looked for excuses to drive places.
The morning of the last day of school it rained. I had a last hour study hall so I could leave an hour before everyone else in the afternoon. I told a friend of mine he should watch me as I left that day. I got in the Charger and backed it up to one side of the parking lot where I had found a nice pool of standing rainwater. My friend was at the window of the chemistry room with a few of our classmates – he had told them they might want to see this – and I pulled the most massive burnout of my entire driving career. The car had posi but I rolled the rear tires back and forth a few times through the puddle to make sure they were good and wet before I stomped on the gas. I may have even applied a little brake before I launched but then again, this was a special occasion. The rear wheels smoked and steamed for a good 75 feet before gaining traction and rocketing me out of the parking lot for the last time.
I drove the car for a few years after high school and never had any major mechanical trouble with it. To this day, the word "Torqueflite" is almost a holy incantation for me. Especially when you consider all of the – how should we say this? – harsh accelerations I subjected this one to. I racked up quite a few miles on the Charger. I remember heading down Woodward Avenue the night the odometer approached 99,999 and watching the numbers roll over just as I crossed over the 8 Mile overpass. I hit a turnaround and headed north, watching as the odometer started all over again.
During most of the time I owned it, the car could usually be found somewhere on or near Woodward Avenue after dusk. I suspect people who had legitimate reasons to be out there were sick of seeing that bright yellow car just lurking along, or parked at the ice cream stand just north of 14 Mile Rd.
As we grow up, we learn the realities of life. Like, Bondo does not cure rust. After a few years, the remaining sheet metal began succumbing to the harsh Michigan winters. One December, I popped the trunk to look for something and found it filled with slush. The bottom of the trunk at one edge had rotted out and now you could see through to the ground. Paint was bubbling off in spots elsewhere on the car and this time it would take more than a few hundred dollars to fix.
I sold the car around 1983 for $300, the same price I had paid in 1979.The supplies Dave used to restore it cost less than $300. That means the car you see in these pics cost me less than $600. Granted, those are 1979 dollars but that's still not bad. I never saw it again after I sold it. I suspect that it finally succumbed to the Michigan environment. Or maybe Torqueflites don't last forever?
I counted the other day and I have owned ten cars after the Charger. They all cost more and one of them I drove a quarter of a million miles. Even so, none of them was as memorable as the Charger. It was the perfect first car for someone who would spend the rest of his life thinking about cars.
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[Pictures were taken by me with a Kodak Pocket 20 and 110 film. I have no pics of me with the car or any before the paint job. Who'd have thought I might want those later?]
Steve Lehto is a writer and attorney from Michigan. He wrote Bobby Isaac: NASCAR's First Modern Champion. He also wrote Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation and The Great American Jet Pack: The Quest for the Ultimate Individual Lift Device.