Yes, the TailHappy moniker came about from the times I spent getting my first car, a '77 Firebird Esprit 305ci automatic, sideways on the dirt roads around home, and elsewhere when I was young. Dirt only, because the boat anchor of a V8 could barely even spin a tire on wet pavement, not to mention dry. Dirt was a BIT easier. When I started doing things online and needed a "Screen Name", TailHappy is what I chose. Seemed to fit.
I learned so much with that car. Bought it from my aunt for $1500 when I was 15, planning on having it running and registered by the time I was 16 and had my temps.
Thinking back, I remember riding in the back seat of that car in the 80's, when I was about 5 or 6 years old. Back then my aunt watched me and my sister after school, and I was around that car A LOT. When the chance to purchase it came up (my aunt had stopped driving it when she had kids, her husband tried to take it as his own but she wouldn't let him!), it had been sitting for a few years and had its share of bumps and bruises. Mainly the EGR valve was shot, the valve covers leaked, and the Y-pipe between the exhaust manifolds was rotted. It sounded BAD FUCKING ASS. I had to have this car! The nose had been repaired after my aunt rear-ended a flatbed truck sometime in the early 90's, and they couldn't find the correct left hand 1977 grille, so a '78 one was sourced. It didn't fit right, and of course it was diamond mesh, not honeycomb as only the '77s are.
My uncle, in one of the few times allowed to drive it, had hit a guardrail in the snow with the right rear. Gently. The quarter was a bit dented, but the paint was okay. The scratches mostly got buffed out.
Oh, and one time while my aunt was at work and left the car parked on a busy street here in Milwaukee, a guy lost his boat trailer (no chains!) and it hit the Firebird square in the driver's door. I think it was repaired, not replaced.... but a part of me remembers someone saying it punched a hole in it. I could be mistaken.
Anyways, since I was unlicensed, my uncle had to bring the car up to me once I was done paying it off. I waited outside that day, and remember when he came rumbling up. Ugly wire wheel covers and all. About those wheel covers..... my aunt bought them for it, since she didn't like the originals.
Personally, I like them. And while I remember them being in the rafters of my grandparent's garage (my aunt lived upstairs after my great grandma passed away, it was a duplex), they couldn't be found after I bought the car. The original AM radio was, however. But me being 15 years old and all, I was all like "Nah, don't want it!"
I had that car parked in my parent's driveway for months. Fixing little things here and there. Patching the hole I found in the passenger floor (as well as any 15 year old can with a sheet of steel brought home by his step-dad that worked at a sheet steel cutting plant). Sending it off to an exhaust shop for the Y-pipe. It was so quiet after that! I hated it! Also to help it run better I put in plugs, replaced the wires, and threw on the new cap and rotor that my uncle supplied with the car. I crossed the plug wires by mistake, following the routing for a 301 Pontiac motor instead of the 305 Chevy that NO REPAIR BOOK seemed to know about (didn't help that when my aunt crashed it they replaced the core support with one from a 301 car, so the vacuum label and emissions info was wrong too!). After that, or maybe before? It started to foul the #8 plug regularly. Once every other week (depending on how much I drove it) I had to take it out, clean it up, or put in a new one. Tried to change the shocks but didn't have the proper tools and broke a bolt, so I farmed that out as well. Got it all buttoned up EGR and valve cover gasket wise, painted them with some "chrome" paint, and it looked horrible! But better than how it looked when I got it.
Also removed that black and silver thing that was an alarm that never worked. And just LOOK at that sexy pinstripe! I grew to like it, and the character it added. Like the sweet white vinyl seats and door panels, where the rest of the interior was black. I loved it in there. It was an Esprit, so it had a "woodgrain" dash, a speedo, and a big round black dial that was nothing, surrounded by idiot lights. Oil, Temp, Seatbelts(?). I went shopping one day and bought a 3-gauge pack, and cut a hole in the "woodgrain" dash where a Trans Am would have the gauges. It was a mess, but I didn't care. I wired them up, illumination wise, with plans down the road to hook them up so they READ something. Really, I was gonna! I also put in the cheapest tape deck I could find, hacking open the factory radio hole (whatever old school twin knob radio my aunt had in there did not work, if I recall) to fit it. The radio came with speakers, too! As the ONE 3X10 in the dash was blown. Probably by my aunt listening to Lionel Richie WAY too loud. Dancin' on the Ceiling, indeed. I put in the 6.5" speakers where everyone else does (but I did not know it at the time), on the sides of the center console, up in front under the radio. Later I was given a sub box with two 10"s in it, and tried to fit those somewhere.... and ended up hacking apart the rear deck.
Why WHY WHY did I do all this hacking!!?! Oh, right, I was 15. 16. 17? Time flew.
Well, things conspired against me, and I did not get my license until my 18th birthday. But I drove the car a lot illegally before then. Because I could. I was a good driver too. Lots of practice on those dirt roads helped. But in that time I got the car ready, safe, reliable (mostly), and learned its quirks. Like, when the temperature dropped or rose too much from one day to the next, I had to adjust the choke on the carb the way my uncle showed me. Yeah, it probably needed more than that, but it helped.
I put over 10,000 miles on that car, driving from our house in the suburbs down into Milwaukee to see friends I had left behind when we moved, up to the Appleton area, where other friends had left me. I don't think I ever took it much farther than that that I remember.... I can't recall if I ever took it on the 4 hour trip up north where my parents had a place.
And it only let me down once.
Well, twice, if you count the time I left the lights on when at school. There was no dinger to remind me to turn them off. I panicked because at the time I was not licensed and had to get home before my parents did.... But I got a jump so....
I was up in the Appleton area visiting my friend, and on the way home I rounded a corner on the highway and saw the "OIL" light flicker. Ut oh. It's done that once, and it was almost two quarts low. And that time it was a TIGHT turn. This time it was a gently highway curve. I turned down the radio, and heard the knocking. SHIT. Thankfully, I kept a case of Pennzoil in the trunk. And she took 3 quarts almost. SHIT. I started her back up after letting it cool off for a while, but clearly something was wrong. It knocked like hell, and had very little power. A State Trooper had pulled up behind me while I was filling the oil (it was 10PM at night) and seeing that I was having trouble getting underway, she followed me for a bit and I pulled back over. There was no way this pig (now on 7 cylinders I found out later) was getting up to highway speeds. The trooper gave me a ride to the next exit where there was a gas station and a McDonalds to call home for help.
So after having it towed to the place that put on the exhaust and shocks, my bill was over $250 for a new cam, labor, and tow. Wore the #8 intake lobe right off the cam. AND, they put the vacuum lines back on routed for a 301. DAMN THAT WRONG STICKER. Car ran like shit till I put it right. I was hoping the oil burning/plug fouling would stop too, but it didn't. I started to research 350 swaps. Or at least, 350 head swaps.
That was when I hit the couch. Literally. And figuratively. Coming back from Appleton, YET AGAIN, it was after 10PM at night and while following a S-Blazer in the middle lane I see brake lights. Lots of them. I see a car to the right spin off the road. The Blazer moves left and blocks my escape route that way. So I put the brake pedal to the floor, because up ahead was a large black rectangle blocking my lane. And I was gonna hit.... whatever IT was. I closed my eyes. It made a loud THUD, then I heard the sound of tinkling... wood? And metallic scraping. Fearing the worst I opened my eyes, saw I was still moving, so I put the car in neutral, shut it off, and coasted to the shoulder. Scraping something all the way.
The metal frame and springs of the couch, it turns out. They tangled in my steering linkage, and around the cooler lines that ran ATF from the trans to the radiator. My headlights were pointed all over. My nose dented, as was the hood edge. My liability only insurance wasn't helping this one...
I limped it home after getting the couch guts removed, and it was back to that shop again, getting a new used radiator put in. The lines ripped out the threads and it was not repairable. The shop had to modify my car a bit to get the slightly larger radiator to fit. With a hammer.
I was done. SO done with the car. I knew I'd never find body parts cheap to fix it, I'd never afford or be able to do the engine swap, and it had a big stupidly fixed hole in the floor.
I was employed full time, lived at home, and wanted a new car, with a warranty, and could afford a car payment. Or truck. I was into the lowered truck scene, but fullsize was out of my range, and being from a GM family, I figured an S-10 would be perfect! But I really liked the front end and subtle fender flares of the Isuzu Hombre... same thing as an S-10, with a longer warranty!
So I traded in the Firebird. They gave me $1500 for it. I did not bat an eye. My step dad says "Don't you want to save the license plates? Something to remember your first car by?"
Nope. Good riddance. I had the Pontiac crest from the nose that fell off after the accident, and the cigarette lighter I took out because I had my CD player plugged in all the time. That was enough. Oh, and a few pictures. And memories.
So, where have I been going with this long ass story? Well, a couple years ago I started asking around on the internet, seeing that people were finding their old cars now with all the info that's out there. I wanted to know. Had it been crushed? Did they send it to auction? Did they put it on the lot for sale? Did one of the dealer employees take pity on it and buy it?
Well, after not really trying that hard, and not having the VIN, I kinda gave up. But then I found Oppo. And I bought a Trans Am project car. And something inside me told me to keep trying. So I sent in some money and form to the DMV with the only info I had (my name, aunt's name, license plate) trying to find any info on the car past 1998, when I let it go.
Without the VIN, it was hopeless.
But wait a sec...... when I hit the couch, they wrote up an accident report. I had requested a copy, in hopes someday someone would claim that lost couch on the highway and I could make them pay for repairs. I had just moved last fall, and saw the report envelope in my box of personal papers and things that I had kept since moving away from my parents oh so long ago.
So I dug it out.
I found the VIN.
I looked it up online ($5 Carfax type site)
It had last been registered in 2003.
It's still out there!
I called in a favor from the sales department here at the dealer I work for, and they ran the VIN. I now have the last listed owner's name and address. Last titled in 2004. But it doesn't show that it's changed.
The lady on the report... she might still have the car!
I Google Mapped it, and in the driveway next to the house is a car, covered in a tarp. And, is that a bit of gold sticking out? NAHHHH...
The address wasn't too far out of my way to stop by last night on my way home (and not far from my aunt's/grandparent's house, oddly enough) but it is on a "seedy" side of town. I drove by. I didn't want to stop though. Slowly moving cars in those types of areas aren't exactly welcome.
Then I turn down the street. I approach the house. Expecting to only see a car covered with a tarp, what I got was something of a shock all together.
Oh, cool, they have a gold '76 Formula too! Maybe they really like gold Firebirds. Let me document this.
Sorry its blurry, but you get the idea.
Wait. Wait. As I am driving away, thinking I'll find a phone number to call, or stop by someday when it's not so late or cold it dawns on me. My car had front end damage. Maybe they just nose swapped it. And removed that horrible pinstripe.
THAT COULD BE MY CAR.
I have to go back.
I need to know.