Jesse M

You Can Go Home Again-A Firebird's Journey

For me cars are a passion and certain automobiles hold a special place in my heart. Often when I see an old car, memories of good times from my youth come rushing back. People, places, and events that have been buried in that remote region of my brain that stores away the good things and filters out the bad takes over whenever I think of certain cars. I think of old cars and old music in much the same way. I have a theory about the impact of music on our lives and that same theory applies to cars for me. Usually the music that we remember most fondly is the music that was popular when we were sixteen. It’s the same with cars. Automobiles that excite us the most are usually the cars that were popular when we were teenagers. My rule of thumb about what made a car cool was simple. Anything that had four doors had two doors too many and if it had six cylinders it had two cylinders too few.

This is a story about how a car, which was sold 20 years ago, is coming back to the family of the original owner. Not only is it coming back home but doing so in its original, unrestored condition. The car is a true survivor, just like its first owner, Mickey, who is now 91 years old. Mickey is a member of the Greatest Generation. He grew up in the coal mining country. To escape the poverty of the region, he joined the Navy at age 17. While stationed at the Banana River Florida naval base, he met 16 year old Marjorie Skinner at a community dance and after a brief courtship, with Marjorie’s mother’s reluctant permission, they married. After they married, Mickey went to war and Marjorie went back to high school to get her diploma. Mickey retired from the navy after a 24 year career. Marjorie and Mickey have been married for 71 years and counting. Early on Marjorie accepted that she is married to a certified car nut. I think I will coin the phase: Old car nuts never die, they just catch another gear.

On March 7, 1978 Mickey was driving past the local Pontiac dealer when he spotted a black and gold Pontiac Firebird Formula on the lot. It was love at first sight for him. The graphics package in gold against the starlight black paint was striking. This along with the carmine red interior and 400 cubic inch engine really set this car apart from the pedestrian Firebirds and ubiquitous Trans Ams with their 'over the top' plastic wheel-opening flairs and mythical phoenix prominently displayed on the hood. Mickey went home and couldn't stop talking about the Firebird. He told Marjorie that it was the most beautiful car he had ever seen. Finally, Marjorie told him to take her to see this car just to shut him up. Mickey took her down and he immediately began to fret about how he needed to be realistic and not splurge on this car. Meanwhile Marjorie looks the car over then told the salesman to get the paperwork ready because she wasn't going home without buying that car for Mickey.

1978 was also the year that I married Mickey and Marjorie’s daughter, Linda. Linda had the deepest blue eyes that God ever created. Her beauty was striking and when we met I knew I had found someone very special. I think we both knew we were meant for each other. After dating only a few months we married. Linda inherited her beauty from her mother and her love for reading and appreciation for cars from her dad. She loved sporty cars. She enjoyed driving them, but washing and maintaining them was something for which she had no interest. She always laughingly said that was what she had me for.

In 1989, Mickey developed health issues and realized that he couldn’t care for the Firebird as he once did. Mickey is a very detailed person and perfectionist. He keeps a journal on everything. He logged everything that was ever done to that Firebird when he owned it. Maintenance and oil changes, every wash and wax and every gallon of gas that went into the car. He even calculated his average mileage for the each tank of gasoline and recorded the pump price for all gasoline grades for that day. Mickey knew how much we I liked the car, so in 1991 he gave the car to Linda. I maintained records as Mickey had, but in 1993 we bought a Corvette convertible and quickly ran out of garage space. I tried to give the Formula back to Mickey then. He told me that he had given the car to us and we could do with it what we wanted. If we felt that we wanted to sell it, he said he was fine with that. Little did I know, he was saying that for our benefit. He really didn't want the car to leave the family. In 1994 I sold the car to a couple from Illinois. The Formula had 36,500 miles on it when I sold it. The car changed hands twice in Illinois. The car was ultimately sold to Joe D. in Michigan who kept the car as he found it for the next 11 years.

I can not count the number of conversations Mickey and I have had about the Formula as time went on. I've told him that the Formula is the only one that I truly regret selling. Over the years while visiting with Mickey our conversations would almost always migrate to the Formula and how much he enjoyed that car. I always knew that if I could do so, I would correct the mistake I made almost 20 years earlier.

While it’s easy to see where this story is going, it does not have a completely happy ending. On September 19, 2012, the love of my life died suddenly at age 64. My sorrow in losing Linda is at times beyond description. I know at some point my sorrow will turn to only pleasant memories of the life and love Linda and I shared. There’s that part of the brain again that holds onto good memories and filters out the painful ones.

Several months prior to Linda passing away, I had searched the Internet for the Firebird. She knew I was trying to find the Firebird and she was OK with that. Using the VIN and some helpful contacts, I was told that the VIN was not currently registered in Illinois. I thought I had hit a dead-end. One day I did a Google Images search. I saw several rusted hulks and was worried that one of those sad examples was our beloved Formula. Then I spotted it. There was the carmine red interior in a photo and the unique side molding. I immediately knew it was the same car. The car looked the same as it did when I sold it almost 20 years earlier! The image was from a Pontiac Trans Am Forum website. There was a great write up on Joe's 2007 first place award with the Formula at the Trans Am Nationals in Dayton, Ohio. I emailed the administrator of the site and he was kind enough to put me in touch with Joe. Joe had no interest in selling the car. That car was now, after 11 years, a part of his family. He planned to pass it on to his son. Joe primarily used the car for shows and each year only put about 1000 miles on it. Each year as fall turns to winter in Michigan Joe would prepare the car for storage and puts it away in his garage to protect it from the harsh Michigan winters and road conditions. The car would rest quietly in its heated garage awaiting the spring thaw. After its winter slumber the car would always start right up as if it was excited get out and hit the road.

After the loss of Linda, I emailed Joe and told him how much I would like to buy the car. Not only as a part of Linda's legacy, but I wanted to get the car back while Mickey was still with us. I wanted him to be able to drive the Formula again. Joe called that night and said he would sell me the car. Needless to say, I was thrilled. Acting on blind faith, I sent him a cashier's check for the full amount offered without even seeing the car in person. I could tell that Joe was an honorable person and loves that car as much as I do. I could not have asked for a more perfect custodian of this car for the past 11 years. Joe is excited about this car's story coming to its logical conclusion of going full circle back to Georgia and back to its original family.

I called Mickey and told him I had bought a car without telling him the full story. I can't describe his excitement when he saw the Formula drive up to his house.The picture is Mickey sitting in the Formula for the first time in over 20 years.

While I can't bring my beautiful Linda back, there's something I can do. I can bring some happiness to her father, the original owner of this wonderful automobile and to myself. I was overcome with joy seeing his reaction and I know Linda will be smiling down and giving her approval. She will be riding with me in spirit every time I drive the car, but she still won’t be there when I wash it. That’s what she has me for.

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