It was a cold December morning when I brought home my first car. It was missing a few pieces of sheet metal, the seats and an engine. It rolled into the driveway on the back of a wrecker.
But as a 17-year-old, this rusted husk represented a dream come true – I now owned the bones of a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro SS 396 in Hugger Orange, one of the most legendary muscle cars to ever roll out of Detroit.
I paid about $1,500 for it, and I’d spend the next few years wrenching and repairing. But mostly, I dreamed of what the car could be, if only I had the means and skills to bring it back to life. I came to realize over time that I would probably never be able to see it through, and I think my dad always knew the same. But he lived the dream right beside me, fanning the flames of a budding gearhead’s enthusiasm.
I sold the Camaro a few years later to help fund an engagement ring, but I never lost the car bug. In fact, I’ve had one non-functioning car or another in my garage for my entire adult life.
Last year amid the pandemic, two decades removed from my time with the Camaro, my dad stood in my living room on an early spring afternoon. “You have to come to Nashville with me,” he said.
A few weeks later we were standing in an empty, darkened bar on Nashville’s legendary Broadway – supposedly to watch a country music personality make a video. But after the performance, the artist asked me to join him on camera. “I hear you like cars?” he said. “Well, I have to show you something.”
We walked out onto a crowded sidewalk, where a gathered scrum parted to reveal an immaculate 1969 Camaro parked next to the curb. Its orange was the same as my first car. It had a lowered, road-race-ready stance with aggressive tires. And it had “427” printed on the side, denoting an engine even larger than the 396 that my original had been missing.
More than a year earlier, my dad had seen a TV series where a team of car customizers builds the ultimate version of someone’s former ride. He submitted my story to the producers, and now I sat in the driver’s seat of what my mind’s eye saw for that first rusty Camaro.
With a thunderous belch, the 630-horsepower engine roared to life. Leaning into the window, the lead mechanic whispered that the car was show-ready but not road-ready. “If it starts to overheat, shut it down,” he warned. “That’s a $20,000 engine.”
Propelled by adrenaline, I guided the rumbling behemoth onto Nashville’s most famous boulevard for a quick ride for the cameras. And in a blink it was over, with the Camaro back to the crew and my road-ready version still due to be delivered to me.
But even for those few minutes, I felt the familiar rush of that 17-year-old taking ownership of his first car. Only this time, it was the version his dreams were built on.