Arlo Mudgett: The View From Faraway Farm: Fond memories of flying with a bluebird

What car did you learn to drive on? I learned to drive a standard on my sister's best friend's VW beetle. I would drive it all over our huge, perfectly flat lawn. Her friend Kay never seemed to mind. The automatic I learned to drive was my parents' 1965 Ford Ranch Wagon. It was an attractive car, silver gray with a red interior. I think it had a straight 6-cylinder engine, a vinyl interior and a rear tailgate that opened in a combination configuration like a door and also like a pickup truck. It was a pleasant automobile, but being a new driver with a permit, I was a bit rough on it due to my inexperience. Once I got my driver's license my learning curve continued. I remember one day I was sent to Hanover to pick up my sister at work. On the way through the lights in Norwich under I-91, the light changed suddenly and I slammed on the brakes, skidding to a stop. It was later determined that my panic stop caused one of the motor mounts to break.

Evidently, that panic stop caused more damage than just breaking a motor mount. My Dad was driving it through Woodstock one day and the engine decided to grenade itself. He had it towed to Gerrish Motors in town where they kept it for weeks repairing the engine. My father got a loaner car, which I got to drive quite a lot. Had the folks at Gerrish known that a rookie teenager was driving their 1968 Malibu with a 327 V-8, they might have reconsidered their choice of a loaner. Obviously, I had never driven anything like it. The blue-gray paint was great looking and pristine. The well-appointed interior and comfortable driving position felt custom made for me. The car's handling and balance was surprisingly good, and the responsive power from the small block 327 was sparkling as well as addictive. I could just imagine what the SS (Super Sport) model with its 396 big block V8 would do!

Driving hard and fast

For weeks I was able to drive that Chevelle hard and fast. My driving skills and confidence greatly improved. I volunteered to run all kinds of errands for my folks, including the only times I ever mustered enthusiasm for taking trash to the dump, even though it was my weekly chore for years. I simply could not get enough seat time in that Malibu. Just as suddenly as that happy little bluebird of automotive excellence had flown into our lives, it was gone. Replaced by the freshly repaired and pedestrian Ford Ranch Wagon. Yup. it was back and the fun times were over.

I actually mourned the loss of that sweet Malibu. While it wasn't the highly desirable SS 396, it was a really great performing, all-around solid and quiet car. These days one of those Malibus would probably get a set of reproduction SS badging and a 396 swapped under the hood. It would then get offered for sale and represented as an SS 396, selling for way more than a simple Malibu.

There are probably more ersatz SS 396 Chevelles out there than were ever initially produced. The basic model and body style sold hundreds of thousands of units, adding to Chevrolet General Manager John Delorean's legendary reputation. My experience with a 327-powered Malibu confirms why these automobiles are still very desirable. Modern-day driving impressions have been highly positive because they handle today's driving demands with aplomb. They can keep up on freeways, they have modern-day stopping power, and the comfort and ease of driving feel contemporary. Just don't expect 2018 fuel economy.

Time certainly has a way of gilding the lily while remembering something you really liked. Getting off the line in a hurry with the Chevelle produced some unwanted wheel-hop, but the aftermarket addressed the issue. That brings up an interesting point for those who'd like a contemporized Chevelle to enjoy here in the 21st century. Just about everything on those '68, '69 and '70 Chevelles are currently reproduced, including entire bodies. You can purchase a brand new 1970 Chevelle body for $16,500 from Eckler's. I think I'll just stick with the fond memory of that unexpected bluebird that flew in for a memorable visit all those years ago.

Arlo Mudgett's Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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