As this site’s resident rambling idiot, it may come as no surprise that I don’t have an Eleanor… that is, if you take the article “an” to mean “one”. I actually have two three! And all for good reason, as I’ll explain.
First, a little back story….
Growing up, I wasn’t the typical car kid. Sure, I wrote a poem about them when I was 6, and drew a whole mess of ’em, and had tons of Hotwheels and Matchboxes and Yatmimgs and Zees and Road Champs, but that was the basic extent of my exposure. We were a blue-collar one-car family, as were most of my friends and classmates and relatives all through high school. Nobody had any of the cool cars I saw on TV. Nobody turned their own wrenches; when a car had issues you paid to have it fixed quickly because you needed it back ASAP, and when it finally exploded, you got a new one. So the only work my dad did to our own car was “rust treat” it with whatever color spray paint happened to be within closest reach. I’m not kidding – ever have to ride every-freaking-where in a clapped-out 10-year-old 1979 Granada with a peeling vinyl roof and a paint scheme to make the Partridge Family’s look sublime? It’ll warp your perspective on things, and make every other car out there seem cool in its own workaday way. But faced with the inevitable futility of rust and bad drivers in the Chicago jungle, cars were expensive to buy and and equally expensive to own, insure, and maintain. So there too went any thoughts of magazine subscriptions: they were essentially just a cocktease when nobody had the time or the money for anything more than – it shames me to say – an appliance. Even my grampa, who had made his living owning a service station before my time, seemed put out with cars – stories like his are the true shame the Malaise Era wrought upon us.
As much as I fought them, those realities would not be denied. Yet they didn’t stop me from fostering an affection for the weird, the rare, and the survivors among them. I had friends with ideas and opinions and dreams about cool cars… but like me, none of them had money either. One had an ’83 Fairmont Futura that was his pride and joy, and we were jealous, but made fun of it anyway. I didn’t want just an appliance when the day finally came for me to get my first car, I wanted to get something special, with character.
And then one miserable day whilst idly slinking around with some high-school friends, I saw her, and the skies parted in chorus: Eleanor #1. Lying low and sinister in the festering amalgam of late-winter snow, salt, and roadkill grime on a residential Chicago side street. Parked not so much carelessly askew and forlorn, as stationed: wounded and bitter, ready to slay the next poor sap who dared give it a shifty glance. That poor sap wasn’t me of course, for I was instantly drawn to pay my respects. Decades of neglect had burnt the paint to a dull bronze patina; the potmetal grille looked like so much aged chickenwire, and the huge dent in the rear flank was the sort of character trait which told me this was the kind of car that wouldn’t go down without a fight. But the car! I had never seen one before, and never had any clue of its existence or its legacy to those more “in the know”, but its comically exaggerated fastback profile and brickish front end laid claim to another time, when even my grampa still gave a rip. The rear fenders and taillights had the subtle outward flares of the nostrils of a raging bull. The flanks were smooth as a rocket and just as long. The rear quarter windows swept up to a point that I’m fairly certain could kill lesser mammals on sight, with louvers that threatened movement while sitting still. And the somewhat haphazardly added, homemade-looking “talladega” on the rear quarter, just ahead of the bumper, seemed pretty interesting too. It even had the right font to match the OEM badges.
Yes, indeed, the object of my affections became and still is a 1969 Ford Torino / Talladega. There’s just something so ridiculously overstated about them that begs to scream “EFFFFFF YOUUUU!” in a richly noxious cloud of exhaust and tire smoke. I’m sure they handle like dog food while belching smog like an ocean freighter, but I don’t care. Look at those lines! Aircraft carrier hood, mail slot trunk, and a rear window so flat and horizontal it’s likely no more effective than a gunslit for rear visibility. This car was styled for one purpose: to be fast before anyone knew what a “wind tunnel” was, and no less than Richard Petty himself lent his endorsement toward it before Ford got banned from Nascar.
Oh, and the little matter of the numbers 427, 428(CJ) or 429(Cammer) is similarly impossible to ignore, but I’ll let those slide. Honestly I’m not convinced that was a real Talladega, but it doesn’t matter. Even the commuter versions would smash your face whilst double-parking parallel.
I’ve seen a few of these beasts at car shows over the years, and an equally unobtanium-as-a-Talladega Mercury Cyclone CJ variant won awards at both the Keeneland and Louisville Concours last year. But somehow those restored machines don’t have the same “you will learn to live and die in a blaze of glory if I don’t kill you first” presence that wounded Chicago sidestreet beast displayed. Those show cars are probably trailer queens… mine was the stuff that alley nightmares are made of.
$1200 was what the soap on the window said. Surely there were “issues”. I firmly believed then, as I still do now, that all “issues” can be fixed. I knew it would be a futile effort, but I started mentally diverting my meager Kmart paychecks away from “college future” and toward a different dream. Until one day, after many weeks, the Torino disappeared. I knew it would. I wonder where it went and who it smote along the way.
If it were restored, it was surely deserving of it. But I almost hope and wish it were stalking the sidestreets somewhere, scaring Toyotas and small children, keeping people honest.
Bored yet? Emailing the staff to get me kicked off yet? No? Well then read on for the story of my Eleanor #2. Why 2? Well if Eleanor #1 is the classic “scarce dream car you can’t have” ethos, then Eleanor #2 fits the painful “Literally escaped from my clutches” vein.
A couple years after the Talladega vanished in the night to (hopefully) terrorize some unworthy owner, even my own family could no longer deny that the time had come for me to get a car of my own. I’d been saving my money and doing well in college – dammit, I freaking needed deserved one. But I wasn’t in a huge rush at the time; half hoping I would find another Eleanor 1 or something I hadn’t yet imagined, I decided that while I had the time I would relax and let “The Car” find me. Incredibly, it did!
Good friend of mine who lived in a questionable neighborhood calls me up one day for general BS, and drops a bombshell: “Hey, you’re always talking about that old Granada your folks had, right? While the guy next door just got one from somewhere, at least that’s what the badge says but holy crap is this car nice. He saw me looking at it and said he’s actually thinking of selling it. Wanna check it out?” If I could have punched him over the phone, it would only have been because he thought he had to ask!
On my long way over I tempered my expectations, thinking it would be some boring grandma survivor, or ghettoed-up hip-hop car, or considered “nice” merely because the rear leafs weren’t dragging its ass around like all the others yet. I was completely flummoxed when I arrived: THIS was a car I had told myself to quit dreaming about!
Now I know what you’re thinking: “You’re an idiot; Granadas were shit, are shit, and always will be a shit pox upon the earth until the Mustang guys finish gutting the few good parts out of them”. Well, you could be forgiven for making that broad assumption – millions were built, and 95% of them were unremarkable. Many didn’t last too long (but longer than many, many other cars of the time, it’s worth pointing out). Yet there were a 5% that, if you had imagination or half a clue about you to be different, could be ordered or made special. This was one of them.
1978 “ESS” model. Two doors, not four. Black-on-black with full vinyl top. Turbine wheels. Full gray leather interior and sport console, scarce factory blackout grill and window louver treatment, 302 auto. True, the “ESS” model was just a lame attempt to ape European styling cues of the time, but it had aged well. The 302 as installed was a choked malaise-era plant… but by 1997 people had figured out how to open them up again. And the auto could be swapped for a manual – the car had a rare factory floor console with floor shifter.
Yes, if you had an imagination, it would be easy to see this car with a mild buildup. Sinister, boxy and black with gleaming chrome in just the right places. The stereotypes of her shitbox sisters having paved the way to leave everyone unprepared for the hell to be unleashed. And with the style and class of a sedate, upscale Ameri-pean design. Oh, yes.
Everything about this car was immaculate. The leather, the options (a FACTORY SUNROOF! HOLY UNDOCUMENTED ONE-OF-THREE DIGITS PRODUCTION BATMAN!), the trim level. The only blemishes were some fixable surface rust on the bumpers, a scuffed taillight, and a bullet hole in the passenger door. Yes, you read that right. No, I didn’t care. I loved it. The hole made it complete. Added character. Like the dent in the Torino, it said this car had a past but it didn’t care, and hey: it still looked good in a suit.
I test drove it – SOLD. The seller warned that it was running hot as of late and would need some attention, but his asking price was only a fourth of my budget so repairs would have been no problem. We made a tentative deal, and I would come back with cash to make it official.
Ooops, how living at home while in college can ruin the best laid plans. Despite trying to be my own man, I was still bound by house rules and my dad was mortified. “A Granada? Are you crazy? I know you remember the old one so what are you on?” “Our old one was only an embarassment because you refused to take care of it,” was my retort… and for three days I plotted, cajoled, and argued for him to see my point. Finally, he agreed to go with me to look at it and reassure himself that his oldest son wasn’t batshit insane.
I’ll never forget his words when he saw it: “Huh… That’s it? Wow… that’s a pretty nice car… probably worth what he’s asking. I was afraid it would be like all the others you see. OK then.” YESSSS!
Went back to the bank and withdrew the cash. Called the guy up, he wasn’t home. Wife said to call back the next day… did that, he still wasn’t there. Wife said call again tomorrow. Don’t Panic... as it happened, that next day I planned to meet my buddy at his house anyhow, so I went over with cash in pocket. Walked next door, guy answered and…
…changed his mind. Decided with the all the interest in the car (WTF? Who else but me liked these damn things?!) he would keep it instead. Sorry.
Cue the Darth Vader meme: NOOOOOOOOooooooooooo!!!!
But that was that. I mean he looked directly at my wad-o-cash and said no sale – how often in the history of streetwalker transactions has that ever happened?
I was mortified. Crushed. Furious. Those three #$%^$# days of arguing with my !^%$@ meddling dad had ruined a dream. And yet every time I saw that car in traffic every few weeks, I couldn’t help but smile. Unfortunately those weeks turned to months, and I eventually realized I probably never would see it again.
Just like the first, I wonder if she’s still out there. Unfortunately the internet has come to bear that these cars are even rarer than I suspected at the time. There were other, similar models… but the odds of finding another black-on-black ESS, 2-door, with gray leather, full options, and floor-shift console transmission V8 are slim indeed. Same with the similar, earlier, arguably rarer “Sport” models.
Family. Don’t you just love ’em sometimes?
Actually I do, especially when my in-laws – a “car family” belatedly making amends for my own – misinterpret the naming of our firstborn child. My paternal grandmother – a saint of a woman of whom I possess just a few fleeting memories before she passed – was named “Eleanor”. To honor family heritage, we gave our daughter this for her middle name.
Imagine my surprise when for Christmas that year, my in-laws gave “me”… for her… a diecast model of the original Gone in 60 Seconds Mustang, “Eleanor”. “You can build that for our girl, since you gave her middle name after the car, right?”
Hmm… That would have been an excellent idea! It’ll be our little secret, then. So here’s #3, which I do get to keep.