The Blank Canvas
My wife and I had been searching for a new “fun” car. Having just sold my TR-6, I knew I wanted another convertible, and I was looking at a variety of different cars. Blank canvas time. My wife wanted something in a drop top that was reasonably comfortable, newer, sporty and reliable. She had visions of heading up north along the Lake Michigan shoreline and staying for extended weekends at any number of the cozy bed and breakfasts we have gotten to know and enjoy over the years in northern Michigan. I had visions of something totally different. I was looking for something unique, fragile and delicate in design that would probably end up being completely unreliable. I was looking at a blank canvas, and the choices were many. I looked at scores of cars; we just couldn’t seem to settle on one.
Having just come off of Triumph ownership, I was initially reluctant to leave the British state of mind, and started hunting for a few weeks for nice MGB’s, MGA’s and big Healey’s that were slightly ratty and in need of minor repairs. Nothing fell into my lap that I fell in love with, and I kept reminding myself that the romance of whacking an ancient (or new, why not) Lucas starter with a knock off wrench or chasing out a (or several) shorts in a moldering cloth wiring harness was not romantic at all. No wife is impressed while sitting in the passenger seat at 11:00 at night as you struggle to start your British roadster under the buzzing and flickering neon lights of some hole in the wall gas station in Kingsley, Michigan. With our busy schedules, this car would see only very occasional use, and long periods of inactivity are not good for old British cars. The sexiness of Great Brittan was stricken from the list of potential candidates.
I made a brief detour into Porsche 914 territory, as I considered myself something of a 914 pioneer. I liked these odd things when nobody else did, when the only examples you could find were clapped out, smoky death traps with worn suspensions, torn interiors and rusty and fading bodywork. It helped that there were two nice ones in town, one orange, one silver. The silver one was lovely and sold quickly, but the orange one had been sitting out, idle, for some time. The owner was interested in selling, but this thing needed scads of work and was priced at the top of the market, and I decided to pass.
Looked very seriously at several Alfa Romeo Spider’s, mostly series 3 and 4 cars. I have always loved these cars despite their general indifference to quality, weak gearboxes and other typical Italian quirks. Here I had a conflict I was never able to resolve; I knew I wanted a BOSCH injected car, as it was a little less likely to leave me stranded than the trickier pre-’ 82 SPICA mechanical injection cars. I loved the smooth and refined lines on the series 4 cars, with intergraded bumpers that cleaned up the front and rear and finally looked right. Unfortunately, I had a tough time getting past the 1986 interior redesign. It is a little more cramped and definitely without the charm of the pre-’86 cockpit, which to me, is a thing of beauty. I knew I would never be satisfied without being able to look down at the dangerous cast pot-metal tach and speedo binnacles, (I always felt they were slightly reminiscent of the Lamborghini Miura’s tack and speedo cluster and just drip Italian styling and flair). The wood-rim steering wheel with its three narrow horn buttons, one on each rim, and the vintage looking center stack of Jaeger gauges were perfect for the car. Even today, the Spider’s cockpit design is among my favorites. I was never able to resolve this and find the right Alfa for me.
One afternoon, I was car shopping online and my wife happened to glance over my shoulder and noticed a ragtop Camaro I had pulled up. She was instantly interested, evidently she always liked the lines of the 4th gen F-body cars, particularly from the rear. Not having any other car at that moment to pursue, I gave the guy a call.
The seller, who lived on a nearby lake, was selling it “because I never drive it”. It was a ’98 Z-28, red with a black leather interior with just under 27,000 miles. He had bought it 10 years prior, with 20,000 on the clock and it had been used mostly to transport his wife and two little girls to the ice cream shop in town. There was major appeal to having 4 seats in a convertible, as we had two little girls who would enjoy ice cream runs as well. The car was completely stock and unmolested, the only modification being the tasteful addition of C5 Corvette wheels. My wife and I took it out and it rumbled and snarled and pulled like a freight train, with seemingly unlimited low-end grunt from the new-for-’98 LS1 mill. It was a little known fact that in 1998, the Z-28 was a fast as a C5 Corvette to 60, and very nearly as fast in the ¼ mile. The car would pound out 0-60 times of 5.1 seconds, while turning in 13.5 second quarter mile slips. Despite the flex in the chassis with the top lopped off, the Z was a great handling car too, with the addition of the much wider Corvette rubber. I asked the seller to let me sleep on it.
It was a tough decision; a 4th gen Camaro is not without faults. The front end was facelifted for 1998, and most people didn’t care for the redesign. The headlights, sourced directly out of the 1998 Malibu, seemed like an afterthought. The stock rear ends in these cars can be a little weak when subjected to hard use and are prone to leaking. Also, the cockpits are typical 1990’s GM junk. Even with the subtle dash redesign in ’97, the interior is a dark, hard plastic wonderland of blandness, with cheap feeling controls and lackluster fit and finish. It was the total opposite of what I had been searching for, total grunt and power, but lacking in character that makes older cars so endearing. The future collectability of the 4th gen F-bodies is not yet established, and even if it is, the more desirable SS model with always be in the limelight over the run of the mill Z-28’s.
My wife, while acknowledging these weaknesses, was fast to point out its strengths. The car had extremely low miles and was in excellent condition- needing nothing. The top was in great shape, fit well, and did not leak, not always the case with my old TR-6. As was mentioned earlier, she was a big fan of 4 seats in a sporty convertible, as it meant fun for the whole family. There was not a spot of rust on the car, anywhere, period. Plus, as she was quick to point out, the car was easy and inexpensive to work on, with parts sitting on shelves all over the county. Who was going to work on my SPICA fuel injection, and where would they find the parts if we wound up stranded in Marquette, a thousand miles from nowhere?
She made good points.
So after a couple nights of tossing and turning, we bought the car. We enjoy it and have been getting good use out of it, taking it on a few long overnight road trips and taking the kids out for cruises to get ice cream. It does everything we need it to do; it’s stone reliable, explosively quick, and a great highway cruiser, which is a huge benefit that none of the other vehicles I was looking at would have provided, as anyone who’s ever tried to keep up with 80 mph highway traffic in an MGB all day can attest. My TR6 was equipped with overdrive, but it was pretty high strung at highway speeds.
Time will only tell if this car will become a lower echelon collectable. It’s possible, when one looks at what has happened with gen 1 and 2 F-bodies, which are appreciating nicely and coveted by their owners. Even the last of the 2nd gen Camaros, which were mostly considered gaudy a decade ago are beginning to show signs of life. In 1998, this was the pony car to have; it mopped the floor with the Mustang GT that year in everything important and with an advertised 305 horsepower (probably underrated by 40 hp), it left Ford’s best in the dust.
In the meantime, we will enjoy this one. My wife loves it, and while I enjoy it, I still have a wayward eye; my attention constantly diverted every time a different option passes by. The next time I have a blank canvas, I think we will go back to a vehicle with a little more character and romance about it. My next car will be a car where inevitably a road trip story usually becomes a story about the car itself.