Rules are meant to be broken.
One hard and fast rule I have as an automotive journalist/content creator/whatever the hell you want to call me today is to never drive another person’s vehicle. It does not matter who it is and what kind of vehicle he or she may have…
This rule had been broken a few times over the decades. Some have been to help a friend, roommate, or the person I’m dating out by driving their vehicle for some specific reason. That reason can be anything – sharing the driving duties on a road trip, picking up someone at the airport or train station, and so forth.
It is very rare that I would be thrown the keys to someone else’s vehicle to simply drive it. I try to avoid that as much as possible.
However, the following happened…
One of my friends asked if we were going to meet for dinner at our usual hang out, Joey Nova’s in Tonka Bay, Minnesota. I agreed. We posted on our Facebook feeds that we were going to do so at 6:30PM that evening.
We began to show up. My friends Malyna and Jordan arrived just after I did. Then came Kelly and Arthur. It was all innocent enough, as we were greeting each other and chatting.
As soon as we began to cut back to the parking lot, I noticed Arthur’s recent acquisition – a 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. It was in black with gold wheels, gold trim on the instrument panel, and touches of gold on the upholstery and on the striping. The famous bird on the hood was in gold and black. And, let’s not forget about the T-top roof and the louvered rear window!
One could say that Arthur got the iconic version of the Trans Am. The car looked like something out of "Smokey and The Bandit." The Collector's Plate was a paean to the cinematic classic starring Burt Reynolds, Sally Field, and Jackie Gleason.
The car featured a 6.6-liter Oldsmobile V8 with a "shaker" extension from the air cleaner popping out of the hood. That was connected to a TH350 3-speed automatic transmission. This is the kind of driveline that is full of memories – that is, if you had one back when they were popular.
I was admiring Arthur’s Trans Am. It is a lovely example of a second-generation F-Body. Icons of their own age in the face of downsizing, stricter emissions, and fuel economy rules. Granted there were a few dings here and there, but this is a car that has to be driven, not hard parked and stared at.
Somehow I was thrown the keys to the Trans Am. Arthur wanted me to drive it. Usually, I would say "no" and stick to my rules. Somehow, he caught me at my weakest – I truly admired the car and, maybe, I should drive it down a nearby road and back. Just to get a feel for it.
So, I jumped in. Arthur put on an old black cowboy-like hat on my head that was a few sizes small on me. Smartphones began to shoot an embarrassing moment. Jordan scampered around to the passenger side and jumped into the Trans Am. I turned the engine – forgot to give it some gas and it stalled. So, I tried again. This time, I gave it some gas and away we went.
Let me admit something. It has been decades since I drove a car from the 1970s. Let alone driving a car that was around when I went to Reseda High School.
However, I really enjoyed driving this classic from my younger days. It handled very well and rode smooth. The steering had some play, but pretty controllable in a straight line and through the curves. The high back bucket seats were comfortable, and I had a good driving position to command Arthur’s Trans Am. I have to admit that the steering wheel was really thin and took some getting used to.
It was a different story with the brakes. Arthur forgot to tell me that I was supposed to go hard on the brakes because it took a while for the fluid to get out of the master cylinder into the lines. I figured that out the first time and proceeded to work the brakes as intended.
Needless to say that this was a completely analog driving experience. A welcomed change from the digital world of driver assistance features, infotainment systems, and anything-by-wire mechanicals.
Behind the wheel of the black Trans Am, I tried very hard not to become Burt Reynolds. There was a slight moment that I did. I looked over at Jordan and remarked that he certainly did not look like Sally Field. His girlfriend would agree with me.
The time machine experience had to end. It was too short of a drive to experience a time when cars like this ruled the planet. Yet, I got out of Arthur’s Trans Am fulfilled that I had this moment.
Sometimes, you have to throw the rules out. Sometimes, you have to get out of your comfort zone to experience something you always wanted to try. For eight years, I had my share of experiencing a lot of different vehicles – from city cars to heavy-duty pickup trucks to the greatest sports cars ever made. Yet, all of them were of recent manufacture.
This 1979 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am was a throwback to a time when they ran the streets of any city or town nearest you. Having never driven one made this moment even more memorable. I wished I had a chance to drive one back in the day. Forty years later…heck, why not?
Thank you, Arthur, for not only breaking my own rules…but for letting me drive your blast from my past.
Photos by Jordan Radaj, Randy Stern, and Kelly Heidner