Dukes of Howell, Part 1: Living On The Edge In An Old Chevy Chevette

Sticking "Rally" on the side of a Chevette must have been some sort of joke

Dukes of Howell - Dodge Charger
1968 Dodge Charger – a cool first car. [Photo: Dodge (FCA)]

Here is the problem.

When you grow up watching The Dukes of Hazzard, your pubescent brain thinks that cars can do naughty things.  Your mind tells you that cars were built for pegged throttle-slides, reverse 180’s, and jumping mounds of dirt with no vehicular consequences.

They are not.

Cars can be fragile little beings.  One day they can safely pilot your family home in the most hellish of weather, then the next they have some personal crises like a dead battery or fatal crank position sensor. They probably need some sort of therapy.

When I was 16, my family moved to the small town of Howell, Michigan. Compared to my prior years spent in an urban Detroit suburb, Howell was very rural.  It was a dirt roads, cows, and people nicknamed “Moose” kind of town.  On my very first day of high school there, I noticed one of the younger kids on my bus had a spare-tire sized wad of chew tucked in his lower lip.

But, Howell High School had an auto shop class.  For those of us who were car-obsessed and often had a tinge of 10W-30 left over on our jean-jackets, auto shop seemed like a chance to do the thing we spent our free time doing anyway – tinkering with cars.  Mostly we did faux performance modifications like, flipping air-cleaner lids over to create a bogus ram-air intakes, hogging out our catalytic converters, and carburetor and timing adjustments.

We did learn too.

More importantly, we formed unbreakable car-guy bonds.  One of those bonds for me was with a classmate named Brent.  Our personalities were immediately welded together by smoky burnouts and handbrake drifts in whatever we could get our grubby hands on.

Behold! The magnificence of the Chevrolet Chevette. [Image: John Lloyd via Flickr]

In the abstract sense of the word, Brent owned a car.  It had wheels, a motor, four forward gears, and sometimes a heater that worked.  This little gem was none other than the Chevrolet Chevette.  For those born after Mother Earth had (thankfully) reclaimed these cars, the Chevette was Chevy’s entry-level, subcompact people mover with less equipment than an Amish buggy.  You measured its horsepower by the teaspoon, as was the excitement factor of driving one.  General Motors designed this car to simply move a human, not to move the soul.

The ‘Vette’ that Brent owned was a fine example of the species.  Being the 2-door, 4-speed manual ‘‘Rally 1.6’, his was the — dare I even say it — sportier version of the car.  It was well-used by the time he emptied his pocket-change or traded some Def Leppard cassette tapes for the thing.  Judging by the cars poor condition, I assumed the former owner had actually hated cars.

Where the passenger floor used to live, only a rusted void concealed by a screwed-in rubber floor mat remained, now mostly structural to the cars unibody.  The dust-covered odometer gave up after 100,000 difficult miles. Other than that quite obvious dangerous condition, we couldn’t tell how many steps this poor girl had taken before the owner handed it over to a teenager.

Dukes of Howell - Chevrolet Chevette
[Photo: Matt Brenner]

All that said, I have to give the car some credit.

Brent drove this sucker hard.  I mean, he really ragged it.  This was long before rev-limiter nannies. The car had no tachometer, so who knows what RPM treachery actually took place each day. But all things eventually break, and his Chevette was no exception.

One winter night, Brent picked me up from work at around 10:00 PM.  My parents had grounded me for getting a drag-racing ticket, and Brent’s crap-box was still better than bumming a ride from the folks.  It was a relief to see his red pile idling like a two-stroke weed-whacker in the parking lot as I exited the store.  I got in, relieved that the heater actually worked on this particularly cold evening.

For whatever reason, Brent had a bit of crazy in his eye that night as a song from Journey wailed over the Jensen speakers.  He sneered a crooked smile, then put his heap in reverse without a word and pegged the throttle while creepily staring at me and not watching behind us.  The engine begrudgingly sprung to life as he dumped the clutch and turned the tires into smoke.  We hurled through space in reverse at what seemed like time-traveling 88 miles per hour.  As we rolled backwards Brent pushed in the clutch, jammed first gear, then mashed the gas pedal to the floor.  The frail little motor revved as Brent popped the third pedal while still rolling backwards in hopes of laying a steaming pile of rubber on the pavement with his balding tires.

Dukes of Howell, Part 1 - burnout
That steaming pile of rubber? Aspirational, at best. [Photo: Chuck Rogers via Flickr]

Then…something happened.

The sounds that his car made that night were terrifying, and about as calming as front row seats at a Motörhead concert.

Out of my peripheral, I saw pieces of ring and pinion rifled into the night sky, while simultaneously the engine sputtered, then ceased to exist any longer.  The anemic heartbeat of America had gone. The car’s husk ground to a stop, steaming like a Christmas turkey.  All was peaceful and quiet in that moment as the car’s spirit left its body and vanished into octane heaven.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this story tomorrow, January 20!