• Mike Matson

Gearhead Wannabe

This column was published May 14, 2022 in the Manhattan Mercury.


A Saturday morning at the Car Show (my caps) in City Park is like a pilgrimage, a journey through a sacred portal that rewinds the clock.

When I saw the late ‘60s Plymouth Barracuda, I flashed back to the summer before senior year in high school, when four of us piled in my best friend’s most prized possession, a 1965 Barracuda and motored from Wichita to Bethany College in Lindsborg for yearbook camp. Knowledge gained that week included late 20th century graphic design, layout, how to sneak off campus at night, and buy beer with our second-most prized possession, a fake ID.

On the way home, my buddy fell asleep at the wheel and the ‘Cuda ended up in the median.

“Hey Matson, you wanna drive the rest of the way?” He didn’t have to ask twice.

Adjacent to the ‘Cuda gleamed a ’72 Malibu. Chatting up its’ owner, I worried a bit about oversharing, regaling him with the tale of piling into another friend’s ’72 Malibu, cutting class and again employing that second most prized possession.

“Everyone has a different memory,” he said.

And we all want to share them with these guys, apparently. To live vicariously through the polished chrome and radial tires that allow for lane to lane movement, seemingly at will, to drive us back in time.

The owners of these cars wear the same uniform. Ballcap, longish gray hair and some combination of beard/mustache, also graying. Back in the day we called them gearheads. Men who walk among us, blessed with auto-mechanical talents and gifts that transcend the abilities of mere mortals.

Next came a ’66 Pontiac LeMans and I downshifted back to my own ’73 LeMans which tended to crap out, invariably at a busy intersection, and would not start until I primed the carburetor. Get out, remove the air filter housing, force open the choke valve with a stick or whatever was handy, splash some gasoline, whisper a little prayer to ward off immolation, climb back in, fire it up, climb back out, replace the air filter housing, slam the hood, offer sheepish non-verbal apologies to those stuck behind me and slink away.

Clearly not a gearhead. Just a wannabe.

Back at the park, I admired a ’74 Mercury Cougar and thought of my son, who was named for another best friend who drove a Cougar and died too young.

Then a ‘68 Camaro. When I was itching for a driver’s license, both my grandmothers drove muscle cars. Mom’s mom tooled around Plainville, Kansas in a 1973 GTO. Dad’s mom made her appointed rounds as a social worker in Bakersfield, California in, you guessed it, a 1968 Camaro.

Every car elicits a different memory. The ’67 Chevy Impala and the graduation trip to Dallas. I stand next to the ’66 MG and I’m back in my own ’71 MGB ragtop, long hair blowing in the south wind.

Only with the benefit of time does one come to fully appreciate how much these cars meant to a younger version of me. So, there’s really no sense asking why the adrenaline flows and my heart beats a little faster when the yard signs promoting the car show sprout up a week or two before the big day.

Every spring, I am reminded that even though it is now approached from a different angle, the consequence, the life’s value baked into these cars grows richer and more vibrant.