Sunday, January 25, 2009



At this temperature the air is drier than British humor and breathing it is like swallowing icy fire. Every step is a test of my resolve and I yearn for this run - this purgation - this slow-motion jaunt - through the wintry hell of a January midnight to end. But, I must keep running, keep moving, keep pushing in any direction for I am chasing away the dismal phantasma known as the winter blues. See, this run is a sort of self-inflicted treatment, a cathartic mental chemo, not aimed at destroying me - though it may do just that - but at killing off that sickly part of me that responds to depression by purchasing automobiles. No, I will not fail this time - I can not fail this time - mainly because I have no more room for discretionary auto-purchases and, secondly, because my wife will throw me out if I come home with another car.
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It was not long ago, about seven years or so, when I had a similarly acute case of the winter blues. Back then, I used to spend my nights hanging out at Ron's Shell with a friend and fellow car nut known to most as Cheeseman. Ron's was one of those old, cinder-block service stations from the '50s. The type with two work bays, a side office and a bathroom that doubled as an incubator for hepatitis, septicemia and a host of hungry flesh-eating bacteria. Can you believe they tore the place down to put up a mini-mart?
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Cheeseman worked evenings as the station's solo pump attendant. Between customers he would wrench on his own junkers or do a quick job on the side for a few tax-free bucks. The station was located in an older section of town dotted with Victorian-error houses - which a hundred-years-ago stood as resplendent testimony to Burlington's boom days as a bustling port on Lake Champlain. Over the last century, however, the social landscape has profoundly changed. These once regal family houses, the past abodes of successful merchants and industrialists, are now the dilapidated tenements of the Old North End. It is here that Burlington warehouses the disabled, the refugees, the students and all of it's other low-income folk.
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Word was out that a cheap mechanic was working nights at Ron's Shell. It was also known that Cheeseman accepted all forms of payment. And so, the parking lot became a sort of low-buck trading floor. Various goods, much of them ill-gotten or illegal, were traded in for Cheeseman's services. Frequently whole cars would be bartered for work done on a customers "roadworthy" vehicle. Most of the time these "trade-ins" were old sway-back clunkers - worth only their steel value - but, on occasion, a real gem might turn up.
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That January, I came close to purchasing such a gem.
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Long before this continent knew the wrath of either the WRX or EVO, there was the Mazda 323 GTX. Bred for rally racing, the turbocharged, all-wheel-drive GTX weighed-in at 2600 pounds and produced 132 hp from it's 16-valve, 1600cc in-line four. With this power and weight combination, the GTX could achieve 60 mph in about 8 seconds and tick off the 1/4 mile in about 16 seconds. True, today's Mitsubishi Evo - with 291 kicking ponies on tap - could devour the diminutive GTX in one gulp. But, it's been 20 years since the last GTX pulled out of a Mazda dealership and a lot, technologically speaking, has changed in the world of rally-racing. The GTX, like the other early hot hatches - think Volkswagen GTi and Omni GLH - came from very humble beginnings. The base, grandma carting, Mazda 323 was powered by an anemic, normally-aspirated four cylinder that delivered a paltry 82 hp to the front wheels. Retaining the mundane econo-box skin of the 323, the GTX - with its drastically uprated drivetrain, suspension and brakes - was a consummate sleeper capable of embarrassing unassuming Mustang and Camaro drivers.
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Though a competent stop-light racer, the GTX's strong suit was its composure in the twisty bits of road common in the green mountains. With all-wheel-drive and a short wheel base the GTX possessed the ideal set-up for quick and accurate direction changes. A quality to which I can attest. I vividly recall the night Cheeseman completed three rather rapid and concentric orbits around the station's gas pumps using a driving technique universally known as "getting sideways." I was duly impressed as this was no small feat when considering the volatile ramifications of encountering a gas pump at speed with an internal-combustion engine.
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Cheeseman must of noticed my car-coveting mouth agape, for upon exciting the GTX - after executing a technically perfect Blue Brotheresque parking job - he announced, "It's for sale, dan."
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This was too much for me. I wanted it. I had the cash and I was already driving it in my mind - racing across Lake Champlain, beating out the competition and taking home the trophy - er . . . ten-dollar-plaque - awarded every winter to the fastest ice-racers in each class.
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My wife did not share this vision. Upon broaching the proposed purchase of said hot rod I received in response a look that would have made our then blind dog cower - god rest poor Pookie's soul. She was always more perceptive than I.
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Note: pictures above feature the actual GTX my spouse forbid me to buy, though the location is not Ron's Shell. Soon to come, a comprehensive photo collection of all the vehicles that I have not been permitted to buy - including the Porsche 924 that, had I bought it, would have been my new home. Well, not really.