Four little words to the casual observer, but an almost irresistible dare to a car guy. Buy a car sight unseen? Fly to where it’s sitting? Drive it home? Done, done and done.
Most reputable classic car dealers advertise their wares with this phrase, “fly in, drive home” to inspire confidence in the vehicle they are selling. It’s supposed to make you think that the vehicle is in such good condition that you could buy it and drive it anywhere, including all the way to your home without thinking twice. I am sure that works for a lot of people, at least in getting them to buy the car, but does the rubber really ever meet the road or are most vehicles shipped by truck to the new owner? And what about buying a car from a private seller? Like I always say, you live your life, you take your chances.
Twelve years ago I was in the market for a new old car. My ’74 Ventura was supposed to be the reincarnation of my first car and as they say, you can’t go home again, and so it was with this car. Nothing really wrong with the car, it just wasn’t ringing my bell anymore. While perusing the Pontiacs Ebay, an interesting oldie caught my eye. It was a 1976 Pontiac LeMans Sport Coupe with a 260 V8 and MANUAL transmission. That last bit was an attention getter. I knew they made a few with stick shift, but I had never actually seen one until that moment. The car looked a little tired, but seemed to be all in one piece. The original 5-speed transmission had been replaced with a 4-speed when the notoriously fragile original unit bought the farm.
My research showed that this was one of only 19 manual transmission LeMans models built that year. With that kind of rarity, a reasonably low price and my hankering for some new iron, I decided it was time to click “Buy It Now.” I spoke to the owner, made the deal and he assured me that the car could make the drive from Tampa, Florida to my home in New Jersey as he had just driven it from Virginia to Florida with no problems. Plane ticket in hand, tools in my luggage (actually tools were my luggage), I jetted off to Tampa daring to fly in and drive home in my LeMans.
I got to the owners house to find that he wasn’t home but his roommate had the title and there were current Florida tags on the car that he would let me use to transport the car. The car looked a bit rattier in person than in the pictures. The interior was filthy and since I was about to spend the next 18 hours in it, I was less than thrilled. But even less thrilling was that as we were walking out to the car, the roommate says, “did he tell you about the transmission problem?” WHAT?!?! “No, he didn’t” I said tersely. “Oh, it’s not a big problem, the shifter is just a little balky going into second…it’s out of adjustment or something.” Swell.
Thankfully, the car started up enthusiastically, the parking brake worked and the transmission, though a little annoying with the second gear thing, seemed to work fine otherwise. With the Florida Gulf Coast sun setting, I set off for New Jersey in my new old car. At my first gas stop under the lights of the Shell station outside of Tampa, I called home and let my wife know I was on my way and also took some time to check the car over. Oil and coolant were topped off and so were we.
Checking the oil at every gas stop found that the car was using about a quart of oil per tank…a little more than I was happy with, particularly since I was paying truck stop/gas station prices for oil. Somewhere around three in the morning, the car was still running fine but I had all I could take and pulled into a rest area for a little shuteye. Using my jacket for a blanket and a roll of paper towels for a pillow I caught about two hours of sleep and then got back on the road as the sun was coming up. With a gas stop coming and another quart of oil due for draining into the little V8, I pulled into a Wal Mart someplace in South Carolina and bought a case of oil and a few other sundry items to help keep the car going.
With the sun up I could look around the interior of my new purchase and noted that the previous owner was a slob who left the car with garbage under the seats and all sorts of other debris strewn about. The interior itself was in fairly decent shape although the seats were not originals but something from a mid-‘80s Oldsmobile…red velour of course, and the back seat was ill fitting because, well, it didn’t belong in this car. Still, the miles were ticking by, the engine was running smoothly, the cobbled together dual exhaust was burbling nicely and thanks to some big Goodyear tires, the LeMans was handling well.
A little after 9:00PM, the LeMans and I rolled into the driveway. It was home and so was I. After cleaning it, and myself, it looked much better than when I picked it up. I used it for cruising around and going to car shows while I worked to improve its condition for a couple of years. On the way home from an event, the engine started running warm and with little warning, a head gasket blew.
With the prospect of replacing the whipped engine in front of me, my mind began to wander…maybe there was another “Fly in, drive home” out there just daring me to come and get it? Maybe even one with a straight eight engine in it. But that’s another story for another day.