by Nick Geranios

I was cool once. For a decade I drove a 1979 Chevrolet Camaro Z-28. News that General Motors is phasing out the Camaro after the 2002 model year hit me hard. More than 4 million Camaros were produced since the first in 1967, peaking in 1978 at 260,201. Last year, sales had dwindled to 42,131. My Camaro was purchased new for $6,000 at City Chevrolet in Great Falls, Mont., in late 1978, just in time for my junior year at Montana State University.

The baby blue Z-28 came with black t-tops and a V-8 engine. I installed a cassette tape deck, and it became the ideal car for the wide-open highways of Montana.

With speed limits that were widely ignored and tickets costing only $5, the Camaro made short work of weekend road trips to those 1,000-kegs-of beer outdoor concerts so popular in the 1970s. Once we crammed five guys in the car to drive to a Blue Oyster Cult concert in Missoula. One guy lost a coin toss and had to sit for four hours each way on the hard hump that split the back seats.

Every bump on the highway was delivered straight to his tailbone like a hook from Mike Tyson. I don't think he was as enamored of the Camaro as I was.

Fast driving was easy in the Camaro. On Interstate 90, you leaned into turns high and dropped gradually into the other lane through the curve, kind of like Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit. Except that Reynolds drove a much-despised Pontiac Firebird in that movie.

In the 1970s, the world could be divided neatly between people who bought the gaudy Firebird, with its cheesy bird decal, and real men who preferred the understatement, the James Bond-ish threat of menace implied by the Camaro.

If there is a silver lining to the demise of the Camaro, it is that GM is also ending production of the Firebird.

The Camaro was at its worst in the winter. The rear-wheel drive, the light rear end and the overpowered engine could be a nightmare on slick roads. Driving through a blizzard once from Bismarck, N.D., to Fargo, my Camaro got caught broadside by a gust of wind that started it into 360-degree spins down the icy freeway. We ended up in deep snow off the shoulder.

A passing motorist stopped and hitched a chain under the front bumper. But his pickup truck lost traction as it tried to pull me out and slid into the opposite ditch. That left a taut chain connecting both our vehicles across Interstate 94 while semi trucks lumbered towards us.

I punched the gas and skidded across the freeway, coming to rest near our erstwhile savior before disaster could strike.

But winter traction was not the reason one bought a Camaro. For this bespectacled English major who worked on the college newspaper and really liked Star Trek and the music of the Carpenters, the Camaro offered at least the prospect of attention from women.

Dressed in low-budget knockoffs of the clothes Richard Gere wore in American Gigolo, my friends and I would cruise the streets, Blondie's "Call Me" blasting from the tape deck. Alas, few women did.

The Camaro was never a practical car. The muffler rusted off about every six months. There was almost no cargo room. I stuffed the car like a metal sausage as jobs took me from Wyoming to North Dakota, to Chicago and Springfield, Ill., and then Washington state.

The flashy colors and t-top roof panels that lured buyers also lured thieves. The t-tops, which could be removed and stored in the trunk to make the Camaro a convertible, were particularly irresistible. During two-and-a-half years living in Chicago, my t-tops were stolen six times. Each time, the insurance company sent me to garages where used t-tops were stacked in piles. I wondered if I was just reclaiming my stolen panels from the fences who'd bought them off the street.

But it wasn't those inconveniences that cost me my Camaro. It was babies. My wife, who no longer admits she was first lured by the Camaro, began to look down her nose at the car shortly after our daughter was born in 1986.

Have you ever tried getting a baby carrier in and out of the back seat of a Camaro? You couldn't even make babies back there, let alone transport them.

We struggled for a year, but when she became pregnant with child No. 2, the Camaro's days were numbered.

By then we were living in Yakima, where I was on the road frequently as a correspondent for the Associated Press.

The Camaro was a decade old. It had more than 100,000 miles. The paint was dinged up. There were rust spots. The driver's side door was off-kilter and difficult to close. The t-tops leaked.

When the car broke down in Othello while I was returning from an assignment, it was the last straw.

In my newspaper ad, I asked $5,000 for the car. I got a few looks, but no offers. After a couple of months, a used-car dealer showed up and put 18 $100 bills on my kitchen table.

I cleaned out the trunk.

I took off the cross my mother had insisted on hanging from the rearview mirror.

I handed him the keys.

We took the money and put it down on a minivan.

Nick Geranios is the Associated Press correspondent in Spokane.

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