Road Rage magazine, in a commemorative issue that mourned the death of the American muscle car—killed by the Environmental Protection Agency—ran a feature on Nick Campbell in 1983. The article was two years old when I started my internship, and I liked to reread it, framed and dusty on the counter, as I stirred powdered creamer in my coffee. I almost had it memorized:
Ten years after the EPA came down on Detroit like the church on Galileo, we still see no renaissance of horsepower on the showroom floor. With more repair shops catering to economy cars and imports, high-performance rebuilds and modification remain in the hands of a dedicated few. Recently, we sought out this dying breed of mechanic in the depressed factory town of Waterbury, Connecticut, and discovered one of the very best.
The journalist hadn’t identified himself when he handed Nick the keys to a cherry ’68 Daytona. He asked for an overhaul that would boost factory output by thirty horsepower, a request that had gotten him laughed out the door at two previous shops.
But Mr. Campbell dreamed through a full orchestra of internal combustion cause and effect: shaving the cylinder head this much meant boring a carburetor jet this much meant extending cam duration this much, meant swapping these pistons for those, this intake for that—all of it drawn to a final composition in his head before I even signed the estimate.
The engines we saw were mostly small blocks, punctuated by a Tri-power GTO or a rat-motor Corvette—or, rarely, a true exotic like a Hemi Superbird. At seventeen, I was as dumbfounded as anyone to find myself touching these cars intimately, peering inside their complicated souls.
After two years in vocational high school, I understood the general repair mechanic to be the perfect masculine blend of strength and intelligence. Real men had a natural respect for mechanics, primarily for specialty mechanics, which we all were. Ray Abbot, in his fifties, was the oldest. He was frank and cagey with customers, though he held a deep, wholesome respect for their high-compression engines. He lived alone, was estranged from his kids, and lumbered on irascibly, scorning potential friends.
Bobby Stango had been hired on parole and was epitomized by a biker T-shirt he often wore in to work. TREAT ME GOOD, I’LL TREAT YOU BETTER, it said. TREAT ME BAD, I’LL TREAT YOU WORSE. With his pierced ear and handlebar mustache, he made even a starched-collar uniform look badass, pillows of tattooed muscle bulging against the chrome snaps. There was a willingness to fight that pervaded his words and gestures, even his laughter, and he gave you bear hugs if he liked you. I wondered if this were a natural disposition, or if prison had taught him what each day of freedom was worth.
And then there was Nick Campbell, who prophesied the rebirth of American muscle cars. He thought that on-board computers would revolutionize horsepower technology, and in my eagerness he saw a certain capacity for imagination, which was enough for me to feel anointed, to covet his life and believe that I could one day receive it as my own.
So when Nick’s jobs started coming back for warranty work a year later, in the summer of 1986, I couldn’t help feeling lost and forsaken.
The first few rechecks were only mildly incriminating. A cracked spark plug that might or might not have been factory defective, a missing screw that might or might not have been tightened. I convinced high-paying customers that they were normal breaking-in glitches, rather than shoddy work. But as word of Nick’s unreliability began to spread, some of our formerly docile customers turned difficult. One morning a Ram Air Firebird, whose 400 engine Nick had beefed up with racing pistons, pulled right into the bays without a ticket. The owner was a fat, ruddy Italian named Mimo. In a black turtleneck and paperboy cap, he tried to promote a rumor that one of his relatives was connected, though instead of a cold-blooded mobster Mimo looked more like Dom DeLuise.
Nick, Ray, and I left our cars and approached the Firebird from different angles. Ray stopped to stretch with a fist in his spine, Nick lit a cigarette, and I tried to exude the same lack of urgency while Mimo got out and felt around in the grille for the hood latch. He stirred into the petroleum smell a sweet cologne that you couldn’t get off all day if he shook your hand. “Something’s leaking,” he said. “I got oil drips all over my garage.”
Instead of putting the Firebird up on the lift, Ray kicked over a creeper and rolled under the front end with a droplight. At this point we could still think that Nick’s work wasn’t to blame, that maybe it was condensation from the air conditioner and Mimo couldn’t tell oil from water. We still had options. But when Ray pushed out from under the bumper he looked stricken, flat on his back and gaping at the chain-hung fluorescent light.
“What?” Nick said.
Ray sat forward and considered the blackened steel toes of his Wolverines. “Drain plug,” he said, softly. Nick looked at him with such puzzlement that Ray began to repeat himself, but Nick interrupted, “I heard what you said.” He smoked his cigarette and sort of glazed over until, after a moment, even I hardly recognized him as the man who believed that cars could be great again one day.
“What’s wrong with the drain plug?” Mimo said. “He didn’t cross-thread it, did he?”
Ray bucked off the creeper on his way to the toolbox that Mimo had the misfortune to be standing next to. When I saw the chrome flash of a wrench I thought for a panicked moment that Ray might use it to crack open Mimo’s head. “Hey Mimo,” he said. “You got any naked pictures of your wife?”
“What?” Mimo said. “What?” His jowls flushed and he wadded his fat hands down in his pockets. “No, I don’t. Jesus.”
“You want to buy some?”
Mimo dropped his head and glared for a long second at a slick of tranny fluid in the next bay. “What is your problem, man?”
“My problem is a guy who pulls in here like he owns the place. A guy always coming in for more cam, more carb, more this, more that, thinking it’s gonna make his dick bigger, and then don’t want to pay.”
“What’s wrong with the drain plug?” Nick said.
Ray rubbed his oil-wet fingertips. “It’s loose a little bit,” he said, and as quick as I’d ever seen him do anything, he went back under the car with the wrench. Nick neglecting something so basic was inconceivable. Imagine leaving the house without putting on your right shoe.
Nick collapsed into a steel chair as Mary Ann approached with a bookkeeping binder pressed to her slender waist. By this point she and Nick had been on the rocks for six months, and I expected her to trudge past in her usual sad distraction, but the eerie quiet coming from three mechanics in the same bay woke her from her trance. She stopped short of the lobby door and turned. “What’s wrong?”
Nick didn’t answer, and I watched her helplessly, a look of rejection, or maybe resignation, in her eyes that I felt in my own stomach. Just as she was walking away, Nick said, “Do me a favor. Take Mimo out front and give him his money back.”
“Whoa,” Mimo said, a flattered, guilt-ridden knot of emotion now. “Hey, that’s twelve hundred bucks. I’m happy with a discount.”
“I don’t give a damn what you’re happy with,” Nick said. He got up and threw his cigarette in the trash can, where any number of things could have gone up in flames.
Copyright © 2014 by Wayne Harrison