JEFF WICKSTROM'S 1966 HEMI CORONET
Photos and text by Jeff Wickstrom
It was an early Sunday morning when I awoke to cold wintry twilight, nursing a substantial hangover in a small brownstone apartment on Clifton Avenue, a far cry from my warm Mesa, Arizona home. I was at Karen Harmon's place in Lakewood, Ohio--a brief and geographically close suburb of Cleveland. At least I knew where I was, but had little recollection of how I had actually ended up there. At 6 am and 20 degrees it was very peaceful outside, nothing by a dark gray, snow filled sky and the subdued early morning light that comes with it. No people, no cars--only a few random snowflakes falling silently outside the window. Big Jim Vechery rang the door buzzer at exactly 6:30 as expected. While full of his usual vigor, it was somewhat apparent that he too was in similar physical condition. I let Jim in and crawled back onto the couch.
Karen had picked me up from the airport the previous afternoon, and we had spent the day enjoying each others company at a neighborhood bar and then finished the evening off at her sister's house, drinking festively with her family and shooting an impressive array of illegal fireworks over a frozen Lake Erie late that night. But now it was a new day and I had a meeting scheduled with a certain 1966 Dodge Coronet in Clarion, Pennsylvania.
Jim and I headed East through the dirty, slush covered streets of Cleveland, working our way through the quiet neighborhoods towards the highway. Jim prefers the two lane blacktop, as do I, and we were soon treated to a picturesque morning drive through the rolling farmland southeast of the Metropolitan area. After an hour or so of driving we reached the Pennsylvania State line and the divided, interstate highway of Route 80. I-80 was still snow covered in the left lane from a brief storm the previous night, not a heavy snow, but a light dusting that was thick enough to limit traction and obscure the edge of the road. There were few vehicles out at this time and we made good progress. Occasionally a plow truck would pass us heading the other direction with its rotating beacon flashing, its blade down and curling the snow off to one side. Having been in the dry warmth of the desert Southwest only 24 hours prior, I was now loving every minute of this! It had been longer than I could even remember, seeing snow or feeling the cold dampness of a Lake Effect winter. Before long we approached a slower car in our clear lane, but this did not slow Jim down. He carefully drifted over into the snow covered lane and quickly passed this minor impediment with confidence. Whew...I'm glad he's driving. In response, I took a long pull off the bottle of Jack Daniels that I had stashed in my overnight bag behind the seat. Not so much as to settle my nerves, but to toast this beautiful day and the excitement of the adventure before me. There is just something about a heavy shot of Whiskey the first thing in the morning that awakens a person to the fact that they are truly alive and know it.
A few hours later and we were pulling into the quaint village of Clarion, Pennsylvania. Clarion is an intimate, historic, small town community with a large centrally located courthouse surrounded by enormous mature trees in the town square, properly announced and represented with the stereotypical Civil War monument that all these Eastern towns seem to have at the town center.
Turning the corner onto Main street, my eyes were drawn to the old Orpheum Theater on the left. A perfect time capsule of a 1940's small town movie theater. Complete with a sidewalk covering marquee and large curved glass displays announcing the coming shows and bright, ceramic tile entry. A mile or so down PA-377 and we had reached our final destination, a nondescript, concrete block building next to the bowling alley.
We made our way through the heavy snow covered parking lot to the front door. The door was unlocked so we walked inside and called out; nobody answered so we made our way towards the back. Sitting quietly in a dark corner of the building was the object of my interest. A few walks around the car and I knew that this was indeed what I had come for.
A 1966 Dodge Coronet 2-door sedan with a Hemi and a 4-speed. Not just any Hemi Coronet, but an old friend from my youth that I'd not seen in many, many years. It didn't take long to go over the car, so after a brief test ride/drive, the deal was done.
Spending that much money on a car of this quality and rareness (one of eleven) usually predicated the use of insured professional covered transportation. But if I can't drive my car, I have no real interest in owning it. It was a little over three hours back to Cuyahoga Falls, and the snow looked like it was letting up, so my plan was to drive it back to Jim's house. The prior owner and Jim both thought I was insane and attempted a firm protest, but they could tell my mind was set and the car would be leaving under its own power. Soon the keys were in my hand and it was time for some proper bonding with my latest acquisition. The parking lot of the garage in which it had been stored was not yet plowed, and six inches of fresh, moist snow made for an interesting feat of slipping and sliding while trying to get that big dude over to the paved road. Twenty years had passed since I had tested my vehicular skills on snow.
But once on the dry pavement, I felt a parting display was in order. Burning the tires through the first three gears, this accomplished quite easily with 400 horsepower and a little snow still packed into those narrow red-lines. First stop.....gas! After discovering a minor fuel leak back by the filler neck, a trip to an auto parts store was needed. A quick hose clamp installation while lying on my back in the snow, followed by a hamburger and we were now on our way towards the Ohio state line.
The drive back was uneventful, but vividly memorable with the snow covered rolling hills of western Pennsylvania and the picture-like, orderly farms of the Amish families that lived in this area. I was blessed with three separate and distinct snow showers along my journey. Not heavy enough to make me uncomfortable, but just enough for occasional use of the wipers and careful attention to steering or brake input. It was during one of these that I was treated to a high point of my trip. The snow had begun to fall somewhat heavier, just enough to turn the wipers on low. Kind of that twilight point where the road ahead and on the sides is still visible, but distant features are just dark shapes in the falling snow. An overpass ranged into view a short distance ahead of me. Not a major overpass with exit and entrance ramps, but a narrow farm road, leading from a wooded field on one side of the interstate and disappearing into the breezy, snow filled darkness on the other. Looking up I noticed a horse-drawn buggy, effortlessly traversing the overpass. Timed perfectly, our paths crossed as I approached and then drifted underneath him at 60 mph. There he was, straight out of the 19th century, choosing to survive only on what he created with his own bare hands, while I sat trapped in my comfortably warm, materialistic, world--foolishly consuming 4.5 gallons of fossil fuel each hour with my 400 horsepower icon. A sudden feeling of great distance overcame me. As happy as I was, I deeply longed to share the sentiment that the Amish farmer must have been feeling at that moment, sitting there in his unheated buggy, bouncing along behind his trotting horse. With the wind and the cold snow biting his face, perhaps he was complaining, but the quiet and simple serenity he must have felt, heading silently down that lonely road is not something easily found nor duplicated these days.
Soon after crossing into Ohio, I felt it necessary to validate my expenditure. An open stretch of road and it was time to find out what I really had. For no reason whatsoever, I always attempt to exceed 100 mph on the way home with any new purchase. Foolish and illogical, I admit. But what the hell. Besides, holding a Hemi wide open for more than ten seconds is always a moving experience. I slowed down to a third gear type speed, maybe 35-40 mph, downshifted and let her go. Soon we were back in forth gear and my goal of 100 mph came and went effortlessly. But the sound of those dual 4-barrel Carter carburetors wide open and howling for all they were worth was such sweet music that I felt obligated to keep the pedal down a bit longer. Fast approaching 120 mph, it was time to accept the fact that skinny, red line bias-ply tires were built for aesthetics, not performance, so I backed it down to a more highway-friendly pace.
A short stint on the Ohio Turnpike and then we exited on Route 8 for Jim's place. The snow had let up by the time we reached the Ohio line.
Stopping at a small convenience store/gas station, I went inside to pee while Jim acquired some provisions...namely beer. Heading back out to the car I noted a couple of guys admiring the car and looking in the windows. They were quite stunned as I relayed my story of how I had just bought it a few hours ago and then driven it back from Pennsylvania in the snow.
With the weather now dry and broken sunshine reaching through the clouds, the dark blue polyurethane paint was visible through the accumulated road grime and one could tell there was indeed a magnificent car underneath. They too couldn't believe that I had driven it in the snow, nor did they expect to see a car this rare out on a day like this. They had been driving down Route 8 in the other direction, but turned around to come back to see it. I honored their interest by treating them to a lengthy second gear burn-out as I left the parking lot.
A quick trip to the car wash and then it was time to tuck my baby in at the Vechery household garage. It was so cold outside that the soapy water from the car wash was actually freezing before I could rinse and dry it off. Coming from the southwest desert, I had never seen anything quite like this before.
Jim, Stephani and I spent the night drinking, laughing, and enjoyably reminiscing through old photo albums from our college days together. I had to smile upon my subtle observation of how the three of us would drift back and forth between standing around Jim's workbench in the garage and into the kitchen to then stand around Stef's workbench...or kitchen counter as it is more formally called. Eventually the need for sleep took hold. Their guest room is on the second floor and the bed is pushed right up against the window so one can look straight out while on your pillow. As I lay there in the dark, staring out at the snow covered back yards of their subdivision, I smiled and thought....yes, this was indeed a very good day.
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