|There isn’t a car guy out there who hasn’t
heard an urban legend or two about some unbelievably rare
and ridiculously cheap muscle car. The story should go
something like this: “This guy died in a Ram Air 4 Judge
convertible that was buried in a snow bank…the stench from
his rotting body was so bad that the car couldn’t be sold
and was given to a charity…it’s now being driven around
Wichita Falls by a homeless family with no sense of smell.”
the story usually have an “air” of truth to it? Of
course. But with every one of these stories there is one
thing missing that could silence the detractors …photos
(Ed. Note: TXTA photographers are currently searching for
the homeless people in the Judge convertible). This
story is different in a couple of key respects. First, I
have plenty of photos of the $500 ’69 Trans Am, and the
family driving around in it are in Waxahachie.
Enough joking around…here’s the real story. In early
1980 I was a 22 year-old sailor stationed on a ship in San
Diego. My buddies and I enjoyed drinking cheap beer while
watching female performance artists. We soon realized that
San Diego had a dearth of affordable entertainment like
that, so we headed 20 miles south to Tijuana, Mexico.
|Tijuana at that time had plenty of American
muscle cars on it's streets that had crossed the border
after the OPEC oil crisis of 1974 (TXTA history lesson:
during the oil crisis gas prices skyrocketed from 32 cents
per gallon to over 50 cents!). Since we were all muscle car
freaks we were constantly commenting on the interesting
finds parked along the Avenida de la Revolucion, or the
Avendia de Ninos Heros. “Hey, look at the 396 emblems on
that SS Camaro.” “Look down that alley at that yellow
’70 Road Runner convertible.” Of course none of us had
much money to work with (we were all E-4s in the
|After one night of particularly hard drinking
in "TJ"’s notorious “Zona Nostra” area, we stumbled back
towards the border and stopped on the bridge that crosses
the Tijuana River to take a leak. Below the bridge was the
parking lot for Tijuana’s bus station. As I was relieving
myself I scanned the parking lot to see if anything
interesting was parked below. Right below a street light in
the center of the lot was a white ’69 Firebird with a
trunk spoiler and two blue stripes running the length of its
roof and trunk. I commented to my shipmates that it looked a
lot like a ’69 Trans Am. I was met with, “They didn’t
start making Trans Ams until 1970”. I knew damn good and
well what it was, and I came back the next day to look it
over more closely.
On my way across the border I asked the US customs agent
what was involved in bringing a car up from Mexico. He said
I would have to run the vehicle’s VIN with California DMV
to determine if the car had been stolen in the US and then
taken to Mexico, otherwise the car would be seized at the
border and I would be out my money. He also said I would
need a notarized bill of sale and the signed title to bring
the car across the border.
|When I got to the Tijuana bus depot and
started asking about the white Firebird, no one understood
English. I found a guy next door with an auto upholstery
shop that spoke English and gave him $20 to translate for
me. He asked who owned the blanco Firebird and we were
directed to talk to Faustino Mendoza, a baggage handler at
the depot. Through the interpreter I asked him if his car
was for sale. He wanted ocho hundred dollars for it.
responded with “Cuatro.”, and we settled on cinco
($500). I told him I needed to run the VIN in San Diego and
would be back to him in a couple of days with the
money. A nice lady at the DMV told me the Trans Am had last been
registered in California in 1974 and that it wasn’t
stolen. I was getting visions of driving the ’69 T/A along
Southern California’s beaches in the near future.
|As promised I was back at the "TJ"
bus depot a couple of days later. Faustino had the title and
we went to a Mexican notary public to get the documents
legitimized. Once that was done and the money had changed
hands, we were back at the T/A to get it started. Faustino
first flipped a toggle switch under the dash, goosed the gas
pedal half a dozen times, then crawled under the car with a
large screwdriver covered with arc burns. After
several attempts the Ram Air III engine coughed to life.
Aside from the incredibly rough idle, large cloud of blue
smoke, and un-muffled exhaust, it ran perfectly. With its
huge Holley carburetor and Weiand X-CELerator manifold its
gas pedal was like an ON-OFF switch…a real driver’s car.
I put it in gear and quickly worked my way to the border
crossing. The engine died many, many times as I inched
the car through the long line of cars waiting to cross, and
I felt bad about causing so much pollution to the fragile
Southern California atmosphere. Finally I was up to the
front of the line. The customs agent told me to shut the
engine off and thanked me when I did. It wouldn’t restart;
so several agents helped me push it to the parking lot.
After reviewing the paperwork the agent told me I could
leave. I had to have it towed up to San Diego.
|Back in town, I went over it with a fine-tooth
comb. It had the original YW code engine, the unusual ’69
T/A air cleaner, a Turbo 400 transmission, console, factory
tach and gauges, Formula steering wheel, power steering and
brakes, a standard blue interior, and 2 of the original 14 x
7 Rally 2 wheels. It also had red “Ram Air” decals near
the rear of the hood scoops (like the car in the May 1969
Car & Driver ad). On the negative side, it needed a
right front fender and air extractor, Endura nose, left rear
quarter, windshield, engine and transmission rebuilds,
exhaust system, complete interior, a trunk pan, tires,
brakes, and a paint job. Aside from those things it was in
perfect condition. While searching the car I found gas
receipts from a Chevron station in Newport Beach, CA, and a
Zippo lighter that had been awarded to someone by the
Commandant of the Marine Corps.
I soon realized that I didn’t have the money to restore it
and that I could probably sell it for a considerable profit.
I advertised it in the San Diego Union newspaper for $3,000
and got 47 phone calls. The first guy to look at it bought
it and towed it away. I later learned that it was resold to
another guy in San Diego. It's whereabouts now…who knows?
Of the many muscle cars I’ve owned over the years, that
’69 Trans Am is truly the one I never should’ve
"Restoring Old Dreams"
and Operator, Mr. David Mars
Serving the community since 1991
4588A Kennedale - New Hope Rd.
Fort Worth, TX 76140
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