CHASING TAILLIGHTS: When an Older Brother’s Muscle Car Was the Coolest Ride in Town

cruising Eau Claire in a Midnight Blue ’64 Chevelle

Ken Szymanski

A 1964 Chevrolet
A 1964 Chevrolet Chevelle SS Malibu. (Photo by Greg Gjerdingen | CC BY 2.0)

At age 17, circa 1981, my brother Don set his sights on a Midnight Blue 1964 Chevelle SS Malibu. He was ready to transform from classic car admirer to classic car owner, and this one had the goods:

327 engine.

4-barrel carb.


Dual exhaust.

8-track player under the seat. 

Our father, on the other hand, thought vintage hot rods were bottomless money pits. Not to mention unreliable, loud, and – God forbid – impractical. And when broken down and propped up on blocks in the driveway, a classic car turned into a classic eye sore.

But on his 18th birthday, Don bought his dream car. For me, all it took was one ride to realize Dad was wrong on this one. Sitting shotgun, I watched the stick shift vibrate as the engine growled. When my brother punched the gas, the acceleration felt like a shove to the ribcage. Around town, pedestrians heard us approach. They sometimes stared, nodded, and gave us the thumbs-up sign. That never happened in Dad’s Ford LTD.

Another thing Dad’s car lacked was a subculture. One evening, Don took my brother Ron and me to cruise night. First, everyone gathered at the classic car rendezvous point: the Burger King parking lot on Hastings Way. Cars sat with hoods propped up. Engines gleamed in the night –  revving in anticipation.

Guys stood by their cars, arms crossed, fists under their biceps. Chevy guys stood with Chevy guys; Ford guys stood with Ford guys. Rivalries simmered between the groups. I never saw a fight, but there was a cool danger in the air. Was the Chevelle – or any of those other cars –  totally street-legal? None of your business.

Rivalries simmered between the groups. I never saw a fight, but there was a cool danger in the air. Was the Chevelle – or any of those other cars –  totally street-legal? None of your business.

I was out after curfew on a Saturday night, without my parents, wearing my “Chevrolet #1” shirt – all soundtracked by vintage ’60s rock on the eight-track. I’d never felt so cool, before or since, while standing in a fast-food parking lot. Then we stepped into our cars to start the cruise. A caravan of roughly 30 muscle cars, jacked up or riding low, rolled down vintage six-lane Hastings Way: Doughnut Land, CO-OP Shopping Center, Pied Piper, Woo’s Pagoda, Wagner’s 66½, and Mr. Steak. 

At every red light, the cars revved their engines – BRR-PUH-PUH-PUH – waiting on the green. Our car probably could’ve looked more badass without the fifth-grader grinning from the backseat. Downtown, onlookers stood under the Civic Center underpass, making rotations with their hands, hoping to hear some squealing tires echo off the concrete. I was told to keep an eye out for the cops. If we got pulled over, the police would be greeted with Don’s back license plate frame: I’D RATHER BE DRAG RACING.

Unfortunately, the classic car era in our family ended too soon. Two years later, Don started a career and needed reliable transportation. It was time to become an adult. Don reluctantly placed the sign in the Chevelle’s window: FOR SALE.

When some guy in Mondovi finally bought it, Dad didn’t celebrate. He just nodded in approval. A neighbor inquired about the missing car with condolences. “That had to be tough,” he said, sighing like he knew something about adulthood that we didn’t.

These days, the brothers drive generic cars. They get better gas mileage. They’re safer. More reliable. More sensible. But not memorable.

As for the old Chevelle, Don thought he saw it on Hastings Way a couple times, barreling in the other direction. That was years ago, though. He guesses that it’s in the junkyard by now, salvaged for parts and crushed.

But maybe not. Perhaps someone went through the effort to preserve it. Why? Well, ask any sports memorabilia collector, Civil War reenactor, or archeologist. Why do they bother? Why am I trying to polish up this old memory from my personal scrap heap? Why does Don still hang around car shows and Rock Falls Raceway?

We’re time travelers, all of us, chasing taillights back into the midnight blue.