I LIKE OLD cars, I like them a lot. I miss them and that more visceral connection between driver and road inherent of a time when life was simpler and likewise the technology packed into the four wheeled stuff. So naturally, whenever classic-ride scribes such as Mike Monk or Adrian Burford put a story together it usually involves a metally creature from the world before ABS, Aircon and electronic everything. Sometimes the content tickles my love of Japanese sports cars or scintillates my desire for good ol’ Yank Muscle – but this time a more intimate link to my own past came across my desk in the form of a Golden Anniversary Chevrolet 4100. Now, my earliest memories and in fact my formative motoring career began in my dad’s metallic blue 4100, a straight six rear driven wonder that would be my second (mobile) home for the first 18 years of my life. First as a rear seat snotgat passenger, graduating eventually to shotgun, then two years after my dad passed away – I finally got upgraded to the driver’s pew. Now, writing from memory is usually a recipe for disaster but there’s something so lucid, so vivid about childhood memories that they seem to last forever. Long rides with the family, cruising above Gordons Bay with the sun illuminating all inside, refracting through the soft blue tint at the top of the windscreen and radiating from my dad’s leopard print vest. Good times. As for glossing over the faults with nostalgia’s rose tinted spectacles – like every meaningful toy that breaks in your hand as a kid I remember every bugbear of Suzie; my dad’s 4100.
THAT CLASSIC LOOK
Now, it’s hard to rate an old car as anything other than a classic, a hopefully timeless aesthetic as opposed to comparing it to the porcine whips one has access to in 2011. I loved the looks of it, proper muscley stuff, especially to an 8 year old. Having been massaged into life from the skeleton of an Opel Rekord, the Chevy was clearly premium. I say it was metallic blue, but it was actually two toned if you count the cream vinyl top. A bonnet bulge hinted that the six cylinder engine pumped out 100kW and enough torque to spin up a small storm in the Strandfontein parking lot I found myself at on Matric Ball night. In each corner were 14” steel wheels – hey, pretty much all wheels were steel, only these came out with massively shiny hubcaps with a little blue bowtie on each. The pert little rear had the C H E V R O L E T lettering spaced across from light cluster to light cluster and our car even had a sunroof, also a fun accessory on Matric Ball night. Black-backed halogen headlamps in the shape of two circles looked mean, and was a look I sought to achieve (so misguidedly) later on in life on my first Opel, a Kadett. I owned many Opels since then, perhaps trying to keep the connection to dad’s 4100, perhaps.
The Chevy’s interior was an absolute pleasure – real petrolhead stuff. Brushed blue suede and more wooden trim than you could shake a Gumtree at, with white on black instruments dials (ditto the number plates) and a retro-tastic cassette and radio player. Ours was an Automatic and for years, because my family’s career legacy essentially traced a long line of managers and operators of liquor establishments such as hotels, bottle stores, nightclubs and such, I grew up thinking P R N D on the shifter was an abbreviation for that licorice alcoholic beverage – ‘Pernod’. You must understand this was perfectly understandable to a kid who spent summers in the shade of a PERNOD or BERTRAMS umbrella, had a KAHLUA backpack for school and who had made a faux television cabinet for his bedroom out of a cardboard MALIBU drink display. Not to put too fine a point on this but my farewell gift to my standard five English teacher was a bottle of Bells Whiskey. Eventually several cases of beers and hot stuff would find their way into the boot of Suzie (fantastic luggage capacity!) every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening for three years during our Jazz pub ownership experience. And the next morning I’d driver her to school.
PERFORMANCE AND HANDLING
Anyway, slap the transmission into D via a T-bar shifter, floor the gas and the result was dramatic. First she’d squat, then she’d melt rubber and paint the sky white, then she’d launch at the horizon after aiming her nose high above it. In 1995 in the hands of a pubescent this was a very quick car. Irresponsibly quick, as I’d find out one night after a post Matric studies braai. I was between dropping off mates when I’d sped past the local cop shop. Incidentally, a robbery had taken place in the direction from which I was… fleeing? Ten minutes later my mates and I had our hands placed all over the Chevy’s bodywork while seven R4 toting officers went through our pants pockets and the car. On the Cape Flats we call this experience a Typical Thursday Evening. Still, for those ten minutes of what was perceived to be evasive action – what a great handler. It’s not all been champagne however, real ‘pagne’ too. I broke a control arm oversteering (or ‘steering’ as its referred to in a 4100) into a curb at 50kph having accidentally discovered drifting on a rainy late night/early morning. And the one time I decided to turn left at speed and despite my tug at the wheel the car deciding now would be my first lesson in understeer and proceeded to carve a perfectly straight line instead. I also remember the retro-fitted black louvre my dad fitted to its rear windscreen… and how beautifully it arced across the sky the day my eldest brother decided to reverse up our Cul De Sac at top speed.
Reading Mike Monk’s story gave me a lot of insight into the 4100, and its resounding sales success during the 70s, before sanctions saw the brand exit stage left. Sunny skies, braai vleis and all that – I’m afraid that image will forever be tainted by the company’s now Korean flavor. And that’s ok, if anything it makes the 4100 even MORE of a classic. I remember at one point my dad swapped it for the then 5 Series BMW. Besides the entire family suffering nausea (too smooth, too fast, ugly, who knew?) it just didn’t feel right, it wasn’t home – it wasn’t Suzie, and the swap was reversed. That 4100 by the standards of the time was a great car. Truly great, faults and all – high in character with just the right blend of silly and sophistication. For it I reserve centre stage in my fantasy ten car garage. And an oil pan beneath it, because you never know with the classics.