The automobile changed the South indelibly, when the people of this rural farming culture were given mobility, and even speed— something Southerners have become known for through stock car racing and moonshiner movies. In this essay, Georgia writer William Nesbitt discusses his love of a classic muscle car and delves into the region’s mythic fascination with this now-ubiquitous form of transportation.
by William Nesbitt
Relatively isolated, Thomasville, Georgia sits in the southwest corner of Georgia close to the Florida state line. Prior to the automobile, your fastest method of travel would have been train. Even after the advent of planes and busses, a car is probably still your quickest method of transportation. Trains carrying fruit, cotton, lumber, livestock, and other goods and materials still run through Thomasville several times a day. However, passenger trains stopped running decades ago—the brick train station has since become an excellent restaurant and still looks as it has for years, as if all one needs is a ticket and a packed bag and sooner or later a train will come for you. The closest commercial airport is in Tallahassee, Florida about an hour away. Most flights from Tallahassee stop at Atlanta even if your destination, say New Orleans, is in the opposite direction. So with no public transportation, no cab service, no Uber or Lyft as of yet, and no close and direct air transportation, if you want to get anywhere more than walking distance, you need your own car.
My mother’s family has lived in Georgia for generations and cars have been a constant in that history. My great-grandparents who lived on Cecil Street had, according to my mother’s memory, some sort of early four-door Model Ford—an A, my mother thinks—with wooden spokes. It was black and smelled like my great-grandfather’s pipe tobacco. My grandparents honeymooned in a red Ford when they were married in 1938. Then came a 1941 or 1942 silver-blue Pontiac that my grandmother named Theophilus with whitewall tires and three chrome stripes down the front and back. My mother used to sit in the front seat with her mother’s high heels and dress on, a doll beside her, and pretend she was driving, though she had been warned not to touch the gears. Even as a child she recognized that cars meant adulthood, possibility, and independence; Southerners want to make their own ways at a very early age. Later, my grandparents bought a 1953 cascade-green Ford with dark green wool seat covers. As a child, I recall sitting in it in their back yard and pretending I was driving or even flying. My grandmother gave my mother a 1962 Chevy Nova, also referred to as the Chevy II, when my mother got married. It was turquoise with a white hardtop and wire spokes. Fancy. When my mother bought another car, my grandfather took to driving the Nova and named it Jazz Baby. That was his car until someone crashed into Jazz Baby while it was parked across from the high school (My grandfather was taking a walk, fortunately). My grandfather then drove a Ford Econoline made in 1962. (I still have his wallet with the insurance card.)
The greatest of this line of ancient cars, however, is my grandmother’s blue 1966 two-door Chevrolet Malibu. Its massive hips flaring out as twin steel comets. Its grill the face of a Southern preacher possessed by God or gasoline or America. She bought it from her sister, my great Aunt Annie, who bought it new in Tallahassee. My grandmother dubbed it Pegasus after the winged horse that carried thunderbolts for Zeus. His hooves created springs of water wherever they struck. The Greek hero Bellerophon captured Pegasus, and they completed various heroic tasks together. Bellerophon attempted to ride Pegasus to Mount Olympus, the realm reserved for the gods, but fell off mid-flight, punished by the gods for his hubris.
I rode in Pegasus as a child with my grandmother and occasionally my mother. (My grandmother had forbidden my grandfather to drive Pegasus). I remember riding with my grandmother driving slowly, cautiously, pausing at every turn, to the store for milk or bread. Pegasus had air conditioning but my grandmother sometimes rode with the windows down and carried a hammer so that she could hit the fingers of anyone who might try to get in.
One night, I got home from my high school job in transport at Archbold Hospital and found the following note from my mother: “Grandmother has had an accident but is just fine. She was trying to mail a letter and didn’t put the car in park. Somehow she put it in reverse, tumbled to the curb, and it sped off towards the bank across the street. A man jumped in and stopped it. Door is hanging off.” She had Pegasus repaired, of course, because that was her freedom, but the driver’s door was never quite flush again.
In high school and college, I sometimes drove Pegasus when my grandmother was recuperating in the hospital, the massive pulse of a V8, a world, in front of me. This is the Engine of Eternity. The speedometer measures decades. Early in the morning, when the moon is a low orb, a Cyclopean pearl eye of a naked lightbulb hanging from a brown wire in a tiny hotel room, I drove deep over pavement, dirt, and clay, the taste of last night’s coffee in the back of my throat. The piston, cards on the table I can play, all suited, all aces, content just to be in motion and going somewhere, anywhere—I never cared where.
We all pray to someone for something.
Foot to pedal, I pray. The sound of acceleration is an unanswered prayer. I have plenty of sins. Speed is forgiveness and understanding. Speed is absolution. i listen to music shotgunning through the speakers, static crackling like white ice. I am reborn and pure again. All the lights are green.
When my grandmother passed, my mother inherited the car, kept it several months, and then gave it to me. Cracked dashboard, faded sticker of the Statue of Liberty, ragged bench seats like church pews—the holiness of speed. I am a saint of the street, a priest of the pavement, an acolyte of asphalt in this moving chapel of blue.
In 1994, the odometer froze at 93,999. All those holy threes and compact trinities. I’d make trips as far away as Atlanta. Then, I drove the hour to Tallahassee about once a week in college to research William Blake at FSU, drink organic Peruvian coffee in the Epitome while I scribble poetry on the backs of concert flyers, and dance forever in the heaven of hot, cramped nightclubs. Bohemian, nicotine prophets riding with me in a moveable feast of light, glass, and metal. Slipping in and out of conversations like gears. I am a roaring nimbus of acceleration (((echoing))) over the smooth, bruised road. No air conditioning, no heat, no blinkers, no accurate speedometer, motor throwing oil, busted brakes, bald tires, the ghost of my grandmother billowing from the tailpipe, and we’d creak, strain, shake, rattle, roll, grind, creep, crawl, smoke, spark, stutter, clutter, chug, push, pray, and beg our way out of town across the Florida/Georgia state line. If it was raining, the situation could get dicey. Yet, I never had any vehicular problems, and I never worried about any either. My grandmother watched over me, protected me, escorted me, made sure I got wherever I needed to go.
I still have Pegasus. Until 2007, it was my only source of transportation. Pegasus now resides in the stall of the carport. I keep the tag and insurance current. Every couple of days, I crank Pegasus. Every few weeks, I backup or move Pegasus forward a few feet. I used to drive to the gas station, but Pegasus sometimes cuts out or doesn’t want to crank back up, so now I bring a couple of gallons of gas back once or twice a month. Every now and again, we cruise around the neighborhood as people on the street either stare or wave and cheer us on.
When I am released from the reins of this world and peel off into the Great Mystery, I will get in for one more ride, pick up everybody I have ever known, and we will drive together up the side of Olympus. And this time. This time, we will get there. We will park in Zeus’ reserved space. The Gods themselves will bow before us, check the tire pressure, wash the windshield, and pump ambrosia into the gas tank. The goddesses will pleasure me. I will drag race with Hades, and I will win.
William Nesbitt has published articles, reviews, creative work, and interviews in various scholarly journals, newspapers, and websites. Books include Forsaken: The Making and Aftermath of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four.