What does it mean to be thunderstruck? Jason Kapcala defends his improbable, impractical love.
After a seven-hundred mile, thirteen hour, nonstop road trip with my brother Moose in an aging Dodge Magnum with spotty brakes, I finally purchase my new dream car and make it back home. I’m officially a Challenger owner. To read more about this experience, check out parts I, II, and III of this series.
My Dodge Challenger’s favorite song is “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC.
How this came to be, I’m not entirely sure. I wouldn’t call AC/DC one of my go-to bands. I tend more toward heartland rock, and so “Thunderstruck” with its busy overdriven riff, its ominous guttural chant, and its lyrics basted in sexual innuendo, is not a regular headliner on the soundtrack of my life.
My Challenger, on the other hand, loves AC/DC, and in particular, “Thunderstruck.”
There are many stories about how lead guitarist Angus Young came to write this song—one involving a near-miss lightning strike, another concerning his fascination with the M1A1 Abrams battle tank—but the official tale from the liner notes to The Razors Edge is that he just started fooling around on guitar one day:
I played it to Mal and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve got a good rhythm idea that will sit well in the back.’ We built the song up from that, fiddled about with it for a few months before everything fell into place. Lyrically, it was really just a case of finding a good title. . . . We came up with this thunder thing and it seemed to have a good ring to it. AC/DC = Power. That’s the basic idea.
AC/DC may equal power, but that’s one area where the Challenger lags, especially early models like mine. Compared to the competition—Mustangs and Camaros—my Challenger suffers from a case of bloatedness. It’s about seven-hundred pounds too heavy and 50 horsepower short. Like its ancestors from the early-70s, it corners like a boat. Its fuel efficiency reads like the punch line to a bad joke. The cheap ABS plastic interior cracks in the cold weather, and I’m constantly replacing some latch or clip or snap or washer or gasket. To my mechanic’s chagrin, the brakes are still undersized. It is, by definition, the perpetual underdog—not champion, not incumbent, but challenger.
None of that makes me love the car any less. One doesn’t purchase a used car expecting fine Italian craftsmanship and Napa leather, Brembo brakes and a hand-tuned suspension. A V-6 muscle car is not the vehicle you take to Leguna Seca or the Mojave Mile—at least, not without a lot of modification. I bought this Challenger for its style—that retro form of cool that turns heads when you pull up to a stoplight. It is the one blatantly impractical purchase of my life. Too small to transport friends or furniture. Useless in the snow. Impossible to keep clean. Prone to little expenses—death by a thousand touch-ups.
All the more reason to love it defensively.
In many ways, the Challenger embodies everything I’ve never been—it’s bold and brash, sexy and immodest. Confident in the presence of strangers. It doesn’t fit my personality. It fits the personality I wish I had.
During those first years after buying the Challenger, I’d average about two compliments a week. I’d pull into a gas station or up to a toll plaza and someone would shout “nice car!” I’d come out of the supermarket to find nose-prints on my tinted driver’s side window, or else a fellow shopper with his hands cupped around his face, trying to peek inside. Men my dad’s age chatted me up with stories about the Challenger or the Barracuda they owned when they were young. And whenever I passed another Challenger on the highway, I’d be welcomed into the club with a thumbs-up, rock horns, a deuce chucked in my direction. As if on cue, Brian Johnson would howl from my radio, “For those about to rock, we salute you,” and I’d know he was talking about me.
It took time for me to fully accept the newfound attention. I kept expecting to wind up the butt of someone’s joke—like the people on the old candid camera shows. But no one was laughing. People were genuinely interested in the car. They wanted to hear about where I’d bought it and how long I’d owned it and if driving it was half as fun as it looked. I’d find myself holding lengthy conversations with strangers, leaning against parking meters and gas pumps and saying things like, “She’s a beaut, alright.” Where I picked up this way of speaking, I don’t know. The words might as well have come from the car itself.
It’s not that I’ve ever been socially awkward. To the contrary, I’ve always felt comfortable making friends, speaking to crowds, even strangers. But I’d never cast off reservation like this before, never been demonstrative in my drooling fanaticism. One of my best friends teases me about this. “The Mopar makes the man,” she’ll say, rolling her eyes, but I suspect that the self-assurance and the swagger I draw from this vehicle isn’t so different from the confidence boost she gains whenever she slips into her little black dress and her maybe-baby lipstick.
I’ve never been interested in fashion. I wear a beard and a buzz cut because it means fewer disposable razors and infrequent trips to the barber. In general, fitting in has never been a top priority for me. I’ve always felt at home studying topics that most people dismiss, listening to music that no one else my age cares about. I’ve never pretended to be a James Dean or a Steve McQueen. (Hell, I don’t even aspire to fake-cool like Fonzie.) I’m a product of the early 90s, a time when dysfunction was a badge of honor and being offbeat and weird meant the world was your oyster. I’d never given much thought to adorning myself in the trappings of cool.
Still, when it comes to the Challenger, it’s safe to say I was, and still am, thunderstruck.
Over the years, the compliments have slowed down some—the Challenger isn’t new anymore. Its novelty has worn off. Every so often, I’ll reach the parking garage after work, and someone will ask if they can take a peek at the interior, but most days I just climb in and drive home.
A few weeks ago, my new boss made the mistake of calling my Challenger a Mustang. I had to choose between correcting her and creating an awkward situation or swallowing my pride.
“Challenger,” I fired back, and when she squinted at me, not quite comprehending—or, perhaps, taking me for an idiot—I added. “It’s a Dodge Challenger.”
I’m not sure why this matters so much to me. It shouldn’t. It’s unreasonable to expect others to notice—never mind appreciate—the differences between pony cars. And yet it feels abusive somehow, as though every time a person gets the name of my car wrong they are misidentifying a part of my life—dismissing the effort, both logistical and personal, it took to secure this car.
A few years ago, I had an anodized T-bar shifter custom fabricated by a small shop in Lake Worth, Florida. Across the top of the handle, the folks at Billet Tech engraved the words “Almost Heaven,” the unofficial motto of my adopted state of West Virginia, and now when I rest my palm against the shifter, I can feel the etching against my skin, and I’m reminded that two of the things I love most about my life—where I live and the car I drive—are sometimes nearly one and the same.
Power is a relative concept, and compared to the other cars I’ve owned, the Challenger has it in spades. When I click on my iPod, Angus Young picks and taps through the guitar notes, and the rhythmic chant of “thun-der” throbs from the speakers. I wheel up to the on-ramp slowly, letting the drone of the engine match the intensity of song. This car may not have power enough to melt the pavement, but it does have the power to turn heads. The power to make me feel like me. Powers I don’t even know about yet. Halfway down the ramp, the drums kick in, the tempo picks up, and I mash the gas. Somewhere, in some future I have yet to plunder, I am driving through a canyon at sundown, through a desert at night, down a rocky coastline at dawn—struck again by how perfect the world looks from behind the wheel. The sunroof is open. The radio blares. The empty road feels solid beneath my wheels.
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Image courtesy of the author