Short Story Long: The Champ & Me

In 1980, when the only automobile in our household was my mom’s 1965 Ford Mustang, my primary mode of transportation to/from Beverly Hills High School and work at Swensen’s Ice Cream Shoppe was a dust-covered derelict 10-speed I’d liberated from a nearby garage. I’d done so in response to my previous bike of the BMX variety being so also uncermoniously liberated from our apartment garage.

1977 Yamaha Champ

I don’t recall the particulars of how it came to pass that my mom considered getting me a Yamaha Champ (as shown), I know it had something to do with me needing to have some form of transportation to help her with early morning delivery of newspapers in and around Silver Lake, Los Feliz and Echo Park, which was her territory as a distributor for the Herald Examiner. I’m guessing that since a car was out of the question at that point in time, conversations on that topic were ultimately had with Bruce, a gay man with a cleft palate, who she knew primarily through her job, and who probably told her he could hook her up with a scooter, to which she hesitantly agreed.
I liked Bruce because he was a genuinely nice guy, and one who abided by my mom’s insistence that if he touched me in any way shape or form that was even remotely sexual in nature she would kill him. With a spoon.
One night mom said she had a surprise and we drove to the Farmer’s Market parking lot and met Bruce who hauled the Champ out of the back of his Mustang hatchback. She showed me how to operate it and that was that. It was love at first throttle pull.

Now the Champ was very unique both from its looks and its availability. Yamaha offered it for sale in the U.S. for just one year, 1977, and marketed as something of a hybrid, one more powerful than Yamaha’s previous 50cc street scooters, but more nimble than its 80cc off-road versions. Powered by a 72cc, two-stroke, single cylinder engine, paired with a three-speed automatic clutch transmission, top speed on level pavement was about 38 mph, which was like the speed of light to a 16 year old on a beat-up road bike (which I then subsequently returned to the garage from which I’d taken it).

The Champ and I became inseparable. I couldn’t have asked for a cooler form of transport. In addition to school and work and all over the sleeping hills and dales of predawn Silver Lake and Echo Park, I rode her everywhere — to the beach and back, all the way out to Northridge for a friend’s birthday party, even once through a torrential downpour through Sherman Oaks I got caught in that left Ventura Boulevard wall-to-wall water.
One of the few times she let me down is actually a combo example of geographic coincidence and a true minor miracle… bear with me this tangent:

I had been out helping with Saturday redeliveries to subscribers who’d called saying they either hadn’t gotten their paper or it had been stolen. When I’d finished I was cruising down Silver Lake Boulevard approaching Bellevue when she stalled out and would not restart — which is the geo-coincidence in that it’s just a couple blocks from where I’ve lived the past 17 years. I checked the gas and oil, cables and wires and spent a good 20 minutes trying to kickstart and popstart her back to life, but in the end I was left with nothing to do but park her on the sidewalk next to Mikron Liquor and start walking it home along Beverly Boulevard, which then led to the aforementioned minor miracle.

I was crossing Hobart, a couple blocks east of Western Avenue, trying to wrap my head around the six or seven mile walk still ahead of me, when my mom was just suddenly there, coming to a stop heading south down Hobart. She didn’t even recognize me in the crosswalk until I yelled “Mom what are you doing here!?” And she did a double take and yelled back “What are you doing here!?” And I climbed in and told her. She in turn told me that she couldn’t explain why, but that she had been driving on Melrose when for no reason she turned left onto Hobart and kept going south.

I’ll leave it to you to rationalize this convergence away, but factoring in the overall municipal population, the prevailing wind speeds, road conditions, time of day and general economic and political outlook, I figured out the odds of a mother driving and her teenager on foot both of them anywhere in a roughly 40-square-mile zone between Beverly Hills and Echo Park that then end up in the same random intersection at the exact same time and I came up with a 2,146,285 to 1.

Epilogue: As I just couldn’t leave the Champ parked naked on the sidewalk next to Mikron Liquor (still there, by the way, and still two blocks from where I’d be living begining 23 years into the future), I ended up making that walk. Mom dropped me off a few days later and after charging at and tossing an empty milk crate at some punks who were sitting on her like she was theirs, and then trying again unsuccessfully to kickstart and popstart her, I had to push her dead ass aaaaaall that long way home. Down Silver Lake Boulevard onto Beverly Boulevard all the way across to Orlando, south across San Vicente down to Wilshire to Hamilton Drive and down into the garage, where she then sat until I made unauthorized use of the delivery van from my day job by that time at Hunter’s Books on Rodeo Drive and drove her out to Glendale Yamaha for repairs. Digression complete, we now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Other than that and some occasional mechanical issues, my Champ was practically indestructible. Proof of that came with the flooded garage at our apartment building, which in the winter of 1981 filled with six feet of water during a freak storm. I barely got the Mustang out in time. The Champ was not so lucky and sat submerged for as long as it took to pump all that water out. Nevertheless, after cleaning all the mud and gunk coating her, draining and replacing the fuel and oil and sparkplug, allowing her to dry out, and putting a new battery in, she fired right back up and was on the road again.

I myself was not so indestructible. Coming home one afternoon from trying to collect from deadbeat subscribers I detoured down an alley that paralleled San Vicente north of Wilshire and the driver of a bright yellow Cadillac Coupe de Ville backing out quickly and without looking hit me and punched a quarter-sized hole in my right thigh that booked me in to a Cedar-Sinai emergency room for stitches. My leg must’ve protected the Champ because aside from some scratches and a broken mirror she emerged unscathed.

I think that tore it for my mom. She had already purchased the “Charlie’s Angels” car, her blue-and-white 1978 Ford Mustang II Cobra with racing stripes and louvers on the rear window straight out of the TV series, but had hesitated signing over the old Mustang to me. Once I had access to four wheels even if it was a beat-up primer-coated Mustang with 230,000 miles on the odometer and no reverse gear, the Champ was relegated to occasional errands until her last years were spent forgotten in the garage of the Sherman Oaks house my mom moved to in 1983 after marrying my stepdad. A few years later, nostalgic for my old pal, I asked her where the Champ had gone and she told me she given it away to a construction worker.

I can remember once having a photo of me astride the Champ during our glory days together, but it too has been lost to history.