You gotta eat, and you gotta get there, let’s save time by reviewing cars and restaurants together.
This car killed a Fiat. OK, it wasn’t “shunted it off a cliff” killed, more “embarrassed to death” killed. The day that Mike Bollero’s father bought this three-year-old 1975 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, Mike was driving home in his dad’s Fiat 124 Coupe, excited to gaze at the wild graphics on the Trans Am’s hood. Within view of the family home, the Fiat engine made sad Italian failure noises and Mike coasted the hardtop its last few feet into the driveway. “It died of a broken heart, we used to joke,” he says. That’s the sad part of this story. The rest is about true love and fried chicken, so keep reading.
More than 35 years later, the Fiat is long gone, but Mike and his wife Valerie still drive their original Trans Am around regularly. We decided to meet up with them for lunch, and what better meal could you share with Screaming Chicken owners than some Route 66-inspired fried chicken from Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket just outside Chicago in Willowbrook, Illinois?
The Bolleros’ Trans Am story starts with high-school Mike spotting it for sale near the family home in St. Charles, Illinois. The paint was perfect on it, so he started working on his dad about buying it. His pop caved and Mike drove the Trans Am every day through high school and college. He was dating Valerie at the time and the Pontiac was always around as their means of conveyance. When it came time for Valerie’s graduation from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, the couple were running a bit late so mike pointed the Trans Am toward NIU and ripped across the country roads to make the 25-mile drive in a bit more than 10 minutes. They made it on time.
Mike and Valerie eventually went their separate ways after college and the Trans Am got parked in storage for a variety of reasons. Many years later, Mike pulled it out of storage and the original 400 cubic-inch V8 roared to life with an old friend’s familiar voice. Even the interior was still in great shape, after some cleaning.
As you can imagine, the years sitting had rusted the Trans Am a bit and several basic components required some attention. Mike replaced the brake master cylinder that had gone bad, had the rusted-out exhaust replaced, and patched up some of the body rot.
After that, the paint and decals—including the Screaming Chicken on the hood—were restored to their former glories, although not to high dollar show standards. Mike estimates the Pontiac is about 90 percent original and he thinks that’s cooler than flawless perfection.
Eventually, Mike and Valerie reconnected and ended up married. “We took the long way ‘round,” she said. Why wouldn’t you take the long way when you have such a cool ride? The Bolleros and their Pontiac are regulars on HOT ROD Power Tour™—with the inevitable rock chips that come with that. It’s a lot more fun to drive a car with a flaw or two than to let it a perfect one sit in a garage.
Today, Mike Bollero runs the family business his grandfather started in suburban Chicago, National Metal Fabricators, a company that makes all kinds of structural metal construction fittings and fixtures for skyscrapers.
Of course, no FUEL story here on Roadkill is complete without a food review. Dell Rhea’s Chicken Basket started from a gas station lunch counter on Route 66 in the 1940s. Based on the success of its fried chicken recipe, the counter became a separate restaurant that has endured for decades. A highway redesign in the 1960s left Route 66 running a different path and hard times for the Chicken Basket, but local entrepreneur Dell Rhea bought the restaurant and restored it to its former glory. Today, the back parking lot overlooks Interstate 55 and while the Chicken Basket is a bit more out of the way than just pulling off Route 66 like the 1950s, it’s still easy to get to if you’re traveling on I-55 by way of Chicago.
Inside, the restaurant’s brick-lined walls and fireplace give it comfy atmosphere. The neon lighting around the ceiling gives a nice mid-century diner feel to the whole outfit and the shelves full of chicken knick-knacks remind you that this place is all about one bird.
The menu is heavy on chicken, as you might imagine, and I gave the fried chicken basket—It’s in the name, after all—a whirl. I’ve had quite a few kinds of fried chicken, but none quite like this. The breading isn’t particularly thick and the crumbs are smaller than most recipes. In short, it tasted like the best homemade fried chicken I’ve ever had. If you’re after some good fried chicken and a bit of nostalgia, Dell Rhea’s is a dang-fine choice.
Forget apple pie and baseball; there can’t be anything more American than fried chicken and a Pontiac Trans Am. You can see more photos of Mike and Valerie’s ’75 Trans Am in the gallery below.