I guess you could say that the love of cool cars runs in my veins. I grew up with my dad flipping through the pages of Road and Track and Car and Driver magazines, driving through local car lots on weekends and hearing about the cool cars my dad had driven over the years. I think the love of American cars was compounded by my mom’s 25 years managing the books for Ford dealerships and the summers I spent learning working alongside her at one of them. All that makes this week’s cool car story is super special.
This 1980 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am has been in my family since my Great Aunt Betty bought it forty years ago. This beauty lives with my dad, Jim Welch of Rogers, Arkansas, now and has loads of stories to tell. So we loaded up and headed to his favorite restaurant, The Cannonball Cafe in Pea Ridge, Arkansas, to reminisce about “Betty” (the name of both the car and the super cool lady who drove her) over some homemade chicken fried steak and fried pies.
“My Aunt Betty bought it brand new,” Dad says. “Up until then, Aunt Betty and Uncle Mike had been GT Mustang owners- they’d owned about six or seven GT Mustangs- so when this came out, she went straight down and bought a Trans Am.” Jim tells us that Uncle Mike went down the very next day and had a vanity plate for the front bumper made that reads “Betty,” a plate that is still on the car today.
Aunt Betty’s Firebird was the stuff of legend and envy in the small town of Clinton, OK where she taught English and served as the highschool librarian for 35 years. “Her students, once or twice a year, would sneak her keys away from her and hide her car and she would have to go investigate which one of her students had moved it!” Aunt Betty drove her Firebird until she was 93, when she passed it down to my dad. She passed away in February of 2020 at the ripe, old age of 100, but she and her Trans Am left a lasting impact on her community.
“She was quite a little lady,” Dad remembers. “She was barely five foot tall, but somehow could still find the floor with the gas pedal. She traveled extensively with her husband, who was in the Air Force and they were stationed all over the world in embassy duty- Thailand, India and France.”
When Uncle Mike retired from the military, they made their home in Clinton, OK, near Betty’s home town of Butler. Seven days a week, Aunt Betty would make the 15 mile drive to the family farm in Butler to visit with her dad and older sister and she became known for her lead foot. To be fair, it would be hard for her to tell how fast she was going on that open stretch of US 40 because this model’s speedometer maxes out at 80 mph. Dad tells me that for several years the national speed limit was 55 mph even on the interstate, so they tried to force compliance by limiting the speedometer reading. That didn’t slow Aunt Betty down though.
As a young teenager, I had both fond memories of rides with Aunt Betty in her “cool car” and the desparate hope that it would one day be mine. Aunt Betty, a tiny slip of a woman, quiet and reserved, extremely intelligent and well read, always drove like an Indy 500 race car driver and I remember thinking of her as the coolest woman in the world. Both sophisticated and a lady, yet hearty and true to her farm girl roots- I always wanted to be like her.
The lunch we enjoyed at Cannonball Cafe was the perfect backdrop to reminisce about Aunt Betty and her Firebird. Located just outside of Rogers, in the small town of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, it’s worth the scenic drive up US Hwy 94 to experience this little slice of home-baked goodness. The Cannonball has been around since 1994 and has made a name for itself for having, as Dad puts it, “the best chicken fried steak you can find anywhere.” I would definitely echo that compliment.
Based on dad’s recommendation, our team of tasters tried the chicken fried steak with macaroni and cheese and green beans, the special of the day- meatloaf with fried okra and homemade potato salad, and, of course, you cannot leave the Cannonball without a fried pie with homemade vanilla ice cream.
The chicken fried steak was hand breaded and fried to perfection and was the perfect vehicle for the star of the show- Cannonball’s homemade white gravy. Whatever you decide to order on the menu at this little cafe, order something with the gravy. Truthfully, I dipped anything that would hold still long enough in that gravy- a roll, okra, meatloaf, chicken fried steak, a bite of caramel apple pie (by accident)- and I could not get enough.
The meatloaf was a perfectly seasoned, traditional meatloaf with a bit of kick provided by the spicy sweet BBQ sauce that topped it. It’s melt in your mouth texture makes for a delicious reminder that home cooked food is called “comfort food” for a reason, and that is exactly what Cannonball Cafe provides on every level- warm, cozy comfort food that you better come hungry to enjoy.
We ended our meal with homemade fried pies topped with homemade vanilla ice cream. We tried both the peach and the caramel apple pies, two of their top best selling flavors. With 20 flavors available, there is a sweet treat to be had for everyone. Seriously, don’t miss the pies- they are worth every bite!
Cannonball Cafe and the 1980 Pontiac Firebird we drove there embody classic American nostalgia at its finest! We invite you to hop in your favorite ride and take a road trip out to this little, out of the way place for a meal you won’t forget anytime soon!