WOW! YOU BET I WOULD!
Sorting through the mail when we returned from Hershey in 1992, I came across an envelope from the National Hot Rod association.
We were being invited to the very first “Hot Rod Reunion” in Bakersfield California at the fabled Famoso race track.
Whoa, look at the date! The event was in mid-November, just a few weeks away.
Yes, I had noticed it too. . .
It had been quite a while since I came down off my high horse and simply buckled down to some hard work! Maybe I should try some “selling” instead of the endless buying and travelling spree I was on!
But then knowing Greg Sharp with NHRA had worked tirelessly for this event, pulling together a goodly portion of America’s great hot rods, I felt it was my duty, as an American hot rodder to be there!
Two things locked it in for me: I was pretty sure Ray Brown would come up to Bakersfield to see what a handful of easterners had done to his ’32 Ford roadster; and following the weekend, I wanted to swing by and visit with Doane Spencer who had ensconced himself in the small mid-coast town of Cayucos, California.
First I called Ray, and he was excited by the prospect of actually seeing what the boys back east had done to resurrect his 99c Dry Lakes Ford Hi-boy.
Travelling from Los Angeles airport to Bakersfield proved to be a big drive “up over the “Grapevine.” Then it seemed another thousand miles till I came upon the Bakersfield exit for the Famoso drag strip.
But there wasn’t any sign of anything. I crested a slight ridge and was greatly relieved to see a service station with a convenience store.
Everything would get sorted out at that place.
I was already close to two hours late meeting the Inter-City truck that had the roadster on board!
“No, never hear no “famous” race track. . .”
Others on the property were equally baffled by the name Famoso, race track, or any cars racing anywhere within their world. No one spoke English.
When I headed back to the highway, far ahead I spotted a ’34 Ford coupe running lickety-split down the road ahead of me. He must be headed there I thought!
Some few miles running down that dusty country road, the guy in the ’34 swung a hard left into what I thought was a patch of long discarded farm land. But, over a slight rise and I came upon a major hot rod event getting underway.
Yes, they seemed to know who I was and handed me all the credentials needed for the weekend!
I spotted the Inter-City truck and we commenced unloading the roadster.
The car was on the upper deck of the trailer. I rode the platform up to the upper deck and fired the car and began to very slowly edge it back onto the hydraulic tailgate to be lowered to the ground.
Some of you may remember that I wasn’t much of “trailer monkey.” I had never been comfortable jockeying cars above ground.
“OMIGOD, THAT DAMN THING IS HERE!” . . .
I couldn’t see the “voice” below me, but as the car was being lowered to the ground this voice below me spoke out in a strong voice:
“Oh no, that damn thing is here” . . . said a healthy voice to my right but out of my sight as the platform with the car descended.
When I “touched down” a hot rodding legend introduced himself.
“The voice” belonged to Alex Xydias, probably the finest gentleman in all of American hot rodding.
Alex is truly the quintessential racing hot rodder, having founded the famed So-Cal Speed shop and setting speed records everywhere for a great many years.
He was wearing a 1940’s SCTA pith helmet and a red vintage So-Cal shirt and white trousers
He approached the 99 car with a big smile and a firm handshake.
“I’ve had to hear from Ray almost every day about this roadster and you fellows restoring the car!” explained Alex.
“Ray is really excited to see the car and meet you. . . .” Alex went on.
We chatted a bit and Alex ushered me to the spot where the car would be for the weekend.
I met my son Chris that evening, and we both folded up early that night. But I was too excited about the event, couldn’t really sleep and popped out of bed at 5AM. I had coffee and left for Famoso drag strip in the dark!
ONE OF THOSE “ONCE IN A LFETIME” MOMENTS . . .
It was still so early when I arrived at Famoso race track that the sun was just rising. I parked the car and walked toward the roadster.
I was, maybe a hundred yards short of the 99 car. My eyes were sweeping all around the area, admiring many really historic hot rods. I was taking my time, attempting to drink in so many famous hot rods that I had only read about.
I looked ahead to the spot where the 99c car was sitting and pulled up short.
Someone was really eyeing the roadster from every angle. Under, and over the car. They were moving very slowly, taking it all in as if they were familiar with the old hot rod.
Then it occurred to me:
. . . That’s Ray Brown! . . .
I tucked myself alongside a Ford panel truck and simply observed a very special few minutes, watching Ray take in the car after not seeing it for forty seven years!
At a point, I went over and introduced myself. Ray was thrilled with the car! It quickly became evident that he was one of the most engaging and likeable individuals I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.
Ray went off to find Alex Xydias and I enjoyed going slowly through the parking lot a pit area. Art Chrisman’s pioneer flathead powered dragster was there. The Cortopassi’s “Glass Slipper” was there.
That legendary “Glass Slipper” was the first dragster I’d ever seen when we came to the NHRA nationals in 1957. I was 18 at the time. To this day I can clearly remember the “Slipper” exploding its way through that quarter mile, fighting a nasty crosswind. I had watched it from the start line. The image is still as crystal clear in my mind today as it was that late summer day in 1957.
I continued on taking in all of the famous racers from a distance. I didn’t dare speak to anyone . . .
As the day progressed more and more great early rods showed up.
Yeah, it really is different in California. You simply see the “cutting edge” in virtually all areas of major hot rod racing.
After many years of talking with him on the telephone, I got to meet the legendary Dean Batchelor, considered by many to be the ultimate hot rodder.
That coupe truly says it all. It is an American treasure.
Chapouris came by to look at the 99 car and commented:
“Boy, we’ve got a lot to learn about restoring these early hot rods . . .” Pete said.
Pete was an engaging guy and we visited for quite a bit. I liked him right from the get-go.
The event even had a small swap meet area and I pocketed a few small baubles. While I was paying for one of them a toughened old character asked me gruffly if I was the guy that bought . . .”them old tether racers . . .”
I said I was, and he told me he had a couple of old tether racers and he’d bring ‘em tomorrow if I was “gonna’ be there. . .
I was, I said.
“. . .‘k I’ll bring ‘em with me.”
The drag racers were burning up the strip all day long as more and more great cars came and went. I had a chance to visit a good deal with Ray and Alex together and also met a good many of the California racing legends. It seemed every time I walked through the event there were even more historied hot rods.
There was a hot rod on the grounds that was one of the 1933 Ford roadsters that were built for the Elgin Road Races in the Chicago area, and there was a 1955 Thunderbird that bore a strong resemblance to the famed Doane Spencer ‘bird.
Couldn’t have been Doane’s though. It had screamin’ gold alloys, a hokey side exhaust system and way oversize tires . . . Still it looked pretty slick.
When we returned to the hotel, Chris and I were asked to join a group of legends for dinner.
After dinner we noticed the hotel lobby was filled with people trying to work their way outside.
Sitting under the hotel portico on an open rollback truck was a dusty “down at the heels” ’32 Ford Highboy.
Once outside the packed crowd all around the truck was very nearly silent.
The car, it seemed, was Doane Spencer’s famed ’32 Ford highboy hot rod. Sitting on that truck, even though it had been neglected for a long time, people were simply in awe of the car.
“Look how he pinched the nose so’s you can hardly spot it . . .”
“Holy cow, that whole cowl is different and better than any rendering I’ve ever seen. . . .
“Man, lookit’ how he flared those exhaust cut-outs through the frame rails!
The most iconic hot rod in America had, ironically stopped in front of the event hotel!
“Just here to use the phone . . .” The truck driver said.
I strained to hear every nuance that was being uttered by the crowd.
“Where ya’ takin’ it?” someone yelled out.
“East of here . . .” is all the truck driver would offer.
After the meet was over, you can be sure I would make it my business to find out where “East of here . . .” was.
When we returned to the track on Sunday, sure enough the old cranky character had returned with his two tether cars. They were good cars but nothing to leap in the air about. I paid him and we started back toward our rental car.
I hadn’t taken two steps when the guy yelled out:
“Oh no buddy, you ain’t goin’ nowhere without the rest of this damn stuff!”
He was noisy enough about it that a few people stopped and turned around.
The character crawled in the back of his panel truck and dragged out four good sized cartons filled with more than enough parts to make up two more cars and I forget how many engines were in those boxes.
“You’ll be taken these with them cars you got in your hands. That’s part of the deal!” the old timer said.
So, there in sunny California having the time of my life, I learned an important lesson.
Don’t be so quick to jump to the next deal, Kirk.
Learn to ask someone if they might have anything else of interest or maybe know someone who may . . .
Mr. Big Shot had almost left five to six thousand dollars laying in the middle of that dusty parking lot. Chris ran and got the car and we returned to the meet.
The picture below shows an ironic scene at the end of the reunion with the Ferrari guy in a ’32 Ford highboy and the consummate hot rodder driving back to LA in his Ferrari Testarossa!!
NORTH TO CAYUCOS . . .
After shipping my “windfall” back to Pennsylvania, early Tuesday morning I started out for Cayucos to see Doane Spencer.
I kept forgetting the distances in the state of California were staggering for a boy who lived in the congested east! I began to wonder if this was really something I needed to do.
Something must have been stewing in my mind as I had to remind myself; “Extra Effort” Kirk . . .
Well, by the time I pulled into the tiny village of Cayucos, I was one tired boy.
DOANE SPENCER . . .
I had first met Doane Spencer when he and a very young Cris Vandergriff delivered our Ferrari 512 (#1040) to our place in Overbrook, Pennsylvania.
It was almost: “Here’s your car. Pay us and we’ll be on our way . . .”
Doane had been chief mechanic for Chris Cord and Steve Earle on the Ferrari 512 as it soldiered through the better part 1970 Can-Am series before it was scooped up and became the famed Sunoco Penske-White 512M!
In person, I had only spent a few minutes with Spencer.
And now, I had now laid eyes on his legendary ’32 Ford hi-boy.
At a point I brought up his wicked 1955 Ford Thunderbird. The car had gone to Bonneville! In fact I’d seen one at Bakersfield that bore a tarted-up resemblance to it.
THE “GRIND’ . . .
So, as I was wont to do, I began to very slowly, very carefully, form a relationship with Doane. He wasn’t easy. He was like a lit stick of dynamite. I was in no hurry, but I wanted to get know this man better.
One day down the road, while talking on the phone with Doane, we got on the subject of how more than a few times, you’d have nearly identical Ferraris, but one would be jackrabbit quick and the other would simply be lethargic.
“Overnight me the distributors from the car with the lazy motor. I’ll overnight them back the day after I receive them, Doane said” Each time we did that exchange, and it was quite a few, I’d pop the distributors back in the car and that lazy Ferrari snapped to a throttle poke. The charge was $100 per vehicle.
Pretty damn impressive.
Time went by, and then . . .
“Come on back to Cayucos and say Hi if you’re out this way” . . . Doane said one day on the phone.
As tough an old sucker as he was, he’d opened the door a crack.
Doane was smart, and he pretty much knew why I was “comin’ around” from time to time. Finally I worked around to asking about his ’32 Ford roadster.
He didn’t bother with that old Hi-boy anymore . . . he said.
Back in the days of the Pan-American road races, he had seriously wanted to re-engine and set the ’32 Ford up as a road racer and take a crack at the fabled road race!
It would have been quite a car but thankfully it didn’t transpire . . .
“The ’32’s on its way to Neal East in Colorado” . . . Doane said.
So I understood . . .
I didn’t know Neal East yet, so I let the conversation end. I’d find out who Mr. East was . . .
I didn’t dare ask if the roadster might be for sale. I didn’t want Doane to feel that buying his car was the only purpose in my visits . . .
Instead we talked about his legendary ’55 Thunderbird.
There was a savage looking T-bird in his shop, but it surely couldn’t be the T-bird I’d seen pictures of. Or was it?
It was a 1955 Thunderbird, the one in the shop. But wow, it was miles away from the beauty that Doane had in the fifties. He and the late Lynn Wineland, an equally talented hot rodder and editor of several of the early “small” hot rod publications, had purchased new black ’55 Thunderbirds in the day.
This Thunderbird was a whole different kettle of fish! It had Spencer designed and built multi-piece alloy wheels, (. . . that’s a mouthful. . .) and an entirely redesigned frame with independent suspension, a Spencer built 305 Ford and considerable body modifications.
The flame was still burning in Doane. He had the Mille Miglia retro event rumbling around in the back of his mind as quick as the event was resurrected.
And make no mistake about it, a 1955 Ford Thunderbird had come seventh overall in 1957, so a highly sought after invitation to the Mille Miglia should be assured!
Damn, that ‘bird of his sure had changed.
Doane said he still loved to go out of Cayucos up to Route 1 and hunt out anyone in a “high performance” automobile and proceed to ruin their day. Didn’t matter what the car was. Doane would annihilate it. By the time the law got their act together Doane was always long gone. Some things never changed with Spencer. . .
AN ASIDE . . .
(. . . at a point in time several years later, Doane sold that super modified ‘bird to the late Bob Peterson publisher of Hot Rod Magazine, and founder of the famed Peterson automotive Museum in Los Angeles. The day he delivered the car to Petersen, Doane took Peterson to lunch, and said he wanted to show Bob what he was buying.
Bob Peterson, after all the cars he had owned and driven through the years said that ‘bird was by far the fastest, scariest vehicle he’d ever been in, and yes, a lot of what he experienced was the result of Doane’s driving!! ).
For all the amazing changes and engineering upgrades, the car simply did not appeal to me. Don’t misunderstand me the workmanship was dazzling.
I suppose that’s why we have menus . . .
“WHERE IS YOUR “OLD” T-BIRD??
(We finally gonna’ get somewhere with this story, Kirk??!!)
In the fall of 1990, Doane Spencer decided to completely dismantle his “original” highly modified personal 1955 Ford Thunderbird.
In the fifties and sixties he and Wineland, both very talented engineers h brought subtle changes to one car that would then carry over to the other one’s ‘bird.
Lynn’s Thunderbird then had taken an entirely new direction, becoming the subject of a “How to” styling project reported at length over a period of several issues of Car Craft Magazine. Lynn’s modifications dealt more with styling.
Doane continued to modify his Thunderbird, largely seeking ways to make it quicker. He took the car to Bonneville twice in near street trim, turning 149.53 mph in 1961, and 166 mph in 1966.
As was the case with everything Doane owned and drove, he basically used the Thunderbird as a “weapon”. He loved to roam the highways, running down prey of any sort.
Doane was the ultimate automotive street fighter. He ran the wheels off the car. There wasn’t a Corvette in the valley that could touch it.
Through the ‘60’s, Doane worked for Chick Vandergriff at Hollywood Sports Cars. The first road racing car he built there was the famous Hollywood Sports Car’s MGB. It was incredibly fast and was literally unbeatable.
The Rootes Group in Great Britain took note of the astounding performance of the MGB. Rootes approached Hollywood Sports Cars to have Doane Spencer oversee the development of a road racing Sunbeam Tiger. The result was the legendary Hollywood Sports Car Tiger, prepared by Doane and driven by Jim Adams. Six out of the seven times that the Spencer Tiger ran against the Shelby 289 Cobras, it beat them.
From there Doane went on to develop and build his famous DeKon Monza’s and any number of Shelby cars.
When Steve Earle and Chris Cord bought and campaigned the 1970 Ferrari 512 #1040, we know Doane had prepared that car and was their team manager. Doane executed some dramatic chassis changes in the car, resulting in an impressive improvement in handling.
That Ferrari 512 #1040 went on to become the famous Penske/White Sunoco car driven by Mark Donohue and David Hobbs. Doane often worked with Traco Engineering on the 512 Ferrari engines throughout the 1971 season, dialing in final power gains.
In the eighties, he tired of the Southern California rat race and moved to the small coastal town of Cayucos, California, where he opened a small shop and began to work on projects of his choosing.
In late 1989, Doane designed and executed an optimal independent rear suspension sub frame, primarily for use in his 55 Thunderbird. Though the live axle chassis had served him well and was totally set up, the car was getting long in the tooth after 30 plus years of hard running. As the quintessential, restless, hot rod engineer, Doane had to push on, try something new.
Doane had also become involved in building stunningly powerful 5 litre Ford engines; and he decided he would yank the highly tuned and modified Y-block engine out of the bird in favor of a 305 small block Ford. So, during much of 1990 and 1991 he began to tear the Thunderbird straight down to the ground, and build a “new” Thunderbird right from scratch.
ENTER THE SAVIOURS . . .
Both Bob Morris and Jim O’Mahoney were great devotees of all things Spencer. In fact, after being turned down flat by Spencer, Morris had gone to Don Thelan of Buffalo Motor Cars to have a duplicate built of Doane’s original 1932 highboy.
Morris and O’Mahoney were in Doane’s Cayucos shop often as they could never get enough of taking in the comings and goings in his place.
As the Thunderbird was being dismantled, O’Mahoney kept an eye on the fact that a great deal of the valuable original components were being tossed in a heap at the back of the shop.
O’Mahoney told Doane: “You can’t just throw all that away, there’s a long history to your car”.
Doane replied that history was yesterday’s news, and he would have no part in keeping anything for posterity’s sake.
O’Mahoney sat Doane down and proposed that Doane take the valuable pieces that he was discarding and rebuild for Jim, the “original” car just as it was.
Doane agreed to the idea, warning O’Mahoney that if he undertook the project the car would be built “ten tenths” and that it would be expensive!
He further wanted no time constraints.
Original items of note that would go into the O’Mahoney car included: the frame, the original Ford Motor Company “Eskimo Bear” heavy duty dual outlet radiator (less than a dozen made in ’57 for the Grand National stock cars), the windshield with Bonneville 1961 “Safety Inspected” sticker, the very rare ’57 Ford Spicer Limited Slip differential, all of the rear suspension, all of the front suspension, the T-10 four speed close ratio gearbox, Stewart Warner gauges and the wild Y-block engine, Jaeger 8 day clock, the ’66 Porsche seats, Nardi steering wheel, dual master cylinder setup, the reversed bumpers, the 15 x 5-½” 1956 Halibrand knock off sand cast magnesium wheels, the finned Lincoln Pan American Racing brakes, the 1961 Bonneville timing tag, and on and on.
The project was slow getting underway. . .
But then, Doane landed on a direction that would bring real excitement to the effort.
In the cold light of day, Doane knew his present wild animal of a Thunderbird was too wide of the “spirit” of the present day Mille Miglia.
Doane became fascinated with the opportunity to build O’Mahoney’s Thunderbird as a true road racer.
He knew he could build the O’Mahoney ‘bird to be an enormously capable runner, not only in the Mille Miglia, but any of the thousand mile events throughout the world.
Through the years, Spencer’s road racers were legendary and Doane’s interest in this project gained a keen edge.
He carefully went over the project again with O’Mahoney, this time spelling out the fact that he wanted to slant the project straight toward the creation of a really capable road racer. He fully expected O’Mahoney to run the Thunderbird in the Retro Mille Miglia.
O’Mahoney signed on. He acquired a 16,000 mile black stick shift Thunderbird from the original owner family in Santa Barbara, and delivered the car to Doane’s shop in late 1990.
The entire automobile was, completely free of any accident damage, or corrosion of any kind!
The project, once underway, became more and more appealing to Doane as he would be able to build the O’Mahoney Thunderbird on an “open ticket”, implementing a great deal of the road racing knowledge he’d gained through the years.
The suspension corners from Doane’s car were rebuilt, completely reconfigured, and installed. Massive ball joints were installed, and the frame components were “continuously” welded for additional strength.
(. . . These next few paragraphs may be best enjoyed by whacko “gearheads,” such as myself. . .)
The finned Lincoln Pan American brakes were rebuilt and installed as were the original sand-cast Halibrand knockoff wheels, circa 1956.
The very rare ’57 Ford Spicer limited slip was rebuilt and installed, with 3:42 gears.
The Super T-10 close ratio transmission was gone through and a double disc, heavy duty McLeod clutch assembly installed.
The Y-block engine was torn down to the bare black, and the block itself was completely de-burred. The block was bored .080, the crank was stroked ¼”, magnafluxed, and rebalanced. The result brought the engine displacement to 322 cubic inches.
Heavy duty ARP head studs, and main bearing cap studs were fitted.
The lightweight rods were fitted with Spencer designed Arias pistons, resulting in a compression ratio of 11.2 to 1!
The cam specifications were laid out by Doane, and he ground the camshaft. At this point, I’ll quote directly from Spencer’s data sheet”: …”Camshaft lift: .560 at the valve, duration: 300 degrees @ .012, Spencer machined rocker arms out of nodular iron. Valve springs: Diamond, 115 pounds pressure at the valve seats. Three springs per valve! Titanium spring retainers.”
New cylinder heads were obtained, as Doane wanted to put his latest modifications into the valve configurations. Never one to be intimidated, he radically changed the valve angles and stagger on both the intakes and exhausts. The valves themselves, though ultra light were “dinner plates” in surface area. The cylinder heads were further modified to accept coolant inlets directly into both heads from the racing “Eskimo Bear” Ford racing radiator.
Again Doane’s Stats: . . .valves: TRW, 2 inch intake, exhaust: 1-5/8 inch in AUS stainless. Guides moved toward the exhaust ports, .080. “Pushrod hole filled, and moved away from port!!”
These modifications were insanely bold, but he obviously knew precisely what he was doing.
A ’57 Ford intake manifold was heavily modified, changing the runners, and being set up to accept two Holley 450 CFM carburetors.
A Holley NASCAR racing ignition system with a mechanical tach drive was fitted.
All of the components were assembled and a high output external Mellings oil pump installed along with a lightweight “button” flywheel. Spencer fabricated and installed a six quart sump.
Amazing details emerged in the final assembly. A graceful chromed brass “fuel equalizer” plenum bubble was installed in the fuel line to assure equal flow to the 2 four barrels. The throttle linkage was constructed superbly with Heim joints throughout.
Doane machined a finned aluminum “valley tray” for the top of the block, and in a few hours one morning, he hand hammered, in aluminum, the fabulous air intake.
And finally, he fabricated the exhaust headers and collector box. The headers come off the heads at 1-5/8 inches and through superb “feather” welding, swelled to 1-¾ inches, each leading to the collector boxes at the trailing edge of both front fender wheel houses. The welds are imperceptible.
(. . .Okay, it’s over, we’re coming back to earth . . .)
Finally, Doane found the torque of the engine so great, that he engineered a Heim jointed stabilizer arm that allowed torque twist to a point.
The entire project took close to two years, and costed out well into six figures.
Doane broke the car in over several weeks and deemed it quicker than his “old” one had ever been.
He told me at lunch one afternoon when I’d gone to visit him, that he’d recently had a replica Cobra in his shop with a side oiler 427. On a back road near Cayucos, the ‘bird walloped the Cobra up to 120 mph.
O’Mahoney took delivery, and almost as quick as I learned the car had been the one I‘d seen at Bakersfield, I began to earnestly attempt to buy it from him.
Jim was a good guy but he had distinctly different automotive tastes. The screamin’ gold wheels, the gigundous tires, the altered exhaust system and the stance all said try to grab that car, Kirk.
Two years of back and forth with O’Mahoney couldn’t get the Thunderbird loose.
We continued to miss agreement on the pricing . . .
Then “Rod & Custom” magazine showed a glimpse of the car in the April of ’92 issue at the Santa Barbara concours. I didn’t care for the public exposure. . .
Then in April of ’93, the car showed up on the cover of Rod & Custom alongside Bob Morris’ ’32 roadster!! An extensive article was written by Gray Baskerville.
It was also scheduled for a full page color spread in Hot Road Magazine’s upcoming Swimsuit Issue.
(Well, you can see that took place . . .)
As soon as the Rod & Custom “Cover” issue came out on the newsstands, I began to bear down on O’Mahoney to sell the car.
Spencer had recently told me that it might be a good time to pursue. I flew to Santa Barbara and met with O’Mahoney. I couldn’t believe it when he fired the engine.
It was like lighting off a top fuel dragster. . .
O’Mahoney drove me along some windy roads in the Santa Barbara area; it wasn’t a pleasant ride. The Car was wildly powerful, but O’Mahoney could barely manage it. At one point we were airborne!!
I went home; two weeks later we struck a deal and the car was shipped to me in Philadelphia. I drove the car out of the transporter and determined among other things.
The carbs were jetted for Bonneville, the cam was wild beyond words, the distributor advance curve was nearly vertical, and dual disc clutch package was needlessly savage.
Further, O’Mahoney’s choice of tires was totally wrong and the gold color of the wheels singed my retinas.
In Philadelphia, I was fortunate to have a young engine man named Jim Garttmeyer, whose brain was able to quickly sort out what Spencer was all about in building this engine for maximum power.
“Sensibility be damned!” Said Garttmeyer!
McLeod assembled another single clutch package and after literally weeks and weeks of fine tuning Jim Gartmeyer had the engine tuned perfectly. You could actually move away from a traffic light without the car first falling on its nose and then scorching out from under you.
The legendary Alex Baynard fitted a fantastic exhaust system!
Proper Goodyear Eagle tires were fitted, the wheels brought to a proper Dow color, and I began to experience one of the most remarkable automobiles I’ve ever owned.
The Thunderbird’s engine spun like a turbine, was stupendously powerful, and pulled straight from the bottom. The redline was set at 8000 RPM and the engine had been spun to 10,000 on one occasion,(not on my watch!) with no ill consequences.
Steve Robertson’s superb photographs shown here give you a glimpse of the car and the details . .
The handling was astoundingly good, being virtually neutral; any bit of edging out was easily corrected with just a touch of throttle.
On the road occasionally, at speed, I might get a Porsche, Corvette, etc. coming up to fool with me. Almost regardless of what gear I was in, the merest touch of the throttle would result in the victim diminishing to a dot in my rearview mirror.
The photos point show the end result . . .
To, hopefully, put this Thunderbird into perspective; allow me to relate an incident that took place roughly a year into my ownership.
I started the Thunderbird in my garage one afternoon and could hear a very slight, but steady “click” in the motor. A long screwdriver at the ear revealed it was coming from the second cylinder on the right bank. I shipped the car to Richard Robinson in Huntington Valley, Pennsylvania. He had seen the car a number of times at events and was highly impressed with Doane’s work.
I further chose Dick as he had a great deal of active history preparing both GM and Ford racing engines. He was responsible for several very rare, very esoteric vintage racing Corvettes.
He carefully disassembled the engine to remove the right cylinder head. The valves were so large that the seats were siamesed.
A metallurgic failure in one exhaust valve seat had cracked it. Andalusia Speed Shop effected the valve seat replacement.
“WHO THE F… DID THESE CYLINDER HEADS?!!
Andalusia had been doing auto racing machine work since the early fifties. When Dick returned to collect the cylinder head, the shop foreman said to him: “I don’t know who the fuck did these heads, but the guy’s a genius, and he’s got balls of iron!”
Dick carefully reassembled the engine and then he had an opportunity to drive the ‘bird himself.
When I went to pick the car up, he related his drive to me: “To put it simply”, he said, “that ‘bird is as quick as an L-88”.
He could not get over the staggering power that was coming out of 322 cubic inches! Dick came to Hershey each year and always asked about the car.
To end this masterpiece of bloviation one may ask . . .
Is Doane Spencer, like the God of all speed merchants? No, but the story relates the talents of one of the top racing talents in America.
AND IN 2012, THE FOLLOWING TOOK PLACE . . .
At that point Marilyn and I were living in New Smyrna Beach and had been since 1994. I was out alone in the ‘bird just having taken a healthy drive on A1A south of town. On the way back in the late afternoon I was sitting at a traffic light on a two lane road waiting to turn on to the divided four lane Route 44 headed west.
Pulled tight up behind me were two young men in a slammed down highly modified Honda
Very recently Pete Chapouris and I had discussed just how rapid, with well executed changes, some of the Japanese cars had become. Pete was always duking it out with the “rice rockets” on the I- 210 in California.
I looked in my rear view mirror and the young faces in the front seat were straining to check out the ‘bird.
They could see the old duff at the wheel, but in dropping their windows they could hear there was something pretty serious up ahead of them.
The light changed and the nonsensical portion of my brain threw the mature practical portion right out the window.
We both made the turn slowly just like “in the movies” sizing each other up. The Honda pulled alongside and indeed it appeared to be a “righteous” runner.
The passenger in the Honda gave a slight smile and his finger pointed forward. The nonsensical side of my brain was locked in hyper-overdrive and I simply nailed the throttle. There was very little traffic and we really got at it. I got a slight jump on the Honda but he was right there at my back wheel.
There was a traffic light ahead and it was green. We must have gone through that light at near a hundred miles an hour and then we had at least a quarter mile straight divided highway ahead and then continued up the long approach over the South Causeway.
Nearing the top of the bridge, I finally came out of the throttle. That damn Honda had stayed right there off my left rear.
As I lifted, the Honda shot past, then slowed to come alongside. The two guys smiled and gave thumbs up and I did the same.
I turned off at the bottom of the bridge . . .
I’m sure one of the young men had to have said to the other:
“Whoa, that didn’t really happen did it . . .??!!
“That ol’ sucker gave us a run or else we shouldn’t have smoked that junk your brother gave us . . .!”
I stopped a couple of blocks off the causeway and allowed to my mind go through exactly what had just happened.
I was really high on the adrenalin kick but then I realized I was 73 years old, had blasted through a traffic light ( . . .that had a “turn right on red” option at a hundred miles an hour, continued on the causeway past a substantial condo complex with three driveways feeding on to this highway. I just sailed on by at 110-120 miles per hour . . .
I didn’t allow myself to imagine what would have happened if the police had snared me
What the fuck, Kirk. . . .??
In 2013 I passed the ‘bird to a younger man who as, I understand it, has thoroughly enjoyed the Thunderbird for all the right reasons . . .
Be back to you soon . . .
Mid-morning Ray came over to his roadster with his pal Alex. It was fabulous to watch the two them go over the car. It was clearly a case of Ray saying we’d done a good job of returning his car to what it had been in the forties, and Alex clearly telling Ray: “Your old junker never looked this good!”
But you could tell that in fact they were the best of buddies.
I found about 300 hot rods that I wanted to buy, but the reunion didn’t seem like an appropriate venue.
Late in the morning Bruce Meyer rolled in driving the legendary Pierson Brothers Bonneville coupe. That fabulous and famous rod had been raced all the way to 1990! When Bruce Meyer bought the car he had turned to Pete Chapouris at So-Cal Speed Shop to restore it.
It had been a fabulous weekend . . .