THE FIRST NEIGHBORHOOD HOT ROD
One evening in the spring of 1951, dinner was over and I was urged to hike myself upstairs and get down to some genuine effort with my homework, as my school grades were, shall we say, edgy.
Settling into my desk chair, I peered through the bedroom window which faced our neighbor, the Bryden’s, parking area. I was always peering longingly at Mr. Bryden’s amazing Oldsmobile 98 convertible, in bright red with matching scarlet red leather interior. I was often asked to join the Bryden boys and their father for an evening’s top down drive in that wonderful showboat. The gyroscopically mounted clock in the steering wheel was an endless source of fascination.
But, tonight the Olds wasn’t there . . . There in the flat evening light, was a beautiful 1949 Ford Deluxe 2-door sedan. Not only that, but the Ford was lowered in the back, and the trunk was shaved. The license plate was centered in the rear bumper. I could see subtle dual chrome exhaust pipe extensions and ribbed fender skirts.
The car was finished in a pale gray over dark blue; the colors were separated by the Ford Crestliner trim strips.
I could scarcely breathe . . .
I’d only seen magazine coverage of this type of “California” custom / hot rod. I’d never seen one with my eyes. I thought they were all in California! I never dreamed there would be a car like that back here in the east, let alone parked in the driveway next door!
The car had to belong to Bill Bryden who was 17. His younger brother Chuck, age 14, was my friend. Bill was a gifted athlete, a top student and just your All American guy. It was generally not a good idea for a fourteen year old to approach someone with Bill’s credentials unless the fourteen year old had something mighty damn relevant to discuss.
I shot next door and found Bill studying in his room. I pulled up short, took a deep breath at the doorway, and asked quietly: “Is that your Ford out there?”
He turned and looked directly at me with piercing eyes and said:
“Yep, want to see it??”
Bill’s face broke into the faintest of smiles knowing this goofy kid was about to lapse into a catatonic state over his Ford.
It seemed that during that coming summer, Bill would be working with a construction company in the northeast part of Philadelphia. His father had bought Bill the 1949 Ford 2 door Deluxe sedan in dark blue, with a 3 speed, and overdrive, for $600.
Bill had been harboring in his mind some serious modifications for a car like this from the moment he knew he was going to be getting it. Jeez, who knew . . .? The moment he got the Ford, Bill had the engine stripped down to the bare block, and started back up with a 3 3/8” bore, a 4” Mercury crankshaft, Jahns pistons, Grant rings, and an Iskenderian ¾ Race cam, with Johnson lifters. An Edelbrock dual carb intake with Stromberg 97’s and Stellings air cleaners were fitted. The block was ported and relieved, then capped with Edelbrock high compression heads. A Mallory ignition system and a set of Belond headers with “Smithy’s” straight through mufflers finished off this amazing effort.
Consider, if you will that Bill was 17 years old, and basically cutting new ice in our eastern neighborhood, as there were few true hot rods in southeastern Pennsylvania at that time. For me the car was akin to having the encyclopedia of hot rodding just a few yards from my front door!
Bill drove that hot rod every day to his construction job all through the summer. The guys he worked with loved the car. Everyone wanted to “see the engine,” or have a ride. Morano’s garage would have to rebuild Bill’s gearbox during that summer, as the car was always being driven hard.
Bill could see that I was prepared to spend the rest of my life around his Ford. Occasionally, I’d be invited to join him and a friend or two. Needless to say I was stashed deeply and quietly in the back seat. Once in a while, Bill even allowed me to drive his Ford up and down their driveway which may have been 80 yards in length. Doesn’t sound like much, but at age 14, being allowed to actually fire up a real, no nonsense hot rod with a “full house” flathead, and then drive it any distance was in fact a very big deal.
Before attempting these magical excursions, I would generally illusion up some splendid scenario where I would just be pulling away from a close, but winning drag race, or arriving in a blaze of glory at the local diner after the same victory at the other end of the driveway. My motoring theatrics, once underway, had to develop quickly though, as we were dealing with a very short time span from one end of that driveway to the other!
FINDING A DRAG RACE . . .
In our rural Pennsylvania neighborhoods in the early fifties, you had to search mighty hard to scare up an opponent for a good drag race. But word was trickling down that street action could be found occasionally late at night on the new unopened eastern sections of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The turnpike venue and a few spots like the Hill Diner in Chestnut Hill, Kenyon’s Diner in Glenside, the Pike Diner in Gwynedd, and the Hot Shoppes on Stenton Avenue in Philly were attracting a growing number of hot rodders from all over the Philadelphia area.
“THRE . . .”
One Saturday morning, I was asked to ride along with Bill Bryden and one of his buddies, “Reds”, to a place called “Langhorne Speed Shop”, not far from the legendary speedway.
Wow! I had been invited to go to a “real” speed shop! And we were going up there in Bill’s cool hot rod! I didn’t know there was a speed shop anywhere in Philadelphia. They were all in California, weren’t they? I grabbed all of my money, and we took the long drive up to Langhorne.
Bill introduced me to the Speed Shop owner, “Bud” Groner, and his Dad. What a place! Every type of speed equipment you could ever dream of was there. The shop was spectacular with manifolds, high compression heads, exhaust headers, racing cams, etc. I learned a new word: “Iskenderian.” Ed Iskenderian made high performance camshafts! No speed equipment for this 14 year old kid, but I bought the coolest thing I could afford; a Langhorne Speed Shop T-shirt. And a very slick item it was.
Bill and Reds were shooting the breeze with “Bud” Groner, when a smallish guy in his twenties walked in. He was dressed in a working man’s dark green shirt and trousers. The oval on his shirt said “Jack”. He was nearly a twin for the TV character “Mr. Peepers”. He chatted quietly with Mr. Groner while I went back to lusting after everything in the place. I had glanced outside and seen that “Jack” was driving, what had to be, his parent’s car. It was a ’52 Oldsmobile 88 4 door in a muddy metallic green, with black wall tires, and “dog dish” hubcaps.
“What’s this guy doing here?” I smugly thought. I mean really, Bill, Reds and I belonged in a speed shop, having arrived in Bill’s very cool ’49 Ford hot rod. What could this character need in here, anyway? Bill, “Reds,” and I were straight out hip hot rodders. “Jack” looked like he should have been in a Pep Boys Store, not a classy Speed Shop.
Just about the time I was winding up my jackass suppositions, Groner said to Bill: “Jack here wants to know if you guys would like to run a "heat" out front here”.
The highway fronting the Speed Shop parking lot was the Route 1 bypass around Langhorne itself. The 4-lane highway ran straight for almost two miles south down a gradual hill, and in those days that bypass had very little traffic.
After assessing Jack’s “parents” mundane, fat Oldsmobile, Bill nodded his OK. “Jack” stood quietly by, occasionally pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, and looking like he should be solving a bit of calculus, instead of challenging these hip guys from Oreland in their “full house” ’49 Ford.
“Sure” Bill shrugged, “Let’s go”.
On “our” way outside to carry out this non-event, we looked over “Jack’s” car. Bill glanced inside to see if the car was a stick shift by any chance. It wasn’t. The back end of the car revealed that it didn’t even have dual exhausts.
Bill and Reds exchanged glances; “OK, let’s just get this over with . . .”
Bill got in his car, and Reds and I stepped away. Bill signaled us to get in. Hell, we weren’t really going to need to scuttle any weight. We all piled in. Bill was driving, “Reds” rode shotgun, and I was in the back (as usual.) We lined up in front of the speed shop.
I noticed Bud Groner and his Dad came out to the parking lot to watch.
Jack rolled down his window, and Reds rolled down his. This was going to be the coolest automotive moment of my life . . .
Reds yelled “One, two” . . . and as he just got to the “thre . . .” of “three” we watched Jack literally and totally, rocket away. No sound, no fury, no wheel spin. He just diminished into a dot down the road. Bill was thunderstruck. I didn’t know anything about anything, but I couldn’t believe it! That bile green, 4 door, automatic, double lay down, goofy Oldsmobile had just flat hammered Bill. On reflection, I’m certain Jack’s single exhaust had actually blown a big ol’ Bronx cheer, giving us a subtle raspberry as it shot away.
“Jack” never looked back. He just tore off into the distance. Humiliated, we turned around and headed back to the Speed Shop, only to find Groner and his father rolling around the parking lot laughing! We found out that this type of thing was almost a Saturday ritual.
It turned out “Jack” was, the soon to be famous, Jack Kulp, a young local genius with Oldsmobile overhead valve engines. Jack was the first guy to figure out how to successfully modify a Hydramatic transmission into a strong weapon for drag racing.
The “new” Oldsmobile Hydramatic at that time had 3 speeds, and second gear was a useful passing gear called “Super”. The shortcoming was that at a fairly low RPM the stock Hydramatic would automatically upshift itself to the “drive”, creating a near nosedive condition as the Revs fell into the basement. Groner explained that Jack had found a way to remap the new Hydramatic transmission valve body, so that the gearbox could be “held” in “Super” until the driver was ready to upshift it to Drive.” Jack also knew how to seriously rework the Olds OHV cylinder heads and he further had the engineering knowledge to reconfigure the camshaft grind for maximum power. Jack Kulp, through the years, became a sensational, legendary, drag racer, known and respected coast to coast. Always introspective, he had a deadly dry wit, and was always quick to have a good time.
Well, our ride home was pretty quiet, as we all suffered the agony of defeat and the foolishness of cockiness. We decided it wasn’t really necessary to share any of today with anyone else back in Oreland.
EDUCATIONAL PURSUITS . . .
That drag race simply fueled my hot rod fires further.
I was amazed that these young men crafted these modified passenger automobiles to a point where their cars became very potent street racers.
I rounded up and devoured every publication I could get my hands on, soaking up all the Hot Rod knowledge I could. Hot Rod Magazine was the Holy Grail and each issue was read and reread.
(Why are you asking about my schoolwork? One thing has nothing to do with the other . . .)
Other publications included Motor Trend, Rod & Custom, and Hop Up, (at 5 ½” x 8” the last two would tuck nicely inside a textbook, so you could completely skip getting your head cluttered with Algebra, French, etc.)
When I had a spare few dollars I began to order and consume voraciously some of the remarkable publications from the legendary Floyd Clymer. I always gathered up anything on the Indy 500. I well remember one of Clymer’s most fascinating books covered the life of the great early auto racing starter, Freddy Dixon. What a remarkable life Dixon had in the very earliest days of American auto racing. It is an amazingly good read. I recently enjoyed reading it again.
The woefulness of that Plymouth and a general lack of funds led me to purchase some not very exotic “performance” catalog offerings from such companies as J.C. Whitney and Almquist. And, I would regularly ride my bike to the local Pep Boys, and Penn Jersey Auto Parts stores in quest of speed equipment that was available for well less than ten dollars.
Even reaching down to the very bottom rungs of hot rodding, there really wasn’t much that could be done with Mom’s double dumb Plymouth. And, my hopeless finances dictated that whatever modifications I executed would be at a very meager level. There would be no Edelbrock or Iskenderian products in my life. No Harmon Collins magneto or Belond Headers.
My first major move on Mom’s car was to buy a Y pipe for the exhaust system. I got mine at Pep Boys. Y pipes were really pretty weak, but they were available for $3.95. You would cut your single exhaust pipe, maybe 2 or 3 feet back from where it normally exited, and clamp on the Y system. Through wheezy, flexible piping two exhaust pipes would appear at the back bumper, with chrome extensions, giving the illusion of a dual exhaust system.
Mother never even noticed the change.
BRILLIANCE IN MOTION . . .
Why was I doing this? I didn’t even have a driver’s license, and wasn’t going to have one for some time.
Well, you see, it was like this: Occasionally, when Mom had been picked up by friends, and was out for the evening, I was busily committing Grand Theft Auto! I was sneaking the old Plymouth out for the occasional clandestine drive under the cloak of darkness. For me to tempt fate in this fashion took monstrous gall, nerves of steel, and heaps of stupidity. I was blessed with an ample dose of the latter . . .
These thefts were a logistical nightmare. I certainly couldn’t count on the neighbors on either side of us not telling my mother if they saw me driving the blue bomber away at my age. So, as soon as mother was out for the evening, I’d go out and start the car. After much backing and filling I’d have the car backed up tight against the garage, so that it was positioned nose down. I’d then get out of the car and go back in the house for a while, to throw off any neighbor that may have seen me moving the car in the driveway.
Later, under the cloak of darkness with all the lights turned off in the house, I’d quietly get back in the car, turn on the key, silently roll the two front windows down and listen.
You read that right. I’d listen. Our driveway on Church Road was short but very steep, descending sharply through two high earthen banks that extended to the edge of Church Road. The shrubbery and the high banking left me with no option but to listen for any cars that may have been coming down Church Road! After relying solely on what I could or could not hear, I’d blindly coast the old heap down that steep driveway, ripping a right onto Church Road, without being able to see in either direction!! I’d coast right past the Bryden’s without the benefit of headlights, hit the starter, and pray.
(. . . bit late for that wasn’t it Kirk?)
The whole scheme opened the adrenaline taps pretty well! But, then of course, with all that accomplished, I couldn’t drive over to visit any friends, as their parents might see the Plymouth without Mom at the helm, and that would be that. In the early fifties, there weren’t that many cars on the road out there in the country, and you had to be pretty damn clever to avoid anyone recognizing you in your mother’s car.
At one point during these clandestine automotive escapades, I had a crush on a girl who baby-sat for the same family each Saturday night. The home where she was sitting was on a nice straight street, not too far away. So when I could get away with it, I would heist the Plymouth and drive on down there.
I had already hired on with The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin newspaper as a delivery boy when I was twelve. Each afternoon I carried the Bulletin newspaper to 52 homes. On Sundays I delivered your big, fat Sunday paper, often in the dark, before dawn. My handlebars had to be flipped back up to manage the huge cloth “Bulletin Bag” stuffed with Sunday’s newspaper.
My paper route wound through one of the new tracts of low cost two story plain homes that had wiped out what seemed like hundreds of acres of our woods and fields. We kids named the damn place “white city.” Every home was painted white and they were all essentially identical with zero landscaping and virtually no distinguishing features. It was a real bitch getting the papers to the right houses.
But, included in my customer list was the Webb family. I had no trouble remembering where the Webb’s lived. They had two 14 year old twin sons, Ronnie and Donnie Webb. The Webb twins had just started attending our school. The Springfield Township school system had never seen anything remotely like the Webb twins. The brothers were the very essence of cool cats.
Cab Calloway is often credited with reviving the Zoot suit era in the early fifties, and with the gathering storm of rock and roll sweeping the country, the Webb Brothers brought the “Cool Cat” era to our quiet suburb like a bolt of lightning. Both of the Webb brothers were thin as rails, and tough as nails. They had moved to Oreland from the Borough of Queens, outside New York City.
Those two brothers were the epitome of “Zoot” cool with Flagg Bros. brick toe shoes, pegged pants, (usually 14-15” cuffs, ballooning up to 44” knees, and finishing with a 4-7 inch rise above their narrow belts.) They wore really blousy silk shirts with outrageously high pastel colors. Their zoot suit jackets hung nearly to their knees. Their over the top ensembles were capped off with superb “ducktail” hairdos, and long watch chains draped down the right leg. Particularly as twins, the Webb brothers were just plain awesome.
I wasn’t allowed to even think about such an outlandish form of dress; and I was to simply “deliver your newspapers to the people in that ‘White City’ development, not socialize in that neighborhood!”
Strict orders notwithstanding, I had sneaked into Philadelphia and with a “saved up” $8.99, I had purchased a pair of “Flagg Flyers,” the rudest “brick” toe brogans you could lay your hands on. I also had sneaked a pair of light blue slacks to a friend’s house, where his mother had agreed to peg the cuffs to 15” in circumference. The shoes and the trousers were kept hidden in our garage at the house in a paper bag.
On a weekend, I would have to steal away into the night with “the bag” and change along the way. Some of those switch-outs would have been a hoot to watch, what with me going through those motions behind a dark garage, or worse in someone’s bushes. Then praying it didn’t rain on my paper bag before I got back to switch it all back again! (Vanity, thy name is . . .)
It was a far cry from the Webb twins, but it was the best I could do. I had purchased a “hand painted” necktie with a big buck deer standing at the top of a cascading waterfall. The waterfall tumbling down the tie was painted in colors that looked like they’d been laid down by an artist who had been on an outrageous acid trip for days! The tie was ridiculous. I never let my mother see it.
My summer employment had moved on to working for two tyrannical brothers who owned the first, true, Jewish Delicatessen in Oreland, right smack in the middle of “white city.” It was a hell of a summer. Talk about never an idle moment!
Somehow I still had ample opportunity to behave badly by sneaking the old Plymouth out for the occasional clandestine drive under the cloak of darkness, always finding my way to Kenyon’s Diner in the nearby town of Glenside. Right next to Kenyon’s Diner, was Kenyon’s Esso filling station which fronted on Pennsylvania Avenue, and behind the gas station, at the bottom of a deep ravine ran the Reading Railroad tracks.
The gas station was situated on a tiny sliver of ground. There was a single island with two sets of pumps, and backed up against the ravine’s edge was the tiny office, with a restroom at one end, and a few magical canned engine cures for sale on the shelves. The cash register and desk were at the other end of the tiny building. The service lift was outside which was pretty cool if you lived in Miami or LA, but not so great in the Northeast.
Joe Kenyon was a super guy who worked his heart out. He was a tall blonde haired, handsome man in his forties. Everyone liked him, and they trusted Joe. Every time I saw him, I asked him if I could work there on weekends. The 438th time I asked he said “OK.” In looking back I’d have to say it may well have been the best work experience of my life. From 6:30 in the morning on any Saturday, straight through Sunday night, that station was mine, and I ran like it was mine. If somebody smudged an island with a tire, I’d have it whitewashed before they were back on the street. Everyone got their windshield washed, oil checked, and battery level topped up. I’d ask each customer if they’d like their air pressures checked.
It was my first real business “give and take” experience. I got a chance to meet all types of people. Most of them were wonderful and I was amazed when occasionally a customer would give me a tip of 20 or 25 cents! Once, a man gave me a fifty cent piece! An utter windfall! It was a terrific experience; I don’t remember ever having had a bad day at Kenyon’s.
In spite of my new “business” demeanor, I continued my non-sanctioned drives at night. I never got caught. Lord only knows what might have happened to me in that event . . . Not much later I turned 16, February 6, 1954 and became a legitimate licensed driver in the State of Pennsylvania, oddly enough without any fanfare whatsoever!
STATUS QUO JEPORADIZED: MOTHER HAS A DATE!
At a point in my 16th year, Mother mentioned a gentleman would be our guest for dinner that coming Sunday evening. A gentleman she had grown up with in La Crosse, she said. His name was Robert Lees, and his wife had also passed away a few years ago.
He lived in New York City and he was with the Chase Manhattan Bank in downtown New York in the financial district . . . and as I mentioned, he was coming to dinner.
I didn’t like the idea one little bit. It never occurred to me that my Mother, at some point, might want to date again. In any event, “now” certainly wasn’t the time in my mind’s eye.
I mean, what the Hell . . .??
Well, that Sunday came and I was told I’d be joining them for dinner. Get dressed, and comb that hair.
Robert Lees was a perfectly pleasant gentleman. He was about 6’1”, medium build, with thinning grayish hair, rimless eyeglasses, and very much Williams College “old guard,” with his Harris Tweed jacket, Club tie, gray flannels, and well polished Bass Weejuns, etc. His voice was quite deep, he smoked Pall Malls and he was well . . . somewhat stiff.
Mother was very nice to him, so I tried to be the same. It was a struggle, particularly in light of the fact that Robert Lees didn’t even own an automobile! He said, living in Manhattan, he had little need of a car.
I don’t have to tell you where we’re going with all this . . . Mother began to see more and more of Robert Lees. It was a mixed bag. I wasn’t at all keen on the “relationship,” but I could see Mother was having a much better time with her life. They began to socialize with Mother and Dad’s friends. Their expanding relationship though, did actually open up a bit of additional time for me to pursue the “unauthorized” adventures in my life.
Their relationship moved quietly but steadily toward engagement and then it was announced that Robert Lees and Mary Finch White would be married in the late spring of 1955. I had a Hell of a time imagining my Mom as anyone other than Mary White, let alone someone else’s wife.
Then, very quickly my life began to move in an entirely different direction.
Robert Lees, it seemed, had a degree of wealth. Once the engagement was set, Mother and “Bob” set about looking for a larger home. I wasn’t much involved with the process until one fall day late in 1954. On a Sunday, Mother insisted I come with them to view a home in Glenside that they both liked a great deal. Glenside was a few miles east of Oreland, but for a kid who loved the neighborhood he grew up in, it may as well have been on the moon.
We drove over to view this splendid house that they couldn’t stop talking about. I must mention that my mother had “automotively” done it once again. . .she had failed to consult with me, and gone out and bought a brand new 1954 Plymouth Cranbrook “hardtop convertible” with an automatic transmission called “Hydrive!” That gearbox had to be the source for the term “fluid coupler!” That sucker had no discernible shift points! You simply pushed a bunch of throttle at it and eventually you’d be somewhat underway.
As we “Hydrived” east on Waverly Road, three massive homes loomed up on the right. I had ridden past them on my bicycle before. I always wondered who lived in those big houses on that hill.
Then we turned into the driveway of the middle home, through stone gates, and proceeded up a winding driveway to the top of a sweeping hill. The drive opened onto a substantial parking area. There was a large Carriage house on the north side of the property, and to the south, right on the crest of this magnificent rise was “the house” Mother and Bob liked, surrounded by beautiful lawns, plantings, and tall trees.
It was a 18 room “house,” circa 1897, with sweeping southern views out over a valley, across Church Road. On the far southern horizon across the valley, stood “Grey Towers,” the castle designed by the legendary architect Horace Trumbauer, for the “Sugar King,” William Welsh Harrison in 1893.
With 41 rooms “Grey Towers” was among the very largest homes in America.
Local legend had it that the three homes across the valley from “Grey Towers” had been built for Harrison “family” members or friends.
William Welsh Harrison was notorious for his outrageous philandering. Whispered legend had it that the homes may have been built for three of Harrison’s “favorites.” A cursory dash through Google will unearth some remarkable lore on William Welsh Harrison! Today, “Grey Towers” has gone on to become the focus of the Arcadia University campus.
To me the entire concept of picking up and living in that new environment was just kind of, slam, bang; here’s your new life. What about my school, my friends, my haunts, etc.? I was completely put off by the prospect of it all. Bob and Mary loved it, and before I could do a damn thing about it, they upped and bought the property!
While I was reeling from all of this, it was mentioned that I’d be allowed to finish the school year at Springfield High, and following that I’d be transferred to a school in the Glenside area. All pretty downing, and certainly not anything to look forward to. Until suddenly . . . !
“We’ll have to get a car for Kirk”, someone said.
Well, wait . . . yes, yes, of course “we” would have to do that! That would afford Kirk the opportunity to better pursue his studies for the balance of his academic term!
THE EVIL, POSSESSED, “FRANNIE”
I was very excited when we visited Jenkintown Ford shortly thereafter. Directly at the leading edge of their large “Used Car” lot was a shiny 1936 Ford 3 window coupe resplendent in dark Washington blue. The car was lowered with dual exhausts, wide whitewalls, and “spider” hubcaps. Lifting the hood revealed an Edmunds dual intake, sporting two somewhat soggy Stromberg 97’s.
As it was, and always shall be, the combination was irresistible. My buddy and I took a short “test” drive with the salesman. Once underway the ‘36 revealed a sloppy drive train, a gearbox that popped out of 2nd on a trailing throttle, and I had my first bit of excitement with a set of early Ford mechanical brakes, as I sailed through the first “Stop” sign I came upon.
“Those brake rods are easy to adjust” . . . said the salesman: . . . “Takes just a few minutes.”
“Just hold it in 2nd till you shift into 3rd they all drop out of second like that” . . . he said.
“That’s really all the oil pressure they’re supposed to have . . .”
Well, all those little issues aside, this would be my first running car, and it was a bit of a hot rod to boot. The price was $565, but I secured it on a “special discount” at $550.
Picking the car up the following Saturday, I left the dealership with a pal following along behind. The feeling of having my own car, that actually ran (somewhat) and having a legitimate driver’s license was absolutely euphoric!
Before I reached the house, however, I committed the fatal error of giving this hot rod a name. A girl’s name, at that . . . “Frannie.” I can’t remember where that name stemmed from. Had to have been another marvelous young lady I had fallen in love with, probably without her knowing a thing about it. However, from the moment I uttered the “name” of the car, the vehicle became utterly demonic. I got it home to the house on Church Road, and immediately a lower radiator hose burst which left an unpleasant rust brown puddle trailing all the way down our steep driveway. I would have to take Mother’s Plymouth to the Parts store, before I even had a chance to show off the car to my friends.
I didn’t know it, but that damn ‘36 was cursed from the get-go, no question about it, and I’m still convinced that tagging the name on it was the kiss of death. It never went more than 15 miles without breaking down, generally in a thoroughly embarrassing fashion.
Let me give you one incredible example before we move past “Frannie”.
One of the few weekends that “Frannie” wasn’t completely busted, I cleaned, waxed, and buffed the car, bringing it up to the best level of snuff it could reach. Even Bill Bryden said it looked good.
The following Monday morning, I felt I was in a strong enough position, for the very first time in my “high school” career to pull the ‘36 into the Springfield High School parking lot and join the exalted, exclusive, row of other “real” rods and customs that had a special parking area, that was reserved, strictly for the very cool.
The number of cars allowed to park in that special area numbered no more than seven or eight. Everyone wanted to hang around those cool cars and, of course, the cool guys who owned them, which now might hopefully include me.
The car looked great, and I was allowed to join the group. During that early morning bit of time before our classes started, the drill was to hang around, kick tires, (I’ve never actually witnessed someone “kicking” a tire . . .), regale any and all with whatever mischief we’d been up to, and make sure our Engineers boots were dusty enough. As top guns, we swapped street racing stories, most of which were either wrought of whole cloth or wildly exaggerated.
The ritual came to a close when the school bell would ring. The final bit of theater for the rodders was that all of the engines would be fired, revved
I wasn’t allowed to go in the house where she was sitting, so I’d stop a couple of hundred yards from the house, rev it up, and pop the old Plymouth clutch. I’d get a tiny peep out of the rear tires, wind it out all the way in first, and slam a wicked shift into second, directly in front of the house where my heartthrob was babysitting. Sometimes, I would do it twice. I never got rubber going into second . . . Nor do I recall the young lady ever acknowledging my extraordinary driving prowess. She probably thought an industrial Hoover had gotten loose in the neighborhood.
One night I took my pal Heb with me. He thought it was the dumbest display he’d ever seen.
“What the hell was all that about??”
“Dottie’s babysitting in that house back there . . .”
“You’re an asshole . . .”
Pushing the envelope further, I’d often cruise up to Kenyon’s Diner, which was three or four miles further away. Going that distance meant driving on busy streets, ratcheting the danger level up a bit further. I’d carefully park so the dual pipes could be seen and slide inside for French Fries at 15 cents and a small, 10 cent coke. Not surprisingly, no one approached me for a “heat” with the Plymouth.
COOL KATS and ZOOT SUITS . . .
Mother and I had settled into a relatively steady existence, with her continually pushing at me about my grades, the company I sometimes kept, and my new quest to be what was becoming known a “cool cat.”
I was actively working for every family, neighbor, etc. who was good enough to give me paying chores. I had swallowed my shyness each fall season, and gone door to door selling quite nice Christmas cards, and began to enjoy the euphoria that came with completing a good sale.
Also, though not a Clymer publication, the wonderful book “The Life of Ted Horn” by Russ Catlin was superb. Ted Horn was a true gentleman and an American racing hero.
Finally, with the magazines you had “Mechanix Illustrated” and “Popular Science.” Both of those monthlies had great “How To” articles, and unbelievably, wonderful classifieds that promised everything from a college education for $4.95, to a “supercharged water injection” system for $2.99 that would add “at least 15 horsepower to any vehicle.”
REALLY, WHAT DO MOTHER’S THINK OF . . .
Within two years after dad had died, Mother had sold the old grey Willys and purchased a 1947 Plymouth four door sedan in a dismal dark blue. God forbid, she should have consulted me on the subject!
"Ted Horn, Indianapolis 500, 1941-1948"
heavily, then shut down with a flourish, and everyone would head off for class. So, on that brilliant Monday morning with my genuine hot rod, I was finally able to participate in this splendid ritual.
I revved my 21 stud flathead, the exhausts pumping through those mellow Smithy’s. I had made it! Finally I was “in.” I was thrilled to death for something less than 10 seconds!
Suddenly, there was this incredibly, loud, snap! Bang! “Grraunnch!” under my hood.
The entire parking lot gang stopped their exodus, turned, and came back.
Steam was billowing out from under my hood. I jumped out, lifted the hood and saw the most horrible sight you could imagine. The generator bracket which was attached to the very front of the intake manifold had snapped and pitched the generator forward. Did I mention that the fan itself was also attached to the generator? Well, it wasn’t now! It had all pitched forward while spinning at a high rate, hard into the radiator.
The spectators stared blankly at my dilemma, shook their heads, and recommenced their march off to their various classes for the day. A few, mumbled “tough luck” or some such.
Left alone in the dusty parking lot, utterly shattered, with no one there to impart any wisdom or common sense in my direction, I proceeded to put into motion, a series of sensationally stupid decisions. I glanced up at the school building, turned back to the Ford (“Bitch Frannie!!”. . .), then looked back at the school once more, and proceeded to walk off campus in full view of most of the classrooms, on over to Paper Mill Road where I would hitchhike my way to Leach Bros. junkyard in Germantown to get the parts I needed to repair the damage! I was convinced every eye in the school building was watching me. As it turned out, a good many were.
(Well, here we go again . . . All through Grade School, there had been a category on our Report Cards which called for the teacher to grade a student as to his, or her, ability to: “Thinks before He / She acts”. Never once did I receive a positive grade from any of my teachers in that category!)
Along the way, I scrounged up a nickel out of my pocket and called Morano Brothers Garage. They agreed to pull the ‘36 out of the school lot and drag it over to their shop in Erdenheim. I begged them not to pick it up during the lunch hour, as the lot would be full of hot rodders again. “Sure, sure, we’ll take care of it. Who’s payin’ for this Kirk?”
“Oh, don’t worry I’ll take care of it . . .”
“Ya’ got a pretty damn big bill, already, ya’ know . . .”
“I know, I know . . .” I was already into Morano’s for nearly eighteen dollars for other niggling Frannie failures!
It took me till early afternoon to get myself to the Leach Brothers emporium of ever so useful junk. One of the Leach Brothers said: “Yeah, we got a “36 sedan right outside the gate, right on Stenton Avenue. The radiator and fan, etc. should be fine.”
“Can I borrow some tools?” “Yeah, just be sure you bring ‘em back.”
I looked the derelict ’36 sedan over, but before I could start the job, I had to lift away a stack of old junk batteries that were directly in front of the car. I then removed all the parts from the sedan that I needed. The last thing I did was lay down in the greasy dirt to remove the lower fasteners of the radiator itself. While doing that I felt a semi-painful, burning feeling across my groin area. I popped up from the ground, looked down, and the front of my Jeans were literally disappearing before my eyes! No one had ever told me about the ravages of battery acid! While that magic act was underway, I was certain that all of the traffic, particularly the buses, on busy Stenton Avenue was taking it all in, amidst gales of laughter
But wait; now the same thing was happening across my backside! It was after 7:00 o’clock in the evening when I sneaked into the house in a Leach Bros. shop coat, the only thing saving me from arriving home bottomless!
No, I don’t remember how I got past my mother . . . I had dragged the radiator and the parts to Morano’s on the bus, and hitchhiked home from there. Len Duncan asked me if I’d taken a job with Leach Bros. when he saw the shop coat. I merely said: . . . “No”
The next morning my stupidity prevailed for a second day, and I passed up school again, sneaking back over to Morano’s Garage. With plenty of help from the guys there, including Len Duncan, the evil “Frannie” was lurched back on the road. Finally, on Wednesday morning I returned to school, pulled into the parking lot, skipped the Hot Rod high theater and skulked into school. I have no idea what I thought was going to transpire, but I was immediately suspended for good reason and then had to go home and face the wrath of my Mother in a fully justified rage.
I had nothing for her. My smoke machine was broken, and my mirrors were busted . . .
I’ve forgotten what my punishment was, but you may rest assured it was double tough. Mother really knew how to dole it out when the need arose. In any event, my affair with “Frannie” was over. I hated the damn car. I mean really hated it. The piece of junk was supposed to have been my gateway to the land of cool Hot Rodding.
A QUICKENING PACE . . .
Some of the car guys in our neighborhoods were riding motorcycles. Slick, lean, fast, mostly British motorcycles such as: Triumph, BSA, AJS, Norton, etc. Jules Donofry, a noted hot rodder was the coolest of the bikers I knew.
He had a Triumph Thunderbird Twin and of course it had that exhaust note that only a Triumph twin carried.
I began to tag along on Saturday nights with Donofry and Andy McNally to a true “fifties”, (because it was the fifties), motorcycle club / bar. It was a rough and tumble joint, set well back off Easton Road in north Glenside. The “club” was an old rambling, rundown, house, and set at the end of a long dirt driveway. It was dark, noisy, smoky, and boozy and the members were definitely a “no nonsense” motorcycle bunch. They were not the accountants, Dentists, lawyers, etc., that today often masquerade as motorcycle thugs.
During my several visits to that club, I’m pretty sure I never uttered a word to anyone, and they surely had nothing to say to me! I just hung out with my friends, and was always glad to leave in one piece. I had no business being inside the place as I was severely under age. The unique aspect of the club was that virtually the entire band of riders rode Triumphs, BSA’s, Matchless, Norton’s, etc. all British motorcycles. Harley Davidson’s and Indians were scarce.
One guy at the club rode a Vincent “Black Shadow”. I could scarcely absorb what an astounding motorcycle that was. The Vincent was beautiful beyond words, and the very zenith of British engineering. The place always emptied out when the Vincent arrived, and when he left.
One weekend I was tagging along with the bikers in my rag tag ’36 Ford. We drove up to visit a motorcycle dealer named George Maginnis in Horsham, Pennsylvania. Maginnis was the dealer for the Legendary Vincent line of motorcycles, along with such esoteria, as Norton, Velocette, Matchless, Ariel, and others.
Sitting at one end of Maginnis’ showroom was a really sharp, nearly new, Matchless G9 500 twin in black with red striping, and a black leather saddle with red piping that really caught my fancy. Visually, it appeared, if one squinted, to be nearly as awesome as the highly vaunted Vincent “Black Shadow,” which was far beyond my financial reach. I traded the wretched ’36 Ford, “Frannie,” straight up for the Matchless. I had no idea how I’d slide that bit of outrageous high jinx past Mother.
I had had some experience with 125 and 250cc Jawa’s, which we’ll go over in a bit, but I was totally unprepared for the experience of riding a world class British Motorcycle. In the high performance scheme of things, the 500cc G9 Twin was not a stormer like the Triumph Thunderbird, Norton Manx, or a BSA Gold Star but it was a swift, torquey, and very smooth twin touring bike. The total freedom, the wonderful “open air” feeling that I experienced when riding a motorcycle was purely euphoric. For a teenager in the 1950’s it surely was an indescribable open road experience.
Being a British motorcycle, the Matchless quickly led me down the path of electrical gremlins, affording me a rapid opportunity to become educated in the vagaries of Joseph Lucas’ often diabolical electric components. Whenever dusk fell you gained an anticipatory edge, as you reached for the headlamp switch. At the same time keeping a sharp eye on the ammeter to see if it was still in the + zone once the switch was turned on! Also, I was always mopping up the oil drips, and scratching my head over the idiosyncrasies of Amal carburetors.
Having that bike at all was an extremely dicey situation with my Mother. If it broke, I would be the one fixing it, period. There would be no one coming to collect it and make it all right again. This motorcycle was very much an unwelcome addition to the household, although better tolerated than I had anticipated. In retrospect I believe Mother may have decided . . . “best to have him get it out of his system, rather than having him riding that motorcycle behind my back”. I and all my friends had lived through the agony of our friend Roger getting killed in a traffic accident late at night in downtown Philadelphia on his motorcycle. His parents had never known that he had that motorcycle.
ONE SPECTACULAR MOTORCYCLE STUNT GONE BAD
Before we leave my early motorcycle experiences, I should mention that my mother had already endured an earlier motorcycle “episode” while we still lived in Oreland. Just before moving to the home in Glenside, I’d somehow bing-banged my way into owning two Jawa 250cc Czechoslovakian two stroke motorcycles.
I had squeezed one of them into our tiny garage on Church Road, and the second was leaned outside the far garage wall, covered with a tarp. Both were true “beaters.” My mother hated them. They both leaked every fluid they carried. They stank to high heaven and, of course, when they were lit up, one was able to savor the oily smoke and the wretched “ring-a-ding” exhaust note that emanated from those early fifties two strokes! In those days you could obtain bikes like that, for almost no money.
The moment mother and Bob bought the property in Glenside, I was told to get those oily old motorcycles over to the carriage house in Glenside and out of sight. So, one Sunday I was with my friend Heb Fricke and we couldn’t come up with a damn thing to do that might kick a little adventure into an otherwise mundane Sunday afternoon . . . And then, I had a thought.
That new house we were moving into sat atop that very steep hill that fell sharply away for at least 100 yards, down into the valley. Most of the sharp incline was wild underbrush and brambles. The first time I saw the property it took me about two seconds to recognize that the ascent of that daunting grade would make a perfect motorcycle hill climb course.
Certainly a perfect Sunday afternoon endeavor for two young men! Never mind that Mother and Bob hadn’t settled or moved into the property quite yet. Out came our “ring-a-ding, ding, ding” . . . ever so pleasing two stroke exhaust notes of the Jawa motorcycles!
The idea was good enough that we asked a few other pranksters to join us. Come one, come all. God, we were a charming little band of youngsters. Everyone wanted to have a crack at the hill. The neighbors on the one side were a cranky old couple who voiced their unhappiness quickly, whereas the family children on the eastern bordering property all had Vespa’s which they raced endlessly up and down their own long driveway!
So, that Sunday afternoon, Heb Fricke, along with two other fools and me were trashing themselves, their bikes, and the hill with the Jawa’s, a Ducati, and one other bike. At some point everyone had their fill, but Heb wanted to take one more poke at the hill. He came from the bottom absolutely flat out. Two thirds of the way up Heb lost it big time and launched himself and the bike into a series of vicious flips. It looked like one of those terrific film clips that you’d see in the “Movietone” newsreel coverage of a professional motorcycle hill climb event . . . But we weren’t pros; Heb had broken his arm. Badly.
Of course, our hill climbing activities had been completely clandestine. As I mentioned we hadn’t formally settled on the property yet, but there we were tearing it up and leaving some terrific first impressions! So this bit of news was going to be a lot for my mother to take in all at once.
We packed up and took the news to my Mother first, figuring we may as well get the very worst of it over quickly.
Once fully apprised of the situation, Mother had drawn herself up, surveyed the horrid, broken, (well, Heb was,) scratched, bleeding, and filthy pair standing before her. Without an ounce of sympathy or anything resembling it, she merely fixed us both with a steely look and posed a thoroughly appropriate question:
“Just what do you imagine I might tell Edith Fricke happened this afternoon . . .??” (Edith was Heb’s mother . . .)
“Well, uhh . . .” and we were both summarily waved away, and into the car. A long, agonizing, late afternoon in the hospital ensued, finally getting Heb’s arm set and cast.
God, it just never seemed to end. All of us, it seemed, really were the Hell of it all. Life moved on and soon came . . .
MOTHERS WEDDING AND THE GRAND CONFLAGRATION . . .
(This is simply an outrageous, albeit true story . . . it has nothing to do with Automobiles. It is simply too good to leave behind.)
On June 16, 1955 Robert Lees and Mary Finch White were married in a tiny Episcopal Church in the Southern end of Greenwich Village in New York City.
Robert Lees’ three children, were, of course, present. They were well behaved, academically brilliant and appeared somewhat apprehensive. It must have been difficult for the Lees children to imagine being tossed into the same roiling cauldron as Kirk White and his sister, Mary Linden.
For the Lees children, the prospect of their Father marrying this quite genteel and attractive Mary White may have been pleasing. However, the prospect of having to live under the same roof with these two seemingly ill behaved, White children, must have given them grave cause for concern.
My good pal Heb Fricke was there as Heb’s parents were in the wedding. So Mary Linden, Heb and I were roaming around the lower streets of Greenwich Village. We successfully engaged a sidewalk pastel artist to do portraits of us all.
My mother arrived at the church, alighted from her car, quickly took in the scene of this ragamuffin artist at the steps of the Chapel with the three of us having a high old time. She shot me a glance that said in no uncertain terms: “Not today Kirk; this is my day”.
The Wedding was going to be beautiful, with the Church filled with glorious white flowers. The pews were packed with many of our friends who had been so loyal and good to us throughout these past, often difficult years. I was in the front row with my friend Heb, and I was wearing a brand new summer weight dark blue suit for the occasion.
I also happened to have a full pack of matches in my pocket and had recently learned the “cool” process of taking a matchbook cover, with one hand opening it, and folding a single match so that the head was on the striking strip. You could then, all in one motion, with just the one hand, close the cover, and gallantly strike the match for your date’s cigarette. The stunt required a high degree of dexterity, so in my case I was going to have to practice a good deal before any bit of dexterity might surface. The wedding service seemed like an appropriate time to practice. I would really be able to sharpen my skills if I could pull off the stunt “on the blind” in my pants pocket! I could easily snuff a single match.
Somewhere mid-service things were dragging along, and I decided it might be a good time to practice my pyrotechnic stunt. The congregation was standing at the time.
Choosing to practice my first attempt in the midst of my Mother’s wedding ceremony may not have been my wisest choice. My first attempt “on the blind” inside my trouser pocket resulted in the entire book of matches going up in flames which were, I noted, opaquely visible through the lightweight fabric of my new Summer suit!
At that very instant, time drifted into one of those horrifying “slow motion” modes as I was faced with a full blown conflagration in my right pants pocket. Next to me Heb had been watching me fiddling in my pocket, probably wondering if I was fondling myself for some bizarre reason. When the firebomb lit off in my pocket Heb got that; “you’re on your own, pal” look and peeled off hard to the right of me.
I had a serious fire underway in my trouser pocket! It was incredibly painful. And yet, I was totally committed to not go down in flames at my Mother’s wedding. I got the fire out. My right inside pants pocket was essentially burned away and the right front of my suit pants was clearly scorched. My right hand was well and truly burned. The entire surrounding area smelled of match sulphur and burned fabric. The contents of my right pocket were at my feet.
I cautiously looked around. People were peering at me very strangely; some seemed angry . . . my sister was shooting visual daggers at me, and my “best friend” Heb appeared deeply engrossed in a passage in his prayer book. The wedding ceremony, thankfully, was uninterrupted. (“Thinks before he acts”……ah, yes, that again”)
* * * * * * * * * *
Coming Next: . . . “It All Amps Up”
Chapter Five – March 29, 2016