ANOTHER FORD IN MY FUTURE
Shortly after my mother and step-father returned from their wedding trip, we moved fully from our very small home to the imposing eighteen room house in Glenside, Pennsylvania.
Virtually all of my friends and haunts were, of course, left behind in my old Oreland neighborhood. And, there went Dad’s great workshop. It was like hitting a wall. I was leaving way too much behind, and didn’t really know where I was headed.
Sure, I’d be able to drive over to see my pals; it was less than ten miles distance, but I wasn’t at all sure how my “new life” might sit with them. I was pretty sure no one would come to see me all the way “to hell and gone”.
And then: Hallelujah! One morning shortly after we’d moved in, mother put forward the proposition of my giving up the motorcycles altogether. She and I would obtain and share an automobile!
“Great God a’mighty, Hallelujah, let the Heavens ring with joy!” I thought.
My Mother was apparently going to embrace the vast automotive knowledge that her all-knowing son possessed. Certainly Kirk would intelligently lead them both to automotive nirvana! Finally, Mother was allowing me, as an Automobile Wizard, to be involved in the selection of the next automotive prize for the family.
I was over the moon knowing we could get this accomplished without Mother tearing headlong into the nearest Willys, Kaiser-Fraser, Plymouth, Dodge, Nash, or King Midget, dealership. The new buying partnership would confine their search solely to Ford Motor Company agencies.
I knew that Mother would scarcely drive any automobile that we “shared,” as her days were filled. She was still managing Drs. Wilder and Shelley’s practice. When she did go out, she rarely drove an automobile.
Things were done differently at the new house. The drugstore delivered, so did the dry cleaner. Our grocery orders were telephoned in and then brought to the kitchen pantry.
All that considered, it was essential that any vehicle purchase be slanted Kirk’s way, as it simply made good sense!
So, one fine Saturday morning, we set out on an earnest search, and after visiting a good many Ford agencies, mid-afternoon found us pulling into Koelle-Greenwood Ford in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. I recall that Mother was bearing up well in our arduous search. I was flagging a bit, wondering if there were any cool used Ford’s for sale in all of Philadelphia.
We walked through the new car showroom and out to their used car area in the rear. Sitting right there, just as sharp as anything you ever saw in your life, was a 1951 Ford Deluxe convertible in a perfect ivory over a rich turquoise!
The previous owner had installed the Ford Crestliner trim. It was fitted with a white canvas top, whitewall tires, red rims, Cadillac “sombrero” hubcaps and ribbed fender skirts. It had dual exhausts. A glance inside revealed a Ford Crestliner steering wheel and a pleated and rolled interior in matching ivory and turquoise.
Wow! This car was too great, I thought! I couldn’t believe it. It was gorgeous! Almost as an afterthought, I peered inside to see what the mileage was, and was stunned by what my eyes lit upon first! I was staring at a “Ford-O-Matic” column shift indicator. This magnificent automobile had a 2 speed automatic transmission. I let my emotions run ahead of me, and figured I’d still have ample power (wouldn’t I??) The Ford-O-Matic aside, it was about the most beautiful ’51 Ford convertible on earth, and the car ran like a watch. “We” bought it.
The following week, the Ford certainly was a big hit parked in front of Gert’s diner in Flourtown or any of the other “profiling” joints I frequented.
But, unfortunately, it was certainly not a weapon of choice for our street races. Occasionally one of the hot rod “purists” would glance inside and wince at the sight of the Ford-O-Matic indicator.
There wasn’t much I could do with this ‘51 Ford. I lowered it a bit more, installed “blue dot” tail lamps, and a “bull nose” strip on the hood. And after seeing an example in a magazine, I bought and installed a brand new ‘54 Pontiac grille bar, which got rid of the “Dagmar” bullets in the Ford grille.
Then one Saturday afternoon I was hanging around Morano’s garage, watching Len Duncan get his Kurtis Offy loaded up for Hatfield Speedway that evening. I was just about to leave when in came a nearly new ’54 Ford Deluxe 2 door sedan on the hook of Morano’s tow truck, having been hit very hard in the rear. It was equipped with the new, highly touted Ford overhead valve engine. It was the first one most of us had seen. It looked pretty good, but that was about all any of us knew about the new overhead valve V-8 engine.
While we were all peering at the engine, Joe Morano came over and barked something to the effect that they were probably going to “total loss” the car with the insurance company, and that I should swap that nice fresh ‘54 OHV Ford engine into my ’51. For all his blustery, cigar smoking demeanor, Joe Morano was a real promoter. We all concurred; it seemed like a heck of a good idea.
“Leave your car here for an hour or so and let my brother Mike spec it out.”
When I returned late that afternoon, Joe and Mike were just closing up. It had been determined that the engine swap would be relatively straightforward, but Mike Morano felt I should retain the Ford-O-Matic as the switch out to a standard gearbox would pose a substantial additional expense.
“How much money are we talking about?” I said.
“Shouldn’t be more than $400.” Joe said.
(Isn’t this great?. . . There I was with an amazingly, wonderful ride, gifted to me by my mother and stepfather, and I’m looking to do an engine swap with it! And, of course, I was never going to say a word about it at home, was I? What about the money?? . . .)
Well, I sure didn’t have $400, but felt I could somehow promote it. Maybe $50, $80 bucks a month to Morano’s, for a while, I thought. It was an era when that kind of arrangement was OK, and Joe Morano shook my hand and we were under way.
I was going to be riding the bus, hitchhiking, and bumming rides from buddies for a while during the execution of the swap. I would have to tell my folks that I was having some sort of maintenance, diligently carried out at my own expense! But the money wouldn’t be raised from my part time job at Kenyon’s Esso station any longer. Joe Kenyon’s son had grown old enough to take my job at the station.
I hit the bricks, and got lucky. I found work at another Esso station, less than two miles from our new house. It belonged to Joe and Cassy Egner who taught me a great deal about dealing with people in the right manner. Both would make every effort to accommodate customers and friends, often in extraordinary ways, too numerous to enumerate here. I saw Joe extend credit to people he’d never met, and others who had little to offer in the way of credibility (myself included). Joe always got paid, maybe not quickly, but he knew the good people when he met them.
Working in Egner’s service bays I learned everything from why a car’s oil had to be changed, to observing what an oil or fuel filter looked like well past the end of its service period. And, I learned where the lubrication points were on every automobile made in the USA. The station’s hydraulic automobile lift provided an amazing classroom for me. Indeed, one of the few educational venues that held my interest completely.
Joe also had a full time mechanic. Between the two of them they advanced my practical automotive knowledge tremendously. It wasn’t long until I fully understood “top dead center”, how to use a timing light, take a carburetor apart, clean it and install a rebuild kit.
I disliked dealing with such jobs as poorly located, messy oil filters, water pumps, old rusty exhaust systems, and fan belt installations. As “the kid” in the place, I got the opportunity to do almost all of that work! On the good side, I was taught exactly how to set valve lash, and occasionally on a 4 or 6 cylinder car I was allowed to do the job myself.
In the other service bay, I washed cars, and washed cars, and then washed some more cars. When I wasn’t washing a car, I was fixing and re-mounting your previously flat tire, or mounting your brand new Atlas tires which Joe Egner sold the Hell out of. This was in the era of the early air driven tire changers which were kind of like racing “dog” clutches, either full on or full off. You couldn’t finesse those donkeys to save your life, and God forbid you should pinch a brand new inner tube.
MY UPCOMING ACADEMIC ENDEAVORS
Also, just to keep a bit of balance in my life, my parents indicated that I may be doing some remedial academic work! I wasn’t going to be attending the local area high school after all, it seemed. No, I was informed that I had been accepted to the Solebury School, albeit academically a “year” back, in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and my sister Mary Linden was going to the Gunston School in Maryland! I had never heard of either school.
It was all getting far, far away from the simple world we had in Oreland, and I was uneasy with some of the changes. Part of my admission “arrangement” to the Solebury School dictated that I would take a more academically challenging English course, that summer! Not only would it chew up my precious vacation, it would be conducted at another private school, Penn Charter, in Germantown! It was anticipated that said effort might better prepare me for a crack at the high level schooling in this private boarding school that I was bound for.
Initially, I went completely off the planet when the prospect of boarding school was introduced. I just could not be a boarding student and I bitched and carried on until it was finally agreed that I would attend Solebury as a “day” student.
So there I was with the summer of 1955 barely underway, working a new job at the Esso station, modifying my ’51 Ford convertible through a clandestine engine conversion, and heading to summer school at an unknown school. I was further saddled with trying to maintain some degree of social life. In the altogether it was a terrific burden for a young man to bear . . .
The Penn Charter summer school experience brought with it a whole new social spectrum. The school’s summer session was co-ed and it seemed all of the students were from Philadelphia private schools.
I was the only student from a public school. At first, I felt very much out of place. Many of those attending knew one another. They seemed altogether different and I was going to need to consciously work to fit in socially.
One afternoon I was laboring away at Egner’s Esso after my morning class, when a magnificent red and white Oldsmobile 98 Starfire convertible with wire wheels drove up to the pumps. The pneumatic bells rang and someone let out an admiring whistle. I was filthy, being in the midst of switching out yet another damn set of Atlas tires over in the wash bay.
“I’ll get it”… I said. I could see the Starfire being driven by . . . wait a second, that girl’s in my summer school! (Man, , could you look any worse, Kirk?”) But, I was already at the car before I came out of the ether, and realized the girl was in my class!
Ooh boy, I thought, this is great; this should be good for a laugh for everyone at school. While all the other guys and gals in our summer school class went off in the afternoons to play golf or tennis at the area country clubs, Ol’ Whitey was pumpin’ gas on Church Road in Glenside.
“Hi can I help you?”. . . (Maybe she wouldn’t recognize me.)
“Yes, could you fill it please?
Good, I thought, the filler was all the way at the back of that gigantic boat.
I had just started pumping when she turned around with a smile and said: “You’re in Dr. Page’s class aren’t you?”
“I am, yes . . .” At that point she got out of the car, and strode to the back, where I was toiling away at filling the tank. She extended her hand, and said “Hi, I’m Sonny. Do you work here every day?” She asked.
“No, not every day, but most . . . My name is Kirk. Sorry, my hands are dirty”.
“I know you. Your name is Kirk White. She handed me a $20 dollar bill for the gas. When I brought back her change, she handed me a $5 dollar bill!
“This is for you . . .” she said, with a smile. I was stunned. In today’s world it would be like dropping a $50 bill on a pump jockey!
“I can’t take this!”. . . I forced the money back in her hand, and backed away from her car. Of course, as I started back to the wash bay the jeers and whistles started from the station building, as the zoo animals whinnied and brayed.
The next day in summer school, she acted as if she scarcely knew me. I told myself; “Whitey, get over it, she had her bit of fun with the kid at the gas station and that’s that.”
Summer school ended, and my “lucky to have it” job continued, . . . and so did my payments to Morano’s Garage for the engine swap.
My ’51 Ford engine swap had bogged down. It had been over two weeks, and the engine conversion wasn’t going as easily as everyone had thought, and it took as much bitching and pushing as a 17 year old kid could get away with to keep the project from growing stale, and grinding to a halt. I was running out of goofy excuses as to where “our” new Ford was!
Finally it was completed. The first drive in the car revealed a small but significant vibration in the driveline, and the engine mounting “biscuits” had to be replaced with more robust units.
As soon as I pulled away from the Morano Brothers garage (with a substantial $ balance owing, I might add…) I began to realize that this engine switch out had not been a particularly intelligent or well thought out undertaking.
(Further “after the fact” research revealed the factory advertised 130 HP wasn’t developed until 4,200 RPM, and the maximum torque was rated at a lightweight 214 ft-lb. So in reality the projected horsepower was probably more than a bit optimistic.)
And this may be a good point to bring up the question of the “new” Chevy 265 V-8. Why, hadn’t anyone considered this engine option for my Ford . . . ?? Too early, too soon, Chevy had just come out with the engine and none of us knew a thing about it and God knows none of the Chevy engines were available for a swap.)
Word had spread about my engine conversion among the hot rodders, street racers, and general neighborhood characters. Everyone wanted to see how it ran, and how it would stand up to a strong, built up, flathead.
My car was best described as barely adequate. That damned Ford-O-Matic transmission was no “worked” GM Hydramatic, and by the time that engine got to 4200 RPM, I’d missed a whole slice of life! I was laying low.
Finally later, on a week night I drove the car to Gert’s Diner in Flourtown. Most of the usual characters were on hand carrying on high, now that I’d finally made an appearance. I spent forever eating a piece of coconut cream pie and drinking a cup of coffee.
Ed Foody’s beautiful ’49 Mercury two door with a really well built flathead was outside, and the peanut gallery schemed up a race between the two of us. It was time to face the music. That Merc of Ed’s looked as big as a house anyway. Maybe I’d have a chance.
After much fussing about the race “launch,” we decided on a rolling start. The race was over very quickly, as Ed’s Merc moved steadily away from my Ford, while all of my automatic transmission fluids, clutches, valve bodies, etc. gathered up their skirts, finally transmitting a woeful bit of power to the rear wheels! Jesus, What a defeat! I never stopped, just drove on home, thoroughly downcast.
In the following few days, I started to show slight signs of growing up about the whole episode of the engine conversion. I began to recognize that I was 17 years old, and damned lucky to have a car at all, let alone a hell of a cool one. Yes, I’d made an engine swap that turned out to be not the brightest modification on the planet, but at least I’d taken the shot. It turned out that my defeat at the hands of Ed Foody’s Mercury was viewed in much the same light by my hot rod buddies. They seemed to recognize that the defeat was simply the result of a step taken badly on my part. It didn’t necessarily mean I was an asshole.
It really seemed that “Automobiles” always yielded the richest vein of good acquaintances, and friends.
No need for me to be nervous about her sensing any big power boost in the damn thing, was there?
The car’s increasing degree of unreliability was starting to unnerve everyone at home as the school term loomed. I would have nearly a 40 mile commute in each direction, each day.
IT ALL AMPS UP . . .
One evening after dinner in the very late summer, mother suggested that possibly, we should consider purchasing a new Ford so that there would be no additional worries with my commute to school. I was most apprehensive about this idea of mother’s. I envisioned the cheapest two door post sedan, with a wheezing six, automatic, cloth bench seat, no anything, and nicely finished in a deadly pale green, topped off with blackwalls and “dog dish” hubcaps.
The following evening we headed off to Jenkintown Ford to see what they might have in stock for a no-account student. The salesman and my mother were well on their way to a vehicle that would have matched up with the above description. The salesman said he might have something close to what “we” were looking for “right downstairs.” I could scarcely drag myself to my feet to look at such a car.
By now it was dark, and as we went downstairs the salesman turned up the shop lamps. There, in a far corner, in the detailing area, under their brightest lamps, sat a brand new 1955 Thunderbird in the brilliant Thunderbird blue with a matching aqua and white interior. The 1955 Thunderbirds had been on sale for less than a year. They were enormously popular and it was rare to see one in the flesh. I’d never really seen one up close. It was a breathtaking automobile; absolutely stunning. I went straight over to admire it.
I turned back, and saw that Mother had followed me, and she was utterly transfixed. She couldn’t take her eyes off the Thunderbird. The salesman quickly spotted an opportunity, and pounced like there was no tomorrow.
“Blah, Blah, Blah . . .” said he.
“Oh my, that’s a great deal of money” . . . said my Mother.
“Blah, Blah, Blah . . .” said he.
Watching, I said to myself: “Wait a second; I think this guy is gaining the upper hand in this give and take!” I went back to the car for a much closer inspection of what we were dealing with.
“Damn, this car’s got every option on the planet, I mean all of them! Wait a second, that’s an automatic selector you’re looking at kiddo.” I edged myself into the conversation to ask if they had one with a standard shift . . .
“Nope that’s the last new one available in the state of Pennsylvania, period.”
I frantically gathered myself up . . . “Don’t get crazy here Kirk. If Mom’s interest wanes, schools out. Live with the automatic for God’s sake, boy!” I thought to myself.
Well, by George, we did buy it (that would be the collective “we!”), and it was just the best car on the earth to drive! At age 17, it was a “take your breath away” special experience, and more than a little bit daunting. Every time I drove that Thunderbird, I was swept away with the fact that we even had it in our family. I was so pumped, I could hardly stand it. I was up first thing in the morning to make sure it was still there, and each evening I made sure it was really in the garage, always clean as a whistle.
The Solebury School was a co-educational boarding school, with a smattering of day students. The entire student body numbered no more than 120 students. It was among a handful of small eastern boarding prep schools that were all the rage in the mid-fifties, especially with the New York people. During that era the New Hope/Solebury area enjoyed a substantial following with the New York Theater set, largely because of the well known Bucks County Playhouse, which hosted Broadway casts, right there on the banks of the Delaware River during the summer.
As a result of all this, Solebury School had an unusually interesting and eclectic student body. The majority of the students at the school existed in an entirely different social stratum than I did.
Just four or so years prior, Mother, Mary Linden and I had been poor as dirt having meat only twice a week at dinner, rarely buying new clothes, having a great many things that had once been someone else’s, and receiving “needed” new items only at Christmas, etc. And now, suddenly things were moving very quickly in an entirely different direction. Regardless of backgrounds though, teenagers tended to quickly draw balancing levels.
Through it all, my strongest interests continued with automobiles, and everyone involved with them. Early in October of 1955 someone said I should really check out a great Speed Shop in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Word was, there were a number of very serious hot rods running out of Bash’s shop including a ’55 Thunderbird, like mine. Fred Allen, Jules Donofry and a handful of others that I’d hung around with at the Hill Diner in Chestnut Hill were based out of Frank Bash’s shop.
I drove down to Bash’s one afternoon after school with my pal Heb. It was an impressive emporium of speed, with the front of the store well stocked with many enticing “speed” items. Bash’s was a money pit.
Men and boys have been dragging their wallets out since the automobile was first invented seeking the next bit of speed enhancement, and Frank Bash had put together an irresistible display of enticing speed equipment.
One had to pass through that storefront of desire in order to gain access to the service area in the rear, which was vast. There were several cars in the shop being worked on that day, some with McCullouch superchargers installed. Frank Bash, it seemed was the Eastern dealer for these centrifugal blowers.
One of the more interesting rods in the shop that afternoon was an innocuous 1955 Ford Courier, sedan delivery that was thoroughly stock in appearance in stark black with blackwall tires and dog dish hubcaps. Yet this “sleeper” carried a seriously worked over, supercharged Y-block Ford. It was owned by a remarkable character: Mr. Harry Whitney.
I must step aside of the shop tour to introduce you to Harry Whitney.
Harry was a marvelous character, larger than life, well over six feet tall, glasses, and a bemused patrician demeanor. He had an amazing sense of humor.
Harry would cruise around in that wicked ‘55 Ford delivery truck. He enjoyed easing up alongside an apparent “hot dog” at a traffic light, and then completely putting the guy away with his “grocery hauler”. Harry also had, among his several cars, an incredible J2X Allard with, if memory serves me, a Chrysler Hemi for power.
Harry lived in a beautiful home in the Chestnut Hill area of Philadelphia, filled with antiques. Inside their home Harry had undertaken his most notorious and bizarre automotive project. He had chosen to rebuild his Bugatti type 35 Gran Prix car in his dining room! The entire Bugatti project was taking place on a priceless oriental rug.
The Oriental rug was lost to the Bugatti rebuild. Several pieces of very fine antique furniture were repositories for all manner of Bugatti parts, pieces, and tools. In spite of all this Mrs. Whitney was always cheerful and I recall she’d always bring fresh, homemade ice cream to the races, and cheer all of us on!
(I’m getting a bit ahead here, but just calling to mind any number of the characters that ran out of Bash’s shop during that era always pops a story to mind such as “The Bugatti in the Dining Room” . . .)
Now getting back to the speed shop, as Heb and I ventured through, I spotted another ’55 Thunderbird in the corner. That “other Thunderbird” was running a McCullouch supercharger. It belonged to a guy we’d heard about named Tom Conte. He was lethal on the streets and was reported to have forgotten more than most of us would ever know about developing sensational power from any engine he touched. The “soon to be legendary” Tom Conte was bent over the engine bay, earnestly working away on something to do with making his ‘bird quicker than when it came through the door that day. Tom was destroying the competition all over Philly with that ‘bird. Heb and I quietly eased over to have a glance at his engine.
Tom stood up abruptly, and eyed both us both warily. Tom Conte was in his early thirties, just under six feet tall, muscular build, bushy balding hair, and deeply intense steel blue eyes that seemed to laser through you. Clenched between his teeth was one of the “new” Winston filter cigarettes, which he seemed to treat more as a small cigar than a cigarette.
“How’re you doin’ boys??” . . . which came out sounding to me a lot more like: “What do you punks want”?
I stammered my way through the fact that I had a Thunderbird like his, and then out of nowhere, I said: “I’m thinking of adding some speed equipment. Next Spring I’ll be runnin’ the Drag races” . . .
(What? . . . What the Hell are you talking about Kirk?? . . .)
The “drags” were just getting started in our area, I did know that much. “Conte’s” eyes stopped burning my retinas, and he softened a bit, with an easy smile. Heb and I both visibly relaxed as Tom extended his hand to both of us.
The next hour and a half were spent trying to rapidly assimilate all the incredible knowledge and ideas Tom was spilling forth. He looked my ‘Bird over, and was not put off by the automatic gearbox. “You can make that work to your advantage in drag racing if you’ve got the right back axle gear”.
Ford’s 1955 automatic gearbox was greatly improved over the earlier version. It was now a 3 speed, with a snappier torque converter. Tom said that by starting out in Low you could run the engine to your rev limit, bump the selector up into Drive, and immediately pull it back into Low, and it would stay “locked” in second gear until you’d used up that gear. Then finally you would nudge it up into Drive.
“You’d want to use a back axle gear that will just about have third used up by the time you hit the traps at the end of strip”, said Tom. I nodded knowingly, not having the foggiest notion of what “hit the traps” might mean. I was pretty sure these new “Drag Strips” were ¼ mile long, but that was about it.
Tom’s engine was running a McCulloch supercharger, blowing into 3 two barrel Stromberg carbs, through a beautifully fabricated aluminum induction box. Also visible was a Spalding “Flamethrower” ignition system, and tubular headers.
Tom sort of brushed off any details about his camshaft choice, valve train, cylinder heads, etc. He had lightly overbored the engine and balanced every moving piece to a fare thee well. His gearbox was the Ford 3 speed stick, with the factory overdrive. He was always seeking an optimum rear axle ratio, and switched out various differential carriers ceaselessly.
His performance goals never stood still. Constantly, Tom pushed his envelope forward on the Thunderbird.
Tom had left us thoroughly dazzled. He walked us to the other end of the shop, and yelled up the stairs: “Frank . . . Come down here a minute”
Emerging from an office high above the shop was Mr. Frank A. Bash himself. A giant of a man, standing well over 6 feet tall, with a serious demeanor, ruddy complexion, glasses and dressed in a white dress shirt and slacks. He looked more like a bank auditor, than a speed merchant.
“Frank, this is Kirk White and his friend. Kirk’s got a ‘bird like mine and he’s lookin’ to get it runnin’ quicker. Talk to him Frank; let’s get him started in the right direction . . .”
(Good God, how did all this transpire in literally minutes?? I was so far out of my league; I could scarcely draw a breath . . .)
Heb and I left two hours later, way late for dinner on a school night, laden with a proposed program for the ‘bird that included a McCulloch supercharger, an Iskenderian E-4 Camshaft, which was an ideal grind for the blower setup and lightweight pushrods and rocker arms. Also included were a set of Hedman headers, and a Spalding ignition setup. At that point Bash had not yet modified an automatic T- Bird with a blower setup, so it was proposed that initially we would stick with the factory Holley 4 barrel carburetor. The cost of all that was just over $900.
On the drive home, just a few blocks up Green Street, from Bash’s shop, we drove past Mother’s medical office, where she had worked so hard and so diligently to keep our family together after Dad had passed away. It was a strange feeling, driving past there. So much of my world had changed dramatically, so very quickly. Not long ago that office had literally been our lifeline, and now I was driving past the place in a brand new Ford Thunderbird, attending a private school, and actually thinking about
getting involved in automobile racing! That passing moment gave me sufficient pause that it remains a vivid memory today.
The early weeks of fall passed uneventfully, with my “attending” school, football practice and games. I was also still working at Egner’s Esso. A bit of time was further allocated trying to get to know a few of the young ladies at Solebury School . . .
Bash’s proposal for the ‘bird was still in my head, but seemed unreachable.
Then, a few days later, on a Friday night, Heb and I drifted into the “Green Arrow” drive-in restaurant in Abington. The “Arrow” had become one of the early gathering places for hot rods. The drive-in was located on the four lane Old York Road, in the dip of a valley. The stretch of highway within sight of the drive-in was nearly a mile in length. Hot rodding was new enough in the area that the local Abington police were not all over the place, the way they would be soon enough.
It was a warm fall evening and a few rods had gathered. There were, at that point, just a handful of drive-ins, or Diners that were specific gathering spots for hot rods and customs. They offered an opportunity for all of us to profile, talk tough, and spit on the ground a good deal.
But, damn, there was that Charlie Knopf guy I’d seen a few weeks ago at Penn Charter. Heb and I went over and introduced ourselves. We scuffed around and got to know one another. Charlie now had a ’56 Chevy with a McCulloch blower. It was totally set up as a sleeper, and a bit further on, we’ll see why . . .
That night at the Green Arrow, there was a “hot” ’55 Chevy two door post sedan tooling around the parking lot. The small block Chevies had come straight out of the box as plenty potent. Seemed this Chevy had gained a local reputation as a virtually unbeatable street racer. The guy driving the Chevy, we’d also heard, was a cocky wiseguy to boot.
As an example, one day, just at the end of summer school, one of the blackest, meanest ’36 Ford roadsters you ever saw streaked down the driveway, its pipes setting up a Hell of a racket. A voice said: “That’s Charlie Knopf! He just drove outa’ here one day last year in the middle of school and never came back!”
Well, after hearing that bit of adventure, and watching his road manners, this guy Knopf seemed like a pretty slick character to me. It appeared to me that Knopf had his priorities pretty well squared up and I said to myself, I have to meet this guy.
Other greats were: “The General”, one of Jack Kulp’s pals and the owner of a really lethal ’50 Olds 88 coupe in black that “Kulpy” had worked over. It was one of the first cars in our area to have a La Salle stick shift transmission installed. “The General” was a hell of street racer who was all business.
We all heard about a serious hot rodder named Fred Allen, out of Germantown. He was a friend of Jules Donofry and Andy McNally who were a year or two ahead of me in high school. Allen came up to the Hill Diner in Chestnut Hill a few times. Fred looked like he should be a tenured professor at an Ivy League school. Thin, glasses, serious demeanor. With zero fanfare Fred would dispatch you in a street race in his ’34 Ford 5 window coupe. The car ran a McCulloch blown T-Bird engine. After blowing you away, Fred would step out of his car back in the Diner parking lot, push his glasses back, smile pleasantly and say “Thanks for the run, man” in a quiet voice . . .”
As the summer drew to a close, my ’51 Ford was beginning to surface further problems of the type that often turn up when someone “alters” a factory built drivetrain. With the beginning of Kirk’s academic recovery program fast approaching at the Solebury School, the Ford was becoming worrisome. It still had the annoying driveline vibration, and the power was just OK. Even my Mother, who drove the car only a few times, felt the shortcomings of the car.
In the midst of our automotive loitering, my new racing mentor and hero Tom Conte drove into the Green Arrow slowly in his Thunderbird and cruised through; a Winston cigarette firmly clenched in his front teeth . . .
“Hi, Tom,” . . . Yo, Tom!” both Heb and I yelled, hoping to hang out with our new best hot rod friend, Conte, and be included in the ranks of the highly feared, serious hot rodders . . . “YO, TOM!” . . . I was yelling, to no avail. Tom had completely forgotten who we were.
Less than five minutes later Conte wheeled slowly out onto York Road with the nasty Chevy following and drove up toward the traffic light at Welsh Road. Tom had obviously heard there was a punk in Abington who felt he could put a stretch on Tom’s Thunderbird.
Both cars drove north, and turned in a parking lot heading back, toward the restaurant. They staged at the light at Welsh Road, just up from the drive in. They had waited till traffic was nil. Most of the Green Arrow crowd had drifted out to watch the “heat.” The Chevy “wise guy” had “hot dogged” his way up to the light, tearing off great streaks of rubber, kicking the rear end out and wildly blipping his throttle. Tom had driven up like he was driving his Mom to church.
The road ahead cleared and they lined up at the light. The deal was you’d go on the green only, not jump off on a late yellow. The wiseguy jumped the start on the yellow. It made no difference. Conte was multiple car lengths ahead before they hit the bottom of the hill at the drive-in. Tom must have been going 130 when he disappeared over the crest of the hill on York Road, past George Hurst’s first hot rod shop, and vanished into the night. Everyone at the drive-in was thunderstruck. It was the most resounding defeat anyone at the “Green Arrow” had ever witnessed.
What really struck me was the surge of power that Tom Conte’s Thunderbird laid out as it shot away from the Chevy. It wasn’t in spurts; it simply powered down the road in a continuing, seamless, blast of acceleration.
The very moment I witnessed Tom Conte thunder away from that Chevy I said to myself: “Gotta’ be there boy . . .” and and I concluded I’d have to find a way to join the ranks of very quick street racers.
WELL, HERE WE GO . . .
Somehow, (and no, I don’t need a lot of piercing questions as to how, I duped my mother and stepfather into doing this), the Thunderbird was built just the way Bash and Conte recommended. For Induction, I stayed with the factory issue Holley, re-jetted and pressurized, which is the way most of the blown T-Birds were set up. I just didn’t have the wherewithal to explore too far afield with a more advanced induction system.
When I drove the Thunderbird out of Bash’s Speed Shop for the first time, I knew I had a hot rod under me. The entire character of the car had changed. The exhaust had a solid, deep tone to it, and the E-4 Isky cam made a huge difference in the initial response. The supercharger had a wonderful underlying whine to it. As the Revs would approach 2700 RPM the ball races would centrifugally lock in on the blower shaft, and the car would run right out from under you. It was sensational, and the automatic gearbox seemed to be just fine with the extra power. Naturally, the car was a big hit at school, but it really moved me into the upper echelons with the hot rod crowd.
Pursuing my lofty academic goals, I wisely spent most evenings studying in the Abington library. Maybe, a few times along the way I was hunting down prey on the highways to determine just how quick this ‘bird really was against the local runners. It was extremely fast and was rarely defeated in the street races I could scare up.
A WEEKEND ADVENTURE
At school I was dating a lovely brunette named Vicki, whose father was the publisher of a major national magazine. I had been invited to spend a late fall weekend at her family home in Scarsdale, New York. I’d be visiting the home of an extremely wealthy family who lived in a very fancy
neighborhood just above New York City. I’d never done anything like that before, and I was somewhat uneasy, to say the least.
My apprehensions aside, I felt it would a great “over the road” run for the Thunderbird, and it turned out that way . . . for a while. Vicki and I enjoyed a wonderful drive right up to the point where we crossed into New York State. At that point the ball races in the supercharger ground their way through the hard casing of the main shaft, and the blower started shrieking like a banshee. Vicki looked over at me and I gave her a stiff smile and lame assurances that the incredible siren shriek emanating from our car, wouldn’t affect our physical well being. The odd stares from other cars became tiresome. Finally, we pulled into her driveway and were immediately greeted in the driveway by Vicki’s seriously startled parents. To their credit, they didn’t reach inside the car, grab their daughter and flee.
Once we had staggered through the introductions, they looked at me in an inquisitive fashion . . .
“Yes, right . . . I said, “well you see the engine in my car is supercharged and I’m afraid the ball races have scored the blower mainshaft, resulting in that terrible howl you heard . . .”
They looked at me as if I’d arrived from a distant galaxy. I expect they’d hoped Vicki would be bringing someone who lived on planet earth, not this hot rod hoodlum.
“I’ll yank . . . uh, remove the blower belt in the morning, sir.” I said.
And during the evening it all smoothed out, dinner was elegant, and I found they were very engaging parents. It was a great evening. In the bitter cold the next morning I “yanked” the blower belt, cursed the McCulloch Corp., and proceeded to have a truly good weekend.
I went into Bash’s the following week and had the blower replaced. Tom Conte was there and said he always carried at least two blowers with him at all times!
“Right Tom, uh, I’ll have to wing it I’m afraid”. The cost of three blowers was beyond anything I could dream of!
Late fall rolled into the winter season.
THINKING AHEAD TO COLLEGE!
Well, that may be a bit of an overstatement. Bill Schoener was one of my close friends from Solebury School. Over the Holiday break Bill asked me if I wanted to drive with him to look at a college called Rollins in central Florida. Sure, it was pretty cold and miserable in Philadelphia. Sure! That sounded like a great adventure.
Immediately after Christmas, Bill collected me in his mildly modified 1955 Ford Fairlane two door. Another “Bill” was in the back seat. We took off and planned to drive straight through. We made it as far as southern Maryland where Schoener got stopped for speeding going through the south end of a small town. The local constabulary relieved Bill of quite a bit of our cash.
We got nailed again in the bottom of North Carolina. Same “small town” scenario. The south was notorious for 15-20 speed limits right at the far edge of a town. I took over and drove prudently (!?) through all of South Carolina. We were pretty ragged out after essentially two days on the road, but we were down to lunch money and couldn’t make any more mistakes.
We shared the driving through Georgia until at dusk, in the bottom of Georgia, I was driving, and in the middle of nowhere I came upon a hitchhiker who was just a kid! I pulled over. He was scruffy, dusty and wild-eyed. We stuffed him in the back. He didn’t want to tell us his name, but he came right out and said this was the third time he had run away from his state run orphanage in Ohio! He wasn’t going back, he said!
We crossed into the state of Florida just as darkness fell.
(I mean, were we a pack of geniuses or what?? . . . Nearly stone fucking broke, crazed with tiredness and now we’ve transported a runaway minor child across a state line! Not just any old state line, we managed to do it in the Deep South from Georgia into Florida!!)
Schoener was exhausted and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. We had to let “Bill” take over at least until we got a bit of sleep. We both thundered on “Bill” to hold the line on the speed as we had all come out of the ether and knew we were in trouble with our runaway “kid” on board. Schoener went back to sleep in the passenger seat and I fell dead to the world in the back seat.
Hard to say how much longer we were on the road, but I groggily came awake as I felt the car slowing. I’ll never forget as I opened my eyes, there reflecting off the headliner of the car was the steady sweep of red washes across the fabric. We were getting pulled over!
No joke this time! I stuffed the kid down on the back floor and lay all over him.
No, we had no idea we were speeding, Officer, and no, we don’t have a dime to pay your sensational fine. We were instructed to follow the officer. We were terrified and finally turned into the small Winter Park, Florida municipal building parking lot. The three of us got out of the car quickly to join the cop as we didn’t want him coming over to the car.
The realization of what was transpiring descended on us like a bucket of cold water.
(“. . . Which one of you actually picked him up?”
“It was him: Kirk! We wanted no part of it Officer!”
“You two can go, it’s him we want! He’ll be here for
a very, very, long time . . .!”)
I had told the kid to stay in the car on the floor until there was clearly no one around and then run for it. Don’t slam the car door!
Inside the Police station it was quickly determined that we had no money to pay any kind of a fine. We must have looked like a really wild eyed band of Pennsylvania gangsters as they gave each of us individual jail cells!
Schoener was led away to contact his father and arrange to have a massive amount of money wired down. There was no response from the senior Schoener household as it was the middle of the night. Bill kept calling and finally his father answered and told Bill he was not sending any more money and hung up!
There we were, three gangsters, each with our own jail cell. The cells were set up like adjoining open air animal cages, well lit and oddly set pretty much in the middle of the police station. Someone used their toilet. The flushing noise was huge! It sounded like a tsunami. In an effort to entertain ourselves we decided to flush all three toilets simultaneously. The sound of all three flushing was colossal. Two officers came back, told us to cut it out and shut off the lights! At least three more hours went by and finally a cop asked Bill for his father’s telephone number. The officer called Bill’s dad and the money was on its way.
We were released just at the crack of dawn and the kid was out of the car. We drove through Winter Park at less than 10 miles per hour.
We were slowly rolling past a closed gas station when we heard a muffled shout hailing us! Yeah, it was the “kid!” We rolled on by.
Schoener actually did attend and graduate from Rollins College . . .
THE COMING DRAG RACING SEASON (1956)
Through the winter of ’55 we all became terrific bench racers, truth stretchers, and we formulated big time plans for the coming spring. I continued to drive the nearly 40 miles in each direction to Solebury School. I recall more than once during heavy snowfalls, removing the fender skirts and fitting snow chains to the Thunderbird.
We had heard that early in the spring of ‘56 a real dragstrip would open at the Allentown, Pennsylvania Airport. It would be a true, paved ¼ mile strip with a long paved shutoff area, accurate timing clocks, food stands, the whole deal. All the area hot rodders plotted their schemes, and planned to be there for the opening event, the first weekend in April.
Rumors were abundant; we’d have to get special “racing” licenses, there would be impossibly tough tech inspections, everyone would need roll bars, you had to be at least 21, all glass had to be removed, ad infinitum. We all pressed on, regardless.
March came and we began to get ready for “Allentown” and the drags. I was beginning to learn that the quickest way to increased speed with my T-Bird was to stick very close to Tom Conte, and emulate most everything he did that didn’t cost huge money.
As we came up on the beginning of April, the details became important. It was Tom Conte who figured out that I would need a shorter back axle ratio to effectively cover the ¼ mile quickly. Well, I’d just received another rather edgy report card from Solebury, so we weren’t buying any backup differentials for the Bird.
Conte told me: “OK, if you can’t afford a “pumpkin” then you’ll have to run a set of smaller diameter rear tires. I understood his logic, but I failed to act on it.
Finally the first weekend in April came, and with the races themselves being held on Sunday, we packed up and took off early Saturday evening. My pal, Heb was with me. Allentown, in 1956, was a long way from Philadelphia, and we had heard there was something called “The Allentown Mountain”, that we’d have to climb over. Route 309 would be our road out of Philly all the way, straight over the mountain. We had supper at Gert’s diner on 309, and got a big send off from the rodders that were there.
We hadn’t gone 5 miles when the snow started. It was that heavy wet type that always comes in the early spring. We knew it couldn’t last, so we proceeded up route 309 slowly diminishing our speed, watching big trucks roll by kicking up large amounts of snow and slush. Our excited chatter about the “drags” tapered off as we watched lawns and fields become covered with snow. We stopped for coffee, and found the parking lot of the diner where we stopped, very slippery. A bit further up the road we started to ascend the “Allentown Mountain”. Not many of us were left on the road at that point.
I was climbing a steep section of the highway and losing sight of where the road actually was. I accidentally put the two right side wheels off the edge of the road, corrected quickly, but too severely, and the driver’s side of the car veered into the oncoming lane, into the path of a ’54 Pontiac sedan that was making its way down the mountain. The collision was substantial. The older couple in the Pontiac was unhurt as were Heb and I. The Thunderbird sustained heavy left front sheet metal damage, but the hit had been “high”, so the frame seemed to be OK. What a mess . . . It snowed all through the night and the Drags were called off. It turned out to be a storm that people remembered for years.
The Thunderbird was taken to Gimbel-Hopkins Ford in Glenside which was our neighborhood dealer.
During the time the Thunderbird was being repaired we had gone up to Allentown to watch the drag races and learned the lay of the land.
We picked up some pointers on what we might need to do to make things work for us.
It was incredibly exciting watching all manner of cars launching as hard as they could through the ¼ mile. Jules Donofry and Andy McNally were running their ’34 Ford two door sedan with a seriously modified Thunderbird Y block motor, capped with a McCulloch supercharger. They were extremely fast in the “A Gas” class, occasionally facing some stiff competition from some of the cars that were coming down out of the New York area, and from Ohio and New Jersey. Fred Allen was running his very potent ’34 five window coupe with a McCulloch blown Thunderbird Y- block. Allen had really danced that motor to the nines, and that coupe was very, very quick. Harry Whitney consistently astonished the opposition with his blown ’55 Ford Courier! And, Tom Conte in his potent Thunderbird was having it completely his way in the “A Sports Car” class.
As it turned out the time spent watching and learning proved beneficial. When we finally headed up to race at Allentown on a balmy Saturday evening in mid May, we were a bit more savvy about how to be a part of all this.
One thing we’d learned was that the serious guys got up to the track the Saturday night before the races, either sleeping in, or under their cars. Very few of us had the money to even consider a motel. Heb and I would spend the nights in sleeping bags tucked under the back end of the ‘bird.
I was amazed at how many characters were wandering around all through the night. Dawn finally came and with it the beginning of tech inspection which turned out to be not such a serious matter for us. Safety belts and a fire extinguisher were pretty much the whole of it. However, serious scrutiny was given to my driver’s license, as I had just turned 18.
We were given a racing number, and assigned to the “A Sports Car” class. We drove into the “pits” and took a spot. Our pit was pretty lean on
accoutrements. I remember we had a cooler with a few sandwiches, and some soda pop.
Without much to set up, Heb and I wandered about looking at all types of cars that were there to do serious battle. There were some cool cars in the various gas classes, a few very primitive dragsters, and about six other cars in the A Sports car class. Lots and lots of “stock” unmodified family cars that were there to see what “Mom’s ’49 Chevy” would turn up in the quarter mile. Maybe we saw eight to ten hot rods we “knew.” I was amazed at the sheer number of rods that we’d never seen or heard anything about. Some were pretty lethal looking, others pretty rickety. The Cadillac powered cars sounded ferocious.
Suddenly, the loudspeaker announced that anyone in “A Sports Car” should bring their vehicles to the staging area for timed running. Heb and I, as a couple of novice kids, must have looked pretty lonely up there in the staging area, as others in the class had what appeared to be real “crews”, or at least a group of pals with them. Tom Conte was several cars ahead of us and he looked very professional. We had watched Tom blast through and his speed was substantially ahead of anyone else in the class. A virtually new Mercedes 300SL Gullwing was just ahead of us. It was stunningly beautiful in silver. It rocketed through at over 90MPH, with an elapsed time in the mid 14 second range.
We were next up, and remember, this was the era before the electronic “Christmas Tree” starting device. So, we were dealing with a “live” starter. Drag racing starters of that era were generally pretty colorful characters. They were more often than not, true showmen, and often dressed in starched white chinos, with well embroidered white shirts. Indeed, Life Magazine in April of 1957 devoted a cover to Norm Grabowski high in the air flagging off two cars at a strip in Southern California!
Needless to say, I was a major hit at the Solebury School with that amazing set of wheels. Well, mostly that is. For the first time in my life, I experienced the unpleasant wrath of a few people who pretty much felt that it was ridiculous for a young punk kid to even dream of being able to have such a magnificent automobile. And, I suppose some degree of objective thinking on my part may have yielded a somewhat similar reaction. It was pretty outrageous, but it was great!
Most of the spectators were crowded around the starting area, and when a starter had a “good” pair of cars coming to the line he’d give everyone their money’s worth. With his big green flag rolled tightly, the starter would motion both cars slowly up to the starting line, inch by inch. Then he’d back away from the two cars; point his furled flag at both, looking for an “OK” nod from the driver. Then still furled, he’d lay the tip of the flagstick on the ground directly in front of him. Both drivers would watch the flag intently. The instant he raised, and unfurled that flag both cars would launch as hard and fast as they could, beginning the run for the finish.
Just before the finish line, the timing traps would capture your speed and elapsed time. Another official would determine the winner by eye, indicate the winning lane, and wave a checkered flag. The “shutdown” area at Allentown was long and paved (not always the case in those early days), as it was an airport, and we were merely using an inactive runway.
As I recall in my first run, I ran against a Woodill Wildfire with Cadillac power. I won by a good margin, posting a speed in the very high 80’s, and an elapsed time in the low 14’s. Respectable, but not earth shaking.
We proceeded to knock off a couple of other cars, and then we drew Tom Conte in his ‘bird for the final. Tom had been blowing everyone off, up to this point, including the Mercedes Benz 300 SL.
The positioning of our two brilliant Thunderbird blue ’55’s seemed to have caught the eye of the spectators, and as the two of us came into the staging area, a substantial number of people had crowded in behind us, anxious to see the two ‘birds duke it out. We advanced to the start line and a glance in my rear view mirror captured the solid group of curious spectators. Following the theatrics, the starter seemed ready to launch us. Finally we were off!
I was gone at the instant the flag moved, and pulled out a 1-2 car lead over Tom. I couldn’t believe it. I stopped worrying about Tom and sighted down the rest of the track which now appeared to be miles and miles in length. It was all going by much slower than I thought it should. The end of the track seemed so far away. Sure enough, here came an aqua colored left front fender floating into the edges of my peripheral vision. Well before the
timing lights, Tom drew abreast and nosed ahead to win it by a car length. It was one of the closer and more exciting races of the day. As he edged alongside me on the track, Tom had his signature Winston stuck between his teeth. He flashed a “not just yet kid” smile, as he whistled past. It was a sight that would become all too familiar throughout the season.
The beginning of the following week Tom took me aside and said “You’ve still got speed left as you’re runnin’ out the back door”. “You’ve got to drop that axle ratio. Your automatic gearbox launches hard and is a big plus for you. Get that damn gear down . . .”
With Tom Conte, that was pretty much an order. The real trouble was that my academic pursuits had deteriorated to a dreadful level and I was very nearly “persona non grata” at home, and even the most meager of requests for any “sponsorship” for the needed parts was out of the question. Hell, I was still paying off the engine swap on the ’51! I mean really, I was attending a serious boarding school 40 miles from home, doing homework, dating ladies, working at Egner’s Esso, and maintaining a drag racing effort, ad infinitum. A man can only spread himself so far.
Well, adversity, in the guise of no money, can often open the door to inventive ways of dealing with racing problems. Finally taking Tom Conte’s advice, I journeyed down to Leach Bros. junkyard in Germantown, and bought a set of solid wheels that had come off an MG TD! They had matching bald (as in “slicks”) tires. A totally sad looking pair that set me back $5.00. (What are you laughin’ at?) The bolt pattern was the same as the T-Bird. I took them home and bolted them on. The Bird looked odd, to put it mildly, with the small rear wheels and tires.
I picked up Heb, and we drove to a section of road where we had an exact ¼ mile marked out. We ran the car through a few times and were stunned by the improvement. We were substantially quicker with the wheel and tire combo. The tires were tiny, probably 5:50’s, narrow as Hell, and as I said, bald with very little cross section down on the road.
But here’s what transpired. With the automatic gearbox, and it’s gearing, the stock rear axle ratio, the small tires, and the small cross section, the car would launch like it was shot out of a cannon! It would rear back on its haunches, and literally hammer out of the hole like a rifle shot. Little or no wheelspin, no screaming revs, she just flat flew. It would finish the ¼ at 5200 RPM in high (3rd) gear. All the elements of the entire drivetrain were in perfect harmony producing an astonishingly good quarter mile performance. Just don’t get caught in a rain shower with those goofy little bald tires. If you weren’t at a race track, take ‘em off!
On dry roads I started picking street fights with anyone I could goad into running me. The Thunderbird kicked ass everywhere it went. Conte heard about it, and turned up the heat a little more with his ‘bird.
At the next event at the Allentown strip, both Tom and I worked our way through the cast of characters in A/Sports Car. I came up against Phil Sharples in that superb, nearly new 300SL Gullwing. I thought, (“well, this will be an early day. Maybe I can actually go home and do my homework tonight.”) We lined up, and I’ll never forget Mr. Sharples, at the last minute pulling down that beautiful gullwing door, while I sat there with my little brown primered MG wheels, looking completely out of place.
The starter took advantage of having the Mercedes Benz 300SL at the line, and took forever to lift the flag. We left together, but instantly the Bird’s nose rose up and it just shot down the track. Again, it seemed to take forever, but I never saw the 300SL. I won it going away by 2 car lengths. We posted a speed just above 92 MPH, and our first sub 14 second elapsed time. The crowd loved it and we got a huge hand on the way back.
Heb had been at the end of the track. I stopped and picked him up, and we were able to enjoy all of it together on the return road. We looked at each other and smiled as if to say: “not bad for a couple of kids from Oreland”. Mere months prior, I hadn’t even really known what a drag race was!
We drove back to our pit and found we had acquired a bit of a fan club. A few pats on the back, and “way to go kid!” . . . It was pretty neat.
We had a few more winning runs and then it came down to Tom and me. As we approached the staging area I clearly remember a wave of spectators coming up to the starting line with us. They seemed to sense a “David and Goliath” situation. The invincible Conte may have met his match, some may have thought. The starter pointed me into the left lane. We pulled into the staging area, and Heb motioned me up to the line. The starter told Heb we were in too deep; I kicked it into neutral and motioned for Heb to push me back a few feet. Conte had laid back. He was more familiar with all this, and I was slowly catching on to the theatrics of it all. Between the starter prolonging the drama and the announcer carrying on at a fever pitch, this high school kid felt like he had crossed into another world.
The comedian Steven Wright said it best: “You know how you feel when you sit back in a chair and it reaches the point where it’s going to tip over; I feel like that all the time”. That was precisely my feeling.
We edged back up to the line. A glance at the gauges showed the water temp was moving up, and I could hear an occasional, brief, rapid beat from the auxiliary Bendix electric fuel pump, signaling a potential vapor lock situation. These supercharged engines needed a heavy flow of fuel. Finally we were set and all the fanfare had worked, as we were then surrounded by fans. The starter was making a career out of firing this race off. We were good theater, in two brilliant, Thunderbirds, both extensively modified. One was driven by a thorough professional who knew precisely what he was doing, and the other ‘bird was being handled by an 18 year old kid who appeared to have caught every break in the book to be there at all.
I was totally wired to the starter’s flag and the nanosecond he unfurled it, I launched successfully. The car was super; we were not only on our way, I was in the lead. Somehow I was staying out there in front. But then, just as we entered the timing traps, out of the corner of my eye, I could sight that damn left front fender creeping into view again through my passenger
window. Tom climbed past me, with that damned Winston sticking out of his teeth, and won it by just a few feet. That Bird of his pulled like a runaway locomotive at the high end.
The crowd really loved it, and it was a euphoric moment, as both of us got a huge hand all the way back up the return road, and plenty of people were waiting for us in our pit. We didn’t have much to offer for the celebration, maybe two left over warm sodas and half an egg salad sandwich. Made no difference, we’d turned in a damned respectable performance and we were totally stoked.
PUSHING IT OUT A LITTLE FURTHER . . .
I subjected the car to several additional changes, often following on the heels of something Conte had done. The Spalding ignition system, although visually a bitchin’ unit, was driving us crazy, and I replaced it with a much more reliable Mallory unit. I installed the latest headers from Hedman, along with hidden “Lakes Plugs”. The more we raced the car through the Spring and into early Summer, we became aware of the need for tandem Bendix electric fuel pumps and finally ended up running three in tandem, plus the mechanical pump to overcome any potential vapor lock situations! I moved up to twin Holley 4 barrels. Owing to their design, they were pretty easy to pressurize for use with a blower, but they were not that effective.
I sold the dual four barrel setup and switched over to three two barrels. The Stromberg’s proved difficult to seal for blower use, and with an aluminum log for the supercharged air, the car couldn’t run with the stock hood. We would have to cut out the handsome functional Thunderbird air scoop for the hood to close. I felt I’d pushed the envelope at home far enough, and I just didn’t want to cut up the stock hood.
Thunderbird hoods weren’t lying around scrap yards yet and the cost of a new one was out of the question. Instead we went to a Hardware store and bought some sheet aluminum, and cobbled, (and, I do mean cobbled) up a crude sheet aluminum hood using shears, rivets, and sheet metal screws.
The car was developing into a serious runner, and not too many guys came looking for it. Still couldn’t beat Tom Conte though. He was always running one quick step ahead of us.
The season moved on and we ventured out to some of the new tracks that were opening, such as Frederick, Maryland, Woodbine, New Jersey (weedy, bumpy, old, airstrip), and Manassas, Virginia.
Woodbine, being in the “wilderness” of central southern Jersey, was a good example of how far out we’d stretch to run anywhere that had a bumpy old airstrip that may faintly resemble a drag strip. We pulled into the town of Woodbine at dusk on the Saturday evening before the event. It was hotter than blazes. There was just one run down “greasy spoon” of a restaurant. We ate something that was disagreeable, and asked where the local hotel or motel was.
“There ain’t none in this town” the waitress said. “There’s one about 14 miles over that way” she said pointing vaguely back the way we’d come into town.
Being literally stranded in this godforsaken town, and a gentle evening shower starting, my childhood knack for door to door selling rose out of the ashes. We got in our cars and began to search out the residential area of Woodbine a bit. Finally we came upon a street that appeared to have a few homes large enough to accommodate the four of us.
The others thought I was nuts when I said I’d be the “salesman/pitchman.” I knocked softly on the front door of the first house we’d chosen. The lady of the house answered and I pitched our need for accommodations for four of us, emphasizing our ability to pay. She looked utterly terrified, and said no she didn’t care to have us stay in her house, and promptly slammed the door. Her degree of anxiety had been two steps short of pure terror.
I suddenly wondered if she might well call the local police to tell them there was a gang of thugs in noisy cars knocking on people’s doors trying to spend the night!
I quickly gathered our band of thuggery, and hustled across the street to a well lit home. Both the husband and wife answered the door, peering anxiously at our merry band of beggars. I earnestly asked if they had a room they could rent us to “quietly” sleep in.
They couldn’t have been nicer. Five dollars bought us a clean upstairs guest bedroom with two saggy double beds for the four of us. As we were coming back through the front door with our bags, a police cruiser came very slowly down the street. Our new “landlady” waved to the police car, closed the front door and just as bright and cheery as anything, asked: “Would you boys like some cherry pie?” The next morning we were served the most wonderful breakfast you could imagine!
The event at Woodbine was sparse and completely helter skelter. I guess they had never had a “Sports Car” class, so I was lumped into the “Dragster” class which had only one car. I had him for a third of the track, but my day was over before noon . . .
Now, on the other hand, Manassas, Virginia was typical of what you might run into in the way of “new” drag strips in the fifties back East. We decided to give Manassas a try. We had gotten a very early start from Philly on a Saturday morning in July along with Jules Donofry, and Andy McNally in their ’34 Ford, supercharged, two door sedan. There we were, heading off to this track we’d only heard about, well south of Washington D.C. Those were the days before our Interstate Highway system, so we had to slog our way down Route 1 through downtown Baltimore and Washington. We arrived mid afternoon Saturday and were greeted with this magnificent new ¼ mile strip.
In fact it was just one quarter of a mile of pavement, and then the track dropped off sharply onto a very short rough dirt shutoff area and then straight into a thick stand of substantial trees. It seemed the organizers
hadn’t had the money to pave a shutoff area, so they roughly graded the clay earth for a short distance, and then “bang”, there you were facing a wall of very big trees. Just past the timing traps, where the paving stopped, you had a drop-off the depth of a sidewalk. It was the end of the day, we all walked down to end of the strip and surveyed the dilemma. The field of cars was sparse and we were watching “stockers” bounding off the end of the strip, flying a bit, then barely getting it all gathered up just before the woods.
I didn’t like the look of it at all. The Donofry/McNally ’34 was capable of speeds approaching 120 MPH in the quarter mile. There was no way they could run here without disappearing into the woods. Andy McNally didn’t see it that way. I’ll never forget him saying to all of us; “Once you dump off the paved part, into the dirt, you can toss the car sideways and scrub off your speed.” It’s reasoning like that that makes Hot Rodders a special breed unto themselves.
Sunday morning we all returned to the “track!” How did “we” do? McNally set the place on fire with a blazing run early, sailing off the end of the strip, sensationally throwing the car sideways, then spinning completely around in the dirt, still at a substantial velocity, then spinning once more, and ending up just, and I mean just, short of the deep woods. Donofry watched the whole thing and couldn’t believe his eyes. Shaking his head and laughing he headed back to the pits. The “crowd” loved it. These guys from Philly were really something. “Man, did you see that??” McNally returned to a heroes welcome in the pits, with a big smile on his face. On this brand new strip he had clocked an astounding 121 MPH.
What about me? Well, uh, you see I plain and simple didn’t have the chutzpah to pull off that kind of show and elected to take a pass on the day altogether, even though I would have been going through at 20 MPH less than Andy. I never felt good about having done that. It was lame. If nothing else I should have asked Donofry or McNally to take the Thunderbird through . . .
A KNOCKOUT BLOW
When I returned home that Sunday evening, I heard mother call my name. She was striding through the house in my direction. The “stride” didn’t sound good to me, at all.
She came out on to the porch, walked around and stood firmly in front of me. She held a letter in her hand. As she pulled up in front of me, she had a look on her face that clearly said this was going to be a thoroughly unpleasant bit of dialogue. The look she directed toward me could have cut steel. She held the letter in my direction as she said to me in an icy voice: “This is a letter from the Headmaster at The Solebury School…. I want you to listen to just this one sentence.”
Making sure she had my attention, she read the “one sentence”: “The faculty of the Solebury School has voted unanimously not to have Kirk return for another semester.” She lowered the letter and fixed me with a look that would burn a building down.
I distinctly remember thinking; “Damn, I really thought my Geometry teacher, Mr. Lannon liked me.” He’d nicknamed me: “Bluebird.” I couldn’t believe he’d voted against me.
The ensuing period of time that followed that disaster remains foggy in my memory but I’m certain life as I knew it was yanked back pretty hard. At the very least I would have had to start behaving somewhat more like the spectacular siblings of my parents friends, who were always being tossed up to me as stellar young ladies and gentlemen, studying hard, well mannered, well dressed, working hard in downtown offices during the summer, and, of course, already interviewing universities, worshipping each Sunday, and well liked by all of the other parents. Not everyone in our group was as ill behaved as Kirk!
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