I have been in love with cars all my life. When I was 15 I bought a model A Ford, stripped it, replaced the mechanical brakes with hydraulics, painted it and had it road ready before I had a driver's license. But when I could finally drive it was too slow so for my taste so I traded it for a 1955 Chevy, similar to the one pictured here. It only had a 283 cubic inch engine, two-barrel carburetor and three-speed column shift transmission but it had the potential of going fast and that was all that mattered.
1955 Chevy Bel Air *
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This was the 1960's, when gasoline was 25 cents a gallon and attendants pumped it for you, cleaned the windows and checked the oil with every fill up. I financed my hobby with paper routes and odd jobs and shopped out of a J.C. Whitney catalog. I had no guidance or training so everything was done by trial and error. I hot-tanked my first engine block in a 55 gallon barrel full of water and a box of Tide, sitting on a bed of hot coals. My floor jack was a 15 foot pipe and blocks of wood.
There is no limit to what you can do to make a car go faster and I always wanted more. I worked my way up to a 327 cubic inch engine with a radical camshaft and two four-barrel carburetors and installed traction bars and cheater slicks on the back. I couldn't afford a four-speed transmission but I put a floor shifter on the three-speed and drilled out a cue ball for the knob. I had a "wolf whistle" on the intake manifold, an "ooga" horn from my Model A under the hood, cable controlled muffler cutouts and I could rock the neighborhood with my eight-track player, six speakers and reverberation unit. When I was behind the wheel I felt like the king of the road. I loved that car.
I loved to hear the engine lope at idle and the hollow roar of the glass-pack mufflers under acceleration, and my favorite pastime was "curb sneaks" - pulling into the right-turn lane at a signal and then jumping out in front of everyone when the light turned green. And that is what I was doing one July evening in Glendale, California, when a gearhead in a similar hot rod challenged me to a race.
Drag racing is the definitive measure of a hot rod. It's the point at which what merely looks fast has to actually go fast and I thought I was ready. I had the engine and the traction to get the job done and was excited at the prospect of proving myself in front of a crowd. Forest Lawn Drive was the unofficial drag strip in the area and when we arrived there were dozens of cars and cones set out to mark the quarter mile.
When our turn came I was nervous. This was my first race and it was going to happen in front of an audience. It was the moment of truth, my chance to show the world that my 55 was worthy of hot rod status, and as I approached the starting line I goosed the engine a few times in hopes of impressing the girls. The official starter put us in position and told us the rules. He said that he would throw a knotted shirt in the air and when it hit the ground we were free to go. As I sat there my mind was focused on the empty road ahead. I was anxious and nervous but ready to show off my skills as a mechanic and driver. And when the moment came I slammed my right foot to the floor as my left foot released the clutch and the car virtually jumped off the line - and the engine died.
The engine would crank but would not start and after pushing the car out of the way I opened the hood to look for the problem. The first thing I discovered was that there was no spark to the plugs because the distributor rotor was broken. And the second thing I found was that the motor mounts were both broken; the rubber dampers were no longer attached to their steel plates. It made no sense. Everything was relatively new, the engine had been running fine up until that evening and when I replaced the rotor it started right up.
Do you know what happened? Send me an email with your answer and I will tell you the rest of the story!