I was born in Iowa, but grew up in a small town in northern Illinois. From age 12 on, I rode motorbikes and cycles. My first drag race was in 1959 at Great Lakes Dragway, Union Grove, Wisconsin, on a rare, 1959 500cc, 40hp Zundapp motorcycle. It ran mid-15s at 80-plus mph. My entry into Chevrolet high-performance began on December 22, 1960, when my dad bought a new 1961 270hp Sateen Silver Corvette, #100463. This car proved to be the first of a handful of Bow Ties that ultimately lead to my 33-year career in automotive journalism and photography.
As awesome as my dad's Vette was, it wasn't "my" car. But it did give me much hands-on experience in engine and driveline tuning and legal drag racing-three year's worth to be exact. In early 1964, I was a 20-year-old college sophomore and had recently updated my "beater wheels" from a $35 1951 Chevy sedan to a $40 1955 red-and-white, four-door Oldsmobile. Transportation was something I had to pay for myself. This was a blessing because whatever good car I ultimately chose would be my decision. From many years of summer work and odd jobs, I had just over $2,000 saved. Yes, my father was also a taskmaster. He grew up with nothing and wanted to make sure I knew the value of a dollar. Was I looking for a nice car during the early winter of '64? No. Was this a "destiny" thing? Quite possibly.
I have been labeled for many decades as a "409 guy." Was I back then? Nope, not even close. My dad's '61 Vette was undefeated in CM/SP the summer of '63. I was definitely a small-block guy. I was fully aware of what the great-looking 1962 409 Chevys were doing on drag strips nationally. I actually wished I owned a Biscayne or Bel Air sport coupe. Both models were impossible to find. Each had a following and sold in a blink on car lots.
During the early 1964 winter holiday season, I stopped by a brand new car lot in Palatine, Illinois, called Chevy A Go-Go. It was a Sunday afternoon. The most action going on was next door at the McDonald's. The car lot was loaded with 283, 327 and 348/four-speed Chevys and the like. As usual, all were priced accordingly-meaning $2,500 and up.
When I pulled in, a man who turned out to be the owner came outside and asked if he could help me. I told him I was home from college and was just looking. For some reason, he stuck with me and I'm glad he did.
Everything was clean and dandy but nothing struck my fancy. But then we got down to the end on the second row. Here sat a white '62 SS 409. The price was $2,100. I did not say a word. He casually verbalized, "No one wants this '62. It has the monster Godzilla engine."
I gave no reply. Instead, I peered at the spotless, like-new, red bucket seat interior. The odometer showed 12,000-plus miles. I then raised the hood. Here was a stock, dual four barrel 409 with silver valve covers and a big black air cleaner.
Some five minutes earlier, I thought there was no way I could ever afford a nice car like this-much less a hot 409. Godzilla was sitting there and ready to rock. Typed data on the window sticker said the gear ratio was 4.56:1 with Posi-traction. The owner then said the car came out of Chicago.
As strange as this may sound, the owner again told me matter-of-factly that no one wanted it because of the gas guzzling, high octane, twin carburetor 409 engine. With that remark as my cue, I let him think that I was reluctant as well. But I looked the car over again then I told him I might be back tomorrow "to look around some more." Heh-heh. You bet I'd be back! A year old, 12,000 mile, mint condition, white over red, dual quad 409 Impala SS for $2,100? The car was at least $3,500 the year before. I thanked him for his time and assured him I would probably be back on Monday morning.
Much to his surprise, I did indeed return. He asked me my thoughts. I just shrugged my shoulders then asked him if I could examine this car and some others, again. I looked at a half-dozen or so then walked back to the SS 409. After I looked underneath it from the front and the rear, I remember like it was yesterday telling him that all I had was $1,900 cash and the '55 Olds. He reiterated again that no one wanted the 409 and was I sure I did? As he contemplated my continued offer, I mentioned that the Olds was worth a lot more than the cash difference of $200.
After all, it was only eight years old. In an instant, he said, "Cash?" I nodded affirmative. With a straight face, he then said, "sold." He quickly inspected my Oldsmobile, then I drove to my bank, got the $1,900 and returned. He accepted the Olds as the cost difference, including sales tax and license fees. It was indeed winter and I learned that performance cars aren't very good sellers. I figured my ship had come in. The peanut gallery (mom and dad) also approved.