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.
Over the next few days, I bought a 3.36 open third member at a junkyard for $15 and installed it at my friend's Sunoco gas station. Highway mileage jumped to 15 from a dismal 10. A Hurst shifter from Honest Charley's catalog would come later. The next week I was back in Parsons College in Fairfield, Iowa. I waited on tables at the Lions Club a few nights a week for $3 an hour, did engine super-tune-ups, miscellaneous freelance farm work and worked at an auction on Friday night, all to earn money for gas and insurance. I parked the car in an elderly lady's unused garage for $5 a month and drove a beater car and a friend's Maico 250cc motorcycle to get around school and town.
The Impala SS ran in the 13.70s at 102 mph with the factory 4.56:1 gear ratio, lake pipes and 7-inch slicks. Surprisingly, my best friend's new 1964, 3x2, 389 GTO with 4.33:1 gears, headers and slicks ran 13.90 at 99 mph. Towards the end of the summer-with fenderwell headers, super-tuning, one head gasket instead of two, a Z11 cam and ram-air-my car ran in the 12.80s and 12.90s at 108-109 mph. It was a fun ride and never broke a thing. In the fall, I decided to leave the '62 in my parent's garage and take the train back to southeast Iowa and college. Cheap beater cars were all over the place. Farmers were always dragging derelicts in "off the farm."
Late '64: Two Street Races
As a practice, I never street raced. Period. But in November '64, I was challenged by one of the Windy City's finest. I was home for Thanksgiving and got my '62 out to go see some friends 40 miles away. I'm driving south. A patrolman is headed north. The '62s front end was jacked up and the Doug's fenderwell headers with side exit glasspack exhaust were rumbling good. I noticed him eyeballing me. I then saw him do a U-turn as I turned right onto a four lane, one-way west street that eventually merged onto the freeway.
Within four stoplights, the patrolman was on my right side beckoning me to roll down my passenger window. I obliged.
He asked, "That an '09?"
I nodded affirmatively.
He replied, "Ya wanna run it?"
I answered, "Against what?"
He said, "I've got a 327 '56 Chevy that'll blow your doors off."
I just smiled back at him. We met at midnight on a closed off industrial street on the northwest side. Geez, a patrolman asked me to show him how much quicker my car was than his. My '62 had 9.00-14 Atlas Bucrons and an E&R rubber disc clutch that put 1 1/2 car lengths on his white '56 in first, second and third gear. That was that.
He was shocked. I later became pals with a lot of Chicago's finest. In the next few years, I tuned many of their Chevys and Mopars. I still am friends with many to this very day through our life-long love of super Chevys. I cannot divulge the street racing cop's name. Word was, no one had ever outrun his '56. I promised I would never tell. Well, you win some and you lose some. I have not talked to him since 1966. I hope he is still around. He learned how easy it is to get your fanny handed to you.
A month later during the Christmas holiday, a guy in a maroon 19631/2 425hp 427 Ford Galaxie was after me. The weather was cold, but there was no snow on the ground. To be honest, I did not think my 12.80 - 12.90 e.t. '62 could beat his big, bad '631/2 427. I figured my '62 could run mid 13s through the mufflers on the Bucron tires. A friend of mine had a similar Ford with 4.10:1 gears and the ashtray used to rocket out of the dash and onto the front bench seat on every 1-2 powershift. The glovebox door would also bang open.
Well, on a Saturday night, he was waiting outside a rock 'n' roll dance place. It was out in the boonies on a four-lane country road. I was with two pals: 6'3", 295-pound Bill Smith and 6'2", 225-pound Wayne Seitman. I was 6'5",190 pounds. Well, with 520 extra pounds on board, I fully expected to get dusted. But guess who won? After five runs, my 409 was 5 wins and 0 losses. Each win was by about three feet-per-gear. The '62 ever so slightly pulled away. I figured he probably had a 3.55:1 gear. I later heard he traded his Ford on a little MGA sporty car. When the word got around town that my '62 409 dusted this '631/2 427 no one ever challenged me when I was home-and that was good. I never liked street racing. Neither did the area cops, all of whom I got along with great. My '62 was then garaged again.
I drove another beater (this time a $35 '49 Ford four-door flathead with four snow tires) in college. I even painted it brown with a paintbrush. From reading the championship-winning 409 stories, I pulled the '62's engine over a weekend in April at a friend's machine shop. I thought the '62 409 SS would make a great C/Stock or D/Stock NADS/UDRA class car. Rules were different than NHRA. Over a few months, I installed 12.5:1 forged pistons-first an Isky, then a Sig Erson 990B camshaft, a Du-Coil ignition with a new space-age spark amplifier, Mondello ported heads, and Doug's fenderwell tri-Y headers.
All my many prior super-tuning and college jobs paid for the parts. I remember that the total rebuild was not much over $500-$600. The clutch assembly was a 15-pound aluminum flywheel with a special E&R pressure plate and disc. My recap slicks were 12 inches wide. I had to install them deflated, then pump them up with a portable air tank. Once inflated, there were no clearance problems. I also ran 90/10 front shocks (no front anti-roll bar) and Air Lift airbags in the rear. Without the airbags, I could snap an axle in 10 runs or less (usually the left axle). With the airbags, I could go 15-to-20 runs. Used axles with straight splines were $1.00 each.
When the car did not break an axle, it was undefeated in class in 1965. It won a lot of regular weekend races plus two hot ones at Union Grove and Rockford. I have never remembered many of the runs or even who the competition was. I always focused on driving. The car was in the 12.30s and 12.40s at Union Grove with the Isky camshaft. Prior to Rockford, I installed the Erson 990B camshaft at the recommendation of Tom Jacobson at Gledhill Chevrolet in Southern California.
I was a serious weekend racer who always relied on traction, chassis reaction, exact driving and mid-range torque. Again, I don't recall my class elimination wins at two regional championships. Competition was not that great. But both of the final round runs were against the same car, a '62 Galaxie with a deep sounding, wedge big-block. In the Union Grove class final, I won by three-quarters of a car length at 12.37 at 112 mph.
Get this: As life goes, I ended up being 1 of 20 taken by the U.S. Marines. A week later, I flunked their boot camp physical exam at Parris Island, South Carolina. I was actually mad! They gave me a free train ticket back to Chicago and Nickey Chevrolet. My friend was then killed while letting someone else drive his GTO. I was supposed to be with them, but I did not go. A few months later, I special-ordered my only new Chevy, a '66 L79 Chevy II. I sure liked that '62 SS 409.
What you've read here is just an inkling of Chevy's overall big-car performance heritage. There were thousands of other Chevy guys in every state doing the very same thing from 1958 through 1970 and beyond. Many are still at it today. Thumbs up to every one.