While it comes as no surprise that Los Angeles has some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, what is surprising is that it also offers quick access to one of the most memorable and magnificent driving tours you'll ever find: the Palos Verdes peninsula. Jutting out into the ocean toward idyllic Catalina Island, it was actually an offshore island in ancient times. Only much later did it become connected as a peninsula, when the region between the island and the mainland filled with alluvial deposits from the mountain ranges near the Los Angeles basin.
The result is a pristine hilltop that not only overlooks the smoggy City of Angels, but also provides a welcome escape for a top-down daytrip along the Pacific coast and through winding canyons. What's remarkable is how even many L.A. locals are unaware of this secluded, nearly secret driving opportunity (as noted by the owner of the red Stingray, which we'll get to shortly).
Some might think the unusual geology of the peninsula explains the slow-moving landslide area of Portuguese Bend. Located on the southern slope of the hilltop near San Pedro, this notoriously unstable section of seaside road is just a mile in length. Cracks frequently form in the undulating asphalt as the soil underneath slides downhill and entire sections move at different speeds. Periodically, the road is repaved and straightened, but each time the white lines are painted straight, in matter of months, if not weeks, they turn into squiggles.
The cause has actually been attributed to poor construction practices in the '50s that increased groundwater levels. Notice the pipes that parallel the road. These are utilities are typically underground. However, due to the constant movement in this area, they have been put above ground, so they can be moved and repaired with regularity.
No matter, as this instability didn't stop Donald Trump from building a ritzy golf resort just a few miles away. Ever the promoter, "The Donald" once declared that he couldn't think of a safer place to be if an earthquake hit. (Well, everybody's entitled to an opinion-just don't ask us about his combover.)
Anyway, our opinion (based on having lived in the area for several years), is that aside from the bumps of Portuguese Bend, Vette owners will really relish the ocean vistas and lush avenues of PV, as it's called by the locals. Palos Verdes is actually Spanish for "green sticks" or "green poles," referring to a regional species of tree. But it's better known for having some of the priciest real estate and lavish private mansions in all of California. These include several wonderful architectural landmarks, such as the Wayfarers Chapel designed by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright), located near Portuguese Bend. Even if you're not the religious type, the design and settings of this glass-walled structure are so inspired, their beauty will transfix you.
We stopped at the Chapel at the personal request of Noel Park of J&D Corvette-who kindly made his '55 vintage racer available for this shoot (along with his customer Phil Shrotman's '71 Stingray)-in memory of his recently departed wife, since memorial services were held there for her. While he looks back with sadness at his loss, he's moving forward with his life at full throttle. As evidenced by the numerous racetrack stickers on the windshield, Park is a regular on the vintage-racing scene. His C1 has a colorful background, as he went to some lengths to make it a tribute to the famous EX87/5951, or No. 16, a record-setting car driven by Zora Arkus-Duntov (see sidebar).
As noted at the outset, even though Shrotman is a long-time resident of nearby Long Beach, a college professor, and now financial advisor, he had never ventured through PV. "I just never had the time and never had the car," he admits. Now he does, however, having purchased a lipstick-red '71 Stingray to bring back memories of a gray one he purchased new. Family obligations required selling that car, but he renewed his association with the Stingray, and recently had J&D Corvette rebuild the 454 block, beefing up the compression to 10.5:1 and dropping down the weight with several aluminum components. He also upgraded the suspension with a carbon monoleaf, and threw on no small amount of bling: "I'm a chrome whore," he admits.
So this tour of PV was a prime opportunity to flex the big-block's muscle and blow out the pipes. Reflecting back on the experience, Shrotman couldn't stop talking about it to all his fellow car buddies. "I was gripping the wheel so tight, I had trouble opening my hand the next day," he grimaces.
For the best drives on the peninsula, it helps to visualize the area as a big oval. Key routes form the circumference (called, simply enough, Palos Verdes Drive North, West, and South). Portuguese Bend is at the bottom (south) of the oval, and the easiest access is at the top (north) via either Crenshaw or Hawthorne boulevards (which run more or less parallel, south from the overcrowded 405 freeway through Torrance and over the hill). You can also get to PV from the Pacific Coast Highway or through San Pedro, but those are more complicated routes.
After making your way into PV, Crenshaw is the hot ticket for punching your throttle. Once you start climbing into the canyon, the winding, four-lane road is divided by a concrete wall, and makes for some great roadcourse-style runs. Just watch out for the blind curves near the top, where stoplights appear suddenly. Take a couple laps up and down the canyon to get familiar with the road before cutting loose.
At the top of Crenshaw, hang a right on the aptly name Crest Road, which provides a spectacular view of Catalina Island (when the marine layer of clouds isn't rolling in, though sometimes you can still see them from above, making for an ethereal experience). Then take a left on Hawthorne and follow it down to the coast and Palos Verdes Drive South.
In the shopping center at that intersection is Admiral Risty's, a great watering hole and restaurant (and also a good place to meet wealthy PV divorcÚs and widows, if you're on the prowl). If you'd rather just grab a cup of Joe, though, stop at the Starbucks nearby and take in the view from the oceanfront patio. "There's a constant parade of motorcycles and high-end exotics on the weekend," Park points out. "It's like a rolling car show."
After finishing your half-caf double latte, turn right and head up the coast if you want to see the stunning overlook at Malaga Cove, and watch surfers on the big rollers. Slightly farther along is the plaza with the Neptune fountain, which also offers good restaurants and art bazaars.
If you decide to turn left from Hawthorne instead, just a couple miles down the coast is the Point Vicente Lighthouse. It was built in 1926 and is also on the National Register of Historic Places. Adjacent is the Point Vicente Interpretive Center, which features exhibits on the natural and cultural history of the Peninsula, with a special emphasis on the Pacific gray whale. This premier whale-watching site provides spectacular opportunities to view the annual migration of the grays from December through April.
Keep heading toward San Pedro and you'll pass the Wayfarer's Chapel, Portuguese Bend, and the Trump golf course, eventually arriving at the Angel's Gate Park and the Korean Friendship Bell. That's a fitting end to your tour of PV, as it sits on a peaceful knoll overlooking the sea gate from which U.S. troops sailed into the Pacific, along with an unsurpassed view of the Los Angeles harbor and the Catalina Channel. It's all enough to make you wonder why you'd ever want to live anywhere else in Southern California.
Sweet No. 16A tribute to Duntov's Daytona Beach record-breaker
Before the legendary SR-2 models ever raced at Sebring in 1956 and ushered in all the speed-tuned Corvettes that followed, there was an even earlier pioneer of GM performance. Known simply as EX87/5951, or "No. 16," this streamlined prototype driven by Zora Arkus- Duntov set a new flying-mile record of 150.583 mph on the sands of Daytona Beach.
More important than this astonishing speed for 1956, however, was the fact that based on the car's success at Daytona, GM president Ed Cole announced that Chevrolet would give factory support to a private team entering Corvettes at the Sebring 12-hour race. The move prompted the subsequent development of other race-bred Vettes such as the SS, the Grand Sport, and the Z06.
Despite the significance of EX87/5951 in Corvette history, No. 16 suffered the indignities typical for prototypes, with both its body and engine transplanted over time. Even though the car may be gone, it's certainly not forgotten. What you see here is an effort to recreate this benchmark Corvette, right down to the nuts and bolts.
The project began almost by chance. Noel Park had acquired a basket-case '55 that had been disassembled following an accident and never put back together. It had no engine or transmission, and the smaller parts were stored in numerous cardboard boxes.
"Actually, I didn't set out to build the No. 16 Corvette," Park recalls. "I just wanted another vintage racer." He already owned a '58 model and had been competing in it at Sears Point. Two casual conversations with Corvette enthusiasts inspired him to take on this history assignment, even though he initially feared his fellow collectors might accuse him of sacrilege. "I was talking with Steve Earle of the Monterey Historics, who suggested that I go ahead and make the car look like No. 16. He said he wouldn't have a problem with having the car on the track at his vintage races."
Park was still apprehensive, though, until NCRS member Corey Peterson, who owns a '55 model, made a similar comment. "After he told me, 'You gotta make it look like that No. 16 that ran at Daytona,' I felt there was a message there."
So Park began an unusual historical "restification," one that would require considerable digging to get his car to look as close as possible to the original item. Since he restores Vettes for a living at J&D Corvette, the mechanical work was a cakewalk compared with other aspects.
"The hardest part was recreating the decals," he laughs, shaking his head about the emblems on the low-cut windshield. Fortunately, after scouring the country for several months, he found two helpful sources: Buzz McKim at the Daytona International Speedway, who faxed him some copies found in the archives, and Bill Tower, who owned a '56 with some very similar decals.
Even with these helping hands, one of the many difficulties was the fact that the No. 16 prototype changed often during its early days, and photos from the era provide scant information. Nevertheless, Park forged ahead, taking nearly two years to do the car correctly.
"We went to great pains to make it look the same, using the correct 265 block with cast-iron intake and headers. That was a gesture toward the original," he says. "The only thing we changed are some up-rated hard parts inside. We have at least as much horsepower as Zora had back then." Instead of the original-spec "Duntov" cam, Park went with a hotter bumpstick so he could be more competitive on the vintage circuit. Otherwise, the drivetrain is period correct, with a Carter three-barrel atop the 265ci block that's mated to a three-speed tranny.
Since Park planned to run the car on roadcourses, he didn't take things to the extent of building a bellypan like the one that was fitted to the original No. 16 to minimize drag for speed runs. However, he did have a passenger-side tonneau cover fabricated out of foam and fiberglass, shaped by close scrutiny of historical photos. The car's white paint, although not a lacquer type, does have the same tint used back in 1956.
The rearend ratio-a 4.56 geared for the track-is lower than original, but Park also has a 3.08 he slips in for road trips. Yes, he occasionally drives the car on the street (as he did for our tour of PV). It's certainly no trailer queen. In fact, one year he completed the 386-mile drive to Monterey from his home in San Pedro-eight gallons at a time, because the car carries a fuel tank sized for competition. He never ran out of gas and averaged 15 mpg on the trip.
More important, how has Park's No. 16 performed on the track? Over the years, he has consistently placed highly in various vintage competitions. Some of his proudest moments include a "True Spirit" trophy from Automobile magazine, and after taking a First at Sears Point (now Infineon), he received an award from Steve Earle for "Best Overall Performance and Presentation." And at the Monterey Historics last year, Park took First in the Production Class for '48 to '55 sports cars. Somewhere, Duntov is smiling in approval.