As a little kid I was fascinated by toys, but mainly ones with wheels on them. Dinky Toys provided a force of war vehicles that my younger brother and I navigated through a wasteland we poured from a sack of flour and spread across the breakfast room table. The object was just to make tracks, roll that little piece of die-cast through the “snow” so we could see the wheels turn, the tracks those tiny rubber tires made. That stuff was my primal hook. To counter this bliss, our father’s sinister side assigned a mindless vocation—pull weeds from the vegetable garden. He said it would build character.
The Old Man wasn’t a hot rodder, but he loved resurrecting forlorn machines—things he would completely dismantle, clean, and rebuild with whatever they needed. He did this with an antique grandfather clock; its oily innards littered the dining room table for months, much to the dismay of my ’50’s-era mom.
He loved music, jazz mainly but he had a bent for Italian opera. Though he could afford anything on the market, he preferred to scratch-build a Heathkit hi-fi so he could revel in Puccini’s La boheme. The thread that ran through all of his diversions was research. He got the parts books, the Grainger catalogs, and the tools he’d need and studied them as resolutely as he did his Portuguese lessons in the Berlitz book.
He was business savvy. He knew the right people. He worked in Manhattan as the sole purchasing agent in the U.S. for Petrobras, the state-owned Brazilian oil company. Anything the refineries needed he got and soon became intimate with people who could make things happen outside his ken. One of them was at New York’s Port of Authority.
The POA maintained big ride-on sweepers against an ocean of trash and acres of grit. We had too much blacktop at home to sweep by hand. One day a flatbed appeared with a faded red machine strapped on its back. Suffice that dear Dad did everything on the rebuild—and even sprayed the paint!
So from this fertile earth I emerged.
The Old Man took me to the Midgets one night on the board track at the Teaneck Armory. We watched Moose, Sid, and Toughie mix it up on the oval. Underneath that roof it was exciting, noisy, and stinky; an incendiary incident that stains your clothes, seeps into your consciousness, and stays there forever.
I was eating up pocket-size Rodding and Restyling, Car Craft, Custom Rodder, and Rod & Customs pulps. I got the message: modified cars were cool; stockers were not. But I was alone with it. The only other kid within a mile of me was my brother, who cared more about professional baseball trivia and saving coins in a giant green Cinzano bottle.
Before I got the real thing, I built models using parts from several sources to make the whole. The primered “Crypt Kicker” ’40 Ford was my favorite … and I was also infatuated with the heady fumes of the Testors Plax. I was hooked on that junk.
In 1958, I got him to take me to see Garlits throttle his eight-carb nitro guzzler and smoke the tires the length of the track at the Montgomery, New York, airport. It raised his eyebrows. It made me rabid.
I had a vinyl of the ’60 Nationals and one cut was of Junior Thompson banging the Cad-Lasalle in his blown Studebaker sedan. I can still hear the sound that engine made and it still gives me chills. The Old Man kept telling me to turn it down.
I had embarked on my first project. It was completely unscripted; I simply reacted to what I saw between the covers of Hot Rod. I was 14. I had a 1939 Mercury sedan. I would pull the flathead and put a 283 Chevy in it. I knew the transmission would likely disintegrate before long so I got a 1939 Packard gearbox, known for its robust gears … and its notoriously weak case. I ordered my first speed part from a Hot Rod ad, an adapter plate that would clinch the floor-shift Packard to the back of the Chevy.
I toiled in an unused corner of the damp garage. It was the dead of winter. No heat—just shaded light and a high tolerance for psychological pain, but I loved the hands-on part of it and the won’t-quit demeanor I’d adapted. If you loved your car, if you loved that way of life, you’d have no qualms about changing a transmission flat on your back in the driveway during a snowstorm if that’s what needed to be done. More than 70 years down the road, I no longer feel the need to scratch that itch and have no regrets.
But I can’t pull a weed today without thinking of The Old Man.
About the Author: Ro McGonegal began in this business back in 1968. He’s been editor of Car Craft, Hot Rod, and Chevy High Performance. He’s a wealth of old-school knowledge and his stories from “back in the day” are epic.