I grew up in the country. There were no sidewalks. Cows could be counted on to graze in the front yard most every morning. There were two old-time cops; full-time Wilkes, part-time Bierbrier … and no cop car so the law was thin at best.
Wherever we went we did it on sneakers or perched on the seat of a bicycle. We hoofed it to school, in snow, rain, whatever. Kids weren’t pampered. They were expected to find their own way and were left alone to discover for themselves what the deal was. Being “safe” wasn’t even a consideration. There was no asking for permission. You just went ahead and did it and worried about the consequences later.
When the breezes were warm and there was no school you began the day’s adventure early in the morning and didn’t roll back home on your bike until it was either dark or time to eat dinner. That’s how I discovered and soon reveled in something that would disturb my consciousness forever after.
Pubescent years in my bucolic New Jersey hometown were not without drama. I was able to go beyond the stuff I read in magazines. In 1958 it was, we’d congregate in the early evening at the Swiss Pork Store, a delicatessen and “convenience” store before there even was such a thing. Among the habitués, Jim Ryan and his ’50 Olds, Pete Betch’s ’56 Vicky, and Billy Robert’s 392 Hemi-swap ’57 Savoy. Adjunct to this, there was Craig and Stan Christman’s triple-carb V-8-powered Austin-Healey and “Spook” Sylvestri’s ’58 Golden Commando. They were cars and characters representative of the period youth and were extant before the proliferation of specialized speed equipment. I’d arrive proudly on my bike; I wasn’t old enough to carry a license until ’61. I loved being in the company and the acceptance of the older guys.
Of the collection, Ryan’s had most of the cool cues associated with what you might find in the pulp of Hot Rod or Rodding and Re-styling. It was a ’50 bubbletop all de rigueur and resplendent in wide whites on steel rims painted red and there were no hubcaps. There was no color on the body either, only a film of suede, at a time when primer was more prevalent than any kind of finish coat. I can still see that thing simmering on the gravel drive behind the Pork Store. Its steel-pack mufflers had a distinctive growl and they were connected to his ace in the hole, a triple-carb ’57 J2 motor that put out 300 horsepower and 415 lb-ft of grunt. Yeah, you could hear that thing coming down the road for miles.
Law enforcement in the hinterlands was so lax back then that some loons used to run around with straight exhaust pipes and no mufflers at all. When it came time to pass the annual state safety inspection they’d stuff a wad of steel wool in the pipes, drill a hole behind it and secure the pack with a cotter pin. When the coast was clear, they’d pull the pins and blow the steel wool over to the next town. I don’t remember ever riding in Ryan’s coupe, just looking at it and getting a warm feeling in my chest because it was inspired by the holy car magazines.
In comparison to the fair-haired Ryan’s basketball-playing beanpole frame, Pete Betch was swarthy and stocky and his claim to fame was a white-over-green ’56 Crown Victoria. While most of them were equipped with a Ford-O-Matic, Pete’s ride sported a clutch and a three-speed. I didn’t think it was a hot rod at all. It had no such demeanor or appearance. But what it did have was a motivated owner who supplied all the kinetic excitement a hick town kid could want. Whenever there was a lull in the gabbing, Pete would line that thing up on West Saddle River Rd., mat the throttle, and spin more rubber for 150 feet than I thought possible, thus securing a spot in the street burnout chronicles that was never eclipsed. When the smoke cleared, we’d duck into the Pork Store and hit up Otto behind the counter for a bean sandwich on a hard roll and a bottle of something tingly cold from the big cooler box because that big league car stuff was apt to make a kid hungry and sweaty.
There was a featureless black ’57 Plymouth Savoy on the fringes, too. It was special because its engine was something found only in Top Fuel dragsters of the moment—but without a supercharger or fuel injectors stuck to it. Billy Roberts had dropped in a 392 Hemi and backed it with a 727 TorqueFlite. The sound that the Hemi made was profoundly singular; no other engine that we knew of was remotely like it. In the low-buck Savoy it represented the essence of the engine swap so popular at the time (i.e., a big motor in a lightweight envelope). Before its secret was known and nobody’d touch him with a 20-foot pole, he had annihilated scores of pretenders and emptied their wallets with it up there on Route 17.
Though they were not in the Pork Store sphere, there were others in the limited cosmos. One that stood out like a split lip was Sylvestri’s Plymouth Golden Commando, a ’58 infused with a 350-inch motor and three carburetors. Though the car was certainly interesting, more interesting was its owner. Some kind of a hard case, Spook had evenly spaced dashes tattooed across his neck that were underscored with the instructions “cut on dotted line.” Made you think.
But by far the most ingenious and industrious lads in town were Stan and Craig, the Christman brothers. Before they had cars, they messed with their bicycles, one of them powered by a Briggs lawnmower engine mounted above the rear tire. And when we’d gotten enough of that tomfoolery, Craig showed up in his Austin-Healey 100. It had a beefier differential out of a Jaguar and a four-speed connected to a triple-carb 348 Chevy.
He demonstrated just how well the flyweight combo worked. We passed four cars going up Dead Man’s hill and into a blind curve. The thing pulled so hard it punched me back in the seat and held me there. No car had ever been able to abuse me like that before. It set a dangerous precedent. Younger brother Stan wouldn’t sit still, either. A few years later I saw him on the line at Island Dragway in Great Meadows, New Jersey. He was driving a fat red ’60 Oldsmobile convertible that he’d modified a little. Yeah, replaced the automatic transmission with a clutch and the three-speed out of a ’37 LaSalle!
All of this boiled my blood. I was leaking. I needed a “hot rod” to work on, even though I didn’t know how. I jumped off the bridge and bought a ’54 Ford Custom coupe with greasy black paint for $330. The 239-inch motor had a leaky rear main; about a quart drizzled out of it every 20 miles or so.
A few days later I was at my favorite recycler (in those days these places were called junkyards) and found a running 312 that would bolt right in. Since I had no jing for speed parts, I employed the time-honored engine-swap—more displacement, more power. To give it a slight forward rake I ran the car with oversized rear tires. I put skinny white port-a-walls on all of them. A few months later, the three-speed began to whine. It had a few drops of fluid left in it. I had never thought to check. The gears were blued and blackened from the heat. I found an apt replacement in the boneyard, one with an overdrive feature, and really began to move forward.