One day I heard something that bounced all over my brain pan and shattered, coating it with some kind of sweet varnish. It changed me. I didn’t know it right then. I just knew there was something more to a young man’s life in a small town than “proper” behavior. There was always the urge to peel away the legal, the accepted, and the expected. So I did. I started a fire or two in neighbors’ fields. I was handy with rocks. I drove around wet backroads without a license. We slugged quarts of Schaefer beer in the weeds down by the edge of the river. The idea was to cause some sort of mayhem even if it was only in my mind. Real teen rebel I was.
The something I’d heard, that thing I’m telling you changed me was the rasp of a Chevy engine spinning full tilt, exhaust naked and wide open; might have been a mating call. I’d first felt this chilling provocation on a long-play album recorded at some nationals or other. Junior Thompson was the man and he was vexing his B/GS ’41 Studebaker. I was literally transfixed. I was hooked on the cadence of the engine as he pulled the gears. I replayed it so many times I nearly wore out the groove. Yes, that thing stuck on me.
It got behind me and pushed. I wanted a hot car; not as hot as Junior’s but something that turned heads and made noise just as well. I worked my way through a ’39 Merc, an engine-swap ’54 Ford, a triple-carb ’60 Biscayne, and a ’55 Bel Air sedan with a 270hp 283. Then I came upon a 360hp, fuel-injected ’62 Corvette. Spacers made of tube stock inserted between the frame and the very ordinary ’54 Chevy suspension Chevrolet used gave it a permanent lift. A couple of extra leaves under the rearend leveled the stance.
Near the end of 1963, I paid a hard-earned $2,900 for this prize; it was a lot of money for the day. Originally, the C1 was Tuxedo Black but I had more to do than run around wiping the body down every 15 minutes, so I had somebody change it. They removed the fins in the door cove and then painted it Cadillac Firemist Red that had been introduced in 1964. It was nicely contrasted by the ET Uni-Lug wheels.
The living space was just right for one slightly schizophrenic creature. I loved being there. The Inland shifter was buzzy, sloppy, and inaccurate. Whacking the Hurst Comp Plus shifter I’d put on it felt good. I put a big Sun electric tachometer on the dashboard right where I could see it.
So this was really back in the day stuff, see? Back in the day, we drove our cars everywhere. I went to Coast Automotive in Hackensack, New Jersey. I’d read encouraging things about the pipes the Belanger brothers were twisting up in Tri-Y configuration, but when I went to put them on the Corvette, they hit the framerails big time. I got some Hedmans. They were civilized and streamlined. They fell on. They had collectors, gaskets, a three-bolt flange, and extensions to merge with the original system.
I glommed some Traction Masters and had the brackets welded to the chassis. The slicks were 8.00x14 recaps I picked up at Coast. I put them to the axle on 6-inch-wide station wagons rims. Though the car had a 3.70:1 Positraction when I got it, I went straight for a 4.56:1 chunk. This phenomenon “increased” torque but made for a real busy engine. In those blue-sky days, mileage wasn’t a consideration; $5 would fill the 16-gallon tank with 260 Sunoco.
I’d put the slicks and a jack in the trunk and hold the lid down on them with a bungee. I’d check the timing and run the valve lash hot, then tank up with 94-octane Sun gas before I left home. I’d wind Route 46 out to Ed Kowalick’s black-earth celery fields in Great Meadows, about an hour-and-half drive. I’d wander around the pits to see who else was there while the car cooled off so I could crawl under it.
If you didn’t get in line early enough, maybe you got to make three runs. I’d do a couple of good dry hops and make the stage. I don’t remember what I launched at but I pulled the gears at 6,000. The car went 13.30s at 106 consistently.
During those interludes, I was always completely conscious of my surroundings so they had emotional connotation and consequently generated the greatest interest. I knew there was a connection between them along with a deep-seated yen to pilot my own rocket ship in my own homey universe. The less visible I was the better. And early on I’d pleasantly discovered that it was much better to listen than to talk.
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.
Photography by Ro McGonegal