Editor’s Note: In this week’s Rant, we’re reprising one of Peter’s most-requested columns as he discusses how our individual and collective experiences with cars have everything to do with who we are, and how this nation was transformed with a wandering spirit that allowed us to roam for the sheer hell of it. In On The Table, some cool little Honda scooters are worth another look. We also feature one of Peter’s favorites – Aimee Mann – in our AE Song of the Week. In Fumes, Peter continues his series on “The Glory Days” – which captures a fleeting moment in time and provides a closeup view of amateur sports car racing in the 60s and 70s, and how it captivated a talented bunch of volunteers and propelled them to achieve greatness at the higher levels of the sport. This series has been one of the most popular and widely read pieces ever to appear in Autoextremist.com. And finally, in The Line, we have the latest race results from IMSA, INDYCAR and F1. Enjoy! -WG
Detroit. It’s 3:00 a.m., so often my normal writing time, and it’s time to get it into gear. This business is so dominated by betting on the come of the battery electric vehicle explosion that I’m afraid this industry may have completely lost the plot. Yes, I know, this is nothing exactly new from me, but it bears repeating. This EV transition is going to play out in fits and starts, and to assume everything is going to go according to plan is a fool’s errand. But that won’t stop certain manufacturers – and their executives – from touting their EV prowess and boasting how successful they’re going to be, because that just comes with the territory. I mean, after all, if auto executives stopped overpromising, something would be very, very wrong, wouldn’t it?
I am going to set that aside, however, since this is a drum that will need beating for years to come.
Today I’d rather write about what got us here in the first place. I’m talking about our collective experiences with cars and the road that are all different and individually significant, but all special in their own way. The people you were with, the places you experienced along the way, and the fleeting moments in time that are indelibly seared in our memories. And they’re simply irreplaceable.
As you might imagine, I have a few car stories. I try to dribble them out now and again – people never get tired of my Bill Mitchell columns, for instance – just to keep things interesting, but today I will offer up a few more glimpses of what has amounted to be a pretty special car life.
It was late March 1966, and my brother Tony was in his last year at the University of Notre Dame. He and a friend – Gary Kohs – and others had organized the third edition of a sports car show on campus for the first three days of April. This “Sports Car Spectacular” as it was called, turned out to be spectacular, indeed.
Because of my dad’s heavy-duty contacts throughout the industry, this little car show was a very big deal. All the manufacturers weighed-in: Ford sent Jim Clark’s 1965 Indianapolis 500-winning Lotus-Ford and several hot production and racing cars from its “Total Performance” marketing era, including one of Fred Lorenzen’s cars. Chrysler was represented, too, with a plethora of hot production Hemis and a full-on NASCAR stocker from Richard Petty. But that wasn’t all, because besides several of its current Styling concepts like the Corvette Mako Shark I and II and Monza GT and SS, what GM brought to the show was a shocker and is still talked about to this day.
I will get to that in a moment, but it’s worth talking about how we traveled down to South Bend from Birmingham, Michigan, the day before the show. A remarkable collection of cars was poised in my parent’s driveway for the trip down to the Notre Dame campus, because they were going to be added to the show once we got down there. There was a bright red 1965 289 Shelby Cobra and a 1965 Shelby GT350 Mustang (white with blue stripes) borrowed from Ford. And then there was a Nassau Blue 1965 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray roadster with a removable top and white interior, complete with a 396 cu. in. V8, bulging hood and side pipes.
This was no ordinary Corvette, however. This car was specially built for Ed Cole (one of GM’s legendary engineers who developed the small block V8, among a thousand other brilliant accomplishments) to give to his wife, Dolly. As I’ve said many times before, many of the legends of GM’s heyday were family friends we hung out with, it was just the way it was back in the day. Dolly was a memorable, fiery blonde from Texas with a razor-sharp wit who loved to drive her “Bluebird” as she called her special Corvette; and she didn’t mind letting my brother borrow it now and again. And this was one of those times.
Our Horsepower Convoy left at 4:00 a.m. with two additional chase cars (including a 396 Impala). As quiet as we meant to be, it was damn-near impossible as the Cobra, GT350 Mustang and Corvette woke the neighborhood and rumbled out into the darkness. Tony was in the “Bluebird” followed by the Cobra, and I was riding shotgun with my brother’s college roommate in the GT350. The ride was memorable in that it rained most of the time and the rawness of the GT350 – and the wonderful noise – made it even more interesting. And visibility was challenging, to put it mildly, as the wipers were a mere suggestion in the heavier bits of rain we encountered. It didn’t matter, it was a flat-out blast. I mean, how often do you get to be in a convoy of cars like that?
We had some dry road moments on the way to South Bend, where we were able to hammer the cars at will, but there were moments when we had to cool it, too, as the cops took great interest in our little convoy at times. But we made it just fine, with no tickets, which we rightly assessed was a notable achievement.
Not long after we arrived, a GM transporter showed up. Zora Arkus-Duntov had called Tony and said that he’d be sending “something special” down to the show, and he wasn’t kidding. After the back doors were opened and the ramps installed, out comes a silver metallic blue Corvette Grand Sport roadster. Not only were the Grand Sports not supposed to exist after one of GM’s annoying “no more racing” edicts, this roadster had clearly just been finished and refined down to the last detail. It was simply stunning to behold. The transporter driver fired it up and drove it into position on the show floor, and right then and there, that little “Sports Car Spectacular” became legendary. All for just a $.75 admission fee too.
(One other side note: there was a Griffith Ford on display at the show that had been painstakingly hand-painted in a Tartan Plaid. Remember, no “wraps” back then. We all agreed that whoever painted it went crazy soon after.)
The road trip back was memorable for another reason. As some of you out there may have experienced along the way, when you rode in a Cobra back then you could smell the burnt rubber from the soles of your tennis shoes because the floor got so blistering hot. That wasn’t all. The Cobra developed a pinpoint fuel line leak under the car that would deposit wisps of fuel on the exhaust pipe about every 20 minutes, which would then flare up with a brief flash while we were driving. Needless to say, that wasn’t good, but we decided to press on and made it back okay.
What does it all mean? As I said, our individual and collective experiences with cars and being on the road are seared in our memories and are irreplaceable. Where we’ve been has everything to do with who we are. This nation was transformed with a wandering spirit that allowed us to roam for the sheer hell of it. And our culture was and is still defined by it.
I’m afraid if we lose that piece of who we are, we will lose a large part of the soul of this nation. Our machines may change, but our need to wander never will.
As for the title of this week’s column, it’s an homage to the memorable Eric Clapton/George Harrison composition “Badge,” as performed by Cream.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.